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Theses explore seniors’ interests

Nicole Toczauer | Wednesday, February 23, 2011

After almost four years at Notre Dame, seniors tackle unique senior theses — exploring topics ranging from “Bitch Culture” to sheepherding.

Senior Javi Zubizarreta traveled to his family’s homeland last year in Basque Country, an autonomous region in Spain, to film a documentary on sheepherding. After completing this project with another student, Zubizarreta, a Film, Television and Theatre [FTT] major, said he decided to revisit his personal history through his senior thesis.

“I was in the Basque Country on a research grant through the Nanovic Research Center and the Undergraduate Research program. My family were all herders, so I wanted to document it,” he said. “I was really pleased with how the film turned out, so I decided to go back to the topic.”

Zubizarreta’s work on his thesis, titled “What Aitxitxe Said” (What Grandfather Said), began during his junior year.

“For FTT, I’m in the honors program. Junior year, based on GPA and teacher recommendation, you get in and decide what to do your thesis about,” he said. “Many FTT students might write a play, make a film, and I’ve known some who have done costume design.”

Each department sets different requirements for the senior thesis, but Zubizaretta said the FTT thesis is very open to personal creativity. The department reviews thesis proposals junior year, and if approved, research begins senior year. The thesis is due in late spring.

Like Zubizarreta, senior Robert Gallagher found his thesis inspiration abroad. Gallagher, an Arabic Studies and history major, is currently studying the relationship between the Egyptian military performance in the Arab-Israeli wars in 1967 and 1973.

“Between the Arab-Israeli wars in 1967 and 1973, the Egyptian senior military leadership reevaluated their military based on their new more realistic understanding of its capabilities,” Gallagher said. “I’m trying to explain why the process took place when it did.”

Gallagher said his thesis was sparked by questions he encountered while studying abroad in Cairo and Amman. The thesis also allows him to reach his academic goals.

“I took a military history class last semester that got me thinking about the relationship between military and society in general in Arab countries,” he said. “From there I just kept narrowing down the topic until I got down to something manageable.”

American Studies and Spanish double major Catherine Scallen focused her thesis on the United States. She currently is writing her thesis to analyze an American phenomena she dubbed “Bitch Culture.”

“I spend a lot of time at the mall and noticed that there are a large amount of products marketed towards women that all revolve around the word or concept of being a ‘Bitch'” she said. “These products, however, are not touted as derogatory and offensive, but rather ironic and humorous.”

Many Urban Outfitters products such as glasses, snow globes and birthday banners served as a starting point for her thesis project, Scallen said.

“I first got the idea for my thesis from a glass at Urban that says ‘Bitch’ in swirly silver script on it,” Scallen said. “I’m wondering why these products exist, why women are buying them and what that says about contemporary women in America.”

Scallen said she was curious as to how “Bitch Culture” reflects the way the way American women view themselves and are perceived by others. Her investigation included research on the relationship guide “Why Men Love Bitches,” the diet book “Skinny Bitch,” the calendar “Bitch a Day” and a brand of wine called Bitch Bubbly.

“I’m especially interested in how feminists are apparently attempting to reclaim the word ‘bitch’ as a term of empowerment and strength,” she said. “It’s something being done by the feminist publication ‘Bitch: A Feminist Response to Pop Culture,’ whose offices I got to visit with a grant over Christmas break.”

As Scallen and Gallagher develop their theses through broader societal lenses, Zubizarreta’s thesis balances domestic and ethnic influences while also depicting the more personal story of his grandfather.

“I came up with the idea when I stayed in Lekeitio, which is where mom’s family comes from. We had hiked up this hill, with snakes and wild boars, in the middle of nowhere and amazingly, the hotel had Wi-Fi,” he said. “I checked my e-mail and found out I received the Princess Grace Award.”

The Princess Grace Award is a grant aimed at sponsoring film, dance and theater. Zubizarreta said receiving the award caused him to rework his thesis. Through this revision, he said, he was able to express gratitude for his grandfather.

“It was the first time Notre Dame nominated someone, and no way did I think it was possible to win,” he said.

After discussing his new goal with his brother on a train, he realized the grant gave him more opportunity to expand the film.

“My family left for better life and I was back with the opportunity for this film. With the funding, I realized that I didn’t have to just tell a story,” Zubizarreta said. “I had to tell the story.”

Zubizarreta cast family members in lead roles and said he hopes to premiere the film in Basque Country.

While his senior thesis gave Zubizarreta the chance to create a project with personal meaning, he and Scallen also said their work could contribute to their future careers as well.

“My friends joke about how this ‘Bitch’ project will surely open oh-so-many doors for me in the corporate world of employment … something my dad doesn’t find quite as funny,” Scallen said.

Zubizarreta said he will submit his film to festivals, including the Sundance and Tribeca film festivals, where he hopes to further establish his place in the international film community.

“I would love to work in Basque Country as a filmmaker. These trips have helped me make connections,” he said. “But ultimately, it’s very personal and has the goal of shedding light on my culture, background and people.”