Supporting Thesis Writers with the ARC

March 29, 2021
Margaret Rennix talks with students at a workshop in the Bok Center's Learning Lab.

Over the years, the Bok Center has worked with academics at various stages of their careers who are trying to summarize large scale research projects in short compressed bits of time, particularly through our support of Harvard Horizons and the Star Friedman Challenge. Supporting senior thesis writers is a perfect extension of this work, and in January, the Learning Lab was invited by Harvard’s Academic Resource Center (ARC) to offer a pitch workshop as part of the ARC’s first Senior Thesis Writers Retreat.

Khaleem Ali & Margaret Rennix, Academic Coaches at the ARC, had heard from a wide array of departments that senior thesis writers needed help that went beyond content-area support: help with strategies for project planning, avoiding procrastination, and finding a supportive network of peers. Ali and Rennix designed a comprehensive, week-long retreat with sessions on “Crushing Your Citations,” “Honing Your Argument,” and “From Goals to Actions.”

The Bok Center staff contributed to the retreat by running a version of an activity that we use each year for the Harvard Horizons scholars in which we ask students to choose a classic Hollywood screenplay structure and pitch their project in a single minute based on that structure. Have you happened upon a mystery you need to solve? Are there competing data points or perspectives on the data that just don’t go together, like the leads in a RomCom? Is there a powerful theoretical model or critic you are trying to defeat, as the lead of an action film might? By leaning on their familiarity with these standard cinematic cliches, students can identify the core structure of their complex argument and, crucially, can lean on their audiences’ own familiarities with the rhythms of tension and resolution that structure stories. Their ideas, of course, are more complex than what you find in the typical mainstream film, but looking for the core story structure within a complex project is an exercise that often helps students clarify what they want their audience to take away.

The materials we developed for the ARC workshop have now played a role in our support for pitch-like activities assigned in courses with large scale capstone projects, including Manja Klemencic’s Gen Ed 1039: Higher Education: Students, Institutions and Controversies and LPCE 100: StudioLab on Creativity and Entrepreneurship. The ARC plans to offer the retreat again next year, building on what students report was an extremely valuable source of support in a difficult year.

When the Learning Lab studios reopen, we regularly record students delivering video pitches. If this is something you're interested in doing next year, please contact us at learninglab@fas.harvard.edu.

For more ideas about how to support senior thesis writers, check out our resourses on advising senior theses.