Stopping A Mediocre Senior Thesis Before It Starts

Jan 14, 2021

Having given hundreds of writing assignments over the last decade, I can safely say the best student work comes in response to narrow, rigid essay prompts with extensive, nit-picky submission guidelines. The worst sort of student work comes in response to slatternly requests like, “Create a response to The Divine Comedy. It could be an essay, a short story, or an art project. A good response will be personal and involve somewhere between 4 and 8 hours of work.”  

Similarly, I believe any senior thesis program would benefit from narrow, rigid requirements, as well as coaching which shepherds students away from pointless arguments and impotent calls to action. To this point, if the following prohibitions were put in place at the beginning of the academic year, I trust a better crop of senior theses would be collected in the late Spring.

1. The audience must be capable of responding directly. No thesis statement should be approved which merely calls for the government to make a new law or spend more money. Assuming the audience of a senior thesis is the high school student body, the only thesis statements that should be approved are those which an audience of high school students can personally, immediately respond to. Arguing that high schoolers should vote for political candidates in the future who will throw money at a certain cause should likewise be banned. Sadly, American politics now centers around the idea that other people should pay for things that I want and premitting students to make such arguments in front of their peers only perpetuates this problem. Allowing a student to spend seven months crafting an argument that, "The adults should do something about this," is spiritually unhealthy. On the other hand, if a student argued, “You should quit social media,” or, “You should prepare for church by doing thus-and-such on Saturday night,” or, “You shouldn’t do homework on Sunday,” something is actually required of the audience, which means the rhetor has actually risked something. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.  

2.  The god of gaps. I have lost count of all the theses I have heard in the last fifteen years which boil down to, “We should let scientists do this new and reckless thing because they might find some cure for a disease while doing it.” Accordingly, anyone who refuses to consent to this new and reckless scientific endeavor doesn’t care about sick people. This is a specious, opportunistic way of arguing that is very popular in the contemporary political realm, which is sufficient enough reason to ban it.

3. I like dogs so you should get one. Students should be steered clear of theses that involve telling long personal stories which culminate in the claim “and you should, too.” If a student wants to argue that others should take mission trips, that student should be capable of doing so without turning their thesis presentation into an emotional slide show about last summer. Theses which rely heavily on inspiring autobiographies often come off as self-important and manipulative, nonetheless, such work is too often given that glib line of praise, “Thank you for writing about something you’re passionate about.” No one needs to be thanked for writing about something they are passionate about—it is far easier and simpler to write such papers than any other kind. What is more, such praise tends to reduce the senior thesis project into something about self-affirmation and self-discovery, not argument, logic, and persuasion.

Joshua Gibbs

Joshua Gibbs

Joshua Gibbs teaches online classes at GibbsClassical.com. He is the author of How To Be UnluckySomething They Will Not Forget, and Blasphemers. His wife is generous and his children are funny.

The opinions and arguments of our contributing writers do not necessarily reflect those of the Institute or its leadership.

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