Act of Creation

Why senior theses at Reed are inherently creative.

By James P. Kahan ’64 | May 18, 2018

One of the many ways Reed College differs from other undergraduate liberal arts colleges is that it requires each student to write a thesis in order to receive the Bachelor of Arts degree. Some theses are characterized as “creative;” this label is most frequently applied to some students majoring in the arts. But what does this mean?

A predominant viewpoint is that creative theses require artistic creation, such as writing plays or composing sonnets, whereas non-creative theses consist of critical examination of a particular question. Consider the Class of 1921 Award, which is given at commencement to honor new Reed graduates whose theses display “work of notable character, involving an unusual degree of initiative and spontaneity.” In 2015, this prize was given to theatre major Leah Artenian ’15, who adapted The Year of Silence, a short story by Kevin Brockmeier, for the stage. Artenian wrote the script, assembled the cast, directed the production, and provided a critical analysis—a good example of artistic creativity in a Reed thesis.

But that year the prize was also given to Madeline Brandt ’15, who wrote a thesis for the mathematics department describing her discovery of some structural relationships between two theorems from the mathematical field of combinatorics.  

Yes, a poem, painting, or theatre production is a creative work—but so is a proof of a theorem, a laboratory experiment, or a novel statistical analysis. It would be absurd to label one of these theses “creative” and not the other. In fact, after spending many hours in the Thesis Tower, I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s time to eliminate the shopworn distinction between “creative” and “non-creative” theses.

The Characteristics of Theses

An academic thesis is a written piece of work in a student’s major field of study that demonstrates the ability to conduct independent original work. A thesis may be operationally defined as a written report of a student’s work that comprises—not necessarily in this order—(1) a question that the work examines, (2) why that question is worth examining, (3) a description of the methods used in the examination, (4) the results of the examination, (5) a statement of what progress has been made in answering the question, and (6) what further examination might be considered.

A variety of methods can be used in the work.  For a natural or social scientist, a common method is a laboratory experiment—that is, a manipulation of the domain of the world studied by the scientist. Alternatively, instead of direct manipulation, the method may be an examination of naturally occurring phenomena that for some reason (physical impossibility, ethical concerns, or simply infeasibility) cannot be subjected to manipulation.  Or, the work can be a statistical or other analytic examination of data obtained from previous information gathering efforts. Moving from quantitative analyses, a method, most often found in mathematics and philosophy, is theoretical—using or creating a logical structure and looking at truths that are revealed. Qualitative methods include examinations of historical records and comparative analyses of different artifacts, including written or oral statements, artistic constructions, musical compositions, and records or reminiscences of ephemeral phenomena.  Oftentimes, for any method, the work examined is the author’s own creation, which can be embedded in the thesis; this is true for both 2015 grantees of the Class of 1921 Award.

Reed College and Artistic Creation

The label “creative” too often carries a pejorative overtone in the halls of Academe. Even at Reed, the bias against recognizing artistic creative endeavor as legitimate scholarship appeared early.  As noted in Comrades of the Quest: An Oral History of Reed College, undergraduate Howard Barlow (class of 1915), who had single-handedly run music performances at Reed for three years, was denied a degree because, despite the pleas of President William T. Foster, he was not permitted by the faculty to use that experience as a thesis topic. Foster later noted, “[This shows] how quickly a college faculty, starting untrammeled, lets its own rules prevent it from doing an obviously right thing.”

Perhaps because of this attitude, it was 14 years before the first self-identified “creative thesis” was submitted by a Reed senior— Darkling I Listen, written by Dorothy Gill Wikelund ’29.  For the first 42 pages, her thesis is an analysis of the poetry of John Keats. The last 15 pages furnish the “creative” part of the thesis, a set of poems that she wrote based upon her understanding of Keats.  

The second, and best known, “creative thesis” was The Horae of Mary Ethel Barnard, by Mary Barnard ’32.  Barnard went on to fame as a poet, translator of poetry, and scholar. But her thesis, unlike that of Gill, is almost entirely the poetry itself; there are only two short beginning sections (“Confessional” and “Credo”), totaling 5 pages. By contemporary Reed standards, Barnard’s thesis might not be acceptable; the great majority of “creative” theses—including all theses mentioned here—include a critical examination of the context surrounding the creation.  Interestingly, in 1999 Barnard published Erato Agonistes: Writing a Creative Thesis at Reed College in “The Golden Age,” Drawn from her diary in 1931-32, this publication documents her thinking about her thesis and how she overcame the objections of her highly prestigious thesis committee. Had this documentation been integrated into the thesis, it would satisfy current standards; had her thesis advisor applied even a modicum of pressure, the two thesis segments published 67 years apart might well have been joined.

