//end of the world//
Senior Theses in Their Own Words
Columbia undergraduate history majors look up to our professors like gods. Whether taking Mark Carnes’ US History 1940 to 1975 or writing a senior thesis under the tutelage of Manan Ahmed, we approach our faculty with reverence. We write them long emails that start with “Dear” and end with “Thank you so much.” We approach them in office hours with our hearts pounding for fear of not being prepared (and from ascending the Fayerweather staircase). We rarely, however—if ever—ask them about their personal lives.
It’s hard for us to imagine it, but each of our professors were once undergraduates, and each of them went through the same trials that we do. Most wrote senior theses, the capstone historical project that 40 students at Columbia go through every year, myself included. Having looked up to professors throughout my undergraduate career, and wanting to know if they are more like us than we give them credit for, I sat down with five historical minds at Columbia University. I asked them to share their experiences writing their own senior theses.
Topics, Questions, Arguments
John H. Coatsworth, Provost of Columbia University and Professor of International and Public Affairs and of History: I was a History major, studying mostly American History at Wesleyan.
Manan Ahmed Asif, Assistant Professor of History: I did a thesis at Miami-Ohio on early Islam.
Michael Stanislawski, Nathan J. Miller Professor of Jewish History: I was a History major at Harvard College, and I was interested in Jewish History and Russian History.
Elizabeth Blackmar, Professor of History: At Smith, I was an American Studies major.
Mark C. Carnes, Barnard College Professor of History: I was interested in issues of Social History looked at from the perspective of communities I got a grant from the Department of European Studies at Harvard.
Coatsworth: The thesis I started writing was about an intellectual history of an American sociologist Thorstein Veblen, a pretty well-known sociologist. His most famous book was Theory of the Leisure Class. He was quite a character. I got interested, read his books, did a senior thesis without doing any research at all, except by reading his books and what others had said about him.
Manan: I wrote two theses. One was in Art History, on Paul Klee and Frida Khalo, and one was in Islamic History … I knew I wanted to do early Islam, and a professor [Matthew Gordon] had just joined that university who was a specialist in early Islam, so I did my coursework with him.
Stanislawski: I looked at the issue of Jewish children conscripted into the Russian Army, and I saw things that other people hadn't seen. It was not the decision of the Russian government to draft children. It was actually the decision of the leaders of the Jewish community. They were faced with this horrible decision, which of course has echoes in the Second World War: If you send 25 people into the army for 25 years, is it better to send fathers or their children? They decided it was socially less disruptive to send children.
Blackmar: I ended up writing my senior essay on two Hegelian philosophers who became social philosophers: Bertrand Russell and John Dewey. Looking back, I was trying to look at what intellectual activism looked like. Both Russell and Dewey started as Hegelians, then they turned to social philosophy.
Carnes: I compared a small American city in the late 19th and early 20th century with a small English industrial city. I ended up spending a summer looking at census materials and local history of a town called Loughborough in Leicestershire [England], comparing it to Newburgh, New York, which is in the Hudson Valley.
Stanislawski: The government was raising the number of conscripts, so the Jewish community had to hire posses to round up any kid who was catchable. It resulted in huge amount of social dislocation.
Carnes: One of the things that puzzled me was the great difference in that Americans in early 20th centuries belonged to fraternal orders. They would spend Mondays in the Oddfellows, Tuesdays in the Freemasons, Wednesdays in the Knights of Pythias. You didn't have that in England. American communities were creating alternative social universes to the lack of a society, which was very much in flux, much more ethnically diverse and churning and changing and shifting.
Coatsworth: What were his contributions, what were his ideas, what kind of institutions did he analyze, how coherent were his theories, and how did they compare to others at the time?
Stanislawski: The topic became a part of this new trend, placing Jewish History in the context of Russia. That was my goal...the trend kind of emerged from what I was doing and what other people [were doing] at different universities at the same time.
Carnes: This was in the heyday of Social History that was trying to recreate an understanding of communities by relying on census schedules and other local sources using early computers. There are a bunch of these studies in the 60s and 70s.
Blackmar: As I read, I was protesting the Vietnam War, mostly through draft counseling. I was trying to figure out the relationship between my intellectual work and my social activism. The pleasure came from the intellectual work, and the need to be involved came from the social movements around me.
Stanislawski: Writing is an excruciating thing.
Carnes: It doesn't come together until the pressure is excruciating.
Blackmar: It was not a smooth process.
Coatsworth: It was dreadful.
Carnes: You don't know what to say because you haven't figured something out. The temptation, the lure, the siren's song is that “I need to do more research, and if i do more research, I’ll come to it.”
