Saturday, May 29, 2010

Thesis Topics: How much say should a director have?

So, I'm here with a bit of a bleg -- I need some opinions. The topic: How much say should I, as a potential thesis director, have in an M.A. student's thesis topic?

Let me start with a few bullet points of background, and then my modest proposal (as yet unproposed):
  1. I teach at a regional M.A. comprehensive institution. Undergraduates are our primary students, but we also support a thriving M.A. program -- though very few of these latter are medievalists. Most of our M.A. students are Americanists, and most of those are here to get an enhanced credential for high school teaching.
  2. I, nevertheless, usually have anywhere from 2-4 of "my" M.A. students at any given time. About half express interest in writing a thesis/going on to a Ph.D. program; the other half want the exam track, and are thinking of using the M.A. for secondary ed. or just personal enrichment.
  3. In our department, the decision of whether a student writes a thesis (as opposed to taking exams) must be mutual: that is, both the advisor and the student must agree to the thesis option. A student cannot simply announce that he or she will be writing a thesis.
  4. We are under pressure to admit more M.A. students, though the grad advisor and some of us faculty work hard to keep standards high. But we DO NOT have the option to decide not to admit a student because s/he doesn't work on our specific chronological/topographical focus. I can say no to someone who wants to work on Early Modern studies, but if they want to work in the Middle Ages and they look qualified ("qualified" meaning quite a few things, of course), they're more or less in, even if there's no real match.
  5. I am the only tenured/tenure-track medievalist in the department, and that is not going to change. I therefore am the supervisor on all medieval M.A. theses and exams.
THE PROBLEM: 80% of the students who apply to our M.A. program in medieval want to work on medieval England. I do not work on England, and never have. I can fake it for an undergrad class, but the supervisor of an M.A. thesis should have some sort of expertise in the topic.

THE PROPOSAL: I would like to tell students that if they want the thesis option, they must work on something I have some degree of expertise with.** For example, let's say my research was on the cultural meaning of saints and sanctity in 13th-century Paris. Then, I could accept students working on any aspect of medieval France, or saints and sanctity anywhere, or (even more broadly) the cultural history of religion anywhere (yes, including England). But someone wanting to work on Anglo-Saxon queenship, or merchant guilds in 13th-century Constantinople, or the Spanish Reconquest, would have to take the exam track (where I would happily design one of their exam fields in their particular area of interest).

I'm thinking of running it by our department's grad advisor. But what are your thoughts -- does this seem fair? And if it does, can I lay it on the students we've already admitted? Are there other solutions?

**There are, of course, other requirements of my own devising, such as "No Latin, no thesis," and "Your writing in your coursework must be up to graduate-level standards."


Anonymous said...

First let me applaud your "no Latin -- no thesis" rule.

In such a case in my discipline (philosophy) I have seen advisors do something like this, but for better more self starting students I have seen people allow them to work a bit more outside their field, with the caveat that they are (a) on their own to some degree and (b) to keep their advisor apprised of where they are going. For weaker students wanting to do a thesis a tighter reign is needed.

Sapience said...

The "no latin, no thesis" makes sense for Medieval, absolutely, especially if you are making the student work on non-England materials.

I'd be a little hesitant about saying categorically that you won't supervise a thesis that isn't directly in your field of expertise. I think Anonymous is right that such a decision should really depend on the individual student.

In the (literature) PhD program I'm in, faculty advise dissertations that aren't in their actual field of study. For example, my primary advisor (who is in my field of study) is also the primary advisor for another grad student who works on an entirely different century. Having someone who could help with the methodology she'd chosen was more important than working on the right time period.

Seamyst said...

Speaking as a freshly minted MA who did the thesis track... I would say it depends on the student. My adviser's focus is several centuries earlier than mine, and somewhat more eastern (she does Old English-era Britain and the Vikings), but she still did a great hands-off job on advising me (high-late medieval Britain and queenship). That said, she was actually my second adviser - my first adviser got a (much better) job at a different university and left after my first year. So she inherited me and a thesis that was mostly shaped.

So it's definitely possible, but then, she was hands-off - she suggested primary and secondary sources when I asked for some, but that was pretty much it, other than helping to organize and tighten up the damned thing. If a student needs/wants a lot more guidance and hands-on work, then it might be a problem.

I would be very hesitant about presenting your current students with this without being careful about it, just because it seems unfair to "dump" this surprise into their laps when they may already have a direction in mind.

Charlie said...

Coming from a slightly different system (uk) it's slightly different to comment but as a Masters student aiming for a PhD I thought I would. 'No Latin no thesis' sounds great for medieval work and is almost certainly a prerequisite.

