During the winter term, many Union students are in the midst of working on their senior theses.
English majors looking to hone their critical or creative writing skills are encouraged to write a senior thesis, known as an English Honors Thesis.
English students can choose to pursue either an analytical or a creative thesis.
For seniors Elora Weil ’16, Cara Peterhansel ’16 and Dorothy Hazan ’16, this means entering the world of the surreal, diving into the minds of Virginia Woolf and researching mental illnesses.
Weil stated, “My thesis currently is without a title, I really need to figure that one out. It is a collection of surrealist short stories.”
Weil explained, “My inspiration came from Franz Kafka’s ‘Metamorphosis.’ I really love the idea of taking a completely normal situation and making it as weird as I can. Patricia Wareh is our first reader, and April Selley is my second reader. Writing this thesis would not be possible without their help.”
Students whose proposals are accepted will be assigned a first reader, who is the instructor of the Senior Honors Seminar, and a second reader. Both first and second readers will determine the final grade of the thesis.
Cara Peterhansel explained, “The working title for my thesis is ‘De-shelving Woolf: A Poetic Biography.’ I am working with Jordan Smith as my second reader and Patricia Wareh as my first reader.”
She stated, “Basically, I am writing a book of poetry about the life and work of Virginia Woolf as filtered through the perspective of an original character that I created who comes to reading Virginia Woolf during a tumultuous time in her life.”
Dorothy Hazan, an English and psychology double major, added, “I’m working with Professor Selley and Professor Wareh of the English Department, as well as Professor Donaldson of the Psychology Department. I researched six different psychological disorders and explored how they have been portrayed in popular literature and film. I then set about writing my own collection of short stories.”
She said, “The stories are informed by existing clinical research and they remain true to the facts. However, through a narrative structure, they immerse the reader in the protagonist’s world and give a more empathic and compassionate view of the lived experiences of each disorder. The working title is ‘No Measure of Good Health,’ named after one of the individual stories.”
All three seniors developed their creative theses based upon their own individual interests and experiences.
Weil remarked, “I’ve always loved creative writing. Next year, I hope to be working in a literary agency or a publishing house. This summer I spent countless hours reading manuscripts that really inspired me to try to get published one day.”
Weil continued to explain her motivation for writing: “The idea came from my strange twisted mind. The stories are really odd, I even surprise myself sometimes with how dark and surreal my stories tend to get.”
Peterhansel took knowledge she acquired through some of her reading on biographies of famous authors.
“Initially, I became fascinated with fictionalized interpretations of the lives of authors from reading ‘The Day on Fire’ by James Ramsay Ullman (about French poet Arthur Rimbaud) when I was in high school,” said Peterhansel.
“Then, freshman year after reading Woolf’s ‘Mrs. Dalloway,’ I came across ‘The Hours’ by Michael Cunningham. I thought it would be interesting to do a similar sort of exploration of Virginia Woolf’s life, but incorporating aspects that ‘The Hours’ either doesn’t touch on or skims over, like her life before marriage, her feminist presence, and her sexuality.”
Hazan’s muse came from the lessons she learned in some of her college classes, specifically, English, psychology and sociology.
“I was interested in how language can ‘otherize’ certain people, the way clinical language can sometimes medicalize and otherize people suffering from mental illness. In addition to placing stigma on mental illness, our culture tends to step away from it, pretending that it exists in a world separate from our own.”
Hazan continued, “I think that’s quite harmful, not only to those with psychological disorders, but to everyone in our society who is missing out on an opportunity for compassion and understanding.”
For most students undergoing the process of writing a creative thesis, they also learn to tailor their own writing styles, habits and processes as well as finding ways to overcome writer’s block.
Weil shared, “ I don’t know how to cure writer’s block, I’m currently experiencing it right now. The majority of my ideas just come to me, and as of late, I haven’t had any ideas make an appearance.”
She continued, “But I do believe that you can’t force an idea. My best stories are always the ones that came to me naturally, I’ve never been one to just sit down and write, I definitely need to be in the mood to.”
Peterhansel takes on a more direct approach with her writing.
“I have a very straightforward method for poetry composition,” Peterhansel described.
“I write a draft in one shot on paper and then immediately put it away. After a few hours, I come back to it and type it up, fixing obvious errors and figuring out what the more finalized form will look like. Then I go through repeated cycles of revision until I’m happy with it.”
Other students are most inspired to work at night.
Hazan added, “After I’ve done research and written a brief literature review, I spend a few hours staring at a blank document in Microsoft Word. I write one draft over the course of a few days (sometimes more), and then I usually need a break from it.”
She said, “I’ll usually come back and revise something several times before I’m really done with it. I prefer writing late at night because it’s quiet, I’m alone and I can concentrate on my thoughts.”
The creative thesis serves as a great opportunity to explore different forms of literature and writing.
Some students find that they favor some forms of literature over other forms, while other students discover they enjoy writing their own work more than reading other people’s.
Peterhansel commented, “I definitely prefer writing poetry; I love the polished nature of it and the exactness of every word being chosen for a particular purpose.
I just find it really beautiful. I like reading poetry and prose about the same, depending on what I’m in the mood for.”
Whereas Hazan explained, “I prefer writing short stories, but I love reading poetry and any type of prose.”
“Like Dorothy, I also prefer writing short stories, but I rarely read them,” Weil adds. “I like reading fiction, no specific kind of fiction, I honestly love all fiction.”
For many students writing an English Honors Thesis, there is the challenge of figuring out what message they would like to convey to their readers, or even if there is one at all.
“I’m not quite sure I have a message, I just want people to be able to sit and become immersed in my stories,” says Weil.
“I tend to end my stories on intense cliffhangers, so I do hope that I leave readers thinking long after they have finished reading my story.”
Peterhansel shared, “There are several things I’m hoping readers would take away, but I mostly wanted to represent the beauty and value of emotional connection to authors their works of literature, and how those connections can change a person’s internal life and ultimately their actions.”
She continued, “I’m also hoping that my portrayal of Virginia Woolf helps to complicate the view people have of her — I’m trying to combine several aspects of her life and work, such as the inclusion of mental illness, sexuality and feminism, rather than just focusing on one.”
Hazan remarked, “Each story is informed by existing clinical research and remains faithful to the facts. Yet, I want people to see the human reality of mental illness, and to see mental illness in context, as it is experienced by those who suffer from it. If I am successful, then readers will find that they can identify with characters battling bulimia, schizophrenia, anxiety, etc., without flattening those characters and seeing only the disorder.”
Students who are looking into doing a creative thesis project are strongly encouraged to have already taken a creative writing workshop in a specific genre.
In order to qualify as an English Honors student, a student must receive at least an A- on their thesis and maintain a 3.3 cumulative GPA.
Proposals were sent to members of the English Department, including Assistant Professor of Renaissance Literature Patricia Wareh and Assistant Professor of English Jillmarie Murphy.
Professor Andrew Burkett will serve as the advisor for the English Honors Thesis Seminar for the next academic year.
For English majors interested in creative writing, short stories, plays or poetry, the opportunity to partcipate in the Honors Thesis Seminar with a creative project provides a great capstone for students’ academic experiences.