Thesis Projects

Writing a Senior Essay in Comparative Literature

What is the Senior Essay:

The senior essay or thesis in Comparative Literature gives students the opportunity to pursue an independent writing project during their senior year. This project must reflect their familiarity with a particular field of literature and demonstrate their skills in interpreting literary texts through sustained and reflected comparison.

This final part of the major entails a juxtaposition of at least two literary texts representing at least two different languages and cultural traditions. Research begins in the fall of the senior year with choosing suitable primary sources, helpful secondary literature and theoretical concepts in order to develop a topic for the senior essay. From early on, senior students work with two adviosrs, each of them representing the respective language/tradition. Variations thereof (for exampld, if one othe languages is English) should be discussed with the Direcotr of the Program.

Student Learning Outcomes and Criteria for Assessment

The learning outcomes of the Capstone Experience are based on the sustained and reflected efforts to compare at least two literary texts in a Senior Essay. Specifically, it is defined by the ability to read, understand, speak and write at least one foreign language; the ability to establish a dialogical relationship between at least two languages, literatures and cultural traditions; the readiness to appreciate and reflect upon world literature in its multilingual richness and diversity; the methodical skill to compare and contrast significant differences and similarities among literatures of at least two different cultural traditions, including non-American and non–European traditions. The criteria, procedures, and analysis standards for assessment of the Senior Essay in Comparative literature are unique, rigorous and specific.

Read more specific information about Criteria for Assessment.

What does the Senior Research Requirement Entail?

The senior research in Comparative Literature has four main components: a PROSPECTUS; a SENIOR ESSAY; a one-semester SENIOR SEMINAR, including a final oral PRESENTATION of the thesis. Students use the seminar to complete the Senior Essay in the spring semester of their senior year (September). The writing process begins with defining the project and doing research during the fall semester, culminating in a short prospectus to be submitted in November.

Getting Started:

Once the major in Comparative Literature has been chosen, the student will begin the process of:

Selecting Advisors
Choosing a Topic
Submitting a Prospectus
Writing and Presenting the Final Essay.

Selecting an Advisor:

The Comparative Literature Program at Barnard College has established an advising system for all undergraduate majors pursuing a writing project in their senior year, culminating in an analytical Senior Essay to be submitted by the end of the spring semester. The purpose of the advising system in Comparative Literature is twofold: it assists students in developing and focusing on their senior writing project, thereby tying together the two languages and literatures of their choice; and it provides students with face-to-face opportunities to discuss individual aspects of the Senior Essay project with members of the faculty on a regular basis throughout their senior year.

At the beginning of their senior year, majors will make an appointment with the Director of the program to discuss their writing project and find advisers best suited to offer advisement and coordinate research plans. The two advisers chosen by a student may help define the topic of the Senior Essay, make suggestions about the most productive approach, and narrow or expand the scope of the comparative examination of texts. It is impreative that senior students meet with their advisors on a regular basis throughout the fall semester.

Each adviser will provide guidance in their discipline or field of expertise and assist students in setting up a research plan, identifying sources, and composing an outline as preparatory elements of the senior capstone experience.

Choosing a Topic:

When choosing your topic, bear in mind the following: some prior knowledge of the subject (through courses, independent studies or internships) is key to a deeper understanding of the subject matter; a clear indication of the range of your analysis is necessary to conduct thorough treatment of the subject matter within the available time frame; the questions you raise in your senior essay should guide you sufficiently to devote more than a semester of work to them.

Submitting a Prospectus:

Toward the end of the fall semester (November), majors will need to submit a prospectus to the advisers and the Director of the Comparative Literature Program. To complete this part of your research, you should write up your questions and preliminary findings in a rough draft so that you can use it as a reservoir for a more structured and coherent piece of writing; gradually, you will reach a more complete understanding of the subject and determine the overall direction of your essay.

The prospectus is a three page statement that describes the main questions, relevant sources, and appropriate methods a student will use in her research. This written document should indicate that the research project fits the required parameters. It should include:

  1. A preliminary thesis statement
  2. An indication of the material being used to conduct a comparative analysis, for instance a brief description of the literary texts (genre, period, number of texts, etc.) or similar cultural manifestations such as plays, films and essays, etc.
  3. A bibliography
  4. A clear reference to the languages being used; at least one of them needs to be a foreign language so that two literary-cultural traditions can be compared.

