Context and Communication

What makes an honors thesis an honors thesis? It comes down to context and communication. A technical honors thesis is an exposition sandwich, where the bread is careful exposition geared to the educated layperson and the middle is a piece of technical work.

For students in science or engineering who have a senior design project as part of their disciplinary program, we like to have them think of the first five minutes of a PBS NOVA special. In non-technical language, explain the topic to the reader and write an introduction that answers certain questions:

  • What am I doing?
  • Why is it interesting and important?
  • How is it new?
  • Where does it fit within the context of my field?
  • Where does it fit within the human knowledge or practical techniques?
  • What questions am I trying to answer or problems am I trying to solve?

The technical aspect is not for the judgement of the Honors College, that is up to the disciplinary mentor and the second disciplinary committee member. It is expected that the thesis will exceed the normal level of senior work, rising to that of a master’s student.

The second piece of exposition is a conclusion explaining how the technical part of the thesis addressed the questions raised in the introduction. The reader should leave with an understanding of what was accomplished, why it was interesting, and its context in disciplinary and general knowledge.

What about different areas? The sandwich structure still obtains. For example:

  • A history major would do a piece of work based on primary and secondary sources as their technical piece, with the same expositional bookends for the reader.
  • An education major might do a narrative of his or her student teaching experience, tying in actual on the ground experience with the educational theory and methods he or she has been taught.
  • A creative writing student could produce a cycle of poems, with his or her exposition being a technical piece of literary criticism, placing their own work within a particular tradition.
  • A theater major could stage a play, providing a narrative of the experience and, as with the other young scholars, provide a technical explanation of where the play fits within the history and genres of theater, how their staging reflected a particular theory of direction, and so on.

The thing that makes all of these honor’s theses is the context and communication. In the end, they need to deeply understand how their work fits within their fields and the human intellectual endeavor. They must be able to communicate all of this in writing and orally to the interested, generally educated lay person in a way that is clear, compelling, and comprehensive.

No author of an honors thesis should respond with a blank stare to the any of the questions:

  • What am I doing?
  • Why is it interesting and important?
  • How is it new?
  • Where does it fit within the context of my field?
  • Where does it fit within the human knowledge or practical techniques?
  • What questions am I trying to answer or problems am I trying to solve?

So many students, even at the doctoral level, while technically brilliant, cannot answer these questions. The author of a Shackouls Honors College honors thesis must be able to.