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How Well Is Your Thesis Hidden?
Publishing Students' Work on the World Wide Web

While the teenage years and early 20s may be a peak time for tennis players, gymnasts, and other athletes, it's rarely assumed that most people have reached their intellectual peaks—or even firmly established their intellectual identities—at such an early age.

Yet as a stream of Internet chatter about Hillary Clinton's "Hidden Thesis" from her senior year at Wellesley College shows, anything is fair game once a person comes under the harsh glare of the media spotlight.

Senior Lecturer in English Anne Dalke is one of a number of professors on campus who thinks students shouldn't be too worried about having their work available for pubic scrutiny and that making such work public can be a boon to students, academics, and others.

"There's a sharp contrast between the traditional way of producing academic writing and the current way a number of us here go about inviting students to publish their writing on the Web," said Dalke. "Our mode tells students, from the get-go, that they are participating in larger debates on the topics they are studying."

"For some years now, virtually all of my classes have made use of this approach, with student Web papers and online forum participation replacing examinations," added Professor of Biology Paul Grobstein via e-mail. "Students are explicitly told about the public character of their activities and the rationale for it, and required to agree to it before enrolling. Students are generally quite enthusiastic about this, both prior to and following the courses."

Grobstein cited several reasons he thinks science education in particular benefits from "broader public interaction."

  • Students take their work more seriously when they feel it is for a public purpose (as opposed to just an exercise or something for a teacher).
  • Students gain experience in making things clear to and interacting with a general audience.
  • Instructors get greater pleasure and satisfaction reading and thinking about these papers than they would from exams or more traditional papers, and they can respond to them in terms more useful than those coming simply from a local disciplinary perspective.
  • The students and instructor are colleagues in a shared educational enterprise.

Rachel Tashjian '10 recently started writing for The Philadelphia Inquirer's "College Board" section and has taken courses in which her work has been published on the Web.

"Knowing that the professor would not be the only one reading the paper didn't make me censor myself. Knowing that I would have a potentially wide readership actually made me more eager to write provocative papers," said Tashjian.

"Writing for The Inquirer was much the same—I didn't feel the need to 'sanitize' or make my argument more moderate in order to convince readers," she added.

Tashjian also dismisses the concern that something written as a student could become an issue later in life.

"Looking at Hillary Clinton's thesis to figure out her current political beliefs seems ridiculous—her politics certainly haven't been stagnant since 1969. So knowing that I will be able to make the argument that my opinions have evolved since college makes me unworried about my college work becoming public," said Tashjian.

While most faculty members would undoubtedly agree with Tashjian's sentiments regarding trying to judge a person's current thoughts and beliefs by examining something written nearly 40 years ago as a college student, a flurry of responses to an e-mail query about the publishing or posting online of student work shows that many faculty members see a number of reasons to keep students' writing private.

"I want my students to grow to write for a public outside the academy, but I believe that growth needs some level of protection—and that I have a responsibility to help students think through the implications of what they write today for who they will be in the future," wrote Associate Professor of Economics David Ross.

"With the Internet, today's public writing is like a tattoo—virtually impossible to remove completely and possibly embarrassing in the future," he added.

To mitigate potential embarrassment, Senior Instructional Technologist Laura Blankenship, who has taught composition courses featuring student blogs, asks students to use pseudonyms when writing for the Web.

"That way, they can feel free to say whatever they want without having to lay claim to that work later if they don't want to. Because I and the rest of the class know who they are, they still have to be accountable for what they say and, in fact, I'd argue that even when you're anonymous on the Web, people expect your work to be credible," wrote Blankeship.

"Given how public most of our students are via Facebook and other social networking sites, I think we have an obligation as educators to teach appropriate ways to present themselves online," Blankenship added. "Increasingly, people will be expected to present themselves online in order to get hired for jobs or as part of their jobs. Students need practice in how to put their best selves forward in the public."

Karl Kirchwey, director of the Creative Writing Program, wrote that for the sort of writing he's trying to help students with, the knowledge that what a student writes won't be shared with the outside world is key.

"The undergraduate years are exactly those in which a student writer should have the luxury of not going public with her work, of having sheltered time in which to experiment and learn. There is plenty of time for accumulating rejection slips (which is most of what creative writing is about) after leaving college," wrote Kirchwey.

"I think we need to distinguish between 'writing' and 'thesis,'" wrote Dale Kinney, dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Science. "Writing is a skill, and in 100- and 200-level courses in History of Art, for example, we have many writing assignments that are designed to sharpen that skill and students' comfort with writing, which don't (and aren't meant to) lead to anything that I would consider of interest to anyone but the student herself (if she feels differently, of course, she can always 'publish' this work via Facebook or Myspace or her own Web site).

"On the other hand, the senior thesis is supposed to present a sustained and original argument. 'Publishing' some of them might be useful in terms of telling the world what kind of work is done here."

While the college doesn't have a blanket policy regarding the archiving of undergraduate theses, a number of departments, including English and Growth and Structure of Cities, do maintain them to various degrees.

Since its inception in the early 1970s, Cities has archived a copy of every senior thesis. Over the years storage space has become an issue, and the department is currently moving to electronic archiving.

"Generally, we expect those who want to look at the theses to approach faculty as intermediaries," said Cities Professor and Chair Gary McDonogh. "When Veterans Stadium closed, for example, an alumna working with ESPN came back to consult an earlier thesis on stadia in the city."

The English Department also maintains student theses but generally only going back a few years, said Senior Lecturer Gail Hemmeter, director of the College's Writing Support Services.

Hemmeter and her colleagues use theses from the previous year to help students prepare to write their own.

"Writing a thesis can seem like a very daunting task, but seeing what their peers have done often gives students confidence and also opens them up to trying approaches they might not have tried otherwise," said Hemmeter.

Hemmeter said she sees some real advantages to making student writing a more public activity but doesn't think having material published online is a panacea for poor writing.

"No one's ever going to become a better writer if they think it's this mysterious talent that you've just either 'got' or don't have," said Hemmeter. "On the other hand, all you have to do is look at 99 percent of the stuff posted online to realize that writing for a wider audience doesn't always encourage more polished material."

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