Students should ideally begin thinking about an Honors Thesis in the spring term of their third year at Bowdoin, when the chair of the German Department reaches out to third-year students to see who might be interested in writing an honors thesis in their fourth year. In general, students require two semesters to plan and complete an Honors Thesis. Optimally, students develop a summer reading list for thesis research, so that the project already has some momentum when the senior year starts.
The Primary Advisor and Second Reader (the Committee)
Every honors project has a primary advisor and a second reader. The primary thesis advisor meets with you frequently throughout the year to discuss the progress and development of the thesis, and to help students resolve issues of research, methodology, focus, content, and form. She/he regularly reads and comments on drafts and assigns deadlines for drafts and revisions.
The second reader may give expert guidance, including on areas not strongly represented by the department if, in rare circumstances, the second reader comes from another discipline. The second reader will read the complete thesis draft before its final submission. She/he will give substantial feedback at the mid-year and spring colloquium and may or may not read and respond to individual chapter drafts throughout the year. On a regular basis, the second reader is able to provide input on the direction of the project per the schedule and feedback developed by the thesis director.
The primary thesis advisor must be a member of the German Department. The second reader is usually also a member of the German Department but may be a member of the Bowdoin faculty, whose field of expertise is relevant to your project. On occasion, the second reader may bring an area of expertise, for example in discipline and approach that co-equals that of your primary advisor. The second reader will be identified and approached by the advisor, after consultation with you; this happens early in the fall semester and a consultation schedule may be established that exceeds the deadlines spelled out in the timeline.
Evaluating the Thesis
The thesis represents a substantial amount and quality of scholarly work. It significantly exceeds what students have come to know as “research or seminar papers” in courses and is more comprehensive, sustained and polished in scope, argument, research, and execution than an A grade seminar paper. An honors thesis provides a thoughtful answer to a question that is worth asking; a literature review about a particular topic is not sufficient. There should be a clear formulation of a problem illuminated by sustained and long-term scholarly inquiry and reflection, leading to a conclusion supported by evidence, while considering relevant research in the field.
While an honors thesis is usually between 50 and 75 pages long, its length should not be an important criterion, so long as the thesis says concisely and intelligently all that needs to be said to support the project’s main arguments.
The thesis is judged in a “blind review” by two members of the German faculty, but not the advisor. In other words, the primary thesis advisor does not decide whether or not your thesis is awarded honors, or what degree of honors. That said, the guidance of the thesis advisor is essential: for the student as it lays the groundwork for a successful thesis, and to the department, as the advisor provides “objective” information about the process, i.e. how the project started out, its various twists and turns, obstacles, or perhaps an update re. the project’s relationship to current scholarship.
A successful end-of-year colloquium is an essential part of the honors process, confirming that the honors candidate “owns” the material, argumentation, and results covered and is able to converse and discuss these dimensions in a semi-public setting. However, while a stellar performance can enhance any dimension of the written thesis, it cannot compensate for shortcomings, and the colloquium performance cannot upgrade the level of honors.
The German Department awards three levels of honors: Honors, High Honors, and Highest Honors.
A thesis awarded honors has a discernible argument, clear writing, and good evidence. It is an appropriate response to the proposed topic and its author has done a lot of research, but the approach may be not entirely clear or original. The argument may be clear and the thesis properly limited, and an attempt has been made to situate the project in relationship to the existing literature on the topic. The prose is generally good but not distinguished.
A thesis awarded honors differs from the high honors thesis in the difficulty of the problem addressed, the amount of work shown by the student, the clarity of the presentation, and the soundness of the conclusions reached.
A high honors thesis displays a clear argument, clear writing, and good evidence. It need not be an original contribution to knowledge, but it should show sound judgment, a substantial amount of work, clarity of thought and presentation, and some creativity. The argument is original in its initial conception and well-informed by the secondary literature, but may not be fully developed. The writer demonstrates that she or he has thought carefully about a problem and presented those thoughts clearly and persuasively. The prose is good, with perhaps a lapse here and there. There is a methodology, but it is not always consistently applied.
A thesis awarded high honors may be weak in the selection of the problem, its manner of presentation, its method of analysis, or in its interpretations and conclusions. The weakness of a high honors thesis may be in one of these areas but not in a number of them.
A thesis receiving highest honors is excellent in all aspects and is evidence that the student is capable of original and creative work in German-language literature and culture studies. It is an original approach as well as an original contribution to knowledge, and it is well-situated in relationship to the secondary literature. An original contribution to knowledge can explore a “new” or understudied “problem.” It can also result from a novel and perceptive reexamination of a familiar question which identifies gaps in existing research. The central argument of the work is clearly stated, and the thesis addresses any nuances and complexities while staying on track. The thesis is well organized, and well-crafted transitions lead the reader from one idea to the next, while advancing the overall argument. The writer has demonstrated a mastery of the relevant primary and secondary material, and the conclusions drawn are persuasive. The prose is elegant, sophisticated, polished and convincing. The interest of the reader is engaged by the ideas and presentation, and she or he should conclude that she or he knows something new about the problem, having read the thesis.