President's Column

The Bates senior thesis is a great program. Can Bates make it better?

By Donald W. Harward

  • “Resolved: that there is a necessity for social security legislation as part of a changing economic order which demands a change in our constitutional machinery.”
  • “The process of rhetorical choice and draft analysis in Margaret Chase Smith’s Declaration of Conscience, 1950.”
  • “Emotion within moral reasoning.”
  • “Analysis of beach sediments affecting coastal habitation sites in Shetland, U.K.”
  • “Metal polymers as selective sorbents for gas chromatography.”
  • “The pseudo-feminism of the Virginia Slims campaign.”

The question is sure to occur whenever Bates alumni come together, whether at a Bates Club event in Hartford or San Francisco, with alumni of the 1950s or graduates of 2000: “What was your thesis topic?”

No other dimension of the academic program of the College has had such an extensive history (the 1927 catalog describes the required expectation of a senior thesis) and none (not even Cultural Heritage) has had a more universally positive effect on the quality of the degree.

An expectation of a senior thesis is rare in higher education. The thesis requires faculty mentors who, themselves, are experienced in defining an issue, identifying appropriate methodologies, engaging in the processes of research, and communicating the discoveries and arguments that result. It requires students to be independent thinkers and doers. They must take responsibility for learning and employ all the skills developed during their Bates experience. In the end, they move beyond the superficial or general and become limited experts, often producing major pieces of research.

It doesn’t always work: The student isn’t always ready, the topic not honed, the faculty member not responsive. But for the great majority, and for nearly 75 years, doing a senior thesis has been a part of Bates. In fact, the full thesis experience (“doing thesis”) has become even more reinforced within the College’s institutional culture.

Only a few academic institutions embrace the thesis approach to learning. Princeton initiated a required thesis program before World War II. Reed, Swarthmore, Wooster, and a few others have also consistently developed and offered such an opportunity – a few places limiting the experience only to those in an honors track. Nevertheless, most graduates of the nation’s 3,400 or more colleges and universities, even when their experiences have been rigorously grounded in the liberal arts and sciences, have not “done thesis.” The thesis is expensive, time-demanding, dependent on special qualities of teacher and student; it is profoundly important to learning, but extremely rare.

Bates’ strong and enduring commitment to the thesis has been a significant element in the recent assessment of the College’s programs. The faculty has articulated and strengthened a full “model of learning” with the thesis as a keystone that holds and integrates the full span of the undergraduate experience. The thesis helps to define the College’s academic core and will be made even more apparent, as we continue to express what it is about Bates that is so special, what distinguishes us, and what adds value.

In the last year, we have asked:

What is the depth of current interest in the thesis and how valuable was the thesis experience to both students and faculty members in the past? (The College needed an extensive examination of the program and an assessment by those who experienced it.)

How could the thesis program be made universal at Bates? Since the 1970s, some departments (especially larger ones, including biology and psychology), struggled to require a thesis and had adopted non-thesis options for their majors. Is a thesis desirable for every student? Would a studio or performance portfolio meet the same educational objective for the art or music major? How can opportunities be structured for students to link a thesis to a service experience? Are group theses possible? Can some resource be added to the faculty-student mix to make theses available to all students, even in areas where there are large numbers of majors?

How could the thesis program be enhanced at Bates? How could the topics and work of students be linked to meaningful research, including practical applications? The program is already expensive, in terms of the resources of labs, studios, travel, materials, technology, and the incredible time and energy commitment of faculty and students pursuing together projects. How could we afford to enhance it? What translation of the “cost” of the thesis needs to be made to the teaching expectation of the Bates faculty?

This past year, grants from the Andrew Mellon Foundation and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation have allowed Jill Reich, vice president for academic affairs and dean of the faculty, and her colleagues to address such questions and to begin to explore institutional responses.

Surveys of alumni and current seniors reveal enthusiastic support. Faculty interviews and reviews of published works that result from theses document the direct connection between the thesis and increased expectations and opportunities for student and faculty research. Positive reviews from employers and from graduate and professional schools (regarding the advantages Bates students enjoy because of their thesis experience) adds to the weight of the benefits.

We asked an independent higher education consultant, Robert Shoenberg, former dean of the University of Maryland, to meet with focus groups of Bates alumni. We asked our Office of Institutional Planning and Analysis to provide thorough survey data. We held extensive faculty interviews.

The resulting report is a significant resource for the faculty, delineating pockets of concern and documenting the overwhelming support for the College’s efforts to frame a full model for learning that uses a thesis, or an equivalent senior project, as an essential and integrated component.

In 1999-2000, a series of funded “trials” allowed us to experiment and assess ways to enhance the thesis experience. The Department of Mathematics offered a group thesis project in which students conducted research separately on a common project requiring collaborative results. The Department of Psychology successfully integrated service learning (as a form of “applied research”) into the thesis experience. The Department of Biology experimented with a science pedagogy alternative to the thesis by designing curricular workshops for area teachers. And the Program in Environmental Studies initiated the use of a category of “learning associates” as a means of augmenting the faculty in advising theses.

Other foundation support will be used to allow us to continue to experiment with such trials, as we find ways to enrich and to reinforce the thesis. Especially interesting will be the expansion of the group of learning associates. This corps of practitioners can participate in advising thesis by helping students and faculty members see the linkage of an issue to application and to real-world topics. Many of these learning associates could participate by means of interactive technology, involved in the advising process without having to be physically present. Outside experts, practitioners (both categories would include alumni), and perhaps doctoral students interested in seeing how research can be done at a liberal arts college would be possible candidates as learning associates. Faculty mentors would not be replaced. But with a supplemented resource, thesis topics could be deepened. We could make thesis available for every student (currently 85 to 90 percent of graduating seniors “do thesis”), and we could learn to integrate off-campus expertise (using the new technologies) in a way that could be affordable, long-term, and sustainable.

Within the next few years we expect to adopt a method to recognize formally the commitment of faculty energy to thesis advising. We expect to continue a limited number of group theses and service-related theses and we will have a corps of learning associates augmenting faculty energy devoted to theses. A proposed request (now under foundation review) for $2.5 million of endowment will support these and related initiatives by providing annually and in perpetuity the supplemental resources needed.

The Bates “model” for liberal arts and science education places the thesis and what it represents at the very center of its distinctive nature. The connectedness of the elements of a Bates education, and the leadership position it promises, will be held together, in part, by the keystone of the thesis – the topic and nature of which you still remember and which made such an important contribution to your aspirations and achievements.