by Bob Schoone-Jongen.
About a year ago a student walks into my office. “Hey, professor…,” begins the conversation. (It may have been just “prof.”) Anyhow, the conversation immediately turns to an honors thesis: How to do one? Would I supervise a project? In my mind there are counter questions: What’s the topic? Why me? Do I know enough about this topic to be useful? Isn’t someone else in the neighborhood better suited to this? Intellectual history? Military history—the kind that the History Channel offers on Memorial Day weekends? Me? Seriously? Since I am writing this today, it should be obvious what the outcome of the conversation was. This has happened to me twice in my years here at Calvin. The first time no one asked for a blog post. So, here’s another milestone for me.
As a professor I have attended honors convocations and read the short blurbs in the programs. To me the topics range from the interesting, to the arcane, to the mystifying. It is easy to scan them and nod approvingly at the students’ achievements, while applauding the professors who oversaw the work. I have participated in a defense or two over the years.
As a father, I had heard sagas from sons who graduated from Calvin with honors (albeit not from the history department, alas). From them I learned about the amount of extra effort the honors program required. To my mind they deserved their medallions for stamina alone, if not for their scholarship. I would hope it was for both.
Supervising these projects sheds a whole different light on what they actually are at their best. One professor, one student. One topic, many subpoints. Two semesters, thousands of pages of reading. One paper, sixty odd pages—the distillation of countless hours of reading, reflection, and writing. Sixty pages of ideas winnowed into a twenty minute oral presentation and a one hour graduate school-like defense.
This outline only hints at the hours of conversation, dozens of emails, and complex negotiations over what to read, what the end product will be, what the thesis of the thesis is, who the target audience might be, where the project fits into the history of history—and those are just the ones I remember. In short, an honors thesis, like life, is a work in progress—something never finally finished, but concluded to meet a deadline. This week is that deadline for this year’s group of honors historians.
Working with a student on one topic for one year is an education. The topic is not one I would have chosen for myself. That demands climbing out of my normal historical boxes to look at another sector of the horizon. I am learning as the student is learning. Since I am on a new frontier, I do not ask normal questions about this unexplored territory. That makes the student think about a favorite topic in a different way. Since neither of us is completely within our comfort zones, there can be disagreements, conflicts, miscommunications. Over the course of an entire year, the can really accumulate. But, in the end, we have both grown as scholars. Hopefully, that growth, and the student’s final thesis, will make the historical horizon a bit lighter for all us.
Hats off to the eight who are presenting their work this week. I suspect that if we could total all the hours that have gone into making this week happen, both those of the students and their mentors, it would approach the length of an average lifetime. In historical terms, that might not sound like much. But in terms of the life of our department, it represents a laudable achievement, the likes of which we may not see again for quite a while. So, let’s celebrate the gifts we have been given, and the way those gifts have been employed this year. It is a great week to be a historian at Calvin.
This year’s eight history honors graduates will present their research in a three-day symposium, May 6-8, 2014 at 3:30pm. These presentations are open to the public and all are warmly invited to attend. Come hear the results of their countless hours of research and writing.
Robert Schoone-Jongen is in his eleventh year at Calvin College, working with student teachers who hope to become high school and middle school social studies teachers. His historical interests are immigration, American social history, and the presidency.