The departmental honors thesis is the culminating experience for English majors. Written under the personal supervision of an English faculty member of the student's choice, it can be the most challenging and rewarding part of the student's college career. The thesis provides the English major with the opportunity to make an independent contribution to human knowledge. The successful completion of the thesis will enable an English major to graduate with departmental honors.
Selecting a Subject
The primary consideration in selecting a thesis topic is that the subject be able to sustain the student's interest through a long period of hard work. In the preliminary stages, students should search for possible topics in fields that they have found appealing, including areas like Cultural Studies, English Education, Film Studies, Linguistics, Literature, and Writing Studies.
The next step is to consult members of the English Department who specialize in the student’s area(s) of interest and who can advise the student on the feasibility of doing research and creating a successful thesis on selected individual topics. Once the student has selected a topic, he or she should also choose a potential thesis adviser and ask that faculty member to serve as the director of the thesis. Once a faculty member has agreed to work with the student on the thesis project, the student should arrange a work/meeting schedule with the faculty member so that he or she can work closely with the adviser at all stages of research and writing. While the thesis demands intense collaboration between student and adviser, the advisor will never take the initiative in actually producing the thesis; that task is the student's.
Students should choose thesis subjects that enable the students to make original contributions to the knowledge and understanding of their chosen topics. Students should avoid subjects that are covered adequately in available works, but they should not automatically reject subjects upon which research has already been done. It is possible to introduce an original interpretation of a previously studied topic. Students should also avoid the common temptation to choose too broad or too ambitious a subject. However, they should remember that the purpose of the thesis is to make some original and significant contribution to knowledge.
Students should work with their advisers to limit and focus their projects. The more carefully students define a subject, the more intensively they can examine available materials and the easier it will be for them to create an outstanding piece of work in the limited time available. To optimize students' time in writing their theses, students should seek approval of their topics in their junior years so that they can begin the preliminary reading, research, and writing as early as possible.
Writing the Thesis
The essence of the thesis is the student's critical judgment about the subject, evaluation of the material being analyzed, and interpretation of the data presented. Here, powers of criticism, of honest skepticism, and of enthusiastic determination to justify the validity of a position are essential.
Organization of data is also of great importance in the development of the thesis. As soon as the outlines of a thesis begin to form, the student should meet with his or her adviser to try to determine the logical divisions of the topic. In this process, the student should decide which elements should be given prominence and which elements should be placed in subordinate positions, as well as what order the various aspects should be treated. The student should make a tentative outline in the early stages of research and discuss that outline with his or her adviser. As research and writing progresses, the student should test and redraft the outline. Doing these preliminary steps is important to organizing the unfolding project so that students save time and energy for writing.
The actual job of writing is often difficult to get underway without a clear view of how the thesis is going to develop. The best way for students to overcome this problem is to start writing without giving too much consideration to style or length. In the first draft, they should strive to put facts and ideas on paper in a logical order as indicated by the outline. A preliminary draft of the entire thesis is absolutely essential, and most honors students find an intermediary draft helpful. Many students need a third draft before getting their ideas and conclusions effectively organized and expressed. If the introductory sections cause trouble, the student should put them aside and undertake the substance of the thesis, because often problems clarify themselves in the process of composition. Only with a preliminary draft, no matter how awkward, can students achieve a clear, vigorous, objective, logically argued, and well-written final version.
All through the composition process, students should meet regularly with their advisers not only to discuss ideas, organization, drafts, and writing issues, but also to checkpoint on the project’s progress. Once the writing process has begun, students often provide their advisers with sections of their theses to read and to analyze in advance of their scheduled conferences. When students and advisers meet, they frequently discuss avenues for enhancing the student’s arguments that result in revisions of the student’s drafts. When revising their theses, students should avoid the common error of substituting the rearrangement of existing material for the rethinking of the positions expressed in the paper. Revision typically requires rethinking, not just reorganization.
Students should protect their intellectual and time investments in their thesis projects by practicing safe data management practices. Students composing their theses on a word processor should always keep at least one back-up copy of their work-in-progress on a separate disk. If students work outside their rooms or homes, emailing a copy of the draft to a reliable friend or family member for backup can further prevent loss of work.
A final word of caution: the thesis must be the student's own work. To take data, knowledge, interpretation, organization, or phraseology from another without full acknowledgement is a punishable act of plagiarism. The student must cite all ideas and data that are not common knowledge in correct MLA format (see the MLA: Handbook for Writers of Research Papers). The paper's conclusion should synthesize the student's original contribution to existing knowledge in the field.
