ES Humanities Theses-Advice and Considerations


Environmental Studies Theses in Environment and Human Culture:  Some advice and general considerations.

Theses written by students in Environment and Human Culture explore a broad range of topics and questions – from the impact of fictional films about climate change on viewers, to the role of elephants in local livelihoods and conflicts in India, to a study of images of Thoreau used by groups advocating for the creation of a national park in the north woods of Maine.  They have involved traditional research on a historical, literary or visual topic; the writing of creative work in a particular genre; and critically-informed sets of recommendations for educational programs.

This set of guidelines is intended to provide some broad advice for you as you begin the process of conceiving and writing your senior thesis.  Each student’s experience is, of course, different – and much depends on the exact nature of what you’re pursuing.  To a very great extent your topic and your own approach to research and writing will shape how you proceed.   But hopefully this handout will help set the stage for you to have a meaningful, productive and relatively stress-free thesis experience.

Coming up with a topic

This will in all likelihood be a process rather than a once-and-I’m-done-with-it revelation:  you may reflect on issues from courses you’ve taken, works and/or authors you’ve read and been intrigued by, questions that arose during your internship.  Generally students start too broad, and wind up narrowing and focusing as they move through the thesis process – discovering along the way that a topic that initially seemed “too small” can provide sharp focus for exploring very big questions.  Sometimes topics are informed by second majors or minors (e.g. ES majors minoring in Education or a Foreign Language).

Familiarizing yourself with what others have to say.  The “lit review.”  Note-taking and writing in response.

A key part of the process of focusing your topic involves building your understanding of how other people have addressed the question that interests you.  There’s no way around it – this means reading, often reading A LOT!  You begin by working with reference librarians to develop a reading list of materials that will be relevant to your topic – both library materials (books, reference materials) and on line resources.  This will help you create a bibliography, and as you annotate or describe each entry, you’re on your way to creating a review of the relevant scholarly literature (a.k.a. “lit review”).  Different disciplines handle these differently, and we’ll talk about what’s most relevant for your approach.  I can also provide some examples of how writers situate their own discussion within a broader context, how they give a critical review of pertinent discussions/literature as they prepare to make their own argument.   One thing to bear in mind is that there needs to be a connection between your review of literature and your own argument or question – in other words, you’ll focus on those sources that are most relevant to the questions you want to pursue and the argument you want to develop.

Whatever you read over the course of the semester, you should be reading actively and attentively, taking lots of notes.  Many students find that their own writing starts to flow out of their note-taking:  as you describe an author’s argument, you begin to respond to it, and your own argument begins to take shape in dialogue with someone else.  This is a preliminary but key part of the process of writing.

Even if you do something that is a “creative” thesis, you will need to read relevant scholarly and literary materials as a way of informing and guiding your own project.

Developing a structure and a time line/schedule.

A key part of the thesis process is creating a structure and schedule for your own work.  Early on I will ask you to create a calendar of deadlines – when particular chapters (drafts or revisions) will be due.  It’s up to you to create and keep to this schedule.  You should develop this with an eye to other course responsibilities for the semester.

The structure of your thesis will vary depending on what you’re writing about, and should flow organically from the topic and your argument.   The length and chapter organization are ultimately up to you, but in general a one-semester thesis should not exceed sixty pages.  Brevity and concision are real virtues – and having to shape your argument precisely will help you write a better thesis.  By early October you should have an outline that specifies what particular theme/topic or question you will address in each chapter (and then this dovetails with your calendar of due dates).

 Details, citations, footnotes & where to get help.

Different disciplines use different citation styles, all of which are referenced on the Ladd Library homepage (look at the “Guides” tab at Writing/Citing Guides).  I myself tend to use either MLA or Chicago (it depends on the publication venue).  The role of citations and footnotes is to make sure that your reader can follow the threads of your argument, and also to acknowledge the role of others’ thinking in the development of your argument.

 Completion, grading, expectations

My expectations for the thesis project is that it be critically and creatively conceived BY YOU – and that it reflect some aspect of what you have learned in studying ES, with a focus on your particular concentration.   The thesis is a chance for you to flower and become a truly independent learner.  It’s your work, not mine – a project in which you become the explorer/expert.

I expect you to work consistently and diligently; to meet the deadlines that we agree upon; to come prepared to all thesis meetings; and to teach me something about the topic that you take on.

The Environmental Studies Program expects you to prepare a poster based on your thesis work for the senior poster session, held in the last week of each semester at a late-afternoon time (generally speaking 4 – 5:30).

Final Thesis Procedures are explained on the ES website – including the logistics of printing, submission and uploading onto Scarab.

Finally, I will assign a grade for your thesis based both on effort and final product.  In other words, I will bear in mind both the consistency and intensity of your effort during the semester, and the final thesis’ quality of writing, strength of argumentation, and range and use of sources.  Your senior thesis should be an example of your best work – something that you will be proud of for years to come, something that I can refer to in writing letters of recommendation as an example.

Some recent theses you might want to look at as you’re considering your own process (I have hard copies of these, some you may find in the ES lounge, and more recent ones are available at

  • Catherine DiPietro, “Art in the Anthropocene: Confronting Global Environmental Change through Aesthetic Platforms” (winter semester 2016)
  • Sonja Favaloro, “The Power to Envision Change: Art as Environmental Activism” (Winter, 2014)
  • Matthew Mosca, “Transplanting Culture Back into Agriculture” (Winter, 2014)
  • Kathryn Mulholland, “Ecopoetry: The Evolution and Practice” (Winter, 2014)
  • Grace Kenney, “On the Shores of Merrymeeting Bay [Personal essays]” (Fall, 2015)
  • Alison Haymes, “ ‘Saving’ the Elephants: Human-Elephant Conflict in Northeast India through a Religious, Western and Local Lens on Conservation Initiatives” (Winter, 2016)
  • Alison Bennett, “A Critical Pedagogy of Place: Reconnecting Youth to Community and Nature through Public Schools” (Fall, 2012)
  • Zoe Fahy, “ ‘Unnatural’ Beasts: A Horizontal History of Cephalopods” (Fall, 2012)
  • Leigh Michael, “Factories, Homesteads and Temples in the Forest: Examining the Human Relationship to the Wilderness in the Pacific Northwest” (Winter, 2012)
  • Catherine Sparks, “Filmic Representations of Climate Change: Shaping the Political Consciousness through Environmental Disaster Narratives via The Day After Tomorrow” (Winter, 2013)
  • Bradley Gee, “Toward an Industrial Heritage Tourism Corridor in The Androscoggin River Valley” (Winter, 2012)
  • Lily Joslin, “Toward an Ecological Urbanism: Conceptualizing Vacancy and Abandonment in Downtown Lewiston, Maine” (winter, 2011)
  • Patricia Noto, “Student Farms in America: Case Studies and a Proposal for a Garden at Bates College” (winter, 2012)