Thursday, December 21, 2006

MA thesis or exam? Or both? Or none of the above?

OK, here's a follow-up post to the previous one on our MA exam reading list. We don't do a formal thesis; instead, we have the exam and a "master's paper." While currently the official language doesn't compare it to a journal article, we're currently discussing making it more rigorous in some way or another, and I think a "potentially publishable" work of about 30 pages is a way we should go.

But I don't think we should go back to the old MA thesis. First, I think the 60-100 page document has no connection to what we do as scholars -- it's too long for an article and too short for a book. Second, our students (meaning the university's -- I'm drawing on what I know of the other MA programs) tend either not to finish or to drag out their time to degree when there's a thesis, and I don't want to contribute to the ever-lengthening time to the Ph.D. for students in the humanities. A stand-alone MA should be no longer than two years so the students can move on to whatever comes next. Besides, we can't fund them longer than that, anyway, and I'm also looking to reduce the number of unfunded semesters students tack on.

That said, the discussion list for directors of grad programs has lately gotten into this discussion, and I've seen some passionate arguments for the thesis. They fall roughly into two groups: 1) those who report that their students who go on to PhDs find that having already worked on a sustained piece of research and writing helps them with the dissertation; and 2) those who argue that a student will remember his or her thesis years later, but not what s/he wrote or said in an exam. The first argument moves me more than the second, but I wonder if the same can be said of a "potentially publishable work," since something like that takes sustained research and writing, even though shorter.

I also think something like that combined with some kind of exam that demonstrates more breadth -- though I'm still not sure what that would look like -- gets at the heart of the MA experience, which I think should give you the sense of the discipline and allow you the opportunity to show your "mastery" of its discourse and knowledge. (And I'm really starting to think that George Justice's description of a portfolio exam/capstone in the comments in the post below might be the best possible combination of all of the above. Thanks, George! And welcome to the blogosphere.)

What do y'all think?

1 comment:

Ancarett said...

My perspective from a different field? We have two streams for our M.A.: thesis (120 pages, externally reviewed) + 2 full year courses or research essay (60 page, internal review only) + 3 full year course equivalents. Our students opt for the second stream by a 3/1 margin because it is possible to complete that in one year.

One of the courses that students in both streams are required to take is half a year of methodology where we introduce them to some of the key approaches and texts in the field. But nothing as comprehensive as your M.A. exam.