by Jeff Kang
After what probably seemed to be endless corrections and revisions, this year’s Senior Thesis writers have submitted the final drafts. They surely deserve praise and recognition for writing a 75-to-125 page research dissertation, which many undergraduates would not choose to do. After these accomplished history majors walk on their graduation day, they will remember the arduous year-long process as the academic climax of their college careers.
As a newsletter writer who strives to voice students’ interests and a history major who intends to write a Senior Thesis next year, I was more than happy to interview Lauren Maly, who talked excitedly about her thesis. The 15 minute interview went by quickly as she illustrated the ins and outs of the Senior Thesis research and writing process.
A Student Voice: Could you give us a brief explanation of your thesis topic and context?
My thesis is about how East African soldiers in the British Colonial Army experienced combat fatigue (PTSD) during World War II. Although African and European soldiers showed similar symptoms of mental trauma, colonial psychiatrists and army doctors did not offer African soldiers any treatment after the war. This was due to their belief that Africans were not mentally advanced enough to suffer from ‘Western’ mental illnesses and psychological problems.
Historical memoirs and interviews illustrate that the war made a terrible impact on these East African soldiers’ minds and caused trauma, which lasted for a very long time. Even doctors who later admitted that these soldiers experienced trauma did not treat them as anxiety (fear or nervousness) patients but regarded them as having hysteria (lack of control over one’s emotions). This [distinction] portrays British soldiers as hyper-masculine adults while depicting African soldiers as children who cannot control themselves.
While doing my research, I talked to a few psychiatrists who are currently treating war veterans. I was shocked to hear them ask why I would even want to write my thesis on postwar trauma among East African soldiers when combat fatigue was not an important issue during World War II. People need to recognize that African soldiers who experienced combat fatigue were not provided with resources and treatment for prejudiced and illogical reasons.
A Student Voice: Could you give us a general illustration of the whole Senior Thesis writing process?
Most students write four chapters – an introduction and three body chapters – for their Senior Thesis. After selecting their advisor and thesis topic during the second semester of their junior year, writers will do the majority of their research during their summer vacation. In the beginning of fall semester, students will create a general outline of their four chapters. Usually, they will have a chapter or two written by the end of their first semester. In my case, because I did not have much background knowledge in African history, I read many secondary sources and did some additional research to write my introduction. During the second semester, students will write two more chapters and make final revisions and corrections to turn in their final drafts by April.
A Student Voice: From what I understand, Senior Thesis writers are supposed to do most of their research during their last summer vacation. How and where did you do your research? Does Wash U offer archival funding or programs for thesis writers?
The Office of Undergraduate Research gave me funding to do research while I was in Great Britain over summer. I was mostly at Oxford University and did a lot of my research at its archives and libraries. During weekends, I made a few trips to the national archives in London to do additional research. Astonishingly, the school was willing to pay for me to go to Kenya and do more research (air fare, housing, etc.), but I decided to decline the proposal after mass shootings occurred at Garissa University. Also, because I was writing my Senior Thesis on combat fatigue in East African soldiers in the British Colonial Army, I already had plenty of sources to study and analyze in London.
As you can see from my research experience, Wash U’s Office of Undergraduate Research provides large sums of funding for accepted applicants. I strongly encourage people to apply for funding through the school; the application process is not very complicated and the school enthusiastically accepts and supports applicants.
A Student Voice: What were some of the greatest challenges that you faced while writing your thesis? Do you have any tips for future writers? What should they be careful about?
For me, the hardest part was differentiating between what I had originally wanted to state about my topic and what the sources were actually telling me. It is very important to base your argument on established resources and information. I had to prevent myself from trying to fit my sources into a prebuilt argument structure.
For instance, I never thought that the depictions of African soldiers would be hysterical; rather, I imagined portrayals to be anxious (I had no idea the anxiety/hysteria dichotomy existed). However, some of the research material actually made hysterical depictions of them. For this reason, I had to take a different angle in approaching my general thesis topic. You have to be willing to go in the direction that your sources point to instead of focusing on what you had wanted the sources to say initially.
You may run into trouble finding the exact sources to support your argument. For example, because combat fatigue was not a big issue during World War II, most doctors did not care to preserve much information on it. I had to be careful about making assumptions that had no reference to specific texts.
Also, do not detach yourself entirely from your Senior Thesis during winter break. While it is important not to overwork yourself, procrastination will later make you suffer. After returning from vacation and seeing how much make up work I had to do, I regretted taking too much time off. I ended up hurrying to finish on schedule.
A Student Voice: how did the experience of writing a Senior Thesis affect you? Was it a meaningful experience? Do you recommend it?
I definitely found the entire process very meaningful and recommend it to every history major. I did not only feel accomplished after completing my thesis, but also felt like a true historian. By writing the Senior Thesis, one learns how to analyze an event, situation, or topic from many different angles and perspectives; in short, you learn to really think outside the box. 75 to 125 pages is a lot, but you will have undergone an experience that is as much work as some MA programs.