It’s a bittersweet time of year.
The dogwood is blooming and the sky has lost its perpetual scowl. Baby ducklings ply the canyon, paddling furiously to keep up with their mothers. And from the registrar’s office comes a honk of kazoos and a shimmer of gongs as seniors turn in the final drafts of their theses. On the steps of Eliot, a bio major shouts for joy and hugs a friend in triumph. Across campus, seniors strut their plastic laurels to show they’ve finished their theses. It’s not over yet—they still have to defend their work in the oral exams (and write their final papers) but the end is in sight. Odysseus is back in Ithaca.
This spring, I’ve had the pleasure of reading several senior theses, including that of linguistics major Katelyn Best ’13. I’ve gained a passing acquaintance with creole grammar, Malthusian pessimism, African famine, and performative utterances. I’ve also gained a deeper respect for our students and their accomplishments.
Through the sultry afternoons of September, the gales of November, and the gloomy dawn of March, they sat at their library carrels or hauled their laptops to the Paradox Café and plunged headlong into an intellectual adventure—the joy and terror of marshalling an investigation into hitherto unexplored territory. They battled with sources, agonized over analysis, sweated through semiotics and semicolons. They underwent a full baptismal immersion in their discipline. They confronted data that confounds, texts that resist, conjectures that don’t conject. They wrestled with their own doubts. They engaged, to borrow William Foster’s memorable phrase, in that most painful of human activities: thinking.
In April—if they are lucky—something remarkable happens. The long arc comes full circle. The stubborn pieces of the jigsaw finally snap into place. The trees become a forest. What emerges is a precious scrap of truth, often not so much a conclusion as a starting point. But it is real and it is theirs. A little formatting, some fuss with the footnotes, and they’re done—liberated! And the cries of jubilation echo through Eliot Hall.
And here’s where the bittersweetness comes in—for alumni, anyway. Turning in a thesis is a moment of triumph, but also a rite of passage, marking the metamorphosis from student to scholar, from adolescent to adult. It signals the end of their Reed odyssey and the beginning of journeys unknown. From now on, life gets complicated. Our accomplishments are staggered in stages, the moment of joy diluted by provisos, caveats and codicils. There is no finish line—not, at least, in a cosmic sense. We understand this all too well; the students will learn it in their own time. But today they can savor their victory—may they relish it always.