Sunday, March 7, 2010

What's this about Theses???

So fair readers, I was contemplating how to respond to the suggestion (read demand) to institute both Senior and Graduate Theses as graduation requirements in Fall 2010. I will only examine the Senior Thesis and provide explanation on the Graduate Thesis in a later post. To call this an ill conceived idea would be understatement but that isn’t the purpose of today’s missive. Rather it is an explication of why this is an ill conceived idea and one that strains my confidence in the ability of the current regime to grasp some of the fundamental principles of a university.
At one level the intervention of a university administrator into an area that is the domain of the faculty without consultation demonstrates two disturbing things. First is a lack of understanding about the functioning of shared governance at a university. The second is a glaring disdain that this CEO has shown for the faculty of this university. Because a CEO has some whim about how academic programs should be configured does not give said CEO the right to arbitrarily impose said idea onto the university curriculum. And if, as some reports indicate, this is being done not for the students’ benefit but to show our accrediting body how academically rigorous we are then my confidence is further shaken. Had our CEO had a modicum of respect for faculty he would have asked the Chief Academic Officer to contact the Faculty Senate President and Union President with a request to examine this proposition. From there the faculty could begin the process examining whether it is feasible or efficacious to substantively alter the curriculum. It would be helpful if this CEO understood there are generally accepted processes for addressing issues like curriculum changes. I imagine that successful implementation of this idea would at minimum take several years.
First, the faculty has not decided whether this proposal would serve the educational needs of students in individual departments. A Senior Thesis may be of little or no value in the Department of Art and Design, while a portfolio may be preferable. And I have no knowledge whether there is a portfolio requirement already. If there is, then this idea serves no purpose. Thus it appears that individual departments must first be surveyed by the Academic Affairs Committee about the efficacy of a Senior Thesis.
Once the necessity is determined then faculty will be confronted with several institutional realities. First, the university routinely admits students that are not prepared for university level education in the areas of writing and critical thinking. This situation was recently exacerbated by the university lowering admission standards in the face of low retention rates. Expecting a high quality Senior Thesis from students unprepared when they enter the university will require a significant investment of university resources. These are resources that the university obviously doesn’t have when departmental budgets are covering salaries and payroll costs.
Second, the Writing Center must be expanded both in terms of space and number of writing specialists. It is unlikely given the anticipated wave of lay-offs that the university will be able to hire enough tutors to provide adequate service for the number of students in need or writing assistance to complete a Senior Thesis.
Third the university will need to provide CUEs to faculty who would supervise Senior Theses. Since the Collective Bargaining Agreement does not provide for mandatory participation, then some language would need to be negotiated before faculty could be compelled to participate. This would of course add an additional task for department chairs, that being to monitor which faculty are supervising which students.
Fourth, it is unknown whether the introduction of a Senior Thesis would extend the time of graduation for students initially, possibly for the first five to seven years of this new requirement. Given that the university suffers yearly criticism for its graduation rate, it is likely this requirement would worsen the graduation rate for some period of time. Additionally, we don’t know what catalog this proposal would effect under. Since the foundational work hasn’t been done it might be another four years before the catalog could be changed to reflect the Senior Thesis graduation requirement.
Fifth, a methodologically rigorous Senior Thesis could require some additional course work to prepare students for the research and writing process. I would expect that a Senior Thesis would be more than a book report and would require original research or it would be of no value. A worthless Senior Thesis would have an adverse impact on retention as students would view it only as another hoop and elect to transfer to another institution or not make CSU their first choice for admission. The introduction of a Senior Thesis also risks grade inflation which diminishes the value of the Senior Thesis and could subsequently bring scrutiny from our accrediting bodies questioning the academic rigor of the academic programs..
Sixth, there would need to be a reduction of teaching loads and class sizes because there would need to be an increased emphasis on Writing Across the Curriculum as one mechanism to prepare students for a Senior Thesis. Smaller class sizes would require more class sections, possibly more faculty, and more classroom space. That means more money.
Seventh, it is unknown whether students in the Non-Traditional Programs like the Board of Governors would be subject to a Senior Thesis requirement. If so, what faculty would supervise their work and why since they don’t belong to any of the academic departments. A conspiracy theorist might posit that this a a scheme to drive some departments out of existence and move CSU to an open enrollment type of university like community colleges.
Eighth, it is unknown whether the current articulation agreements would adequately prepare transfer students for the completion of a Senior Thesis. Would the curriculum need to be re-tooled since most students are transfer students? What would it cost to re-tool the curriculum especially in a financially strapped institution?
Finally, with more than a thousand students conceivably working on a Senior Thesis, what increased workload would be placed on the University Library staff. Would there need to be expanded library hours and increased library staffing? Where would the money for that come from? Given the university’s poor fund raising record and poor record of student support, how could the university manage to successfully implement a Senior Thesis, especially without the contribution and direction of the faculty?
Of course, maybe the Senior Thesis idea is all rumor and speculation. If so, never mind.


  1. So true. Thanks for making clarifying this problem. Many of us walked away from the last "town hall" meeting (could it get any more politrick speak than that?) with a feeling in our stomach (nausea?) after hearing this. One note: I have been a student at or taught at nine institutions of higher learning. At only one was a senior thesis an across the board requirement. This institutions was a small, private, liberal arts college with a huge endowment and a select student body. Students were upper class and private high school educated. The library rivaled that of large public institutions and faculty were paid for their thesis mentoring.

    The real problem here is that we have a CEO who has no idea about how a university works. In the Spring of our downfall (when CEO Watson was being forced upon us) many of us made the argument that he was unqualified. He claimed and continues to claim that he is an educator. Yet, he sounds like a businessman/politician with all his evasiveness (perhaps a result of his wrestling past) and corporate language of "right sizing" (here I disagree with blog authors; the proper term is "firing") and entrepreneurship.

    Perhaps we can get some of the overpaid adminstrators who don't teach to mentor senior theses. Though, I wonder if these professional administrators have any better clue as to how a university works than our CEO.

  2. Since I seem to be unable to post this (I hate this web design), I will add a comment on the M.A. 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.