Boston College students with interests ranging from medical ethics to Kierkegaard to Afghan tribalism represented the breadth of undergraduate research at the University on Friday when they gathered to recount their experiences writing senior theses.
Over 20 thesis writers from across the disciplines in the humanities, social sciences, and cultural studies programs prepared posters detailing their thesis projects. They shared their findings not only with younger students in attendance to hear more about the thesis process that they will perhaps begin soon, but also with each other and faculty members from various departments.
The Dean’s Office of the College of Arts and Sciences, the Office of the Vice Provost for Undergraduate Academic Affairs, and BC Libraries sponsored the event, which is in its inaugural year.
Rev. Jeremy Clarke, S.J., a professor within the history department, helped coordinate the presentation along with Jennifer Erickson of the political science and international studies departments. Clarke said that he and Erickson realized there was not an event such as this for all humanities majors, only department-specific presentations or awards ceremonies. The students presenting, he said, came from diverse backgrounds of scholarship and represented some of the top work in their disciplines.
“Each department had to select people to bring,” Clarke said. “There are others who may have wanted to be here but aren’t, so there’s a prestige aspect to it.”
“We could see that students often had overlapping interests, sometimes within the same department and sometimes across different departments and programs, but they didn’t often have a chance to talk about their mutual interests,” Erickson said in an email. “[The poster session] also gives them a chance to learn how to present their findings to non-expert audiences, which can be a useful skill to have.”
Clarke and Erickson also emphasized that a goal for the event was to urge younger students to consider theses and share knowledge with them about the process.
“It’s a chance to honor the fine seniors we have but also to encourage a lot of the underclassmen and tell them it’s not as daunting as they may think,” Clarke said. “The liberal arts gives you a great breadth, and doing a thesis gives the chance to get some depth.”
Students such as Stephen Choi, A&S ’14, acknowledged this depth in his research on the crisis in the Xinjiang region of China. While human rights violations and ethnic conflicts abound in this region, Choi said much focus remains on issues in Tibet only. Not many are aware of the fact that 55 ethnic groups make up the Chinese population, with 54 groups as minorities, and one group-the Han people-amounting to 94 percent of the population, which leads to intense division, particularly in Xinjiang.
Shifting across the globe, international studies major Maddy Walsh, A&S ’14, focused on the impact of women’s political participation in Latin America. She said this region served as an interesting point of comparison because it has one of the highest rates of women’s participation in politics in the world, second only to the smaller and significantly wealthier Nordic region. She also noted that Latin American countries have generally done a better job at getting women involved than the United States.
Walsh said she chose this area of focus after spending two summers interning at the U.S. State Department in the Secretary’s Office of Global Women’s Issues and branching off of an initiative on women’s involvement in the peace process in conflict situations, especially through political participation. Her topic, she said, changed continually since her junior year and fluctuated between broad ideas and narrow focuses until she honed in on her final subject. She said a challenge during the process was maintaining a separation between her personal beliefs and her research.
“For me personally, I think women’s leadership does matter,” Walsh said. “I think it was hard for me to remove myself from what I think personally matters versus what the data says. The fact of the matter is, it’s hard to measure the impact of women’s leadership, and it’s not consistent across the board.”
Mark Hertenstein, A&S ’14, the only representative of the theology department, shared his thesis on Martin Luther’s social ethics. He analyzed Luther’s own writings and also later interpretations of his ideas, and he discovered religious problems related to Nazism extending from his research.
“There was a movement of nationalist Christians before World War II that misused Luther’s doctrines of obedience to the state in order to say, ‘Obey the church,’ but then the church is also emphasizing absolute obedience to the state,” he said. “So you can see where that really starts to go south.”
Hertenstein also pointed out an issue he and many thesis writers face, which is the large volume of information and extending, secondary topics that they simply do not have time to address in their narrowly-focused theses.
Erickson described students who successfully complete theses as driven, self-motivating, and able to work independently.
“It’s really hard to motivate yourself to research and write extensively on one topic for a whole year if you’re not especially interested in that topic,” she said. “Although you have an advisor to give guidance and feedback and to help you through, a thesis is ultimately an independent project for which you have to carve out regular time in your schedule to research and write.”
Thesis writers must also be patient, and willing to rethink their initial ideas and revise if necessary, Erickson said.
“Research and writing often take longer than you might expect,” she said. “Sometimes you need to rethink plans and ideas, and critiques and revisions are a part of the process of learning and writing your thesis to the best of your ability.”