As seniors finalize their schedules, most are considering adding that 490-level class, which denotes their intention to complete a senior essay. For several, this will be a fitting ending to their major: a unique chance to do more or less original scholarship, more or less by themselves, in the field to which they have devoted a good part of the last three years.
Still, my own feelings about writing a senior essay — and those of many classmates with whom I’ve spoken — are better characterized by resignation and reluctance than enthusiasm. Few seniors I know are so excited as to have already begun work, or even think precisely about what they want to write.
Instead, many students write senior essays because they are required, as is the case in the History Department. Others write them because they otherwise won’t be considered for distinction in their major, as in the Economics Department. Still others may write them not out of such overt coercion, but because of a sense — fostered by Yale College — that without a senior essay, they become academically second-class.
None of these reasons are inherently bad; wanting a good grade makes most of us work harder than we might otherwise, and in that process we hopefully learn more. Maybe the external pressure to write a senior thesis forces many of us to do something important in our academic development that, without such pressure, we would not have done.
But is the senior essay so important to our development that it should be encouraged and coerced out of us? I doubt it.
The usual argument for the senior essay revolves around its status as the primary opportunity for an undergraduate to engage in “original scholarship.” Many act as if this alone is sufficient justification. Some, indeed, argue no student should graduate without producing a piece of self-directed academic research. But the senior essay isn’t just a research project; it is a replica in miniature of the same kind (if not caliber) of work graduate students and professors regularly produce.
We are frequently told that part of the value of Yale College, or a liberal arts education more generally, is learning for learning’s sake. Rather than practice particular skills necessary for a particular vocation, we ask questions and seek answers that equip us to be better-rounded people.
Given the promise of such a model to eschew vocational training, why should its culminating event be an intensive immersion in academic research, as close as possible to how it is professionally practiced? For that is what the senior essay is really about — more important than any particular topic is the academic research method employed.
Of course, some might argue that academia is different from other vocations in that it uniquely prioritizes inquiry for inquiry’s sake. This point is debatable; curiosity exists outside of the academy, and other motivations may drive research within it. Regardless, the rest of our undergraduate education is predicated around the notion that we can pursue inquiry without a specific methodological tool set.
In most other Yale courses, when we write an English essay, we’re not really aiming to duplicate English scholarship, much of which deals with the history behind texts. Rather, we seek to engage with the ideas in a text while improving our ability to discuss such ideas in writing. Studying economics and physics in college isn’t about training to be an economist or physicist so much as it is about understanding the basics of certain mechanisms by which the world works.
The senior essay therefore constitutes an anomalous part of the Yale undergraduate experience, one that contradicts its own premises. It has been and continues to be a formative learning experience for some students, but the same might be said of arts projects or business and political experiences or travel or reading that aren’t privileged with a special status by Yale College, but could equally well serve as a capstone to a successful Yale career.
In the longer term, Yale should begin a conversation about the sort of work that may conclude four years of undergraduate study; there may be other experiences and projects, beyond writing in the style of an academic journal, that deserve the College’s recognition. In the short term, departments should eliminate requirements that senior essays be submitted in order to complete a major or to gain distinction, as undergraduate success should not revolve around what is essentially an academic apprenticeship.
Harry Larson is a senior in Jonathan Edwards College. Contact him at email@example.com.