Coatsworth: Yeah that happened, but for as much technological as intellectual reasons. I wrote my senior thesis in the year of the typewriter and whiteout and erasable typing paper, which always gets fudged.
Manan: I think that experience is universal. I don’t think it changes whether you are writing a thesis or a dissertation or a book or papers.
Blackmar: Everyone starts out wet behind the ears.
Stanislawski: Sometimes you get involved in a project and it doesn’t pan out for whatever reason.
Manan: That experience of trying to figure out what to say, or how to say it, or whether you are the right person to say it, or if you are really prepared to say, or if what you are saying really means anything--all those are kind of generically applicable.
Blackmar: We ask our questions transparently, connecting our findings to what moves us personally, with a level of naïveté and curiosity.
Carnes: The research helps, but also the intellectual challenge of figuring it out is tremendous. That's the essence of creativity—to solve an intellectual problem whether you are writing a novel, or composing a sonata, or finishing a history research project—finding the ideas that create beauty and meaning.
Blackmar: As you work with sources, you slowly become a historian.
Carnes: Creativity is stimulated by the limits imposed by fact and sources. It's like how tonality in music limits what you can do, but it helps stimulate you to do more things. I took an undergraduate course in music composition, and we had a TA [who] said "okay, you've been studying all this stuff about harmony and structure and things. Get that out of your head. Come to the piano, all of you, and just create freely." So I got to the piano, and I couldn’t do a damn thing. So too in history, facts and evidence and requirements create a structure of restriction, but those restrictions help shape your creativity and encourage you to create something new.
Blackmar: I was dealing with issues that were beyond the capacity of my little brain. I was examining the psychology of Dewey and Russell’s personal development, but I didn’t have the mental tools.
Coatsworth: If I’d had a laptop computer, I think I would have done a much better job. I’ve gotten addicted to the computer, and now I can’t write [without] the keyboard.
Blackmar: I became antisocial and obsessive.
Carnes: I had a dream, when it was getting to crunchtime, that I’m reading the final version of the thesis, and I come across the word “sthmrag.” S-T-H-M-R-A-G. I’m using it in a sentence, in my dream, and I realize that “sthmrag” is not a word, and that in writing my thesis, I’ve simply lost my mind.
Blackmar: I loved it as I realized it was impossible. I don’t remember how I did it.
Manan: I can’t remember it, but I’m sure I had the same experience writing a thesis. Can you pause that for a second? [Manan searches his computer to find the file of his thesis, which he wrote on a 1996 version of Microsoft Word. He finds the document and double clicks it. Thousands of incomprehensible lines of script appear. He points to the text.] That’s one way of thinking about it.
Manan: It was a much more solitary exercise.
Coatsworth: I chose [my] topic because I had to take my junior year off. My mother got sick and we were a female-headed household, my father having disappeared years before. When she got sick, I had to come home and work to support my two younger brothers, so I needed a dissertation topic that didn’t require and archive or much of a library.
Manan: Thesis writing is alone-time, but thinking is not alone-time.
Coatsworth: I managed to put in one big box all the books that I needed, and I spent a good part of the rest of the year writing my senior thesis, often in funny places like the laundry room of our apartment building.
Blackmar: I didn’t have a lot of help from faculty.
Coatsworth: I did no historical research, and I didn’t interact with any senior and junior faculty.
Manan: There were very few primary sources materials that were available.
Blackmar: Russell’s archival papers were in Toronto; Dewey’s archives were at Southern Illinois University in Carbon Hill, Illinois.
Manan: I had to basically go to the University of Cincinnati Library, which was a couple of hours away, and order books there to consult, mostly books in Arabic. The biggest struggle for me writing the thesis was [that there was] no call archival work.
Stanislawski: This was the academic year 1972-73 so … the Soviet Union [archives] were closed to most subjects, including Jewish subjects.
Manan: I was the only person writing on Islam in the department … my advisor had just been hired that year, so there wasn't like a cohort of people studying Islamic History, so I didn't have a community. [I was] writing alone.
Blackmar: I was holed up in my room with thousands of drafts and forty-three different versions of an idea, trying to figure out which one said what they meant.
Stanislawski: I was just sitting in Widener Library, reading as much as I could of Russian and Yiddish and Hebrew, trying to figure this out.
Manan: I had no idea who other people in the department were, or what they were writing, or where they were hanging out.
Carnes: I got the grant, and my girlfriend [and I] did the research in Loughborough together.
Manan: Having other people who are familiar with your topic or with the archive [ensures that] you can learn in your conversations. So writing theses where you don't have that kind of support makes it doubly difficult. You can enter into a one-on-one relationship with your thesis advisor, which is good, but then you just depend on where they think your thesis is going.
