Senior Thesis in History

Informational Meeting
4:00 PM
Sawyer 307 – Mabie Room

TO: Junior History Majors
FROM: Alexandra Garbarini, Chair of the History Honors Committee
RE: Senior Theses in History, 2017-2018

Proposals for writing a senior thesis in history are due on Friday, April 14, 2017. If you are interested in writing a thesis, now is the time to begin to think seriously about it.

Writing a history thesis is a valuable educational experience. A thesis in history involves knowledge of the pas, not in breadth but in great depth. Researching and writing a thesis is different from studying history, which is what you do in virtually all history classes at Williams. By contrast, researching and writing a thesis means you will be doing history; rather than a student of history, you will be a historian. A thesis involves independent work (there is no syllabus to guide you and no essays or exams to keep you working away), and there is an element of risk, for not all theses come together, no matter the diligence and intelligence of the student. Indeed, a thesis is a more or less unique academic experience at Williams. If you are considering graduate school in the humanities or social sciences, you are well advised to write a senior thesis.

A thesis represents a major commitment of time and energy. Not only will you need to fulfill all the requirements for the history major, during your senior year you will need to take the senior thesis seminar (HIST 493-494) and an independent WSP. It means as well that you will have to complete a ten-course major. I think it fair to say that a senior thesis in history is significantly more work than two courses and a winter study. It almost certainly represents more of an intellectual and emotional investment on your part.

Should you decide to write a senior thesis, you will need to apply to enter the honors program by submitting a thesis proposal to the department by April 14, 2017. In order to be admitted to the honors program, you will need to have a strong academic record in history (normally defined as a B+ average in your history courses). You will also need to find a member of the department who will agree to supervise your thesis. In deciding which faculty to approach, you should first make sure that s/he is in residence throughout your senior year and that s/he has at least some knowledge of the subject you are interested in writing about—although given the size of the department and leave patterns, faculty often find themselves advising theses fairly far from their area of expertise. In thinking about which faculty to approach, it is better if you have had the faculty member in class or know him or her in some other way. Students generally develop intense working relationships with their advisers, and it helps both parties if they know and feel comfortable with one another before they begin working together. Finally, you will need to have done some serious and sustained thinking about a possible thesis topic and how you might go about researching it before asking a member to the department to serve as your adviser. Normally a thesis topic should be related to course work that you have done in the department and at Williams.

You need to be aware that, while we will do our best to accommodate all students with strong academic records in history who want to write a thesis, some students may propose thesis topics that are deemed unfeasible by the department and some students with feasible thesis topics may be unable to find a member of the department to advise them. Hence, if you are seriously considering writing a thesis, it is important that you begin to develop a thesis topic and a tentative thesis proposal and that you approach faculty members who might serve as potential thesis advisors as soon as possible.

Having secured a faculty advisor, you will need to submit a two-page thesis proposal and a preliminary bibliography, along with your prospective advisor’s signature of endorsement to the department, by April 14, 2017. The department will review the proposals and make a decision on whether to admit students to the honors program later that month, around the time of pre-registration for the fall semester. If you are accepted into the thesis program, you will register for HIST 493.

Your Thesis Proposal should articulate what you intend to investigate, how you intend to conduct that investigation, and why your investigation is important. Proposals, which are normally a little under two single-spaced pages in length, should include the following:

• A provisional, working title for the thesis.
• A description of your thesis topic, keeping in mind that thesis topics almost always tend to be far too general at this point and that your thesis needs to focus on a relatively discrete point or slice of the past in depth.
• A clear, if tentative, articulation of the central question or questions you hope to answer in relation to your thesis topic. Given that your thesis will need to have a thesis and that you will need to make an argument, it is helpful to begin with questions that will generate, first, a research plan and, ultimately, a historical argument.
• An explanation of why that question is historically significant and how your research will help you to answer the question. Given that your thesis will need to make an original contribution to our knowledge of the past, you should already have some basic knowledge of what other historians (or other scholars) have written about your topic (including any historical debates about your topic) and how your thesis project relates to their work.
• A description of the primary sources you plan to use in researching your topic, including where those sources are located, as well as your ability to gain access to those sources and, if they are written in a foreign language, to read them. You might want to consider how the sources you plan to use relate to the sources other historians have used in investigating your thesis topic.
• A brief discussion of your background, and skills that will help you with research and writing the thesis. Have you taken a research seminar or other history course that covers the general area you are interested in? Do you have language skills that will enable you to read particular sources? Do you have any training in statistics that will enable to you analyze data?
• A preliminary working bibliography (use Chicago Style) that includes the primary and secondary sources you expect to use in your thesis.
• A signed statement by your thesis advisor endorsing your Thesis Proposal.

I realize that producing such a Thesis Proposal at this point in the semester may seem more than a little overwhelming. Nevertheless, the more work you can do in thinking through your thesis project now, the farther along in the process you will be. Moreover, admission to the Thesis Program will be based largely on how carefully thought through and credible your Thesis Proposal seems to the members of the History Department. Obviously you cannot know before beginning your thesis research exactly what you will find, and your thesis topic and approach will almost certainly evolve as you begin to work. Still, the Department needs to be convinced that your thesis topic and how you propose to investigate it is potentially viable, original, and significant.

Although your Thesis Proposal should be your Thesis Proposal, if, after reading this memo and speaking with me, you still find yourself uncertain about what a Proposal ought to contain, I can send you a document containing a number of successful Thesis Proposals that have been submitted in the recent past.

Later this month, the Department website will have a list of current students writing senior theses who may be able to answer any questions you have about the thesis research and writing process. I will also hold an information session on Sunday, February 26 at 4pm, at which I will be available to answer any questions you might have. I will send out more information about this event later this month.

Before spring break I will send you another memo reminding you of the deadline for the submission of your honors thesis proposal to the department. In the meantime, if you are interested in possibly writing a honors thesis in history, I urge you to look at the History Department’s section of the course catalog that describes the thesis; to start thinking seriously about possible thesis topics; to talk with potential faculty advisors; and to begin developing your proposal.

If you have any questions about the thesis program in general or writing a thesis proposal, you should be sure to get in touch with me at