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Taking the fifth

Arnav Dutt | Monday, February 6, 2012

The way I see it, barring divine inspiration or outright plagiarism, you can’t write anything good if your heart isn’t in it. And as the posters the College of Arts and Letters puts up in O’Shaugnessy Hall suggest, the College would like undergrads to summon up as much heart (or pray for as much inspiration) as they need to produce exceptional senior theses. So do institutions like the Kellog and Nanovic Institutes, which provide funding to undergrad thesis writers, or the Center for Undergraduate Scholarly Engagement (CUSE), which helps undergrad researchers find funding.

As undergrads, we inevitably face the overwhelming question: “To thesis, or not to thesis?” To all of those who are deciding: If it makes a difference, it sure looks like the growing contributors to thesis culture at Notre Dame want you to do it and are willing to help. Of course, that won’t help you if you don’t know what to write about in the first place.

Don’t get me wrong ­— undergraduate thesis writers appreciate the funding, the workshops, the advising that this school provides. And the results reflect this, I think. I consider myself fortunate to be a student at a school that so actively promotes undergraduate research. But these resources address problems thesis-writers face after deciding to write about a specific topic. What of those who are conflicted as to the topic they should research? Or those who aren’t sure they want to write a thesis at all?

The point of thesis culture is for students to identify areas of study about which they are passionate, and to then channel their passion, a whole lot of effort and whatever other resources they have at their disposal into a thesis paper or some other final project. The trouble is, it isn’t easy for most students to identify what they are passionate about, or as is often the case, a single area of study they are passionate about. Most students have enough trouble picking a major and sticking with it.

My experience here, and that of my friends, suggests the five-course status quo here makes it very tough to really immerse oneself in the experience of a given class. There is rarely a limit to what may be done or learned in a given class here, and Notre Dame is full of students whose curiosity doesn’t evaporate with the assurance of a high grade. What I’ve observed is that in order to avoid having to choose between their academic interests and other goods like sleep, their grade point averages, extracurricular reading, clubs, sports and what have you, many students will single out one of their five classes and ignore it. That, or they’ll just drop one. Take four courses, or “blow off” one or more out of five, and you are suddenly are able to give the remaining ones the time and effort they deserve.

And teachers and classes here certainly deserve students who are willing and able to give them a great deal of attention and time. I think the University means to allow students to develop their academic interests in this way — by being exposed to new ideas and being given the rare opportunity to lose themselves in them. This is a lot more likely to happen when students don’t have to split their time five ways.

I think the most attractive alternative to our academic schedule is the “4-1-4” system in use at MIT, Williams, Johns Hopkins and Maryland. This academic calendar consists of two four month-long semesters split by winter break and a one month “minimester” in January. Students take four courses during each semester, and can take up to two classes in January. Like us, they can take 9-10 classes every academic year, but they never take more than four at a time. They are also free to confine one of their majors to January, or to break up their usual curriculum with a month of wildly esoteric elective courses. From what I’ve heard, it’s a blast.

This is not to say Notre Dame students can’t handle five courses at once. Notre Dame students produce some really special senior essays every year, all course-juggling aside. I encourage everyone to pick up a copy of The Journal of Undergraduate Research and see what I mean first-hand. But I think we’d all rather students did better work rather than more work. Why ask Notre Dame students to balance more academic pursuits than their friends at Northwestern, Chicago, MIT, Caltech, Williams, Hopkins, Princeton and so on? If we are committed to promoting not only thesis culture, but also academic interest as a whole at Notre Dame, that fifth course has got to go.

Arnav Dutt is a junior. He can be reached at adutt1@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.