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Students Pursue Honors in English

“Nobody can talk and talk and talk quite like an English major!” At least that’s what senior Jenna Morgan feels, and while it’s true that we English majors talk and read a lot, it’s also true that we write a great deal.  Half the major, it seems, is composed of writing, whether it's literary criticism, in-class tests, or creative works.  Although all English majors must have a strong love for putting pen to paper (or, nowadays, fingers to keyboard), a special group of English majors seem particularly dedicated to this area of the field.

Supervised this year by professors Suzanne Raitt and Deborah Morse, the English Department’s Honors Program gives about fifteen William and Mary seniors a year the chance to branch out on their own and explore topics of their very own choosing.  These subjects are undoubtedly close to the students’ hearts; as stated by Colleen Schneider, “a passion for the topic is necessary unless you want to be miserable.”  Students receive inspiration for their projects from various sources: courses they’ve taken, topics they’ve always loved, or a question they’ve always wanted to answer. Then, they take this one small idea and make it big.

The students go through an arduous process just to enter the program, including applying to the Honors Seminar, one semester of said Honors Seminar (a class which prepares students for the type of research involved in an honors thesis), constructing a thesis, and then submitting the thesis for approval.  If the Honors Committee accepts a student’s proposal, the student has officially become part of the Honors Program.

From there, students have about a year to complete their projects.  They are not alone, however; each student has one (sometimes two) faculty advisors to aid in the journey.  Students and their advisors meet to discuss the progress of the work, and since the students are free to set most of their own meetings and deadlines, each student sets them up in very different ways.  Some push themselves to have a certain number of pages done per week, while others have flexible estimations of where they would like to be within a certain amount of time.  Students do agree, though, on one aspect of the program: their theses are always foremost on their minds.

When these interviews were conducted, students in this year’s program had just barely begun the process, but as Ms. Morgan’s comment shows, they all had plenty to share about it!  The following is a collection of brief articles inspired by interviews that I carried on, via e-mail, with some of the students in this diverse—and brave!—group.

Lauren Klapper-Lehman English and Evolution: When Opposites Attract

Lauren Klapper-Lehman found herself so intrigued by her freshman biological anthropology class that she nearly considered pursuing Anthropology—not English—as her major. Although she obviously stuck with the English major, Lauren never forgot her interests in a subject that some may consider the exact opposite of English. In fact, her evolutionary interests followed her all the way to her senior year honors thesis.

“At first,” Lauren admits, “I was unsure of what to write on, since I was used to simply responding to texts that were covered in class.” In her search for a topic, though, Lauren began perusing some of these old responses, hoping something would interest her enough, and she eventually stumbled upon a paper she wrote concerning the attempt of de-evolution of women by men within the novel Middlemarch. Re-visiting this blend of evolution, gender, and English, Lauren had discovered the perfect topic for her thesis.

She singled out works by authors George Eliot and Elizabeth Gaskell, and during her initial research, Lauren found “a gap in scholarship—a lot was written about women's concerns in the work of both novelists and a good amount was written on evolutionary theory and their work . . . but little was done to connect the two topics.” The lack of previous research into her subject only furthered Lauren’s ambition.

Lauren intially chose to write an honors thesis because of her inability to resist a good challenge. As an English major, she feels completing this tough task would be the “finishing touch” in attaining her degree, too. Additionally, Lauren cites her goal of graduate school as a reason for attempting the honors thesis: not only is the paper good practice, but it also makes her a more competitive candidate.

She confesses that the thesis does take a lot of time, and it’s occasionally hard to balance her busy schedule with the paper, so Lauren pushes herself to keep up with the thesis on a daily basis. Nevertheless, Lauren can see the positive side of tackling this task: “It'll be worth it when I have the end product in my hands.”

Sally Masters: The Sally's Progress

Sally Masters' decision to complete an honors thesis stemmed from Professor Morse's encouragement, as well Sally's general fascination with literature. From the start, Sally showed immense interest in her project: "I wanted to get a jump on the project before the school year started," she explains, after stating that she spent an excess of two-hundred hours researching for her thesis—during the summer before it began!

Sally's topic hasn't remained static, but her summertime research helped her to come to a decision. She always knew she wanted to focus on the works of John Bunyan, but she had trouble narrowing it down from there. Eventually, Sally chose to explore his effects on 19th-century American literature—an area in which she is already familiar.

Since there are two dimensions to her topic, professors Dawson and Wilson both advise Sally; the former specializes in the 19th-century, while the latter helps with the Bunyan aspect. Professor Dawson acts as her "primary advisor," and the two have laid out a flexible schedule of bi-weekly meetings.

Sally offers a good piece of advice for potential thesis writers: be careful what classes you take during this time! During the fall, Sally juggled the thesis with three additional English classes, so she "will be much more careful" from now on. She also credits her enjoyment of the thesis to the professors that advise her, noting that their aid is her "saving grace."

Finally, Sally encourages anyone interested in writing a thesis to compile a list of ten reasons for wanting to do so—and if you can't come up with all ten, "don't do it!"