As for them working in your area, it's a little unfair to give this into the immediate students, who may have their design set. However, for future students it seems perfectly fair. My tutor fits me in almost ever manner but has allowed me to go off and explore different bits she does not know - and that is the important thing, I know that whatever I discover she has more than a grounding in that area, not just a working knowledge but a serious knowledge of the theory even if not as in-depth. She works in sexuality and focuses on masculinity, I focus more on heterosexuality but she knows sexuality and knows the gender concepts behind this - if she said I will only supervise you in my direct research field I would be ok and as a student would not blame her.

Though as the dissertation is a required element we either find a tutor willing to supervise the work (and they have no need to give reasons so it can be directly within their expertise or they could feel we can self study - or of course they like/dislike us) or we find another topic. Our dissertations and theses are not automatically assigned so you could turn it down as its not your area directly, although being the only Medieval scholar could be a problem.

Again I think a lot depends on the student, their capabilities and interests and the topic. However, if you want to limit it (as 'Medieval' is a huge area) thats perfectly reasonable. Also it depends if you are interested in the topic, if you find it interesting, either theorectically, methodologically, or intellectually then fine, if not, and its totally outside your area (other thn being the only one in that period) it will just not work as well.

Comrade PhysioProf said...

For a master's thesis, are these students doing original research with primary archival materials, or are they doing something more like historiography, using other historical research works as the starting point?

Notorious Ph.D. said...

I'm appreciating the input, everyone, especially the perspective of current or recent grad students. Lots to think about here.

Comrade, to answer your question: if they are doing a thesis, they are doing independent research using primary (and secondary) sources, and proposing an original argument (even if it's only a very small bit of original).

Notorious Ph.D. said...

And for the record, I'm not opposed to working on countries not mine, so long as there's *something* I can connect with. Seamyst's "hands-off" experience seems like the best I can do with no connection to the topic. But if they want to go on to a Ph.D. program, I feel like I should be able to offer them more guidance.

Still listening...

Comrade PhysioProf said...

But I assume masters students aren't going to fancy-ass romantic foreign locales and lurking around dusty archives and eating cheese and drinking cordials. AMIRITE?

thefrogprincess said...

Hmmm, this issue strikes me more as one of admission rather than thesis. It seems crazy to me that an advisor would say you can't work on X country; if an advisor feels that unequipped to supervise thesis work in that area, then perhaps people planning to work on said area shouldn't be accepted into the program.

More crucially, though, might this have some repercussions for the students of yours who are planning to continue on in academia? If they're planning to do their PhD work on X country, then it seems like their need to do some work in their field trumps an advisor's lack of familiarity. Surely you can be of some help when it comes to methodology, interpretation, and the like.

(No Latin, no thesis, though, strikes me as an obvious, so right on.)

Joe said...

I felt like I should chime in on this, because I am at the beginning of the MA/PhD process. I actually did something that I thought was fairly novel in that I approached the university and their faculty with my ideas for a thesis seeing how much they would work with/around me. I purposefully left the time period for my thesis somewhat broad so as to be able to have ultimate flexibility with the faculty. As it turns out, where I would like to have my focus is dead in the middle between the two medievalists at the university. So, all I need to do, for my thesis is pick one or the other (since both have offered their assistance to me) based on the fit.

I also agree with the No Latin, No Thesis rule. It's almost a given at the higher end institutions that you have to have some Latin, so why not make that across the board at all Universities. I'm a firm believer in bringing people up to a higher level and not catering to lowest common denominator.

Interestingly, with the approach I took to choosing the proper University for me, I found that a University made it to my list if I found the potential adviser to be at least a bit flexible. I was hoping to now have to sell my house and move across country to the University that I will be attending in the fall for graduate school, but the professor was so inflexible about the time period and location and literally told me that unless I fit into the professor's style that there was no possible way of it working out. I was kind of pissed with that because I was trying as hard as I could to be flexible with my thesis, but just couldn't get the professor to even budge a bit.

I am sure, based on the time I have been reading your blog, that you are definitely not this type of person, but I believe the expectation on the part of the potential graduate student is that I am picking the place of study based not only on the reputation of the University but also on the faculty and that if I am choosing a particular University, that I am choosing it because of what it teaches as well as how. So I think that the director should have a fair bit of say for several reasons. First, because I'm choosing you and not the other way around. Second, and most important, is that while I may have a great idea, I still don't know any better of how to do things at that level. I think to let the student have full control is akin to having the inmates running the asylum or a potential apprentice seeking a master to learn from only to then turn around and do whatever they want expecting the master to just deal with it. To me, the level of degree is not just a measure of how well you know your field, but also grants unto the receiver of the degree the competency to then turn around and help those "underneath" them.

