Saturday, November 26

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Tearing down the age-old walls of the great 'Thesis Myth'

Recommendation for all seniors who are starting to feel the press of thesis panic: Visit Mudd Library.

Mudd is the flat, nondescript library next to the computer science building, and it is there that senior theses from the 1920s are housed; presumably, some incredibly valuable manuscripts reside there as well because Mudd has more stringent security than most banks in this town.


Think Marquand is bad? At Mudd, bags, jackets, notebooks, and pens don't even make it past the door. After registering at the desk and signing an agreement not to mistreat documents by "marking on, defacing, leaning on, altering, folding anew, tracing on . . . placing in the lap or propping against the edge of the table," you give the librarian your call slips and wait at a table assigned to you in the hermetically sealed reading room while they run a background check and retrieve the theses you requested. I assure you that any exaggeration here is slight.

I went to Mudd last week thinking it would be a lesson in how theses are done: what they should look like, how they're organized, how many sources are acceptable, that sort of thing (yes, I know it's March, but admit it: You're not that far along, either). Instead, I discovered that the thesis threat is a sham. Relax – you can produce a pretty sorry piece of work and still graduate from this university. And I'm not the most discerning reader, either – not the type who cavils about poor word choice or ambiguity or confusing structure. If anything, at this point I'm predisposed to admire anyone who has actually completed a thesis and lived to tell about it.

But these monographs were just, well, bad. They were filled with egregious, careless errors such as typos, misspellings, and sentence fragments – your thesis may not be groundbreaking work to be published in the next issue of Small American Birds Who Like Worms (or whatever your discpline's preeminent journal is), but there is no excuse for using the wrong kind of "there" in a paper that counts as two whole classes.

And don't get autobiographical: One girl spent the entire first chapter talking about her family, without mentioning how that related to economic development in southern China. The endnotes on another guy's thesis were handwritten. My personal favorite was the one that included the line, "Popular music was not 'popular' until the 1970s." Come again?

Princeton makes a big deal out of the thesis; it would have the world believe that everyone who graduates has researched and written an incisive, articulate piece that represents the cutting edge of academia. To be fair, some alumni have: Certain theses I looked at were beyond anything I can hope to rival in the remaining two months. But the truth behind the great "Thesis Myth" is that theses are about what you'd expect from any paper written for a class – only much, much longer.

This may help explain the frantic security at Mudd Library: It's a deterrent, part of a conspiracy to cover up the middling quality of actual Princeton theses. It wouldn't do to have the ordinary masses snickering over our shabby work. At any rate, senior, however agonized you might be right now, I can practically guarantee that your thesis will win you a diploma. Good luck, and I'll see you in Firestone.