Tribhuvan University should change the way it handles thesis writingAfter years of sitting in exams to protract the bevies of bullet points, students are faced to deal with an unfamiliar object.
Two months ago, after deferring for a year, I finally submitted my MA thesis to the Central Department of Sociology, Tribhuvan University. The submission brought an ecstatic sense of accomplishment, having done what had to be done, and that helped me earn a degree. But then, as I felt through the dusky hardcover, and flipped through its pages, I felt it as an academic object with far less erudition than it should have been.
The thesis was not the first collegiate piece I ever wrote. During my two years of graduate study, I was obliged to write a number of précises and papers for each course. In addition, I wrote two longish articles under the supervision of Oxford and JNU doctorates while attending an exchange program abroad. Of the two, the first one was sort of an arm-chair contemplation, assisted by a vast amount of dullish data on the internet. The curious peculiarity of Chinese tea houses prodded me to frequent to their drinking galleries, chat with the connoisseurs, casual drinkers and makers which supplied me with enough data to churn another article with a few theoretical additions. This writing experience and sundry scribbling, however, didn’t make my thesis writing process less arduous or more voluble.
In a dilemma over whether to write on the slow disappearance of the Yakkha language in an eastern district, for which I had made some preliminary notes during a visit to the region in question, or to write about two wartime massacres of twenty Dalit men in the west, I finally decided to write on those two massacres. As I had noticed during my visit, the case of Yakkha language would have been equally intriguing: the way it contradicted with the popular assumptions on disappearances of indigenous languages. On the other hand, the topic I chose was controversial: dragging the security forces into a space of culpability and accountability after seventeen years of massacres, aligning with economically strangulated and politically suffocated community, and transgressing the disciplinary boundaries in a thesis of a course that orthodoxically demands stringent methodological approach and neutrality. The process of my thesis writing was arduous: to think over and immure the data within the broad, overarching concepts that would give my thesis a sociological sense, and to meticulously deal with the subtleties and nuances of portraying the researched community. Having stumbled, hesitated and dithered over the choice of concepts, titles and idioms, I submitted to my supervisors who, again, littered the draft with suggestions—stylistic and substantial. Although my supervisors admired the piece of work I had accomplished, they made an allusion that I might even have breached the code of my discipline. Nevertheless, I managed to learn more about the tricks of academic writing from my supervisors throughout the correspondence.
But, the experience of thesis writing of most of the TU students is not as such. All of a sudden, after years of sitting in exams to protract the bevvies of bullet points, the students are faced to deal with thesis writing—a totally unfamiliar object. Thesis demands an independent rumination of an intellectual problem, review of relevant texts, locating and gathering data from the field, and finally writing. The task of thesis, seemingly easy, dumbfounds a graduate as she has not been provided with tools to matter-of-factly relate the readings through her long school career. Until recently, students at the Central Department of Sociology used to submit theses on fiercely identical topics, that read along the lines of ‘socioeconomic conditions of X caste or ethnic group’ or ‘causes and consequences of X’. Without proper orientation, and lacking knowledge about what a topic can be or can’t be, they used to resort back to safe topics which were already permitted and tested. Students asked ‘thesis authors’ to write their pieces, or, they languaged their data in a structure of theses which were already approved. As TU has shifted its MA course to a semester system that demands more dialogue between students, teachers and texts, things are now expected to change. Departments generally schedule ‘how-to-write thesis’ classes at the end of courses. But, when I attended such classes in 2017, I found those them unfulfilling—providing the students with more heat than light, all classes focusing on similar things, and not a single one untangling the concept itself. Consequently, students are coming with a barrage of themes like ‘domestic violence’, ‘disaster’ or ‘migration’. There is nothing wrong in writing about all these topics, they help to compare in-vogue issues across communities, but they create homogeneity and duplication of our thinking—all pondering over similar issues in a similar way.
As Italian novelist, philosopher and semiotician Umberto Eco is said to have argued in his ‘A Guide to Writing Thesis’, as quoted by reviewer Hua Hsu in The New Yorker, thesis prepares a novice student to a ‘world of ideas, philosophies and debate’. Likewise, MA courses at TU should restructure the pedagogy with which students can understand concepts on their own, generate practical problems and deal with the same with the medium of writing. The faculty should not induce the students that the thesis is a quantitative work which they can simply language into a predefined structure. They should show how students can negotiate between the science and art of academic writing with which they can think of heteronomy of problems, concepts and writing styles. Thereafter, students will be able to comprehend the social lives, their textual representations, contest over them, and contribute to the existing heap of knowledge.
There are plenty of issues that mar the quality of teaching and learning in TU. There are concerns over plagiarisation, committed by students, professors and high officials, frequently surfacing in the media. The case of students and regarding their thesis duplication demands pedagogical amendment rather than moralistic treatment: universities should orient and familiarise the students on research writing, rather than suggesting the obvious—you should write your own thesis. Had I been oriented, I would have written my thesis with more erudition and would have written with more comfort. Had Tribhuvan University been focusing on thesis writing, the face of social science and humanities would have been different.
Acharya is a former student of the Central Department of Sociology, Tribhuvan University.