I have excerpted the first two paragraphs, and the last two, of a delightful and delightfully odd book review in order to finally extend an invitation to Umberto Eco that is long overdue. The review is odd only in the sense that the book was first published when I was a sophomore in high school, 20 years before I completed my doctoral dissertation (which I was working on 20 years ago), and is only now appearing in English for the first time, one year after my son completed his undergraduate honors thesis (the best advice we could send him back then was this).
The review is anything but odd, if you have been following our blog for the last four years. It is about the effort required to understand sufficiently, and to communicate effectively, on a topic you care about–and provides some tricks of the trade that sound geared for university students but apply to members of our collective as well. We are not in thesis mode at Raxa Collective. What we do is not theoretical, but grounded in the grind of hard work every day in our chosen profession. But we are in constant search mode for thesis-forged talent who know how to express themselves, to join us as interns or as employees (see Rosanna’s post for our latest talent acquisition in this spirit).
Umberto Eco is my favorite author, mainly because of one short book of his collected writings that I read when I was working on my doctoral dissertation. And mainly for that same book I extend to him an invitation to visit with us in Kerala, as our guest. Maybe I did not need the book reviewed below to complete my thesis, but I am sure I would have devoured it if given the opportunity at that time:
“How to Write a Thesis,” by Umberto Eco, first appeared on Italian bookshelves in 1977. For Eco, the playful philosopher and novelist best known for his work on semiotics, there was a practical reason for writing it. Up until 1999, a thesis of original research was required of every student pursuing the Italian equivalent of a bachelor’s degree. Collecting his thoughts on the thesis process would save him the trouble of reciting the same advice to students each year. Since its publication, “How to Write a Thesis” has gone through twenty-three editions in Italy and has been translated into at least seventeen languages. Its first English edition is only now available, in a translation by Caterina Mongiat Farina and Geoff Farina.
We in the English-speaking world have survived thirty-seven years without “How to Write a Thesis.” Why bother with it now? After all, Eco wrote his thesis-writing manual before the advent of widespread word processing and the Internet. There are long passages devoted to quaint technologies such as note cards and address books, careful strategies for how to overcome the limitations of your local library. But the book’s enduring appeal—the reason it might interest someone whose life no longer demands the writing of anything longer than an e-mail—has little to do with the rigors of undergraduate honors requirements. Instead, it’s about what, in Eco’s rhapsodic and often funny book, the thesis represents: a magical process of self-realization, a kind of careful, curious engagement with the world that need not end in one’s early twenties. “Your thesis,” Eco foretells, “is like your first love: it will be difficult to forget.” By mastering the demands and protocols of the fusty old thesis, Eco passionately demonstrates, we become equipped for a world outside ourselves—a world of ideas, philosophies, and debates…
…A thesis represents an investment with an uncertain return, mostly because its life-changing aspects have to do with process. Maybe it’s the last time your most harebrained ideas will be taken seriously. Everyone deserves to feel this way. This is especially true given the stories from many college campuses about the comparatively lower number of women, first-generation students, and students of color who pursue optional thesis work. For these students, part of the challenge involves taking oneself seriously enough to ask for an unfamiliar and potentially path-altering kind of mentorship.
It’s worth thinking through Eco’s evocation of a “just society.” We might even think of the thesis, as Eco envisions it, as a formal version of the open-mindedness, care, rigor, and gusto with which we should greet every new day. It’s about committing oneself to a task that seems big and impossible. In the end, you won’t remember much beyond those final all-nighters, the gauche inside joke that sullies an acknowledgments page that only four human beings will ever read, the awkward photograph with your advisor at graduation. All that remains might be the sensation of handing your thesis to someone in the departmental office and then walking into a possibility-rich, almost-summer afternoon. It will be difficult to forget.
Read the whole post here.