It is May, which means that classical schools across the country are finalizing plans for graduation ceremonies, setting calendars for next year, determining schedules for summer school, and trying to figure out what to do with a few senior boys whose theses were laughably bad.
In a class of twenty seniors, there is typically one student—almost always a boy—who consistently fails to meet thesis deadlines for the entire year, and whose final draft is a patched together, incoherent, illogical, unedited mess. What happens after his final draft is submitted is a bit like holding a massive, thriving ant farm firmly with both hands and shaking the living daylights out of it. The thesis teacher begins freaking out because it looks like he hasn’t done his job. The thesis advisor begins freaking out because he has some responsibility toward the student, but the nature of that responsibility is always very ambiguous, and so he doesn’t know how much blame he’s going to take for the fact his student screwed up. And the headmaster begins freaking out because thesis presentations are typically open to the entire school community, the board will be there, and one senior stands to make the entire school look wildly incompetent.
Presenting and defending a senior thesis is often a requirement for graduation, which is where the senior slacker’s parents get involved. Because theses are due right at the end of the year, there is little to no time to fix a thoroughly broken thesis. As opposed to presenting the thesis to the school body, as his classmates will do, perhaps the slacker could present and defend his thesis in front of a small room full of teachers—two teachers, maybe. And when the time comes for presentations to the community, some plausible excuse could be given for why the slacker wasn’t presenting his thesis in front of the entire school. Of course, the boy’s parents will have to sign off on this, but when they meet with the headmaster and thesis teacher, they aren’t happy.
His parents say, “What’s so wrong with his thesis? It’s not brilliant, but it’s not terrible. Our son got C’s in thesis class for the first three quarters. How did he get passing grades on his thesis work if the final product is so bad?”
Their point is fair. The real answer to how he got passing grades for the first three quarters is “grade inflation,” but grade inflation is not merely a problem with senior thesis. It’s a problem that goes all the way back to seventh grade, or maybe even kindergarten. For this reason, even the slacker is a little confused by the fiasco over his paper. It’s the same sort of lousy work he’s been turning in for years, but all of a sudden, everyone really cares. He doesn’t get the bigger picture. It is one thing for a report card—which is seen only by two parents—to indicate a certain student “turns in passable writing” and another thing to show the entire community what actually counts as “passable writing” at this “classical” school.
There was never much doubt over what how his thesis would turn out, though. Most of the slacker’s teachers could have predicted at the start of the year that his would be the thesis that went down in flames two weeks before graduation and created a backroom political crisis for the administration and faculty. Most of his teachers would say the slacker should have been expelled years ago.
But he wasn’t.
So, in the end, what happens? Some patched-together solution that helps the school save face, although the thesis teacher will probably shoulder most of the blame and a real confrontation with the problem of grade inflation will be deferred yet again. If the slacker’s thesis cannot be saved, he might be asked to resubmit it with “revisions.” Regardless of what the revisions consist of, they will magically earn a 70% and everyone agrees to “not let this happen again.”
Having whined and complained about senior theses for years now, I have collected a pretty lot of such stories from teachers across the country. Given how common such stories are, how perennial, it sometimes seems to me that there is something hardwired into the DNA of classical Christian schools that makes end of the year thesis debacle unavoidable. At the same time, a few rather basic precautions could make them less common. I suggest the following:
1. Have theses due in February. The only reason senior thesis is a year long project is because most classical schools want it that way. It seems more important, more grand if it takes an absurdly long time. But get real. It doesn’t take nine months to write a fifteen-page paper. If theses are due in February, you have the latter half of the year for something more interesting, and there is no end of the year crunch to cobble together passable work for slackers. If theses are due in February, a senior could fail the project and have time to entirely redo it (and redo it properly).
2. Put a veteran in charge of senior thesis. Don’t put a young teacher who still politely apologizes for everything like a waiter at a new restaurant in charge of your senior thesis program. Put somebody old in charge, somebody who has failed a few students and sent them to summer school, somebody whose own children are grown. Better yet, put an administrator in charge of senior thesis. At Veritas in Richmond, where I work, the academic dean is the head of the thesis program. This solves a lot of political problems which typically come with senior thesis.
3. Put a cap on public presentations. Put the ten best thesis presentations on display for the community. Don’t put them all on display. Don’t put bad work on display. Good theses beget good theses, bad theses beget bad theses. If you put bad theses on display, you should expect more of the same. Why? Because the thesis teacher doesn’t come up to the lectern after a bad thesis presentation and say, “Well, that was wretched. Juniors, don’t do that next year.” It isn’t always obvious to students when a thesis is bad, because there is a difference between a badly written theses and a badly conceived thesis. If students have real freedom to argue what they want, a few are going to argue foolish points, and unless a teacher is going to give an official school response to those theses, those theses are going to normalize foolish ideas at your school.