Today the Crimson editors recommend that more concentrations allow non-traditional theses. They say, “a creative or experience-based thesis could, for many, serve as an even more beneficial experience” than the traditional research-based, analytical thesis. But the editors don’t say what non-traditional theses would look like in particular fields, though they assume such theses could be “on par” in “academic quality” with traditional theses. So let’s imagine what their recommendation would actually entail.

A history concentrator writes a counterfactual narrative in which Hitler is successfully assassinated. Would this be equal in “academic quality” to a “research-intensive, written analysis”? A wag might suggest that history is research-intensive, written analysis.

A government concentrator writes about personal experiences growing up in Egypt, or Zimbabwe, or China. Would this be equal in “academic quality” to an analysis of the conditions under which countries transition to democracy?

An economics concentrator writes about her family’s struggles in the Great Recession. Would this be equal in “academic quality” to A.K. Barnett-Hart’s thesis about CDOs, which was praised by Michael Lewis?

How about the natural sciences? I can’t even imagine.

Of course, non-traditional theses can be entirely appropriate in some fields, but I would appreciate some more clarity about what The Crimson has in mind. Do the editors believe that the theses imagined above should be allowed? Frankly, I think those essays sound really interesting, but I’m skeptical of the idea that they would be appropriate theses. I tend to think that the purpose of a thesis is to show that you can do the sort of work that is done in your department. Maybe you think this makes students into monkeys, imitating their professors. Well, then don’t write a thesis. It doesn’t have to be for everybody.

There could be a year-long independent writing option for seniors in which they work on essays like the three I imagined. That would be great. But those essays would not be theses because they wouldn’t be disciplinary, and they shouldn’t qualify their authors for departmental honors. We can have academic pluralism, we should make sure that students have experiences that are most beneficial to them, but we still need to call a spade a spade.

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