Sunday, February 26, 2006

A tale of two theses

Just returned from an outing to the Grossman Library, the Extension School library on the third floor of Sever Hall. It's a nice place to read, study, and take notes, and also contains many of the reserve books for Harvard Extension School classes.

But I was there for a different purpose: To review theses by other Extension School students. Every year, a handful of exceptional theses (and proposals) are placed in Grossman for other students to refer to as they plan their own theses (suggestion to the library, or the Extension School: How about putting these theses online as well, so students who don't live in the area can access them?). I am getting ready to draw up an outline for mine, and thought it would helpful to see how others have approached theirs. In certain fields, such as biology, ALM theses have to follow a certain structure, but this is not the case for history.

The two theses I looked at were "Changing Lives of Women in the 1960s: Ladies Home Journal and the Early Women's Movement" by Rachel Ryan (2004), and "China Merchants Steam Navigation Co. and The Nippon Yesen Kaisha: A Company-Level Analysis of China and Japan's Contrasting Expereinces with industrialization from 1870 to World War I," by Stephen McCourt (2001).

Both had very different outlines. Ryan took a minimalist approach. There were only about 70 double-spaced pages, most of them relating historical evidence in three subareas, which provided the foundation that supported the hypothesis. There was very little in the way of analysis, maybe three or four double-spaced pages in all, most of it presented at the end of the paper. It seemed thin to me -- my 22-page proposal has more -- but there is beauty in having a limited scope. The research question and areas of inquiry did not go off on tangents or get tripped up in multiple variables, which I fear will happen with my thesis. Also, while the topic was more suited to qualitative research, the author made a point of citing quantitative evidence where possible, usually from academic surveys or the U.S. census. In the appendix there are about a dozen photocopied advertisements from Ladies Home Journal, which Ryan uses as primary source evidence.

The bibliography for Ryan's thesis was interesting. About 40 or 50 sources were listed, plus another two dozen "works consulted." No journal articles or Internet sites were among them. Additionally, only two or three sources had been published in the five years preceding the publication date of the thesis. There are several explanations for this: There wasn't any recent applicable research owing to the obscurity of the topic; Ryan or her thesis director were unable to locate more recent applicable research; or the author had been working on the thesis for more than five years (this is possible -- I have met an ALM candidate who completed his proposal four or five years ago, and is still searching for a thesis director).

McCourt was far more detailed in his presentation of evidence. The area of study he chose to examine already has a strong body of existing research to draw upon, which McCourt discusses in depth -- Unlike Ryan, who explores only one secondary source in depth.

Additionally, McCourt makes a point of pointing to quantitative evidence from company records and other sources in tables scattered throughout the 200-page thesis. He takes a very structured approach to presenting evidence and analysis, often recapping arguments just made, or what readers can expect in the following chapter. Sometimes this seems like overkill, but on the other hand it lets readers keep track of his hypothesis and the multiple factors he cites throughout his thesis.

McCourt's bibliography is about the same length as Ryan's, except there is no additional "works consulted" section. There is a lack of recent works in his bibliography, maybe three or four published within the previous five years of the thesis publication date. There are no Internet sources. However, he does cite journal articles, something which Ryan did not do.

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