Academic journal article Journal of the National Collegiate Honors Council

Thesis as Rhizome: A New Vision for the Honors Thesis in the Twenty-First Century

Academic journal article Journal of the National Collegiate Honors Council

Thesis as Rhizome: A New Vision for the Honors Thesis in the Twenty-First Century

Article excerpt


Richly diverse, the collective undergraduate thesis work that students produce across the United States in our honors programs and colleges is cause for celebration of their individual achievements. Generally considered the founder of honors education, Frank Aydelotte centered his honors program model at Swarthmore in the early twentieth century on individual achievement (see Rinn, 2003), which has thus defined honors from the beginning; it is a cardinal honors value, and the thesis is its primary manifestation.

According to Charles Lipson's 2005 guide to thesis writing, a thesis is characterized by formal language (152), infrequent personal referencing (152), and a tight line (146). Reasoned argument structures the thesis, supported by logic and evidence (110). Lipson recommends that students choose a subject that matters to them (11) and emphasizes the process of reaching one's own conclusions (3). However, the form of the thesis is predominately expository; thus thesis writers need to maintain distance in their writing between themselves and their subjects. Furthermore, the thesis as described by Lipson quintessentially embodies the signifiers of traditional academic discourse: objectivity, rationality, the need for evidence, and coherency. The "creative" theses that students produce also fall into conventional forms such as plays, musical compositions, and photographs. At the University of Southern Maine (USM), for example, students producing a creative thesis must also write analytically about their work.

Over recent decades, however, the undergraduate curriculum at large has changed. New work in the social sciences, including forms such as auto-ethnography and performance ethnography, calls for the tracking and inclusion of subjectivity (e.g., Wall; Denzin). Along with these new ethnographic methods, interdisciplinary studies have increasingly become an accepted feature of the undergraduate curriculum. Less linear than traditional disciplinary writing and scholarship, interdisciplinary work often includes a range of perspectives and different kinds of evidence and methodologies. In order to make the writing cohesive, the author maintains a stronger presence on the page, in the process suggesting a closer relationship between narrative and analysis. Carolyn Haynes, Professor of Interdisciplinary Studies and Director of the Honors and Scholars Program at Miami of Ohio, explains that "... interdisciplinary studies fundamentally entail a movement away from an absolutist conception of truth to a conception of truth that is situated, perspectival, and discursive and that informs and is informed by the investigator's own sense of self-authorship" (xv).

Writing across the undergraduate college curriculum includes numerous genres, and scholars continue to contest the very existence of a universal academic discursive practice ("the paper"). In their attempt to re-imagine first-year composition as an "Introduction to Writing Studies," Downs and Wardle explain that "more than twenty years of research and theory have repeatedly demonstrated that such a unified academic discourse does not exist and have seriously questioned what students can and do transfer from one context to another" (552; see also Petraglia, Russell). Nevertheless, most undergraduate students produce papers across disciplinary areas that closely resemble one another in form and reflect the thesis characteristics described by Lipson.

In addition to changes in the way we think about academic discourse, literacy itself is changing from "literacy" to "literacies," and in the face of rapid technological advances, these literacies are multiple, overlapping, and simultaneous. But within the larger context of change, how have these shifts and this proliferation of literacies influenced the traditional thesis? The questions students want to pose, the nature of their interests and concerns, and the kinds and varieties of subjects and methodologies in which students want to engage demonstrate these changes. …

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