Ode on a Thesis Carrel

By this point in the semester, I feel the same way about being a senior Honors major as  Dion and the Belmonts in “Why Must I be a Teenager in Love” feel about being into a girl: a bit confused, exhausted by passion, and keen to tell everyone I meet exactly what I’m going through.

For all my protestations, and poor Dion’s (though it must be added that he was not actually a teenager in love), we’re both crazy in love with the object of our fixation. His happened to be a girl. Mine happens to be a draft of a novel that will comprise one of my four Honors preparations. To graduate within the Honors program, you complete three preparations within your major, and one within your minor. Depending on your department and your preference, your preps will be comprised either completely of Honors seminars, or seminars and a directed study or thesis. Those of us who tread the path of a thesis or a writing project face an exciting and daunting sort of quest, but on the bright side: we get thesis carrels!

Ever since I arrived on campus, I’ve been incredibly envious of the seniors who occupied the McCabe thesis carrels. I’d wander through the basement looking for source texts and happen upon the heavily-laden carrels of my elders. I’d stop and snoop a bit, quickly scanning the titles piled on the desk, trying to guess exactly what the carrel’s temporary resident was working on. No worries about due dates: being a senior Honors major entitles you to nearly a full semester of access when you check out a title (this now alternately delights me and vexes me if someone else has already laid claim). As a freshman, thesis carrels seemed a sort of sacred scholarly ground, a physical manifestation of the extreme love and devotion it takes to craft a thesis worthy of review by the leaders in your field.

Besides, they looked lived-in. Some were covered in stickies, notes of encouragement, empty mugs, photographs, and miscellanea. I knew that come May, these objects would vanish from the carrels as surely as the seniors would vanish from the dorms, but the ownership of a piece of public space, however temporary, seems a palpable way of belonging to the Swarthmorean tradition. Not all of us take the Honors program, but for the most part we came here in pursuit of knowledge, desiring to contribute not only to the scholarly tradition, but to the changing world around us. To be granted temporary ownership of a piece of Swarthmorean earth in order to fulfill our original goals in coming here feels like a manifestation of accomplishment. Sitting at my carrel, I am deeply aware that I have been here a long time, and that this place has changed me, and deeply joyful that after years of study, my original idealization of knowledge and creation is not dampened.

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recent pic of blogger whispering into the ear of a bust of Livia the Augusta proves that blogger is indeed still total geek

When I got the email that I’d been approved for a carrel, I was so goofily and tremendously thrilled that I nearly forgot I was supposed to be a world-weary senior. I ran to McCabe, arriving just in time to claim the last of the much-desired third-floor carrels which sit next to the English and German literature shelves and currently feature views of some prime fall foliage. Now my carrel is piled with books on the liminal hero, California history, and geology (some relevant to my work, some not: a favorite topic at Sharples among all Swatties, not just seniors, are the wonders and dangers of research tangents). I have my own stickies. A note of faith, dropped off by a friend along with some salted caramel fudge one night during a long vigil, graces the shelf. I have my piece of Swarthmore; the question is if I can make good on the promise.

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my carrel, complete with note  ❤

I am slowly coming to realize that simply finishing is not enough to fulfill the faith of the college, my mentors, and my peers. The beauty is in the attempt. We may be seniors, on the cusp of becoming, but for now we are not Ph.D.s or authors, we’re simply Swarthmore students who are trying to complete the first step in a life’s work of work, discovery, and revision. And this the real reason I love my thesis carrel so much: after years of viewing the act of obtaining a thesis carrel as a terminal step in a journey, a proclamation of mastery, I’ve learned that it’s really only the beginning. Swarthmore is lending me time and space to come into myself as a generative source of material, and not as student.

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a stack of completely and totally relevant research materials

These days, I sometimes feel an enormous sense of envy for the underclassmen in my classes. They are so early on in this journey. They have so much more time to become who they want to be here, and make the things they want to make. But mostly, I see how bright the light of all that they may be shines within them. I see their earnestness, their enthusiasm for what they love. And while that love still burns in me, it is tempered with years of experience. I have taken journeys and taken on projects out of love, but ambitious projects entail failure after failure before success. Learning to sit with my failures, and let them teach me, has been the greatest thing that these years have taught me. But it sometimes makes me fear that days of my own absolute eagerness are behind me.

Sitting at my carrel, such fears dissipate. I have taken on a hilariously ambitious task that I am not sure I can complete. I am immersed in new worlds and new ideas. I am at times giddy and unsure. And the experience behind me seems not to dampen the joy of this new venture, but only to sharpen me and my work into finer form. I may be nearing the end of my journey as a student of Swarthmore college. But I am starting a new journey. And this time I get to take with me all the tricks I have learned here, all the failures and triumphs, all the hours at this very thesis carrel.

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