Current Issue

May 15, 2013

Vol. 113, No. 12


Agony! Ecstasy!

The thesis is a senior’s final lonely journey

By Mark F. Bernstein ’83
Published in the May 15, 2013, issue


The senior-thesis requirement is Princeton’s great leveler, a lonesome valley nearly every senior must walk on the road to graduation. It can be a curse or a blessing, usually both, sometimes in the same afternoon. All who have gone through it have war stories to tell. Here’s mine.

Professor emeritus Arno Mayer was my adviser in 1983 when I wrote my thesis about relations between the British Labour Party and the United States in the years just after World War II. Mayer may have been one of the world’s great scholars of modern European history, but he was an indifferent adviser to me, telling me later that he never read the draft chapters I gave him because I had printed them on extra-wide, green-lined computer paper. One winter afternoon I needed to see him, and I found Professor Mayer as he emerged from Dickinson Hall wearing a beret and a long woolen scarf and chewing on a piece of candy. He told me he was late for a meeting, and that if I needed to talk I would have to walk with him. 

We crossed McCosh Courtyard with long strides, stopping just outside the entrance to Firestone Library. After delivering a benediction, he put out his hand and I stuck out mine in return, thinking that he wanted to shake it. Instead, he put a small scrap of paper in my open palm, closed my ­fingers on it, patted my shoulder, and walked away. As he disappeared into the lobby, I looked down at the gift he had given me.

It was a Tootsie Roll wrapper.

Writing a thesis may be the capstone of one’s independent work at Princeton, but mine was going to have to be more independent than most. In the end, though I enjoyed writing my thesis, I cannot say that it influenced my decision to become a writer. A bound copy still sits on a shelf in my office, but on the few occasions I have tried to reread it I have slammed the cover shut in embarrassment. It reads, to be honest, like student work. 

Others, however, can point to their thesis as a defining moment in their lives. The most famous stories are well known. Wendy Kopp ’89 used hers to outline the organization that became Teach for America. Jack Bogle ’51 wrote about mutual funds and went on to found Vanguard, the largest mutual-fund company in the world. Some alumni have turned their theses into books: Barton Gellman ’82 wrote about diplomat George Kennan ’25, published Contending with Kennan two years later, and launched a career as a Pulitzer ­Prize-winning (twice) journalist. A. Scott Berg ’71 decided he wanted to write about literary editor Maxfield Perkins when he was still a freshman and worked throughout his undergraduate years with Professor Carlos Baker *40. He turned his research into a prize-winning thesis, then spent another seven years expanding it into Max Perkins: Editor of Genius, for which he won a National Book Award. 

“Even though Princeton only promised me an education,” Berg says, “it also delivered a career.”

Over the last 87 years, more than 63,000 theses have been submitted, all of which are housed at Mudd Library — except for approximately 300 discovered in the 1990s to have gone missing when they were kept on the open shelves at Firestone. One of those missing theses belonged to Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito ’72, who wrote about the Italian constitution. Fortunately for posterity, his adviser came forward with a copy when Alito was nominated to the Court. Beginning with this year’s seniors, the library will only save electronic copies (though some departments will continue to require bound theses).

Theses have taken many forms and covered almost every topic imaginable. Topics close to home are perennials; at least 482 theses over the years have addressed Princeton in some manner. The two most popular individual subjects are favorite sons: Woodrow Wilson 1879, the subject of 56 theses, and F. Scott Fitzgerald ’17, close behind at 53.

Jean Faust Jorgensen ’76 was one of those who chose Fitzgerald as her subject, and her 756-page thesis holds the record as the longest ever submitted. Jorgensen, however, insists that she has gotten a bum rap; her thesis was a compilation of short stories by Fitzgerald published in various magazines, with a 25-page analysis at the front. “So, in other words, F. Scott Fitzgerald is the author of my thesis,” she explains. “I simply wrote the introduction.” At the other end of the scale, the three-page thesis submitted by Gianluca Tempesti ’91 is the shortest on record. The electrical engineer explained in the thesis that he had wanted to write about “Opto-Electronic Integrated Circuits,” but was thwarted when computer chips he needed did not arrive until a few weeks before his deadline. He expressed hope that he would continue to work on the idea. “The testing,” he wrote apologetically, “has just begun.”

It is usually a fool’s errand to search a senior thesis for clues about its author’s future beliefs, but that does not always dampen the temptation to play “gotcha.” During the 2008 presidential campaign, conservative pundits pored through the thesis submitted by Michelle Robinson Obama ’85 — on “Princeton-Educated Blacks and the Black Community” — for anything that might paint her as a militant radical. Donald Rumsfeld ’54 wrote about President Harry Truman’s seizure of the steel mills in 1952 and offered eloquent warnings against executive overreaching during a national crisis, words he might have felt differently about when serving as defense secretary during the Iraq War 50 years later. 

Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor ’76, who wrote about Luis Muñoz Marin, the first elected governor of Puerto Rico, says the project helped hone her cultural identity. “Some part of me needed to believe that our community could give birth to leaders,” she wrote in her recently published memoir, My Beloved World. “Of course I knew better than to let emotion surface in the language and logic of my thesis; that’s not what historians do. But it kept me going through the long hours of work.”

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