It’s the end of March, and this year, as usual, professors are sleepless in New Jersey. Every morning for the last couple of weeks, I have risen from my comfortable bed at an even more ungodly hour than usual, padded to the kitchen in search of caffeine and then plunked myself in front of the computer to see what my seniors have sent me.
Most days, the catch is plentiful: One or more long chapters, packed with material, appear, attached to an email sent between 4 and 6 a.m. Sometimes the chapter actually comes in just after I start work for the day. As the sun rises and the birds start to chirp, I click on “Track Changes” and set to work.
There’s a reason for all this activity. Bernard of Cluny explained it well, around AD 1140: “Hora novissima, tempora pessima sunt: vigilemus.” (The hour is late, the times are bad: Let us be on guard.) Or as my department website puts it, more prosaically: “Senior theses are due by 3 p.m. on Tuesday, April 2, 2013, in 128 Dickinson.”
This spring, as in the past, my seniors are completing a long march that began more than a year ago, with junior papers that opened up big topics and problems. Library and archive web pages were consulted. Requests for research funds went to the University and the department. And then they were on their way, to spend their summers gathering unique materials from archives — still vital for research even in the digital age.
Over the years, I have seen a lot. I have supervised seniors whose organizational abilities I deeply admire, but can’t emulate, and watched with admiration as they researched, wrote and revised their theses, week by week, never stopping and never hurrying, and completed work a week or two ahead of time. And I have supervised seniors whose organizational abilities resemble mine, and watched with concern as they worked intensively all year and still found themselves scrambling to assemble, interpret and polish all that wonderful material in the last week.
Seniors have written theses for me over a whole year and inside of a week — and sadly, for anyone who believes that the universe is just, some of the latter have been surprisingly lucid and elegant. Seniors discover amazing new material in Russia and Turkey, Brazil and Cuba; write up press coverage of the 2002 Olympics; explore documents that haven’t even been catalogued, much less published; and download a few sources that turn up on Google (as, back in the day, some wrote from the few sources that turned up in Princeton’s card catalogue).
There are stealth theses, in which modesty almost conceals that the student has found sources that the professional scholars missed or read them with insight that the professional scholars lacked; stunning theses, full of completely new information (for example, the very interesting history of the Princeton senior thesis in history that came in some years ago); and Potemkin Village theses, in which clever titles and elegant introductions don’t disguise the emptiness behind.
Sometimes the whole ritual reminds me of the long-abolished Nude Olympics. It’s distinctive: Colleagues at other schools rarely believe me when I tell them that every liberal arts student at Princeton writes a thesis — much less how long many of those theses are. It’s distracting: Many seniors, though not all, disappear from courses or attend them in body alone, hollow-eyed and silent, during the thesis crunch. And it suggests that Princeton is a very odd place, populated by obsessives of one sort or another.
Every year, I find myself wondering if the whole system makes sense. Some of our sister universities reserve the thesis for students who are seeking honors. Others allow all, or almost all, students to write theses, but set a very modest page limit. My own senior thesis at the University of Chicago wasn’t altogether terrible, though it was only 30 pages long. It contained a modest historical discovery drawn from Renaissance texts in Latin. And it left me wanting to read and write more — not a feeling shared by every senior I have worked with at Princeton.
Yet from the moment I arrived in New Jersey, I have enjoyed nothing more than watching a couple of seniors each year as they buckle on their bungee harnesses, waving as they jump and waiting for them to bounce back. It’s impressive to stand by as undergraduates undertake and complete massive and demanding projects. It’s rewarding to talk with them, week after week, through months of research and thinking and writing, which are different in every case, and through what my colleague Dan Rodgers calls “The Seven Terrors of the Thesis,” which are always the same (for example: “My thesis needs a thesis!”). And it’s fascinating to see what they’ve achieved, in February and March, when the chapters come in before daybreak.
Since I came to Princeton in 1975, almost everything seems to have changed. The carrels in Firestone, once crowded with seniors pounding away, have mostly gone dark. The piles of books that filled them have increasingly been replaced by digital sources. And the squads of professionals who once typed theses for the archive have given way to laptops and printers. But the journey remains: expensive, sometimes wasteful, always distinctive and its outcome happily impossible to predict.
Anthony Grafton is the Henry Putnam University Professor of History. He can be reached at email@example.com.