Anatomy of a Thesis
A thesis is not a term paper. In the process of completing a thesis, the student will do a thorough investigation of background literature/research (referred to as a “Review of Literature,” a “Bibliographic Essay,” or simply “Background”) related to the chosen thesis question and mode of inquiry. This portion of the thesis resembles what is typically thought of as a “term paper.” However, a thesis goes far beyond the requirements of a term paper in that it involves original inquiry or creative activity of some kind. In general, every thesis project requires that the student:
- explain clearly the rationale behind the project and its significance;
- review thoroughly the research/thinking that has already been done relative to the particular issue of interest;
- explain the methodology behind the inquiry or creative activity;
- carry out some inquiry or creative activity that has not been done before; and
- publish the results of the inquiry or creative activity.
All English Departmental Honors Theses require:
- Title Page
- Signature Page
- Table of Contents
- Works Cited in MLA Format
- Introduction and statement of thesis focus
- Description of theoretical mode or framework
- Preliminary review of relevant research/secondary sources
- Original analysis/research integrated with relevant criticism
The original analysis/research section will vary with the subject area of the student's choice. While some students may analyze literary or film texts in this section, others may provide original research on teaching or linguistic issues.
The English Department encourages students to develop thesis projects that match their interests, talents and fields of study closely. In all cases, the results of the thesis inquiry must be “published,” i.e., available to interested persons. This publication must include a written explanation of the intent of the project as well as a written description of the intellectual, practical and/or creative context for the work. It may include alternative media such as musical score, videotape, slides, a computer disk or a WWW address.
Students are urged to consult closely with their thesis advisers and the members of their committees regarding the “parts” appropriate to their particular thesis projects. It is also helpful to take a look at theses completed by past departmental Honors graduates. These are available in the English office, as well as the McNairy Library if they were submitted for University Honors.
Submission & Format of Thesis
The length of theses varies. Most theses in the English Department range between forty and sixty pages (not including appendices that may accompany theses involving original research). The thesis must be printed in legible black ink on white paper. The text must be double-spaced, and it must be carefully proofread for errors.
The title page should include the title, the name of the author and the following statement:
"A Senior Thesis Submitted to the Department of English [& the University Honors Program] in Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements for the [University and] Departmental Honors Baccalaureate."
A second page should contain the signatures of the members of the faculty committee before whom the thesis was defended and by whom it was approved.
Defense of the Thesis
Students should consult with their thesis advisers to determine when they are prepared to defend their theses. Once the adviser believes that the thesis is ready for defense, the student should schedule a date for the defense with his or her three committee members. As faculty schedules are often busy, the student should aim to schedule the defense 6 weeks prior to the desired defense date.
When scheduling the defense, students need to take into account the time necessary both to complete and to read revisions to the thesis, especially if they plan to graduate at the end of the semester. After the defense, students should allocate a minimum of one month for making required revisions to the thesis. In addition, students must plan on submitting these revisions to faculty at minimum three weeks before graduation to allow faculty members time to read the revised thesis. Thus, as revisions will consume the last 7 weeks of the semester, it would be prudent to schedule the defense as least 2 months before graduation.
Students should consult with their advisers a week before the defense to discuss its format. Typical defenses last 1 to 1.5 hours. In the defense, the student should be prepared to present a short overview of the project. This overview might entail an explanation of what interested the student in the topic, a rationale for the selected methodology, a discussion of challenges encountered, a summary of the insights gleaned, and a reflection on the significance of the study. After this overview, the committee members will pose questions to the student about the project, and general discussion of the project will begin.
After this general discussion, committee members will ask the student to leave the room so that they may discuss the merits of the project. The student should sit in the lobby and wait during this time; as often this discussion time seems like an eternity, some students have invited a friend to wait in the lobby with them.
When the student is invited back into the conference room, committee members will sign the student's cover sheet if they believe that the project merits Departmental Honors. Often, committee members may require revisions to be made to the thesis before they affix their signatures. If revisions are required, the student should make them as quickly as possible and redistribute the revised work to the committee after consultation with his or her adviser.
Once the process is complete, the student should provide the English Department Chair with the complete title of the thesis so that the Chair can process the title for inclusion in the commencement program.
Distribution of Final Copy of Thesis
One copy of the thesis must be presented to the English Department upon completion and approval of the work. If presenting the thesis for University Honors, two copies of the thesis must be presented to the Honors College Office. One of these copies will be retained in the Honors College office, while the other will be bound and added to the University library's permanent collection.