Analyzing theses topics

Karin Dienst

Princeton NJ -- After handing in her thesis, history major Annie Ruderman slept for 30 hours over the next two days. It was a well-deserved rest following a year spent classifying and analyzing about 7,000 senior theses in Princeton's history department written between 1931 and 2000.

"I was interested in why students chose the topics they did and how they approached their topics," said Ruderman. "In general, my argument was: The moment of their present determines what thesis writers pull out from the past and the way they understand what they find because the moment of their present determines their context for interpretation."


Ruderman was drawn to her project out of curiosity about what topics her predecessors had selected. She also liked having the chance to interview alumni. She drove to Connecticut to interview one alumnus, and was excited to discover that Robert Sandberg, an alumnus she included in her thesis because of his "terrific quotes," is actually a member of Princeton's humanities faculty.

Ruderman found it especially appealing to work on a thesis relevant to Princeton itself. "I think there's something really neat about writing about the place where you are," she said.

Ruderman's adviser, history professor Anthony Grafton, said he has never learned more from a thesis. "Annie's thesis rests on amazingly intense and ingenious research. She looked at official documents and old issues of the Princeton Alumni Weekly, worked her way through many theses, read widely on the history of historical scholarship in the 20th century and interviewed many alumni."

An early and time-consuming challenge of the project was sorting the archived theses into distinct categories. "I started by sorting out fairly obvious categories: the Civil War, American foreign relations, European history," said Ruderman. "I went through the list several times, adding more categories, and I even had to start over entirely at least twice." Eventually, Ruderman identified 17 categories from which she could continue her analysis.

Ruderman started researching her thesis last August and began writing in January. "Writing about something you have been studying all year is different from writing a term paper. Because you know your topic much better, it is much more fun to write," she said.

Grafton, who said supervising senior theses is his favorite single activity as a teacher, also feels some jitters come deadline. "On the due date I usually hover like a nervous mother hen until my seniors have all delivered their theses," he said. "And it's wonderful to watch as your seniors go on, over the years, to score professional successes in every imaginable field -- including history, I'm happy to say."


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