Senior thesis: Quintessentially Princeton

"More than any other academic experience, the senior thesis embodies the defining characteristics of undergraduate education at Princeton," writes Dean of the College Nancy Malkiel in a book, "The Thesis: Quintessentially Princeton," distributed to incoming students, juniors and faculty members.
    The thesis, an independent work that typically runs about 100 pages, gives seniors the opportunity to pursue original research and scholarship on a topic of their own choice under the guidance of a faculty adviser. Requiring a thesis of its undergraduates sets Princeton apart from other universities.
    More important than the subject matter itself, writes Malkiel, is the mental discipline, independent judgment and self-confidence that the projects foster. "Generations of Princeton students have approached the thesis with a mixture of fear and anticipation," she continues. "Over the years, most seniors have taken great pride in their work, sometimes surprising themselves and their professors at what they have been able to accomplish."
    All senior theses are archived in the Mudd Manuscript Library, and some have reached wider audiences through the value of their research and ideas. Here are some examples of theses that Princeton seniors have been submitting over the last several weeks.

Jennifer Greenstein Altmann

Princeton NJ -- Elizabeth Greenberg may be graduating with the class of '02, but she has spent a lot of time during the last year thinking about what it was like to be a Princeton student in the 19th century.

Elizabeth Greenberg (front) wrote her senior thesis on the histories of several Princeton student traditions, including the Poler's Recess. Friends recently helped her re-enact the tradition, which started in the 1890s and died out in the 1930s. Students used various means of making noise to cause a campuswide ruckus at 9 p.m. on a night during exams. For some history on the senior thesis, see "By the numbers" on page 2.


For her senior thesis, Greenberg unearthed the histories of several student traditions also referred to as pranks such as the Poler's Recess and Cane Spree. She researched the evolution of these traditions, some of which started in the 1860s, by poring through the archives at Mudd Library, inter-viewing hundreds of alumni and consulting an on-campus Princetoniana expert.

"I'm an Orange Key tour guide, so I've always been interested in how Princeton evolved," said Greenberg, who is a history major. Thumbing through the files at Mudd while working on her junior paper, she ran across some articles in the "student customs" file that referred to the Poler's Recess. She was intrigued.

In her research, she found that the Poler's Recess, which started in the late 1890s, was an exam-time tradition to let off steam by making as much noise as possible. (Poler was a term for someone who studied too much.) Students employed firecrackers, megaphones, shotguns and musical instruments to cause a campuswide ruckus at exactly 9 p.m. on a night during exam period. Since curfew kept the students restricted to their rooms, they turned their noisemakers toward the open windows.

The tradition died out in the late 1930s for lack of interest. "As World War II approached, there was less of an atmosphere of frivolity on campus," Greenberg said.

Greenberg's thesis also recounts the history of Cane Spree, which started in the 1860s and later evolved into a wrestling match between a freshman and a sophomore over a walking cane. The winner, who acted as a stand-in for his entire class, gained the right for his classmates to stroll the streets of Princeton with a cane which members of the other class were forbidden from doing. Cane Spree eventually became part of an annual event the Cane Spree Freshman vs. Sophomore Showdown that includes football, softball and swimming and is run by the athletics department. Greenberg also wrote about hazing rituals, stealing the Nassau Hall bell clapper and the Nude Olympics.

Greenberg's thesis adviser, Dayton-Stockton Professor of History Sean Wilentz, was delighted with "the way she managed to take these various student rituals, which might seem goofy or offbeat or risqué, and turn them into a genuine thesis," he said. "She discovered new materials and made sense of them in a very fresh way."

J.T. Miller, an expert on Princetoniana who is director of special projects in the development office, served as Greenberg's unofficial adviser. He found her work remarkable. "I learned more from Liz than she learned from me," he said.

For Greenberg, her research helped shed light on a lament commonly heard from alumni. "Alumni often object to change because they see the college as having been perfect during their time here," she said. "When you study Princeton history, you realize that it is constantly changing. Whenever you hear, 'It's always been done this way at Princeton,' it's never true. Things have always changed."


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