Thursday, March 11, 2010

Graduate Thesis for all??

So one of my distinguished colleagues ran into a technical glitch and couldn't post directly. This is published on his behalf. And it saves me writing the second part of my posting on the Senior Thesis.

I did some research and found that in the discipline of history, of 57 public universities in the Midwest (Ohio, Indiana, Minnesota, Illinois, Wisconsin, Kansas, Missouri, Michigan, and the entire state university of California, only one university (Central Missouri) requires an M.A. thesis. The notion of an education-style "one-size fits all," glorified standardized test on steroids is a terrible idea.

In the discipline of history, the M.A. thesis requires a significant amount of research and writing and usually comes in around 100 pages (most often more). For most students, it is imperative that they select a topic in their first semester of grad school since the project will take close to two years to complete. Thus, a mandatory thesis requirement in history will lengthen the time to degree significantly.

There are other considerations: Sufficient primary source materials must be available to complete the project. In the event that those materials are not local, students must travel to archives and dig through letters, diaries, etc. Since all potential primary source material is not digitized, this travel entails a considerable expense for the student. Is the university going to provide any type of funding for this purpose?

In order to do primary research in historical subfields outside the United States, it is necessary for students to possess at least a reading knowledge of the appropriate language. This may not be limited to the European languages taught here. If a student wanted to do an African thesis, what kind of language support exists at the university? How about a medieval topic, is there a latin program here? A greek program for someone who might want to do a thesis in the ancient world? Simply put, a mandatory M.A. thesis would force students to select a topic based on what they could do rather than something they wanted to do. These topics would most likely be U.S. topics and close to home.

This would result in students being supervised by a minority of the faculty since the bulk of the history faculty are specialists in geographical areas outside the U.S. These faculty would effectively be precluded from functioning as thesis supervisors.

A required M.A. thesis would subvert the purpose of the M.A. in history and would ignore the needs of our graduate students. The current requirements of our M.A. program are comparable to the majority of similar programs in at least nine states, and I am sure across the country. Since a large number of our students are teaching, they are interested in a program that will help them improve their skills. In line with M.A. programs that serve a similar student population, our program requires a comprehensive examination which allows students to improve their knowledge in at least two fields. This has a positive effect on their teaching. A student can choose to write a thesis but only as a substitute for six hours of graduate-level course work, the examination is still required. In light of this, we are currently discussing the efficacy of creating a thesis "option" for the M.A. culminating experience

It is my belief that a mandatory M.A. thesis will ultimately destroy our graduate history program. Since no other M.A. granting university in the area has such a requirement, students would choose to attend a school with a program suited to their educational needs rather than one with an onerous and arbitrary required thesis and no institutional support for research in the social sciences.

The faculty are committed to academic rigor and to maintaining high standards for our students. This idea supports neither of those aims. It is simply a case of style over substance.

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