Jenna Morgan: The Creative Writer

When it came time to apply for a spot in the honors program, Jenna Morgan dreaded having to make the choice between writing a traditional thesis and a creative project. The idea of the creative writing project had always been appealing to her (and one factor in her decision to attend William and Mary), but she still wavered in her final decision. Eventually, Jenna opted to pursue a creative project, partly because it would allow her to follow her passion for school credit.

Jenna is already quite accomplished in the realm of fiction writing. During her time at the College, Jenna has completed two novellas and a screenplay, and through the Honors Program, she intends to write her first novel (250-300 pages, she hopes).

Although she is not writing a traditional research paper, Jenna does go through a similar experience as her peers. She used her time junior year in the honors seminar to sharpen her writing skills, prepare for the task of writing a novel, and begin working alongside her advisor, Professor Eva Burch. Like those students writing a traditional thesis, Jenna also needed to submit a proposal for a brand new work.

Once her proposal had been approved, Jenna began the arduous research process for her novel. Since she drew inspiration from various sources, including her summer abroad in Cadiz, Spain, her experiences as a Hispanic Studies major, and even art forms such photography and dance, her topic feels “like one giant, crazy spider web that sometimes seems representative of everything [she’s] learned in college.” Jenna also admits that research is both a very sizeable and rewarding part of the journey, and although she is still greatly involved in this stage of the game, Jenna has established the heart of her novel: its main characters, plots, and themes.

Although the project is a test in time management skills, from the way she speaks of it, Jenna seems to thoroughly enjoy writing. “It also helps that writing is only half like work,” she explains. “It’s what I’m passionate about, so it’s fun, and more than likely, what I’d be doing in my free time, anyway.” She loves having the opportunity to earn credits doing what she loves best, and she hopes one day to publish the works she has completed thus far.

Colleen Schneider: The Brontes and the Bible

Senior Colleen Schneider had a lot on her plate long before she decided to take on an honors thesis. Pursuing an English degree and participating in the Secondary Education program seemed to give her little time for writing a thesis. In her junior year, though, some classes on Victorian literature and an encouraging professor changed all that.

Although she was hesitant about tackling English, education, and an honors thesis, one of Colleen’s professors, Deborah Morse, assured her that this seemingly impossible feat was, in fact, very possible. Colleen then decided to enroll in the honors seminar during her junior year to test the waters. After enjoying the honors seminar, Colleen submitted her thesis proposal to the Honors Committee.

As for her topic, Colleen says she “had had an idea since the previous December that just wouldn't get out of [her] mind.” During the fall semester of her junior year, Colleen took a class entitled “Literature and the Bible” as well as a seminar class focusing on the Bronte sisters, Charlotte, Emily, and Anne. Colleen quickly became fascinated with how well the subject matter in these two courses converged, particularly in terms of Anne Bronte and the Johannine texts of the New Testament:
“I was reading the Gospel of John,” explains Colleen, “[and] I was tremendously struck by the similarities between it and Anne Bronte's work. The overlap in language and themes seemed to me to be incredibly significant. I felt that I gained a much greater understanding of what Anne was trying to accomplish by looking at her work from this angle.”

Then, at the suggestion of professors Deborah Morse and Monica Potkay, Colleen expanded her topic to encompass all the Bronte sisters and their relation to The Gospel of John, epistles, and Revelation texts.

Colleen makes sure to write something each week to turn in to her advisors. She hopes to have completed 20 pages by the end of October, another 20 pages by the end of December, and then to wrap up the thesis by January or February. Colleen admits, though, that she’s still trying to figure out how, exactly, to balance her work. With student teaching and academic classes, Colleen certainly has a heavy load, but the thesis statement is always on her mind. “[E]ven when I'm not writing,” she says, “ideas are swimming around in my head pretty much all the time.”

Kristen Simonsen: The Many Revisions of Shakespeare's Plays

As a Government and English double major geared towards attending law school, Kristen Simonsen viewed the Honors Program as a unique experience: she felt she’d never again have the chance to craft a thesis quite like this one, so she decided to take advantage of this opportunity.

When it came time to narrow her topic, Kristen found herself interested in Shakespeare—but she knew this research, in general, was “pretty overdone.” Kristen then recalled an aside by Professor Wilson in English Literature of 1744-1798 which sparked Kristen’s thesis topic. He’d mentioned a take-off on William Shakespeare’s King Lear, and he then went on to explain that many people during this period actually took to revising Shakespeare’s works.

With Professor’s Wilson’s comment in mind, Kristen chose to delve into this type of literature. She wanted not only to explore the revisions themselves, but also the motivations these authors had for re-writing Shakespeare. After settling on her topic, Kristen consulted with Professor Wilson—whom she eventually chose as her advisor for the thesis—to narrow down a comprehensive group of plays. To keep herself on-track, Kristen has set a flexible goal of completing ten pages every two weeks (and, at the end of each two-week period, she meets with Professor Wilson). Kristen also mentions that, since her thesis-writing counts for three credits, she does consider it a class, not just a side project. “It’s sort of a very long class on those days,” she explains. Then, she adds, “Only with nice breaks and the power to give myself the day off.”

As advice for those considering writing an honors thesis, Kristen, like many others, warns of the time and research commitment involved. Also, Kristen states that the topic chosen needs to be exciting—to the point where “you find yourself telling your friends about” your research and reading!

Author:  Monica Duggan '09