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A Survey of Senior Theses

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FEBRUARY 06, 2015

A senior thesis can be a daunting prospect. 50 pages? That’s hefty! That’s a novella! That can’t be accomplished in a typical undergraduate one-night frantic Main Stacks extravaganza. That calls for a little more preparation and a little more investment.

But it’s rewarding. You can be a detective, sifting through 18th-century newspaper articles and law codes and letters for a paragraph that cracks the case wide open. You can be a reporter, interviewing living subjects from around the world, hearing their stories. You can carve out a tiny piece of the universe that no one has ever considered before and make it your own.

Here is a sampling of what some brave thesis-writing seniors have been working on this semester. These undergraduates are picking apart the archives, heading out to the field and traveling the world in their quests for information, illumination and, hopefully, a decent grade.


Samira Damavandi, Middle Eastern studies



What is the topic of your thesis?

“State Sponsored Feminism: Analyzing the Women’s Organization of Iran from 1966-1979.” The Women’s Organization of Iran was a women’s civil society organization determined to enhance women’s rights in Iran. However, the organization had a lot of financial backing from the royal family, and I am analyzing how that may have affected the organization and what the organization did. I also argue that the organization may have been promoted by the state for their own political goals rather than for support of women’s rights.

Is there anything unexpected you’ve learned by working on this project?

I’ve learned a lot about the entire research process and have learned the hard way that things don’t always go as planned. I went to Washington, D.C., to do archival research and had been communicating for months with the organization that I was supposed to visit, and when I got there, they told me that they had moved all of the materials that I specifically needed into storage and that it was en route to Toronto, Canada. The research process can be frustrating especially when trying to do research in another language as well. I think I’ve learned to be more patient and to have better time management skills.

What got you interested in this topic?

I am a Middle Eastern studies and political science double major and gender and women’s studies minor, so I have always been interested in the intersection of these disciplines. MES majors are required to write theses, so I wanted to work on a topic that I knew I would enjoy and learn more about. I am Iranian-American and have taken Persian at Cal, which helps with understanding primary sources. I have always been passionate about learning more about Iranian history and female activists in Iran, so when I had heard about the Women’s Organization of Iran and the work that they accomplished, I wanted to learn more!


Casey Berkovitz, history



What is the topic of your thesis?

I’m writing about how Ronald Reagan used historical themes of the American West in his political career. That refers to concepts like the image of the “independent frontiersman,” Manifest Destiny and cowboys-and-Indians imagery.

What have been your research methods?

History research in general is almost exclusively archival research and reading primary and secondary sources; I’m lucky because most of the primary sources I’m using (Reagan’s speeches) are available online. I will be traveling to the Reagan Presidential Library in Southern California later this semester to access some of the hard-copy journals and audiovisual recordings they have there.

What is your goal for this project?

I’m hoping to have a final project that can substantively contribute to the historical field of the American West. There’s plenty of scholarship about the actual, historical West, but most historians writing about the historical American West in modern culture are writing about pop culture like film and TV.


Peace And Love El Henson, African American studies



What is the topic of your thesis?

My senior honors thesis, “Pathways to an Elite University for African American Women from Low-Income Neighborhoods,” centralizes the educational experiences of African American women who grew up in Oakland, California. My study explores three distinct research questions: How do African American women from low-income neighborhoods matriculate into elite universities such as UC Berkeley? What strategies do women use along their pathway to a university setting? And how do race, class, gender and region shape their lives and educational experiences?

Is there anything unexpected you’ve learned by working on this project?

This project has been an eye-opening experience. Specifically, with transcribing interviews and working closely with the stories women have shared with me, I developed an understanding to not aim to tell a good story or a bad story. Instead, I aim to tell a story that delves into the complexities of the race, class and gendered experiences of African American women who grew up in low-income areas in Oakland and the process of navigating and negotiating their identities in the neighborhood, school and world around them. Mid-way through my project, I became anxious about what these women may think of the story I will share with readers. Will they agree with the story I have told? Will they feel I have protected their honor? I know that these are general concerns ethnographers have when in the process of telling the story of communities, particularly historically marginalized communities. However, I settle any concerns I may have by saying to myself that I will use the best of my skills to tell a balanced story: a story that is not good or bad but takes readers through the days and the lives of African American women from low-income neighborhoods in Oakland.

What makes this topic important to you?

