Rockbridge Academy Blog
Three Lessons from the Thesis Process
When people asked me “What do you teach?”, I would sometimes say, “A research, writing, and speech class for juniors and seniors. It’s called ‘rhetoric.’” But it is more than that: rhetoric is a capstone of a liberal arts education, and success is measured less in information or skills students acquire (research, writing, speech) than in the kind of people students become. Don’t misunderstand me—we cover a lot of information in rhetoric, from the sonnet structure to the power of MLK Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail”. . . . But the core of a liberal arts education is for students to become self-disciplined, independent learners who can serve the world with their wisdom. The junior and senior thesis projects are opportunities for students to do just that.
First, the thesis is an exercise in self-discipline. The final product does not come about in a day’s work. Students must determine a worthwhile topic, develop a feasible research question, track down trusted resources, understand experts on all sides, glean pertinent evidence, develop their own ideas, organize their thoughts into an outline, articulate their argument in clear writing, turn their written argument into a compelling speech, present their argument before an audience, and answer that audience’s questions. Don’t worry—we lay out many, many checkpoints, with feedback and instruction along the way. But the ability to accomplish such a project takes practice (part of the reason for including both a junior and a senior thesis in the curriculum), and students who try to track down the necessary sources the night before the note cards are due learn the pain of procrastination.
Second, the thesis is an exercise in independent study. I frequently tell my students that my goal is to work myself out of a job, meaning that I want them to no longer need a teacher in order to learn whatever they want. Students of a liberal arts education should be prepared to tackle the topics that come their way, and the thesis projects are an opportunity for students to put their ability to the test. From nuclear energy to separation of church and state, from embryonic stem-cell research to the value of fairy tales, the thesis topics are as varied as the students’ interests. The thesis shows they have the skills to be lifelong learners, coming to biblically-grounded conclusions with less and less direction from a teacher.
Finally, the thesis is an exercise in sharing ideas with an audience. Over the years, I have been inspired by lines from Rudyard Kipling’s poem “IF”: “If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue, / Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch, . . . / Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it, / And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!” I want my students to be able to speak before both kings and commoners with virtue and clarity. The Apostle Paul gives a biblical model of this in his own ministry and charges us in Ephesians 4 to use our skills to build up the body of Christ. I know I have been built up by listening to many thesis presentations from my students. They have done the hard work of thinking and writing, and at the end of the year they have shared their work with others through public presentations.
The rhetoric work of Rockbridge students has frequently reached a wider audience through speech competitions such as the Rotary Club 4-Way Test speech competition, the VFW Voice of Democracy competition, and the Association of Classical Christian Schools Chrysostom Oratory competition. These audiences have recognized the excellence of our students’ work on a state and national level. Many students, though, celebrate triumphs that never gain accolades at award ceremonies—persevering through an apparent dead-end in research, finding the perfect phrasing for a sentence, and learning to listen to classmates who disagree and to seek biblical unity on difficult issues.
In his small book The Idea of a Christian College, Arthur F. Holmes captures part of my aim in teaching: “To teach a person to read and to write is to teach him to think for himself, to develop more fully the possession of his God-given powers” (p. 31). In some sense, I am still teaching students to read and write. They are simply reading academic journals and writing a 20-page persuasive essay. But in response to “What do you teach?” maybe I should say, “I am helping students develop their God-given powers,” and I’ve found the thesis to be a helpful tool towards that end.
Emily Scheie is a teacher who is grateful to share the joy of learning with her students. Outside the classroom, you might find her coaching cross country, taking graduate classes in linguistics, or reading for book club (with a mug of tea in hand). She is a sister to six siblings and three siblings-in-law and is an aunt to a growing number of nieces and nephews. She worships and serves with Redeemer Anglican Church in Annapolis and believes, in the words of the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, “The world is charged with the grandeur of God.”