A year-long honor’s thesis project is one of the highpoints of a liberal arts education. Some of the most motivated, inquisitive, and talented students—under faculty supervision—carry out extended research, write, and publish a thesis that, in the best cases, is innovative and on par with graduate work. Even when the outcomes are more modest, a thesis can help students integrate their undergraduate education in highly creative and critical ways. To help them on the way, honors students work with a thesis adviser as well as additional readers. At Lafayette, these readers typically include another member of the home department or program and an external reader, i.e., a member of the faculty from another discipline.
It can be challenging enough to advise a student in one’s own field—what role, then, does an external reader play in honors thesis advising? On March 3, 2020, a panel of faculty, including Dr. Mary Armstrong (Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies), Dr. Luis Schettino (Psychology and Neuroscience), and Dr. Dave Shulman (Anthropology & Sociology) met to address this question.
From their experience both as thesis advisers and as external readers, the panelists shared a lot of common ground. They noted that Lafayette does not have explicit guidance for external readers. All the panelists agreed that the reader’s role on a thesis committee and the thesis process itself can differ considerably from one department or program to the next. Panelists had participated in thesis committees where the external reader played an integral role from the beginning of the process to committees where they had little interaction with the project until it was nearly complete. Sometimes their duties as external reader were made explicit to them by the thesis adviser while, in other cases, they had to take the initiative to find out what was expected.
Thoughts and Advice from Lafayette Faculty Who Have Served as External Readers:
External Readers Can Encourage Thesis Students to Refine their Ideas: In general, the panelists agreed that one of the principal, and most useful, jobs of the external reviewer is to help the student, as one panelist put it, “see the forest for the trees.” In other words, the external reader can play a pivotal role in helping the student (and sometimes other committee members) remember the larger context in which the student’s specific research takes place. If students must explain the intricacies of their thesis intelligibly to the external reader, this encourages them to communicate their ideas effectively to larger audiences.
External Readers Can Model Interdisciplinary Collaboration: An additional key contribution of external readers is to model interdisciplinary collaboration for our students. When students see that we take seriously the work of our colleagues outside of our fields, they learn that academic research, even when quite specialized, is strongest when it is open to a broad range of academic interaction and cooperation. Panelists noted that external readers model this collaboration by offering guidance without acting as the expert in a subject that is outside of their research area. To that end, external readers should allow the home department to drive the thesis student’s research.
External Readers Can Help Gauge The Success of a Thesis Project: Another important role that external readers can play on honors thesis committees is to help gauge the ongoing feasibility of the honors project. The panelists noted that it can be difficult for a students’ advisers, given their proximity and lengthy academic relationships with students, to see when a thesis project is failing to make the necessary progress toward successful completion. In these cases, an external reader’s distance can provide the objectivity needed to point out that it may be in the student’s best interests to reframe the project as an independent study or to encourage the student to look at other avenues such as capstone courses.
External Readers and Students Thrive with Department and Program Guidance: While panelists agreed that a college-wide “one-size-fits-all” honor’s thesis process would not be a positive development, they did note that pre-existing expectations and norms for honor’s thesis in a given department or program do allow for more consistent and useful feedback from both advisers and readers. Agreed-upon expectations generally promote better communication between students and their committees, and they also save faculty the work of having to reinvent the process for each new honors student. In terms of incorporating external readers, the panelists advised that a best practice is to get the external reader’s input on the project early in the research year and make it the student’s responsibility to maintain open dialogue with all committee members, including the external reader. Thesis advisors should also encourage students to consider in advance how they will work with an external reader and to choose them thoughtfully.
External Readers Benefit from the Experience: Finally, panelists noted that there are some important faculty benefits to being an external reader. First, it is often an opportunity to learn new things from our gifted students and faculty colleagues and to work collaboratively with them. Second, it creates esprit de corps with faculty across the college and showcases the best lights of the liberal arts.