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Leading by Example: The Senior Thesis and the Teacher-Scholar

Adam T. Rosenbaum, March 2017

Think doing your own research and writing is hard enough? Try adding on the work you assign to your students. University of the Fraser Valley/Flickr/CC BY 2.0Writing a senior thesis is a rite of passage for most history majors, but it is also a demanding ordeal. Many students thus aspire mostly to complete the paper, making the quality of the scholarship an afterthought. As a former history major, I can confirm that I once felt this way as I barely completed my own senior thesis. As a current history professor, however, I believe that my students can do better.

When I first taught the senior thesis course in 2012, several students did not finish their paper. As I prepared to teach the course a second time, I decided to make some changes. I rewrote the syllabus with a narrower focus on the history of the Third Reich, abandoning the topical flexibility of the first incarnation. I created a five-page bibliography of English-language sources related to that subject, providing students with a significant head start. Then I had another idea: I would write a thesis paper alongside my students, completing all the assignments along the way.

Why? First, I recognized a chance to start a new research project with clear deadlines. Second, I saw an opportunity to reevaluate my expectations of students by seeing what I could do with the same resources available to them. Finally, I wanted to test the limits of the teacher-scholar model, which suggests that professors can “pursue an active program of research and scholarship” that will “enliven and enrich their teaching and the student experience,” as education researchers George Kuh, Daniel Chen, and Thomas F. Nelson Laird argued in a 2007 Liberal Education article. I often referred to my own research in the classroom, but what would happen if I actively worked as a scholar alongside my students?

On the first day of the senior research seminar during the spring 2016 semester, I announced to my 12 students that I would also write a thesis paper and complete all the assignments, including a proposal, source analysis, annotated bibliography, and first draft. My fate was effectively sealed once I identified myself as a contributing member of the group (which I styled a “Third Reich think tank”). I participated in early discussions of assigned readings alongside my students and updated them on my ongoing research during the weekly progress reports that jump-started each session. In short, I identified myself as one of them. But this new teaching persona troubled me. If I was one of them, then how could I fairly assess their work?

I would do so, I realized, by leading by example. On day one, I had promised that I would complete all the course assignments, but I did not indicate when. I decided that I would distribute and discuss my assignments the week before they were due. The benefits of this approach were clear after the submission of the first assignment, the paper proposal. A strong proposal can serve as a blueprint for the larger project, in addition to providing that initial pressure to craft an analytical argument. When I presented my students with printed copies of my proposal the week before it was due, I explained that the framework was a product of my own independent reading, while the hypothesis had been inspired by a book that we discussed in class. The next week, I received 12 proposals that varied in the level of detail and overall quality, but they all looked the same. Using my work as a template, the students had learned how to format and organize a paper proposal.

Still, informal feedback during in-class discussions confirmed that many students remained overwhelmed by the idea of writing more than 20 pages in one semester. I reminded them that they had already begun the process. For example, the hypothesis the proposal presented would likely change, but the final paper might recycle the proposal’s analytical framework and exposition. When I discussed my annotated bibliography the week before the assignment was due, I conceded that I had eliminated several sources that did not add anything to the paper. My research had not been entirely effective, I admitted, destroying the myth of professorial infallibility. I may have been leading by example, but this did not mean that my approach was flawless.

I reminded the students that writing history was storytelling, but I was also reminding myself.

This transparency helped students realize that research was a process that included dead ends and the occasional step backward. After spring break, I described how I had begun to write my first draft, with a slide show featuring pictures of open books, notecards filled with text, a whiteboard with my paper outline, and screenshots of my Word document. I hoped that this glimpse into my work routine would inspire students to action by providing them with ideas of how to transition from research to writing. They did not have to use notecards or a whiteboard, but these were methods that had worked for me.

In retrospect, these old-fashioned methods might have taken too long. With my own self-imposed due date approaching, I had to dedicate an entire weekend to completing my first draft. Late on Sunday evening, I realized that my paper would surpass the minimum length of 20 pages. I had to decide whether to stop at page 20, producing a draft that was incomplete but would let me get some sleep, or to complete the paper by taking it to its logical conclusion. I chose the latter, knowing that I regularly insisted that even poor drafts provided material that could be molded into something better. And my paper certainly needed work: the introduction was too long, the organization was too complex, and the conclusion was inevitably rushed. When we discussed my draft in class, I identified and even exaggerated these issues, as I taught my students that writing could be a frustrating process for all historians, even those with a PhD.

It is difficult to ascertain how my first draft influenced the students’ efforts. Inevitably, the quality of their drafts varied, but 11 of 12 students completed the assignment, one of them with a draft so good that I contemplated telling the student not to bother with a final revision. Nevertheless, when discussing our drafts collectively, I noted that many of us were struggling with our introductions, spinning our wheels at the beginning of the paper. I also acknowledged that many were successfully engaging with primary sources, but I warned against the temptation of making the paper a series of annotations. In general, I reminded the students that writing history was storytelling, and that our papers should contain preliminary exposition, clearly identified characters, a plot, and a climax. On some level, I was also reminding myself.

I completed a second draft of my paper during the final weeks of the semester, but I did not distribute it to my students, who were presumably busy writing. I was done leading by example, and now it was time for the students to deliver. And they did. All 12 submitted a final paper, and several were relatively mature pieces of scholarship that revolved around clearly stated and compelling arguments. Others had not quite reached that level, but they were correctly formatted, clearly organized, and heavy on the use of primary sources. Furthermore, over half of my students collected their graded thesis paper during exam week, suggesting that they had wanted to produce a good thesis paper and were eager to see what I thought.

The changes I made when redesigning the course (such as the new syllabus and bibliography) might have explained those positive results. But the course evaluations suggested otherwise. Eight out of 12 students identified the teacher-scholar model as the most effective aspect of the course, confirming that the approach had motivated them. One even described a humanizing effect on the professor, which helped to make their struggles seem less daunting.

In retrospect, participating in a collective narrative of struggle and perseverance appears to be the main benefit of writing an extended research paper alongside my students. This experiment didn’t produce an article ready for publication, but it provided students with useful templates and allowed me to mentor and motivate as a genuine “guide on the side.” Admittedly, most professors do not have the time to adopt this approach, but sharing a book review or paper proposal with their students could have a similar impact.

The time and effort that this approach demanded, not to mention the adoption of a more vulnerable classroom persona, do leave me with some reservations about repeating the experiment. Yet these individual sacrifices are probably nullified by what the students stand to learn and produce. More selfishly, I have been meaning to look into tourism’s impact on Cold War politics in western Germany, and a senior thesis class could provide some motivation.

Adam T. Rosenbaum is an assistant professor of history at Colorado Mesa University and the author of Bavarian Tourism and the Modern World, 1800–1950.


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