Significant works of historical and literary scholarship, original scientific investigation, extended creative projects—senior theses at Bard College at Simon’s Rock make for absorbing if not light reading. All B.A. students at the College complete a senior thesis, a major independent project that is the focus of students’ senior year. Conceived, organized, and carried out by each student with appropriate support from a faculty advisor, the thesis is the capstone of the student’s liberal arts and sciences education.
At the close of the last academic year, the Simon’s Rock community—graduates, staff, and faculty—gathered for a candlelight dinner honoring the A.A. and B.A. graduates. Senior theses played a starring role. Provost and Vice President Mary B. Marcy addressed the students affectionately, and provided audience members with her impressions of each of the nearly 50 theses completed that year, having read each one.
Marcy’s comments on a small sampling of the 2007-2008 theses are offered below. All senior theses are placed in the permanent collection in the Alumni Library, and are available for perusal.
Timothy Ross Cama
Take One: Embedded Journalism in Operation Iraqi Freedom
Tim’s studies the use of “embedded” reporters as a practice, with specific analysis of the invasion of Iraq. He uses the Public Affairs Guidance document produced by the Department of Defense as a starting point, and the concerns often leveled at this form of journalism—potential bias, identification, and bonding with the military they are to cover. Tim makes a convincing argument that some of the less discussed aspects of embedding, such as the clash between military and journalistic structures and the role of journalists’ personal sense of patriotism are factors not fully considered in previous discussions. He acknowledges the Department of Defense’s desire to use embeds for its own propaganda ends, but does not assume these efforts are always successful. In short, as the editor of our own Llama Ledger, he has taken his personal understanding of journalism, provided intellectual context, and created a thoughtful analysis of an important and inadequately understood contemporary issue.
Jacqueline C. Jankowski
Zeno’s Paradoxes: A Thesis without a Clever Subtitle
In the process of considering four classic philosophical conundrums, Jackie also champions the overlooked and underappreciated—in this case, Zeno as the inadequately valued precursor to Socrates, arguing for the tertiary placement and legitimacy of the stadium paradox as a great puzzle, and ultimately, arguing on behalf of the value of philosophy itself. The paradoxes all address space, time and movement—if an object can only reach its destination by going half the distance, and then half the distance again, for example, it never arrives, for numbers are infinite. Jackie explains the challenge, and analyzes the most famous arguments developed in response. To appreciate the scope of her work, it important to understand that these responses are categorized as time-based, space-based, and motion-based, taking her into the realms of quantum physics, geometry, mathematics, and, of course, historical research. The result is a thoroughly researched thesis that reveals a sophisticated understanding of elevated philosophical ideas; it is both an historical record and an impressive piece of original scholarship.
Whose Land? Whose Truth? The Story of a Turtle
Rather than asking us to understand, Elyse’s thesis does something much more profound. It asks us to be willing to hold contradiction, complexity, and confusion. She has created a series of essays, some brief, some long, some liberating, some painful, and all elegant, to capture her junior year in Mozambique. She writes about poverty, about death, about trauma, about loss. But she also writes about love, and compassion, and hope and healing. Her journey is more than an experience abroad, even an experience in what we inelegantly label a “third world” country. It is an experience of maturation and struggle and compassion, both intellectually and personally. Reading it gives us the singular opportunity to witness compassion and courage in action.
T. Brendan Leahy
SDI and the Popular Conception of Science
Brendan’s thesis is a wonderful integration of scientific analysis and political science. He assesses the evolution of the Strategic Defense Initiative, an initiative of the Reagan administration to develop defensive weapons in space. Brendan shows that the United States scientific community was far from achieving any such defense shield at that time; in fact, the science did not exist to test whether they were possible, much less make SDI a reality. He then considers the public reaction to the SDI initiative, especially the public’s tendency to equate science and technology. From a political science perspective, he takes into account the climate of the cold war, and the manipulation of public perception by the Reagan administration. His case study is not only a useful guide to a particular time in this country’s history, but a cautionary tale about the ways in which politics, science, technology, and public opinion interact and are subject to manipulation.
Have you Heard? Rethinking Gender Differences in Propensity to Gossip
Aaron’s thesis reviews some of the most significant literature on social interactions and the tendency to gossip—by some estimations human conversations are composed of 70 percent gossip!—when gossip is defined as speaking about others, sharing, and spreading information. His own research challenges some of society’s basic assumptions about the nature of conversation and the gender balances in gossip. Aaron identifies an important bias in existing research on the nature of gossip that tends to center on gendered topics such as celebrity gossip. He found some gender stereotypes—such as women talking more than men—to be upheld by his study, but others directly challenge gender stereotypes—most notably, he found that in his study, men showed a slightly greater propensity to gossip. His empirical process was thorough, detailed, and impressive, particularly given such a nuanced topic, and others agree: his paper has been accepted for presentation at the American Psychological Association convention.
Behind the Bloody Chamber
Folklore is nearly always grounded in a country or culture, and Jamie uses this as a lever for insight. Specifically, she considers folklore in France, Scandinavia, and Russia. Her choice of nations and eras is astute—looking at France in the 17th century, Scandinavia in the 19th and 20th century, and Russia in the 20th century, she thus juxtaposes folkloric tales with periods in these nations’ histories that served as ripe staging grounds for nationalism and patriotism. Jamie’s thesis is further refined by identifying feminist conceptions of the folktale, both in undercurrents of earlier stories and in the contemporary re-telling of stories. She makes a sophisticated case for folklore as an evolving literature; one that cannot be simply described as authentic or inauthentic, but which is subject to constant revision. The elegance of Jamie’s thesis is that it uses literary analysis, history, and political and cultural observation to help us understand more thoroughly how national identity and gender issues can be developed, manipulated, transmitted, and appropriated.
Invading Lake Mansfield Forest: A Study of Local Invasive Plants
By studying the effects of history and development on a plot of land literally in our own backyard, Maria has provided an important window on how land use and human decisions affect the ecology and health of a community. She studied a piece of land near Lake Mansfield, reviewing its historic uses and then assessing the current plant population. She uses direct observation, with GPS, field research, and statistical analysis, to determine the type and coverage of invasive plant species in this plot of land. She found significant coverage of six invasive species—coverage that could lead them to choke out native plants, and decrease the total plant species richness. Maria provides an outline for management of the land that could lead to re-vegetation of native species. The thesis is a wonderful example of focused research, from questioning through to testing and application. And thanks to the GPS and GIS photos, along with pictures of the invasive species, I will have a much better idea of what I am seeing when I walk around Lake Mansfield!