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Sunday, April 13, 2014

Ponder College (6)—Senior Thesis

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Click here for the introduction to the Round and Square series "Ponder College"
This is an "long post" (大)—click here for an explanation of Round and Square post lengths.
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On this date on Round and Square's History 
13 April 2013—China's Lunar Calendar 2013 04-13
13 April 2012—La Pensée Chinoise: Chinese Civilization (and Thought)
13 April 2011—Breaking the Vessel: Crafting a History
[a] Huntington(s) of books RF
It has been a studious week at Ponder College, my alma mater.

It always is. That's how we roll here down here, on the edge of the north Texas tumbleweed.

We're going to do something "a little bit different" these next few weeks, and that is partly because things are heating up here at Ponder. And it approaches a boil, just as the term wraps. That only makes sense to those on the inside, but I will explain.
[b] Focused RF

Right now, students are writing their Ponder College senior projects, and that means that everyone, in every department, does a major project—double majors write two, and that is why there are very few double majors here. Needless to say, there are no "minors" at all. We'll consider all of that as the next year of news maintains its weekly, burbling pace. We don't have time for that now (the pressure is on). 

Let's just consider this whole senior thesis thing for a moment, though. To be sure, we'll be returning to all of this as we learn more about our special (and sometimes odd) little college on a green oasis surrounded by North Texas tumbleweed. There are so many things to tell in these early days of our weekly News From Ponder College that it is difficult to know where to begin every week. Still, this week really hit crunch time, and the topic must be addressed.

You see, everyone writes a thesis at Ponder. 

Every. Single. One (and some Two...but they are nuts...or have an agenda...).

This has been going on since the late-1950s, when Ponder College, after a successful almost-century of old-time education (and the first liberal arts college in the American south), chose to move beyond its successful "regional" model. Part of that move sixty years ago included ratcheting up the seriousness of the senior year experience. Ponder College faculty and administrators looked around the country, and saw a few schools with very strong senior year academic experiences. They liked what they saw, and sought to fit their lessons to life at Ponder.
[c] Data RF

I talked the other day with Professor Emeritus Edward "Tex" Goss, who chaired the faculty committee that studied the matter from 1956 to 1958. Tex was a young professor of geology back then, before a storied career that led him to claim the mineral rights to several still-producing Texas oil fields, being elected to the Texas legislature, and crowning his political career as a five-term U.S. senator. Since his retirement from Congress, he has been teaching courses on government and geology at Ponder, and has a remarkable memory about those matters six decades ago. He goes to the 10:00 a.m. morning coffee session for emeritus faculty members (they are called the Morning Longhorns) every day. 

That is where I caught up with him.

Here's what I asked Tex: 
"So how did you and others get the idea to change the senior year so profoundly that it would never be the same again—and in an American decade, the 1950s, that did not tend to look outward in an aggressive way?"
[d] Reflection RF

Tex replied:
"Well, I will quibble with you a bit about your characterization of the 1950s. I think that you have stereotyped them badly. They were wildly creative in ways that historians will be sorting out for the next century, but have been buried in the short run by the seemingly...and only sometimes truly so...changes of the 1960s. Those piece-of-crap baby boomers have destroyed the deeper narrative—it's all about them, from war protest to adult diapers—all of the time. 

When we're all dead, historians will rethink the 1950s. Oh, and really—this little change at tiny Ponder College is a good example of precisely that kind of 1950s creativity and vision. We weren't all worrying about where to park the car, even in the 1950s.

"Having said that, it was clearly not a common move back in those days. I was a young, recently tenured professor back then, and I was ambitious. I had ideals, and I wanted to make Ponder College one of the foremost colleges in the nation—and, hands-down, the best undergraduate education in the world. I think we've accomplished that. 

"But I won't lie. I hoped to use it to become a dean and a president within the world of liberal arts education. Little did I know that it would lead me away from all of that, and into Texas and then national politics. Being back in higher education now in my middle age (I'm eighty-eight this year, and just hitting my stride), I think that this is the biggest thing I have ever accomplished, including my service on the Senate committee investigating Watergate
[e] Deep RF

"Having every single Ponder College graduate write a serious senior project...and now for almost sixty years...has transformed not only who we are, but what we show to the nation and the world. It is transformational, and this is the proudest achievement in my career."
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Many seniors are a little less enthusiastic. Joe Scrabough '14, who is writing a history of Ponder College in the 1950s—and has both read through the archives and interviewed the guy they call "Doc Tex" here at Ponder—has mixed feelings. "I won't lie—at least at the moment, I hate this. How could it be otherwise? I know that ten, twenty years from now, I will probably say what a wonderful thing it all "was." Right now, I would like to wind down, drink a little beer, take a few challenging classes, write a few short papers (only thirty pages or so), and call it a college career. Right this very moment in my senior year, and contemplating saying goodbye to friends of the kind it will be hard to reproduce...I really despise what Tex and the 1950s folk have done to us. And, yes, I'm a student of history. I can already sense what I'll be saying after I graduate. Just remember: It's not how I feel now

Right now, I really hate this."

Alumni (like the predicted future Joe some twenty years from now) have fiercely positive memories of those senior days. Malia Alita '84, remembers the roller-coaster of learning and despair that made up that senior spring. "I was a chemistry major thirty years ago, and the year looked as though it would shape up nicely in terms of slowly moving from one stage to the next (isn't that what "science" does—just moves from step to step?...wrong!). 

"In the fall, we had a wonderful senior seminar that helped us to design our projects and prepare to write a publishable scientific paper. From there, I lulled myself into thinking that it was just a matter of going through the motions and 'writing it up.' Oh, how I despise those writing up words today. It was then, and only then, that I learned the relationship between doing science and writing it. No amount of classwork could ever have taught me what I learned that year. The entire key to my success in academia and industry can be traced back to those lessons."
[f] Text RF

Jon MacAfee '64 echoes those comments, but from a very different textual perspective. "I was an English major, and I spent most of my first and second years (back then we called them "freshman" and "sophomore") thinking about the nature of American fictional literature. I went to the chair of the English department, and asked whether I could write a novel for my senior project. The answer was a firm and seemingly unequivocal no. I pursued this, though, and wouldn't let go. By the middle of my junior year, I had already crafted the plan for the novel, and faculty sentiment began to bend. It was approved before my senior year, and I wrote Ponder College's first senior thesis novel.

"Oh, and it was total crap.

"It was self-indulgent and lacked any sense at all (as I see it today) of a nuanced world. Still, the skills I developed in writing it were absolutely the key to my career the last five decades as a nonfiction writer with a sense of detail and, well, nuance. Ponder made this happen, and I doubt that my success at The New Yorkshire would have been possible if I had not grasped what a high bar writing well would be. It would have been far easier to take the easy way and write competent college essays and never really know. I am also happy to say that many Ponder College graduates have written novels since then, and a good number of them are much better than that load of dung I slopped at them back then."

And Tex has much more to say about how this all happened. The next few weeks, for better or worse, will be all about pondering the senior project. If you think that lacks proportion, well you don't know Ponder (yet). The senior thesis is the key to understanding Ponder. 

Like the study of history, you need to move backwards to grasp it.
[g] Always Learning RF

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