The semester is about halfway over and, as such, I am about halfway finished with the honors thesis that I am writing this fall. I thoroughly value extended research opportunities, and I thoroughly encourage you to engage in them while in college. My honors thesis is in English, and I am writing on two of Charles Dickens’ novels and the means by which representations of dirt and disgust in these texts register the instabilities of the class system in Victorian London. Now that I am halfway through this experience, I can honestly say that writing a thesis is unlike most other forms of writing that you will do in college. If you were to ask me at the beginning of the semester how I planned on writing this lengthy manuscript, I probably would have told you that I’d follow my usual writing process: I’d formulate a thesis and then go about fitting the text and the thesis to one another until I have a solid argument.
But writing a thesis is about discovery more than it is about writing an argument. I don’t have a thesis that I am specifically trying to prove. Sure, I have a central topic, dirt and disgust, but beyond that, I’m writing to discover what my thoughts are on how each character balances physical and emotional dirt with his or her class position. Sometimes it takes me six pages to figure out what my main point is on a specific character, and then I adjust my writing on the basis of that discovery. Writing such a lengthy document really does require a different mindset, and it requires that you alter your writing process. But thus far, my thesis has been one of the most fulfilling projects that I’ve worked on at Colby during my college career. I’m pretty well read in Dickens now, and I’m starting to see nuanced connections between his novels. I’m also taking a Victorian Literature class, so everything is just meshing together perfectly.
If writing a thesis is not your thing, or if you want to do extended research as an underclassman rather than an upperclassman, I encourage you to consider conducting research for and presenting at the Colby Undergraduate Research Symposium. I presented two papers that I’ve written for two different English classes at the symposium last spring. It motivated me to perfect my writing beyond what was required in the classroom, and it also necessitated that I develop my public speaking skills, which I liked because the classes that I’m taking for my majors don’t require that I give that many presentations, so outside opportunities to develop the same skills are definitely valuable. I ended up speaking about my papers as well as reading parts of both of them at the Symposium. Others made PowerPoint presentations on studies that they had conducted, or posters about research that they have performed. I participated in the Spring Undergraduate Research Symposium last year, but I know that one also occurs in August for students who decide to work with professors as research assistants over the summer. I hear that this experience even concludes with a white water rafting trip!
Another way to perform extended research at Colby is to work as a research assistant for a professor over the course of the semester. Right now I am working as a sociology research assistant, and I am performing qualitative research on the relationship between Waterville High School students’ social class positions and their college paths and expectations. I’ve found that this has been a great way to develop my interviewing and participant-observations skills, as well as get involved in and learn about the local community.
My point is that there are many different ways to get involved in extended research at Colby. I cherish the extended research projects that I have completed, and I look forward to pursuing more opportunities for these kinds of projects while an undergraduat