It’s been exactly — down to the same date, funnily enough — four months since I posted anything about Iceland in particular, seven months since I shared an excerpt from my honors thesis, and one year since I submitted that thesis to the history department at Cornell University. It’s interesting that as I write this I’m back in Ithaca, on campus, and during the last week have been involved in the proofreading process for two friends writing English theses to be turned in tomorrow. And then, coincidentally but not by chance, Hua Hsu writes a book review in the New Yorker that revolves around how to write a thesis.
Reading Hsu’s discussion of Eco’s book, as well as revisiting parts of my thesis to be able to give advice to my English-major friends, is a rewarding and somewhat nostalgic experience. There are several of Eco’s points that
particularly resonate with me, such as when he warns his readers about the “alibi of photocopies,” writing that,
A student makes hundreds of pages of photocopies and takes them home, and the manual labor he exercises in doing so gives him the impression that he possesses the work. Owning the photocopies exempts the student from actually reading them. This sort of vertigo of accumulation, a neocapitalism of information, happens to many.
During the summer between my junior and senior year, as I did the bulk of the research for my thesis, I ended up transcribing pages and pages of relevant material from the original and fragile nineteenth-century books and manuscripts, at first by hand and later by keyboard. Although my penmanship and typing skills benefited from this practice, and the reproduction of information instilled the more germane bits into my mind for later recollection, looking back I certainly should have simply skimmed all the books first. I didn’t fall into the trap Eco cautions against of not actually reading the works, but I still suffered from that “vertigo of accumulation” eventually.
As Hsu winds down his review, he gets to what is perhaps one of my favorite parts of having written a thesis, explaining that,
“’How to Write a Thesis’ is ultimately about much more than the leisurely pursuits of college students. Writing and research manuals such as ‘The Elements of Style,’ ‘The Craft of Research,’ and Turabian offer a vision of our best selves. They are exacting and exhaustive, full of protocols and standards that might seem pretentious, even strange. Acknowledging these rules, Eco would argue, allows the average person entry into a veritable universe of argument and discussion. ‘How to Write a Thesis,’ then, isn’t just about fulfilling a degree requirement. It’s also about engaging difference and attempting a project that is seemingly impossible, humbly reckoning with [what Eco calls] ‘the knowledge that anyone can teach us something.’ It models a kind of self-actualization, a belief in the integrity of one’s own voice.
The pretentious protocols that Hsu refers to actually hold a great deal of appeal to me; I agree with Eco that they serve as a sort of keycard or security clearance into the world of academic commentary and criticism, and in a way legitimize one’s own work. The scholastic thrill of having developed expertise in a subject (no matter how esoteric), of accruing months of dialogue with works written decades or even centuries ago, of revisiting ideas and investigating theories, of exhausting the available literature and attempting to make an argument based on whatever one has gleaned from the synthesis of the entire process — this is not easily replicated.
It is likely that never again will I write something with 162 footnotes, knowing that each one is there for a reason and is as concise as possible. I can’t think of any instance where I’ll put together an appendix again, or divide my bibliography into primary and secondary sources. An honors thesis represents one of the few opportunities for tangible contribution that a college student can make to the body of work on any topic. As Hsu writes, “It will be difficult to forget.”