An Unexpected Discipline

When I heard Freshman year that graduating Torrey students were required to write a 40-page senior thesis, I was appalled. Never in my life had I considered myself capable of writing anything academic that spanned more than nine or ten pages, so 40 pages was simply out of the question. Who could possibly have that much to say? When I realized in my sophomore year that I wanted to go to graduate school, and that a large academic writing sample was all but required for applying, I understood that one way or another I would be pumping out a 40-page paper by the time my four years in Torrey came to a close. And before I knew it, my four years in Torrey were coming to a close.

Now, four weeks from graduation, that 40-page, 12,000-word requirement is sitting in my GoogleDocs waiting for a final read-through at the unbelievably unexpected grand total of 49 pages and 13,575 words (exactly). I did it. I tackled French Existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre’s idea of human freedom in his play, The Flies. lesmouches.jpgHoly cow, it was fun. Reflecting back on the process, I was surprised to find just how much goes into writing a 40-page, 12,000-word Torrey senior thesis—and the academic aspect of it only scratches the surface. I came to realize that the journey of writing this thesis turned out to be an excellent example of an unexpected, yet unfathomably rewarding, spiritual discipline. Here’s how:

Patience & Diligence. A Torrey Thesis is a marathon, not a sprint. 15 to 20 weeks to research and write may sound like plenty of time, and in a sense it is, but the effort takes an extreme amount of patience and diligence. After a month or so of researching (and changing my topic almost completely two or three times), I was all but chomping at the bit to get words on paper—but I didn’t, because I knew my research wasn’t quite vigorous enough yet. Writing and researching takes a certain amount of self-awareness in order to say, “No. I’m not ready. I need to research more”—and then, a week or two later, to say, “No. I’m ready. Now stop researching.” Both are just as difficult to admit and just as important. Knowing yourself, your limits, and your capabilities are essential.

Honesty & Criticism. On that note, writing a thesis is no time to lie to yourself about your writing and research abilities. When the graduating-dependent project is Pass/Fail, and the goal is a B-level paper for Year 1 of a Masters program, there’s not much time to fool around. I needed to be square with myself. I also needed to take criticism, real criticism, and not the type you get once your paper has been turned in and graded and the critiques feel irrelevant. Thesis criticism is harder because it’s painfully relevant. My immediate short-comings needed to be pointed out to me and immediately fixed—not when my draft was done, but in the middle of writing the draft. Admitting my weak spots took just as much humility as it took confidence that I could overcome them. Taking criticism was just as much about admitting, “Yeah, this isn’t good, you’re right” as it was about not crawling into a hole and dying from humiliation. I needed to push through. It hurts but it’s worth it!

You’re On Your Own. The Torrey Thesis is a lonely endeavor, and my own project exacerbated that even more. For starters, no one really tells you that you need to start the thesis; you just need to be proactive and do it. In addition, my thesis situation was a little unique because I asked Dr. Molloy (my hero) to be my thesis advisor. Dr. Molloy is an organizational rhetorician who studied the concept of work calling for her dissertation…but my paper is on the philosophy of playwriting. To top it off, she’s an APA master…but my paper is in Chicago/Turabian. Ergo, even though I’m a Communication Studies major and she’s a Communication Studies professor, there was little to no overlap of academic study between the two of us. We both recognized this from the get-go and decided to give it a try anyway, and it turned out to be awesome. We met bi-weekly to make sure I was doing okay, and I was doing okay, but for the rest of the two weeks outside of our 15-minute appointment slot, it was up to me to make progress. At the end of the day, my success was my responsibility. That’s both liberating and suffocating. (See my paper for how and why…!)

The Iceberg Metaphor. If my thesis actually included everything I researched and wanted to put into it, it would easily be twice or three times the size. Easily. To quote Hitch:

Hitch: I want you to meditate on the image of an iceberg. Do you know why I want you to do that?
Albert: Because I’m cool?
Hitch: No.
Albert: I know, I’m not, I…
Hitch: I’m saying that you are an iceberg in that over 90% of your mass…is below the surface.
Albert: I know I’m heavy. I am.
Hitch: No, I’m talking about who you are. It’s a metaphor.

Essentially my thesis is Albert. A little too robust, a little too enthusiastic, and not really sure what he’s supposed to say and when he’s supposed to say it. And, 90% of its mass is below the surface. No one will ever see or know the dozens of books and articles I read that didn’t make the final cut, but all that research was absolutely necessary to make the final  product as well-rounded as it is. No one will know the “whole story” of my paper, but the effort is there. This discouraged me at first—there was so much good stuff that I never got to say!—but I realized that the purpose of this thesis was not to vomit out every single skill and concept I had learned in my four years of Torrey. It was supposed to be nuanced—and, in a sense, it was supposed to be…humble.

Being Content with Not Being Perfect. Ah, the kicker for honors students. A week before my thesis was due, I emailed Dr. Molloy asking if she could help me take my near-perfect draft to the next level of complete, mind-blowing perfection, and she essentially said, “Ellie…let it go.” Okay, okay, fine, yes, I understand—but it’s not perfect yet! But she was right, and I had to give it up. My thesis is like a little slice of myself, staring back at me on paper, and it’s…not perfect. It’s the best I can do, but it’s not perfect. Years from now, when I write my Masters thesis and eventually my doctoral dissertation, they’ll be a whole lot better than my undergraduate thesis. But for now, I’ve done the absolute best I can do. Learning to let it go, to accept it truly as my best, is difficult but so, so necessary.

If you’re curious about the area of study my thesis focused on, feel free to reach out! I would love to discuss it with you. I have yet to mine the depths of the topic, and would love to journey deeper into it with whoever is up for a good conversation and a good cup of coffee.



One thought on “An Unexpected Discipline

  1. I’m so glad I discovered your blog, and I’d love to hear more about your thesis! I completed a similar project last year for my senior literature capstone course, so I found this post quite relatable.

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