Brian W. Ogilvie said...

I think that your proposal is reasonable. You might allow for exceptions in, well, exceptional cases, but as a general policy it makes a lot of sense. If you're not up on the literature on their thesis topic, it's hard to provide the guidance that they need. You don't want them to reinvent the wheel or to devote the thesis to a problem that might have been resolved or reframed half a generation ago.

Some students have the drive and the sitzfleisch to do really thorough bibliographical work and figure out the state of the field on their own, but in my experience, most need some help. You could make an exception for one of the former, but the burden of proof is on them.

And "no Latin, no thesis" is completely reasonable. As an early modern Europeanist, my equivalent, depending on a student's interests, is "no Latin, French, or German, no thesis."

@Joe: it's not unheard of for prospective students to sound out potential advisors, but it should happen more often. I've been involved in grad admissions for the last five years, and while it's true that you are choosing us (to apply to, and then, if admitted, to enroll), we are also choosing you. When I read an applicant's statement of purpose, my first thought (presuming it is literate) is, Do the applicant's interests make him or her a good fit for our program? If not, then we're not likely to recommend admission, because it would be doing them a disservice.

Susan said...

I actually think your approach -- that someone should match either thematically or geographically -- makes a lot of sense. You might also add methodologically, too. I assume with your institution, as with mine, most people are coming because of geographical propinquity, not "I've chosen this program". Which does make it more complicated...

Grad School Drama said...

I'm actually working on a thesis for my MA, at the moment... so I'll just share my experience. I am taking a (huge) risk (now, I understand) by bridging completely different time periods, but because my primary text demands it... so, believe or not, I'm taking a late 20th C African American, and Black Feminist, text and talking about its conversation with Ovid. I explain the details because, while AA lit has historically referenced "classic" literatures, so few people actually 1) believe it possible; and 2) to demonstrate that the areas are considerably disparate. Anyway, so, I have a primary thesis advisor in my area, and also have an outside reader (if you will) who is an Ovid expert. Is there any reason why your department might not suggest something similar (perhaps outside of the department, or a scholar from another institution that may be able to more casually advise)? Just food for thought.

Janice said...

At our institution, we try to match up supervisors and prospective students from the get-go and we have declined to admit students who are qualified but strenuously desire to work in an area our faculty can't cover.

I've had to stretch myself for graduate supervisions both based on student abilities (sad to say, I've yet to supervise a grad student with any Latin) and source availability. I've become a self-taught expert on some 19th century topics thanks to these demands. So faculty can stretch, in my experience, but only so far.

The important matter is to ensure that the student will receive quality supervision for a topic they can complete in the M.A. program period. Too often, if we let them follow their heart without addressing these concerns, they'll end up without a degree!

Fie upon this quiet life! said...

I read your post this morning, and believe it or not, I've been thinking about it all day. What strikes me is that TT folks are in a bit of a bind. We are told as PhD students to specialize, specialize, specialize to the point where we know one tiny slice of literature very, very well. But when it comes to teaching and advising, being a specialist doesn't serve the students well AT ALL -- unless they (unexpectedly?) have the exact same interests as you. And if you don't work with British medieval lit, which I'm guessing is all the medieval lit most of these students have any familiarity with, then you're really in trouble.

If you are the only medievalist and there is not going to be another medievalist so long as you're there, then it sounds to me like you are going to have to be more flexible about content -- if you're going to serve your students' interests and needs. I'm honestly not trying to be a troll, and I'm not trying to be mean. But I think that it's not fair to the students to limit them to what you know well. Sure, you might have to be a bit more hands off with a project if you don't have a wall of books that you can point to for the student. But if I were you, I'd actually think about these thesis projects as a great opportunity for you!

Think of the MA students as sort of graduate research assistants. You could read their work and learn something about the field they are working in -- and that way, YOU don't have to do that research. As the years go on, you'll be able to advise future students better because you had to read the work of past students. And that work will give you a foundation on which to build support for other students. At some point, you'll have a good base of general knowledge just from reading all of the MA thesis projects. You'd never get that from reading exams!

Some of the best advice I ever got was from my dissertation director (who was NOT AT ALL in my field). He said that we all come out of our doctoral programs as specialists, but that by the end of our careers -- if we've done right by our students -- we retire as generalists.

a stitch in time said...

