Graduating with Honors
by Ronah Sadan
March’s final week ushers in not only springtime, but also a hefty batch of papers, each neatly bound, onto Administrative Assistant Leandra Cain’s desk in Murray Hall. These are finished senior theses – the English Department Honors Program’s final component. The program, designed to enrich literary study for especially interested students, guides participants through the most in-depth research and writing project of their college careers.
Professor Richard Dienst, the program’s current director, views it as a flexible framework to help students pursue independent work. “I agreed to direct the program,” he said, “because I enjoy helping people engage with topics they’re passionate about.” Accordingly, Professor Dienst accommodates a wide range of topics, from the classic (John Donne’s Holy Sonnets) to the very recent (comic books), as long as students can pursue them with academic rigor.
For example, Sara Cohen’s thesis analyzes the representation of cities in the comics The Invisibles, Transmetropolitan, and The Authority, combining literary criticism with an urban and architectural studies approach. Ms. Cohen said that she initially doubted the program would recognize her proposed topic, but upon finding a surprising amount of support from faculty, realized it was possible.
Professor Dienst’s main responsibilities include helping students refine their topics, teaching a one-credit course on advanced humanities research methods, and matching students with appropriate thesis advisors. The student-advisor relationship constitutes the core of the Honors Program. Ideally, advisors should offer both knowledge and curiosity regarding advisees’ topics. Professor John McClure, veteran advisor, noted that he rejects proposals that treat subjects or critical approaches outside his specialization. “It’s worth finding someone with expertise in your chosen area, or aligning your topic with the expertise of someone you want to work with,” he said emphatically.
Even so, honors students often make themselves as expert as their advisors on their particular topics. “Again and again I’ve found myself learning so much from their projects,” said Professor McClure. “Students engrossed in research find articles I haven’t read or take unanticipated turns of thought about the subject. It’s really invigorating.”
Clayton Lamar, who wrote on the poetry of Philip Larkin, agreed and said: “There’s a certain amount of pride in finishing such a large project. To hold a thirty-something page paper in your hand and be able to say, ‘I’ve contributed something to a particular field of study’ – I doubt there’s anything much more satisfying than that.”
After submitting their theses, students get a chance to present and field questions about their ideas at the Honors Program Symposium, held in April. Dan Wyche, who graduated in the spring of 2003, remembers the symposium as the program’s most fun moment. “I personally got grilled,” he said, “but I wasn’t intimidated. Expounding on your ideas in front of an audience is a blast.”
Where does the thesis project ultimately lead students? Mr. Wyche, currently an academic tutor at the Livingston College Writing Center, said that the skills he learned still serve him well. “It’s liberating to know that if you need to learn something you can do research and find out about it yourself. It was also a good lesson in organization, which you can apply to any task later on.”
Many thesis writers continue literary studies in graduate school, using their thesis skills most directly. Professor McClure remembers one success story: In 1999, his student Jennifer Sonntag analyzed Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, challenging a major argument that critic Edward Said made about the text. Using her thesis as a writing sample, she got into Columbia University’s English Ph.D. program, where, until his recent death, Said was a professor.
For her work, Ms. Sonntag won that year’s Jordan Lee Flyer Award, a prize given yearly by the Rutgers English Honors Committee to one thesis. Augusta Flyer created this award in memory of her son, an English Department graduate who died of cancer at the age of twenty-seven. In a letter to Professor Emily Bartels, Director of Undergraduate Studies, Jordan’s brother Jeff wrote, “I am certain that Jordan would be gratified to know there is an endowment in his memory that continues each year to recognize and reward the scholarship of students in the Rutgers English Honors Program.”
This year’s Flyer Award recipient was Mr. Lamar, who plans to continue studying modern poetry and poetics as a graduate student at N.Y.U. this fall. Mr. Lamar said that receiving such an honor from the department was “simultaneously amazing and humbling,” and added: “I couldn’t ask for a better end to my undergraduate career.”
Rutgers English Departmental Honors Program
English Department Awards