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Writing the Literature Thesis

Greek ReadingWriting a thesis allows students to pursue an individualized course of study and create a lasting work of scholarship, acquiring new research and communication skills en route. A thesis is not required for all Literature majors, but is highly recommended for those considering graduate-level study in the humanities. The thesis is also appropriate for self-directed majors who wish to pursue a more specific topic in more depth than is possible through classwork alone. Students who undertake a thesis should be prepared to work independently and intensively on the project throughout the academic year. They receive substantial direction and rigorous criticism from their faculty readers, and present their work to the Literature community at the end of the process. A thesis demonstrates its author's commitment and mastery of literary study.

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Sample Titles of Recent Theses in Literature

In recent years, a number of our graduating seniors have written theses before progressing to major doctoral programs to continue their literary study. The range of topics they chose to write on is wide. Sample titles include:

"Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre: the Mobius Band of Authorship"

"Going Native: Representations of Savagery in Melville's Fiction"

"The Life and Afterlife of the Text: Authority and Translation in Malory's Tale of the Sankgreal"

"One World, One Life: The Politics of Personal Connection in Virginia Woolf's The Waves"

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What does a thesis do for me?

Thesis writers can be assured that they have been well prepared for graduate study, and can attest to that fact in their applications and interviews. They have also gained skills that will help them in any workplace. The intensive, self-motivated focus on one topic can be (at times) frustrating, overwhelming, and deeply gratifying: the rewards are many, and most students find their love of literature strengthened through their own efforts and dedication, as well as through the opportunity to work one-on-one with faculty scholars.

The time and commitment involved in the process of writing a thesis may or may not exceed the credit hours officially accorded, but the rewards are great. This is a serious undertaking and assumes that the thesis candidate is a responsible adult, able to make deadlines and keep to them without external prodding, and ready to become a literary scholar with a mind of her own.

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What do I do for my thesis?

The thesis usually spans the student's senior year and has two phases. In the Fall, the student registers for a 6-unit pre-thesis tutorial, during which time s/he will be reading extensively, compiling an annotated bibliography, and drafting a segment of the thesis. Upon fulfilling these requirements, he or she receives an interim "J" grade. In the Spring, the student completes drafting the thesis, and after receiving feedback from the readers, first revises it for submission and then presents his or her work to the community at large.

Fall Semester: Preparatory Work

If they have not done so in the the Spring of the junior year, thesis candidates should consult with faculty prior to Registration Day to determine who would be an appropriate advisor. The thesis will eventually be read and evaluated by three faculty members: the advisor my suggest second and third readers, or may leave the decision to the student.

Developing an argument takes time, but candidates should begin with a clear set of interests in mind, and ideally with background reading underway. Students may choose to focus on a particular author or literary text, or to connect several authors and texts through attention to a shared thematic or formal pattern.

Regular Supervision and Deadlines

It is essential that the student meet regularly with the advisor in the Fall, generally once a week. If several students are working on theses, a faculty member may be designated to supervise joint pre-thesis discussions; in such cases, meetings with the supervising faculty member will usually alternate with one-on-one meetings with the primary advisor.

Pre-thesis discussion includes advice on compiling an annotated bibliography, research suggestions, and help in developing a prospectus summarizing the argument and organization of the thesis by chapters. It is also an occasion to share insights derived from independent reading. By Thanksgiving, a student should have completed the prospectus and be working on writing a part of the thesis.

Spring Semester: 12-Unit Thesis

During the spring semester, the thesis candidate signs up for the 12-unit Thesis and devotes substantial energy to expanding, completing, and revising the work. The student should continue to meet on a regular basis with the advisor, and should also be sharing draft chapters with the second and third readers as soon as possible. The thesis process involves extensive revision as well as writing, and students need to anticipate that as the semester proceeds their readers will have an increasing number of competing demands on their time from other classes: chapters may not be returned with comments and recommendations for revision until some time after being submitted, and thesis writers need to plan accordingly. A complete first draft should be submitted by the end of spring break or the beginning of April, depending on the academic calendar and the advisor's schedule. This ensures adequate time for commentary and extensive final revision before the official Institute deadline for undergraduate theses (usually at the end of the penultimate week of classes, and listed on the official Academic Calendar).

After Completion

The thesis should be submitted in triplicate to its three faculty readers, who evaluate the completed project. The final grade will be applied retroactively to both the pre-thesis and thesis classes, totaling 18 unit hours. The student gives a brief (10-15 minute) public presentation based on the thesis, followed by a question-and-answer session of equal length.

A clean copy of the thesis will be deposited in the MIT archives: guidelines on appropriate archival paper, title page format, and binders are available at: http://libraries.mit.edu/archives/thesis-specs/

These guidelines focus on doctoral dissertations, but include the necessary information for undergraduate essays as well. The student and faculty readers will sign the title page of this official copy.

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