I understand why you are not enthusiastic about topics outside of your field of expertise, and of course it is a good thing if the advisor's field of expertise/interest matches that of the thesis. But! By essentially restricting thesis topics to your personal comfort zone, I think that you are slighting both yourself and your students of opportunities to learn more. If you make it clear to your students from the beginning that you will only give "hands-off" hints and advice, I see no problem in letting everybody fend for herself or himself a bit. After all, research does mean that there is not always someone there to help you along!
Since you probably know the students who are wishing to do a thesis, you can restrict the thesis admission to those that you suspect can handle working on their own (or with "hands-off") advice, _or_ in your own area of expertise. Maybe you can ask for an abstract, a preliminary table of contents, and a sample chapter before you agree to a thesis proposal? With that, you can at least see where the student wants to go with the project and evaluate its possibilities (and how much, and in what ways, you will be able to assist). All the others, including those not willing to write up that sample and those whose sample does not pass, will just have to face the exam.

I know that neither my masters nor my phd would have been possible at all had my advisor not accepted something really far out of his own research area. I knew from the beginning that I would have to do it on my own, and I have not regretted for a second the decision to fend for myself instead of opting for a different topic that I would feel less enthusiastic about.

Historiann said...

Late to the party--sorry. I'm on the road, but a few quick thoughts.

First, thefrogprincess is right in that it's not fair to accept students into your program, only to inform them that there's no one to direct their theses. But if there's someone else they can work with on English history or other topics, then fine--let them.

Secondly, I thought fie upon this quiet life had a good point: do it if you want to and you'll get something out of it. It sounds like you're looking for a reason to say "no" more often, but ze's right that students bring a lot to us. I have found working with M.A. thesis students very rewarding (2 theses in 9 years, and next year it will be 3 in 10! So not taxing for me either.)

Bardiac said...

You wrote that you're supervising MA students, yes? My sense of our MA students is that they don't come in with a strong sense of what real research and study is and that they don't come in with a strong sense of what they want to do (except I'm in a lit program, so ours all want to do 20th century American Lit).

Our MA students mostly come here because we're geographically convenient. They aren't thinking about working with a specific person because they have no experience with that sort of education.

I think our students need a lot more guidance than PhD students (judging from my program) because PhD students a lot more course offerings, a way better library, and a lot of other students around. But my MA students don't have that.

So, thinking of my students, I think your limits sound reasonable.

Notorious Ph.D. said...

Thanks for the comments, folks. This is giving me a great deal to think about. Certainly, there's the value in forcing myself to stretch a bit.

The suggestion that the problem is at admissions is a good one. Unfortunately, circumstances don't permit me to be that restrictive -- which is why I thought that pushing the anglophiles towards topical or areas that I'm more familiar with might allow me to give them some real expertise while still letting them work on England.

In my own defense: only one of my thesis students so far has worked on anything anywhere near my area of interest. I have, to this point, been very flexible working with my Anglophiles, doing everything from the Anglo-Saxon to late medieval. And I've placed them in decent Ph.D. programs.

Let me add two more wrinkles that I didn't before, because the post was getting too long:

1. A couple of years ago, one of my M.A. students finished the program and went on to a very good Ph.D. program to work with a very good professor who works on England. This professor, it turns out, expected my student to have come to her with expertise in all my topical areas of specialty. The student, however, had wanted to study other things. By supervising her while she did these things, I unwittingly put her in a bad position with her future advisor.

2. We *do* have a person in the department who works on medieval England. She is very good, but she is a lecturer (Ph.D.), which means that our department pays her for two courses, and she gets not even brownie points towards tenure for doing rather heavy second-reader work and advising on all these projects. Yet any grad student working on medieval England would be stupid not to have someone with her expertise on their committee.

Notorious Ph.D. said...

And for the record: the people who commented on geography driving student applications are right-on: this is precisely what seems to be driving our program applicants.

Notorious Ph.D. said...

(And by the way, to Grad School Drama, that sounds like a really interesting combination, if you can pull it off.)

Sapience said...

Grad School Drama--you might be interested in Reginald Wilburn's work on Milton's influence on African American writers. I don't know if his book is anywhere near publication, but he has at least one article on Milton and Malcolm X in a collection called Milton and Popular Culture. If nothing else, it might provide an excellent model for the sort of work you're doing with Ovid and African American writers.

Grad School Drama said...


Thank you so much. It is in our library... grabbing it later today!

Dame Eleanor Hull said...

I'm in English, not History, but at a similar sort of institution. We do have PhD programs in both English and History, but the preponderance of our grads are MAs who are place-bound and need a lot of guidance. Given such restrictions, I think your proposal is quite reasonable; and I also disagree with both Fie and Stitch. An MA student who still needs a lot of guidance on how to do research is not a useful graduate assistant. If you have to check on whether they're accurately representing the field they're studying, that's a big time suck for you, not a time-saver. (If the field is one you actually want to know more about, that's another matter.) You don't serve anyone well if you're working too far out of your area, and I think it's fine to make that clear to the department and to students. After all, you're not refusing to work with these students at all (there's still the exam option); you're just drawing a line about what thesis topics you're competent to supervise.

