writing a good senior thesis

notes towards writing a good senior thesis

An honors paper has to present a thesis, or argument. It's important to understand what this means. Though in the sciences it might be enough to master a certain body of facts or information derived from class (or from your research) and to rehearse them articulately, interpretation is an analytic skill that requires you to move beyond the specific ideas that you have encountered in your critical and/or background reading. You need to show that you have learned ways of interpreting based on your research, and to demonstrate those skills on new material--that is, to apply different concepts and/or to discuss different parts of the literary text than were discussed in the scholarship you consulted.

An argument is a claim about the meaning of a text combined with a claim about the way the text's formal features are related to its meaning. Thus your interpretation has to take into account both the ideas or concepts of the text, and its recursive formal features (i.e., some strand or strands in its pattern of images, phrases, figures, or plot elements). And it has to identify characteristics of the text that distinguish it sufficiently from other texts. In addition, your honors paper has to have a thesis that extends beyond individual literary works. It may be an argument about the shape of a literary career, about the relationship of a given set of literary texts to their historical context, about the relationship of one writer's work to another's, or about the development of certain formal features or themes over time and/or across the work of several different writers.

Since this is a research paper, your argument must have a relationship to previous research and scholarship. It isn't sufficient, for instance, to reach the exact same conclusion as a previous critic but simply point to additional evidence. Your new evidence must point to a revised conclusion. And the argument must be non-trivial. In other words, it can't simply attend to a theme or aspect of the literary work that hasn't been noticed before, and leave it at that (e.g., "No one's ever looked at images of birds in Dickens . . ."). You have to argue why the things you've noticed are important, e.g., why they make a difference. A good critical paper anticipates what the most obvious objections, counter-arguments or counter-evidence to its thesis might be. If you can't imagine any evidence or argument contrary to your thesis, it may not be the world's most interesting thesis. The best essay is one in which you consider how evidence or scholarship which might seem to contradict your thesis in fact supports it. Or you may want to leave your reader with choices (e.g. "While from one perspective, the novel seems to suggest . . ., seen from another perspective, it seems to suggest . . . These two perspectives appear irreconcilable"). In any case, don't assume either that your argument is obvious, or on the other hand that its mere novelty is interesting.

Scale: there are no rules here, but you should anticipate writing on roughly 3-4 novels (or a dozen or so poems), or the equivalent of this for other genres. The texts you analyze in depth will of course be only the tip of the iceberg. For instance, to make an argument about the relationship of Dickens's portrayal of women to Hardy's portrayal of women you could hypothetically write only on Bleak House and Tess of the D'Urbervilles, but your generalizations would have to be ones that genuinely held up for their other novels—and thus you would have had to research and think about many other Dickens and Hardy novels well enough to know that. You would probably also have to make at least passing gestures towards their other novels, in addition to considering the arguments of other critics who had looked at this topic. If you were arguing about the attitude toward technology in 20th-century American literature, you might write on only 3 or 4 authors, but you would obviously have had to read well beyond these particular authors in order to make a generalization about a period.

Remember that your honors work is supposed to be the equivalent of at least two full courses. Think about the reading list for a typical upper-level course in English, and double that in order to get a sense of how much reading and research you should be doing. If you're working on novels, you will probably read 6-8 novels for your honors paper, in addition to maybe a half-dozen scholarly books (critical, biographical, historical, etc.) and a couple of dozen articles. The amount of reading you can do determines the rough scope of the questions you can ask and answer in your thesis. You probably can't make an argument about "what the Victorians thought," though you can make a very good argument about how novels shifted in their portrayal of, e.g., capitalism, over the course of the Victorian period.

Think about posing a question for yourself in your thesis. It has to be a question that can be answered (i.e., it can't be too speculative or subjective), and one which specific kinds of material or inquiry would help you answer. It must also be either a question which other scholars have asked, or one which indirectly helps answer (or re-orient) the question(s) that other scholars have asked.