The prospectus may differ in style and form of presentation, but it should be organized around three main objectives:

  1. Project Description: a clear, concise introduction to the topic, the main research question(s) you wish to answer, and why this subject is worthy of investigation.
  2. Methods: It should outline the methods you will use to answer your questions (how you will collect primary sources and useful secondary literature and/or information and how you will analyze and discuss it).
  3. Sources: It should list the basic sources you will consult. (NOTE: This might not be a complete list of all sources that are finally used in the research, but should indicate the research direction and the types of materials/sources you plan to examine and study).

In the spring semester, the advisers will continue to offer advice to graduating students who are then in the process of completing a senior essay. Graduating seniors are encouraged to set up regular meetings with their advisers and the Director as early as possible in the spring semester (January) and to plan regular consultations with their advisers throughout their senior year.

Writing the Senior Essay:

By the beginning of the spring semester, you should have clearly defined your senior essay topic and selected the most relevant sources, based on the recommendations you'll find in faculty's response to your prospectus. As the semester progresses, you will turn the initial drafts into a coherent piece of analytical writing and develop a consistent and persuasive line of argument; the research findings need to be structured according to the main aims and questions you have articulated in the opening section of your essay.

The Senior Seminar:

In the spring semester, you will continue with your research while taking a Senior Seminar that allows you to discuss your work with other senior students and the instructor; each student has the opportunity to present installments of her senior essay, culminating in a final presentation of the most central ideas at the end of the semester.

The Senior Seminar format involves weekly discussion of readings, frequent and regular in-class presentations of written work and development of research skills through completion of a 30-page (min) research paper, constituting the major piece of written work for the course. At the end of the semester, all writing projects are presented at the annual Senior Thesis party. The oral presentation is an essential part of the capstone experience of graduating students.

Examples of Thesis Topics and Short Abstracts:

Building Nature, Building Nation: The Poetry of Walt Whitman and Andrés Bello

Compares the poetry of Walt Whitman (1819-1892) and Andrés Bello (1781-1865), two 19th-century authors known as the national poets of their respective nations – the United States and Spanish America. Though Andrés Bello was born in Venezuela and spent much of his life in Chile, he writes of a pan-Spanish American nationalism. Analyzes the nationalizing project of these two poets and concludes that, in the poems, the nation comes into being in the space where the human world collides with the natural world.

The Failure of Representation: Abyssal Narratives in James's The Sacred Fount and Balzac's Louis Lambert

Addresses questions of authorship and self-reflexivity in Honore de Balzac's Louis Lambert and Henry James's The Sacred Fount. In staging the writing act, both texts simultaneously construct and dismantle their own narratives. Specifically, I examine how tropes of doubling, fragmentation and the mise-en-abime ask us to reconsider the writer's position of authority.

Searching the City : Flânerie in Joyce’s Ulysses and Proust’s Du Côté de Chez Swann

Compares two works by James Joyce and Marcel Proust, two 20th century novelists addressing the issues of the individual wandering the modern city. The project focuses on flânerie, the act of wandering, as a basis for exploring how the authors write their narratives to depict both the physical and psychological journeys of the novels' protagonists.

If you plan on spending part or all of junior year abroad:

Plan to take the “Introduction to Comparative Literature” (CPLT BC3001) during the second semester of your sophomore year. This means contacting the director of Comparative Literature program during the first semester of your sophomore year. Indicate that you plan to be abroad one or both semesters during junior year and discuss when to take core courses such as “The Classical Tradition” (CLL W4300) or the “Junior Colloquium in Literary Theory” (CPLS V 3950).

If you plan to be away for the entire junior year, consider taking the “Junior Colloquium in Literary Theory” in the spring of your senior year or discuss with the program director which other courses can count toward the major when studying abroad. You should also plan to identify advisors before your departure so that you can contact them via e-mail and meet with them at the beginning of your senior year.

If you have further questions regarding the thesis process and its parts, please contact the Program Director.