Audre Lorde’s “the personal is political” continues to fuel my passion to take my own life circumstances into account and use my study to uncover the pathways and strategies other undergraduates who are black, female and grew up in low-income areas in Oakland used to matriculate into UC Berkeley. Often times, black women do not have the space to share, discuss and explore their life experiences. Often times, when the stories of black women are told, the stories speak about black women, not with black women. The goal of my study is to not only speak with black women who grew up in low-income areas in Oakland but to open the space for these women to speak for themselves and to tell the story from their own perspective, which is often discounted in the general public and literature on African Americans and education.


Jeff Spingeld, linguistics



What is the topic of your thesis?

The topic is the typology of Mixtec tone systems. Mixtec is a subfamily of indigenous languages of southern Mexico, most of which have complex tone systems, meaning that there are tones associated with the words and complex sets of rules for what happens to the tones when you put the words together.

What have been your research methods?

Working with native speakers in the U.S., reading linguistics literature dating back to the 1940s that describes how these languages work and ultimately (taking) a monthlong trip to a rural Mexican town this past August. The field work basically involves asking people how to say words, writing them down including marking the tones, sorting them into groups based on their tone patterns — much harder than it sounds — and then systematically finding out what happens when words of different types are combined into phrases and sentences.

What makes this topic important to you? To the greater community?

You could argue that language is the essential human cognitive faculty, and if we want to understand the possibilities of human cognition, we have to explore the full range of variation possible in language. Working with smaller languages is an especially urgent task, because most of them are being replaced by languages like English and Spanish and may no longer be available for study in a few generations or sooner.


Nikki Owens, interdisciplinary studies field



What is the topic of your thesis?

My thesis will trace the development of secular America with specific focus on the pedagogical institutions that act to inculcate certain sensibilities towards religion within their subject. I will also attempt to explore the connection between secularity and the “spiritual, not religious” movement.

What got you interested in this topic?

Despite having what I would describe as a deeply personal relationship with God, I have always been wary of describing myself as “religious” to people I meet because of the negative connotation the term so often holds. I wanted to examine what kind of fears and motivations were undergirding my reluctance to identify with an organized religion and how that reluctance got there in the first place.

How do people outside your major or who are perhaps unfamiliar with your topic react when you tell them what you’re working on?

They either think I’m some sort of brilliant, innovative scholar or a complete idiot.


Eric Michels, interdisciplinary studies field



What is the topic of your thesis?

Consciousness, its relation to life, and its place in the world.

What greater academic, social or cultural conversation do you hope to contribute to?

I know it’s corny, but I would really like to spark conversations within the reader’s own mind. The subject matter is very practical: Oneself is not just one’s body but also one’s awareness. With greater awareness, we can more easily overcome the obstacles that we place in our own paths and find greater, more sustainable happiness.

What are some obstacles you’ve been facing?

I’m an undergraduate student trying to make a grandiose statement about consciousness and reality​, which are topics that have been debated for millennia. In order to remain confident and motivated, I have to ignore the possibility that people may not seriously consider that what I’m saying could be valid.

How do people outside your major or who are perhaps unfamiliar with your topic react when you tell them what you’re working on?

Usually either “Woah, that’s interesting” or “Oh, boy.”​


Stephanie Thornton, history



What is the topic of your thesis?

I’m researching the CIA-sponsored Radio Free Europe, a broadcasting service established in Central and Eastern Europe during the Cold War and the ways its policies and programming changed throughout the years as American attitudes towards the Eastern bloc developed.

What have been your research methods?

Right now, I’m spending a lot of time with CIA files that have just recently been declassified. That’s the most exciting part! They’re all marked “Secret” and have names and places blacked out. I’m hoping to go to Stanford in the next couple of weeks, as all of the broadcast archives — as well as journalist testimonies, more CIA documents, etc. — are housed there.

What greater academic, social or cultural conversation do you hope to contribute to?

It’s a really good practice in trying to delve deep into a topic as objectively as possible. I hear “CIA-sponsored media,” especially being transplanted into another country by the United States, and immediately, a million red flags go off, right? But at the same time, Radio Free Europe is still today providing a platform for a lot of persecuted journalists to share stories they haven’t been able to share in the past. So my entire starting point was a fuzzy confusion about how I felt. But the project’s not about evaluating the institution and saying, “This was good, that was bad,” but rather, “What questions can I actually answer and demonstrate about this thing that I care about?” I think that’s the main struggle for a lot of history projects and maybe most people’s research projects/theses in any discipline.

Erica Hendry is a contributor to The Weekender. Contact her at [email protected]

FEBRUARY 06, 2015