Brian W. Ogilvie said...

I'm with Dame Eleanor. Supervising M.A. theses in an area you don't know well takes a lot of time and effort. If you have the time and want to learn the subfield in which the student is working, then that might be OK, but it's certainly not obligatory.

@stitch: this is not about a "personal comfort zone." It is a matter of professional expertise and qualifications. Sure, anyone who has had the wit and persistence (especially the latter) to earn a Ph.D. can learn a new subfield, but it takes time that may not be available during the academic year (which is the period in which most theses are written).

A thesis advisor needs to know the shape of the field, so they can ask their students questions such as: "I see you don't address Smith and Jones's views on the cyclothymic interpretation of Fischart, even though they seem to relate to your argument. Why not?" An advisor doesn't need to know every publication, but they need to know what the important trends are and what questions are currently being asked.

tenthmedieval said...

I see a range of arguments here, so let me just throw in some experience: I did my Master's thesis with a supervisor I got on with very well, but who didn't really know the field; and I didn't do enough to correct this. As a result, I very nearly didn't pass: one marker who didn't know the field thought it should pass, one who did thought it shouldn't, I had an unpleasant viva and it was referred to a third marker, who thankfully let it through. This is the kind of failure that someone who tries to supervise outside their knowledge is setting people up for. I offer this mainly to show that it isn't just about the supervisor's comfort zone; there's an issue of responsibility too and I quite see why Doc. N. is cautious. I think that your 'there's always the exam option' compromise is a fine one.

I was going to suggest that you appeal outside the institution for a second supervisor, which would be a UK-style solution, but then, yes, all our towns are that much closer together, and secondly, you said this:

We *do* have a person in the department who works on medieval England. She is very good, but she is a lecturer (Ph.D.), which means that our department pays her for two courses, and she gets not even brownie points towards tenure for doing rather heavy second-reader work and advising on all these projects.

I realise rules are rules and so on, but can't some exception be found here? You have someone with the expertise who could use the recognition, and you have student demand to work on topics demanding that expertise. Is there not an adjunct-like arrangement that can be improvised so that this person at least gets paid and can put postgrad supervision on their CV, and your students get to do what they think they want? All of which assumes that said person would want to do it and has the time, of course, but, assuming that this looks like an institutional problem, not a personal one, from here at least.

Notorious Ph.D. said...

I love TenthMedieval's idea of compensating the extra work that lecturers such as my colleague are doing. But we just fired half our lecturers and cut the positions of the remaining half by about 50%, as well as cutting TT faculty salaries by 10% across the board. As much as I like the idea (and seriously, I'd be in favor of making this lecturer in particular a permanent member of the TT faculty - s/he is very, very good, and certainly qualified), it's just not going to happen anytime in the near-to-intermediate future.

a stitch in time said...

Brian, I think I see what you mean - and if the students need that much and that specific sort of guidance, I'll have to agree with you and the other posters who say the tighter restriction is good.
I'm German, so maybe there is a cultural difference as well. I would never have expected my advisor to point me to specific literature or a specific argument. I would, however, expect him or her to point out to me if the topic is not feasible because there's too little or too much material available for the subject (before starting, obviously) or if I have flaws in my argument or methodological issues. An MA in my field always means that the student has to work on her/his own and find literature and often also contact an expert who can help with a few questions; this contact is established through the student's own initiative. Nobody at my uni expects the prof to give out a list of literature necessary for the thesis - you are expected to compose that by yourself, according to your topic. That would also be my expectation for a student who wants to work on something outside my own field.
If that is unrealistic for your MA students, I have to backpedal, and I'd say that restricting your students to the research areas where you feel you can still help them adequately is the smart thing to do.

Anonymous said...

can I just say that the implication that someone could obtain an MA via the exam track without the "writing in their coursework being up to graduate-level standards" is disturbing to me?

Notorious Ph.D. said...

I didn't mean to imply that, Anon., although I can see why it would be read that way. What does happen sometimes is that we discover, once we've admitted a student, that their writing sample was... let's say, edited, and that their writing in fact isn't good enough to sustain a thesis-length project. At that point, we need a final project, so it's exams.

At my institution, we do admit many students who would be regarded as borderline or even unacceptable at other places. It's my job to work with these students, to try to get their writing and critical/historical thinking skills up to the point where they merit an M.A., and might even be competitive in a Ph.D. program. I do my best to do so.