The bias against the performing arts at Reed was very slow to go away; the Dance Department was led by a “director” instead of a “professor” until 2003, even though students had been taking academic and performance courses in dance for decades.  Even then, some faculty grumbled that dance was merely physical exercise and not worthy of a professorship.

With the establishment of majors in creative writing, studio art, music, theatre, and dance, this pejorative overtone has faded, but has not entirely disappeared. “Creative theses” have become more common at Reed; such theses follow our operational definition by including analysis about the artistic work, showing in a scholarly manner its place within the discipline. A recent example is the studio art thesis Both/Neither of Camila Medina Mora ’16, who designed and executed a mobile sculpture and displayed it along with musical recordings related to the work.  The thesis includes autobiographical, historical, and cultural contexts as well as analyses of the technical aspects of her design.

But theses in the sciences and social sciences also abound in creativity. The chemistry thesis of Rose Gonoud ’17 creatively explored the relationship of hydrogen bonding to solubility in water to develop a new approach to fighting malaria. For his mathematics-economics thesis, Florin Feier ’17 invented a new board game that he used to explore Ernst Zermelo’s game theoretic conjecture about winning strategies for such games; he also employs his game as a tool for teaching effective decision-making. And the physics thesis of Evan Peairs ’16 centered on an innovative design for percussive musical instruments that can generate novel musical tones; Peairs is now designing bell plates that could change the world of musical instruments.

Creativity: Learning By Doing

Just as a thesis is the culmination of an educational program, so the creative aspects of academic study should not first appear in the student’s thesis, but are a component of instruction that ideally begins at matriculation. The methods of instruction in higher education have evolved as both the technology available for teaching and the epistemological understanding of the natures of knowledge and learning advanced. A poster at Oxford reads, “The lecture was the primary method of instruction at Oxford University until the invention of the printing press.” Students at Oxford today are not said to study a discipline; they read it.  The reading is accompanied by conversations between a faculty member and a small group of students. Reed College early on realized the value of such an approach, and this conference method has been the principal educational tool at Reed for almost 100 years.

Beginning in 19th-century Germany, there was an increasing awareness that, just as skilled tradespeople make the transition from apprentice to full-fledged member of the guild by producing a “masterpiece,” so academics needed to demonstrate the completion of their learning by advancing the state of knowledge in some way.  Earning a Doctor of Philosophy degree came to require the writing of a masterpiece. In most European universities, through the mid-20th century, doctoral candidates took a very long time to complete this work; its reception in the discipline determined whether the author could hope to obtain a professorial chair. One reason that it took so long to write such a thesis was that few students had experience creating knowledge, but instead had done a lot of reading and working on their professors’ projects. American universities pioneered an alternative approach—now dominant—that made doctoral students’ primary task the production of knowledge; the thesis became, like the craftperson’s masterwork, a demonstration of competence that promised further high quality work in the field.  Successful professorial careers are now achieved (originally at universities, but now as well at most four-year undergraduate colleges) by establishing a record of publications. This was an acknowledgement that academic expertise—just as portrait painting, furniture making, home construction, etc. requires experiential learning, sometimes referred to as just learning by doing.

This does not mean learning by just doing; the reading, listening, and conversing components are all important.  But the doing is necessary for full comprehension. An adage often attributed to Confucius states:

  • When I hear, I forget
  • When I see, I remember
  • When I do, I understand

In the past century, experiential learning in Academe has devolved from the doctoral to the bachelor’s level. Learning by doing, the most creative component of a baccalaureate program, was pioneered at Reed College, and not only by requiring a thesis for graduation. Experiential learning begins at Reed with Humanities 110.  After reading, say, the Iliad, instead of being given a pop quiz to identify which characters were Greek or Trojan, or which god helped or mistreated which human, students must write an essay, for example discussing the character of Agamemnon as revealed in Book 1 of Homer’s epic. The only other guidance is a suggested word count.  The emphasis in the first humanities paper on doing original thinking gives students an understanding of the nature of academic knowledge as well as how to creatively produce it. That learning continues throughout a Reed education, culminating with the thesis, and is a foundation for knowledge creation in life beyond Reed.

Tags: Academics, Awards & Achievements, Reed History, Thesis