Set this down, put this down: this is thesis, the sister of dissertation. This is thesis and you are Theseus, setting out to prove yourself. You have beaten Periphetes, left repining disarticulated Pityokamptes, hammered the big pig, kicked Sciron off the cliff, and disconcerted Cercyon; you have turned all the tides and used their methods against them to vanquish them. Are you the master? You will be once you have mastered one more: Procrustes has made his bed and you must make him lie in it. The one who racks him with the sisal or curtails him with the scythes is the victor. Now is the time to show your chops and put him in his place as you have put them all in their places.
A thesis is, after all, something set down, put in place. The source is Greek θέσις, noun, ‘putting, placing’, from verb τιθέναι tithenai ‘put, place’. It is the object that you put down to study and the objection that you subject your readers to; it is, in the spirit of scholarship, meant to be the antithesis of the pat statement – it is an enthusiastic synthesis of learnings, an exploration, a key with which to open the golden door to the ivory tower.
Lockmakers had their masterpieces, their intricate show-works that admitted them to the highest levels of the craft, ornate locks with involuted keys that proved they were worthy of the title master; Freemasons have their third degree, the detailed examination that elevates a Fellow Craft to Master Mason; scholars have both: the intricate showpiece flourish of scholarly endeavour and the examination that certifies it. The meat of the thesis may be Greek to hoi polloi, but to those in the know it must best them at their game. They are the teachers and you must teach them something, and at the end you must be examined by them on the one thing you should know better than they. The crowning effort of your assault is your defence. You, a crusty amateur, must best Procrustes: rack your brains and stretch your logic, find the shortcuts and use Occam’s Razor. And then, after a minute or two, you may have to slay the minotaur too: thread the labyrinth so briskly you are dizzied as with labyrinthitis, but keep your labour in thesis form standing even as the man-bull falls. To produce something fitting and show you fit, you must reshape the scholarship – or anyway add a new plank to the scholars’ ship.
The ship of Theseus, which he took back to Athens after slaying the Minotaur in Crete, was preserved by the Athenians for centuries after his return, sitting in the harbour. When a plank would rot, it was replaced. Over time, all the planks had been replaced, some many times, but the ship was still there. The original shape of the thing was there, and the endeavour remained – though not venturing forth anymore – but nothing that had been there in the first place remained. Was it the same ship? This question has entertained scholars, too, but even those who say it was not the original participate in a scholarship that is built on the same model as Theseus’s ship, evolving until nothing that was once true is true now… and they argue using bodies and minds that have been entirely replaced with new bits over time, and yet have an apparent persistence (nothing you were born with remains in you). Bodies and minds that for some, locked in the ivory tower with keys of their own making, set sail no more often than the ancient and honoured ship of Theseus.
But ah, no need to be bitter. Don’t put down what has been set down; respect the effort that is a thesis. I do: I have written three (the second of which I call a dissertation). My mother has written one; my father has written three. It may be an initiation; it may be labyrinthine; it may be somewhat Procrustean; but it is a good way to show that you have the intellectual and academic fitness to claim mastery of your subject. And it is a good excuse to spend time doing an in-depth examination of something that fascinates you.
My first thesis, defended and passed in 1995, was called “Paratextual Pragmatics: A study of usages of printed paratexts in commercial and nonprofit theatre in Boston, 1993–4.” It was about how theatre posters and programs (and so on) are used by those producing them and received by those reading them. It earned me a Master’s in drama. I do not have a complete concatenated electronic version of it; it was done using a word processing program now obsolete. But I published a chapter of it (mutatis mutandis) in Semiotica, “A case study in the pragmatics of American theatrical programs.”
My second thesis was a dissertation – a term most commonly reserved for theses to qualify for the doctorate (and not used by everyone for that). It was “‘Containment Is the Enemy’: an Ideography of Richard Schechner,” an interesting extended look at the work of an experimental director and theorist. I am not normally given to focusing on persons, but I was advised that it would be a good move. I enjoyed doing it. But when I was done it I was done it – nothing further was ever made of it. I received my golden key, the PhD, in 1998.
And then I decided to study linguistics. I started from the very beginning, all the necessary undergraduate classes (and then some), and then graduate seminars again (at last – so much better than undergrad lectures), and finally, to show I know, another thesis. Only this time while working, and travelling, and generally having a life. And linguistics involves much more dull repetitive scut work than humanities and fine arts do, though the resulting material gains an added solidity as a result. It was a Thesean labour, and written to a prescribed form. How does one be so formal and still be informational? Well, that is to others to judge. I defended my thesis on March 8, 2016. It was not a battle with a Minotaur; it was a pleasant colloquy. And now it is done: “Relative Use of Phonaesthemes in the Constitution and Development of Genres.” In it, I quantitatively analyze the way words such as splash, gleam, and clump help us know what kind of thing we’re reading. If I want it to sit on my bookshelf, I will have to print off a copy; the university requires only electronic submission now. And now I – again – am the master. Of linguistics this time.
So. Three theses. Theseus three times. And now I exit the labyrinth and, as the tide turns, take my scholar ship home; the bed is made.