Blackmar: One international historian worked with me, but there was something about confronting your own mind that you know you have to do.
Carnes: My girlfriend and I met in the library together and discussed the research and discussed the comparisons.
Manan: Thesis and dissertations are all edificies which require horizontal relationships as much as vertical relationships … If you don't have a thesis advisor but you do have friends and colleagues that you are talking to, that is bad. If you only have an advisor, that is also bad. Ideally you want both of those things simultaneously. With my thesis, I knew what I wanted to say, but it was difficult to assemble how to say it, look for primary material, thinking of how different ideas.
Carnes: [My girlfriend] continued to be someone who helped me, [including] with my latest book … I’ve been married to her for many years, and in a way, being together on research projects also cemented a personal relationship.
Life After Thesis
Blackmar: They slapped me with honors and pushed me out the door. Afterward, I ran a bookstore for a year in Ferguson, St. Louis. I was the only employee. Then I spent three weeks in library school. After I decided that that wasn’t the path for me, I went to graduate school.
Manan: The benefit was that in grad school I was able to do [work alone]. Some of my peers had never done that kind of work … Not having people to talk to ended up having benefits. It trained me how to be rigorous with respect to published work.
Stanislawski: The Hebrew [I learned through] day school, and the Yiddish was spoken at home … But not everybody who had the same education that I did could read scholarly materials in Hebrew or Yiddish. I consciously worked on Yiddish to get it up to speed.
Carnes: I stayed in a guesthouse in Loughborough, which was mostly populated by Brits who … would watch Benny Hill. I didn't think it was very funny; it was just weird. I very consciously made the decision that if you can’t understand a people's humor, you will never deeply understand what they're about. So when I went to graduate school, even though I was a major in European History, I only applied to American History programs.
Blackmar: Like Marx did to Hegel, I became a social historian grounded in materialist paradigm. I didn’t feel smart enough to do intellectual history, but I felt comfortable trying to understand social history.
Coatsworth: I got to graduate school and then drifted from American Intellectual History to something completely different. I ended up being an economic historian of Latin America. When I got to graduate school I had never taken an economics course, I had never studied Spanish or Portuguese, and knew nothing about Latin America. But when I went to graduate school … you didn't need to finish in a particular amount of time. I had time to change my mind.
Stanislawski: When students ask me if they should do a senior thesis, I always say that I'm not a big fan of this unless you are thinking about graduate school.
Manan: I was also applying to grad school and knew that the thesis was a writing sample. That put a lot of pressure on me because it had to be good enough to get into a top Ph.D. program.
Stanislawski: I was accepted to graduate school while was working on [the thesis] so it didn't lead to that.
Manan: My thesis won a prize, and I did get into graduate school so it did end up serving the purpose that it had.
Stanislawski: Now that we have access to the [Soviet] archives, it turns out I was almost all correct. I don’t even care. Let the archives show that I was totally wrong!
Coatsworth: I came to Columbia as a visiting professor in 2006. My plan was to disappear into the library, teach one course a semester...then about halfway through that year our daughter produced the world’s most adorable grandchild, and my wife said “you can go back to Harvard but I’m staying right here.” I started looking for work in New York, and Columbia was happy to hire me and Harvard was happy to have me retire.
Stanislawski: It worked out. In a lot of people’s cases, it didn't work out. Our placement record in the History Department is good, but it depends on fields, and if you're just doing Modern European History or Modern American History, the placement is very low and depressing.
Coatsworth: I became the Interim Dean of SIPA, then stayed as regular dean for five years. Then they asked me to be the interim provost, and I had so much fun being Dean of SIPA, I decided, “why not.” And here I am.
Blackmar: I decided, “What the hell; I’ll do what I’ve been wanting to do all along.”
Stanislawski: I was lucky, I was talented, and I was lucky. But I’m not going to retroject that to the fall of 1972 when I made the decision to work on this for my senior thesis.
Carnes: When I was admitted to graduate school, I had offers at different places, and I went to Columbia partly because it allowed me to live in Newburgh [the topic of my thesis]. That’s where I live now.
Stanislawski: Did I plan that I would be a professional historian? Not consciously.
Blackmar: I became a historian because I felt like it was a passion and a vocation
Stanislawski: I knew I was going to this, I wanted to do this, so I did it.
Coatsworth: It was kind of an accidental saga. It was not the result of a planned strategy or ambition but just sheer circumstances. Being in the right place at the right time.
//JULIEN REIMAN is a senior in Columbia College. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Photo courtesy of the Museum of the City of New York archives.