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Once upon a time, in a not-so-faraway Yard, there lived a young woman in search of a concentration where she could best express her passions. She had ventured to Harvard in pursuit of an English concentration, but she soon had a change of heart.
After taking a class her freshman year on fantasy literature with folklore and mythology professor Maria Tatar, Rebecca T. Harbeson ’13 fell in love with the idea of studying fairy tales. She decided that concentrating in folklore and mythology would lead to a happier ever after.
Three years later, Harbeson is now writing a young adult novel as a final senior project.
“I realized that writing a research thesis was not necessarily the one thing I wanted to get out of my undergraduate career,” she says. “Writing a novel has always been something I really wanted to do.”
Folklore and mythology recently joined English; literature; studies of women, gender, and sexuality; and visual and environmental studies in offering some concentrators the option of working on a creative project as a senior thesis.
Harbeson, one of the two current seniors pursuing folklore and mythology as a primary concentration, is among the first to take advantage of the new creative option, which is a stand-alone thesis alternative for the first time this year.
Still in its pilot stages, the creative project offers new ways for students to demonstrate their mastery of the field, says Deborah D. Foster, the director of undergraduate studies for folklore and mythology. But faculty and students are still looking for ways to improve the evaluation and mentorship components of the creative option.
A NOVEL APPROACH
The decision to allow students to pursue a creative project in place of a traditional thesis did not come easily. Evaluating an artistic form of expression in the context of an academic institution can be a challenge, Foster says.
“Our faculty do not necessarily have the level of expertise in a particular artistic form to evaluate these projects fairly,” she says. “We need to rely on the project adviser who has some expertise in the particular form the student has chosen to give him or her a grade.”
Because of this difficulty in finding qualified advisers and evaluators, creative theses can only be awarded cum laude honors, whereas traditional senior theses may be awarded cum laude, magna cum laude, or summa cum laude, Foster says.
Tatar, who chairs the Standing Committee on Degrees in Folklore and Mythology, says that the written rationale by the students that accompanies their creative projects helps graders better evaluate them. The committee relies on faculty from the anthropology, English, and VES departments to assist in the evaluations, a system that Tatar says has worked well.
Harbeson says she feels that she has not received as much support for her project as some of her peers who are working on traditional theses. For instance, she cannot go to a senior thesis support group for advice because they are set up to help students writing research theses.
“It’s just me and my adviser,” she says. “I’m begging all my roommates to read my novel so that they can give me feedback.”
In light of the challenges of pursuing a creative thesis, the approval process is designed to make sure that students have enough previous experience in their chosen form to carry out the project, Foster says.
In order for a creative thesis proposal to be approved, the student needs to show that they are familiar with the art form they intend to use, Foster says. Harbeson says she took creative writing classes which prepared her to write her novel.
WORDS AND PICTURES
Harbeson’s plan is to submit a 100-page young adult novel, a rewriting of the fairy tale “Rumpelstiltskin” by the Brothers Grimm, by the mid-March deadline. Her creative thesis allows her to engage with an issue that has been a central part of her life.
“I’m writing as if the queen hadn’t been able to guess Rumpelstiltskin’s name—as if he had kept the child he had been promised,” she says. “The reason why I’m doing this is that fairy tales have an emphasis on the biological family being the only family who can really raise a child.”
As an adopted daughter, Harbeson says that she has a problem with the original tale’s portrayal of biological ties as a necessary component for the ideal family, so she decided to explore the idea of Rumpelstiltskin being able to raise the queen’s daughter on his own.
Devi K. Lockwood ’14, another folklore and mythology student, is also planning on taking advantage of the creative project option, which she says was the deciding factor in choosing her concentration. Her thesis will be a collection of poems that use water as a metaphor for storytelling.
“Water is really central and important to my life because I’m a rower and my mom was a lifeguard, so I’ve just grown up in and around all different kinds of water,” she says. “I’m interested in exploring how water is the unifying factor for different people who live in an area.”
Last spring, Meredith H. Keffer ’12, a former Crimson photo editor, presented a collection of photographs as part of her senior thesis on the worship of folk saints in Argentina.
Before the non-academic thesis option was officially made available to folklore and mythology concentrators, students like Keffer who wanted to do a creative project would include that component alongside their analytical theses. Foster says that this trend contributed to the decision to allow seniors to submit only the creative part.
Keffer’s 166-page thesis, which was about three-quarters photographs, received the Swapna Dev Prize, an award that recognizes excellent senior projects in folklore and mythology, as well as a Hoopes Prize.
“Having a creative option gives students an opportunity to engage those other senses, to think and work outside of the narrow academic box, and also to try to convey knowledge in a more engaging way,” Keffer says.
Tatar calls folklore and mythology a “kaleidoscopic concentration” because of the variety of creative media it can include. “We’re living in a multidisciplinary academic world and in a multimedia environment, where knowledge is transmitted now through visual and print culture,” she says.
For this concentration, a creative thesis is a good fit, Keffer opines. “You have to open yourself to a certain degree of creativity in order to study other cultures,” she says, adding that folklore is often defined precisely as the study of expressive culture.
Foster, however, notes that the term “creative” may be a problematic label for the artistic option, since it implies that the traditional thesis is something other than creative.
Lockwood agrees, “Writing an analytical thesis is just engaging in a different kind of creativity.”
Folklore and mythology concentrators say that they appreciate how responsive the Committee has been to their special interests. “It’s brilliant for people like me, because I struggle a lot with paper writing and the idea of writing a thesis was incredibly intimidating to me,” Harbeson says. “I wouldn’t have enjoyed it.”
“It’s a department where you’re not anonymous in any way,” says Lockwood. “Your intellectual interests can mix up with your personal life in the best possible way.”
—Staff writer Francesca Annicchiarico can be reached at email@example.com.
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