While I am quite content with the senior thesis program at Veritas, where I teach, over the years, I have collected a host of horror stories from friends and acquaintances at conferences on the subject of senior theses. A great many teachers with whom I have spoken describe the senior thesis process/presentation as a bureaucratic and political juggernaut which proves to be an endless heartache for whoever gets stuck with the unenviable task of overseeing the whole thing. To this end, I offer the following series of talking points on senior thesis, as well as this claim: a healthy school should be capable of staging a civil discussion about these claims between the administration and the teachers who head-up the senior thesis program.
1. No school has a bad senior thesis program. No school has a good senior thesis program. Every school has the senior thesis program it deserves. A school’s senior thesis program is simply the revelation of every failure and success of that school. The failures and successes of the third grade gym teacher are on display in the senior theses. The failures and successes of the senior thesis program advisors are on display in the senior theses. The failures and successes of the eighth grade science teacher are on display in a senior thesis about Karl Barth’s theology. If you have a good year of senior theses, send congratulations to the third grade gym teacher. The senior thesis advisors and instructors are marginally responsible for those quality papers. The same is true if senior theses flop. If there is a problem with the senior thesis program, there is no problem with the senior thesis program. There is a problem with the school.
2. The temptation to anxiety over your senior thesis program is this: senior thesis reveals the degree to which your school has a problem with grade inflation.
3. For most schools, senior thesis presentations are the only publicly exhibited non-merit based academic performances of the year. Every students presents a paper, not just winners of in-class speech competitions. While the time and place of senior thesis presentations are planned months in advance, in some sense seior thesis presentations are the only spot check a school gets.
4. For every academic project prior to senior thesis, giving a 72% to something which deserves a 42% is the easy way out. Nobody fails. Nobody drops credits. No uncomfortable parent teacher conferences. However, when senior thesis presentations roll around, the consequences of grade inflation become very obvious and very embarrassing. The buck stops at senior thesis presentations. When a very poor paper is publically presented, people will invariably ask, “Is this really senior level work?” The school can either then say, “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God,” or the school can make the advisor into a Girardian scapegoat and say, “You! You have got to figure out a way of preventing this in the future.”
5. A school which suffers no anxiety over senior thesis presentations is either:
A. Not actually having the students with low GPAs write their own papers.
B. Not actually a school, but the New Jerusalem, and all the students are perfect in soul and intellect.
C. Comfortable with the fact the school is not perfect; the school is not egotistical and is willing to let poor papers be presented publically to the chagrin of the school; repentence is the beginning of education, as Andrew Kern has sometimes said.
6. I have written before that the school year is like life and summer is like the afterlife. What stands between the two? The cruciform lectern. The cruciform report card. How fitting that your senior thesis presentations come at the end of the year. Senior thesis presentations are judgment day. Dying day. “Take up your institutional cross” day. Every school can, on the cusp of death, try to finagle and politic and last-minute edit and manipulate the poor theses into respectability and save face. Or you can yield to judgment, not protest your innocence, and merely sit back and gaze with interest, humility, pride and fear at what it is everyone has accomplished.