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Bradburd on Theses

Professor Ralph Bradburd was kind enough to allow me to post some comments that he made on senior theses in economics, a topic we touched on here.

We will post, or post a link to, all those theses whose student authors agree to have them posted.

Again, kudos to Bradburd, Sheppard and the entire Economics Department. Note that other departments do not do nearly as good a job of advertising the work of their students. The only information that I can find about Political Science theses is here. Pretty pathetic. Why is it that Economics does so much better at this than other departments?

The college archives does this automatically. (There may be very good reasons for students to choose not to post their theses immediately. For example, some of our students have assembled original datasets through field interviews or archival research; we encourage such students to try to publish articles based on their theses, and making their data available via the web immediately might permit someone else to exploit the fruits of their efforts before they can do so.)

This is highly implausible, at least in economics. First, just because the thesis itself is on the web, the student does not have to supply the actual data. Second, even if a student did supply the data, the odds someone using this to “exploit” her work are vanishingly low. I’d wager that Bradburd can not provide a single example of such exploitation occuring in all of economics, much less in the context of an undergraduate thesis. I have never heard of one.

Third, this is exactly the opposite of what the vast majority of the economics profession believe. Check out the pages of the professors in the economics department (e.g., Lucie Schmidt, Jon Bakija, Robert Gazzale, and others.) Why do these professors put their unpublished working papers on the web, vulnerable to exploitation by evil economists around the world, if there is any real danger in doing so?

The answer, of course, is that there is no danger. In fact, the central difficulty in academia is getting noticed, getting other people to read what you write and take it seriously. For any economics student considering going further in the profession, the more widely read her undergraduate thesis, the better off she is.

I would oppose any suggestion that faculty comments be posted. This is so for several reasons. First, we often make our comments orally or in comments written on the drafts of papers. It is not reasonable to ask faculty to spend what would be by necessity a very significant amount of time typing up comments so that a very small number of alumni might read them.

This is a reasonable concern. Typing up the comments would take more time. But the real issue is not the actual typing time, it is the fact that, if the comments were to be placed on the web forever professors would feel compelled to take much more time in preparing them. And, to my mind, that would be a good thing. The intellectual environment at Williams should be made more serious. One small way of doing so is to have professor comments be published.

Second, sometimes our comments have to be quite critical; I don’t think that it would be appropriate for such comments to be disseminated for all to see.

Really? What was the most critical thing said last week? I found it hard to believe that it was very harsh. I find it almost impossible to believe that it wasn’t professional. At worst, it might have been something like, “You have interpreted the regression results incorrectlty; they actually demonstrate that your thesis is false.” As long as the comments are consistent with what professors would say at any professional forum — say if they were commenting on a panel at a meeting — then I don’t see a problem.

Indeed, the very fact that such comments might be disseminated would almost certainly alter the candor with which criticism was offered.

Why? Is this because economics professors think that thesis students — 22 years old and about to step out into the world — are thin-skinned little babies who can’t take accurate criticism? I don’t think that this is true. And, even if it is, refraining from criticism is the worst thing that you can do for such students. The real world will not be so kind. To the extent that Williams students haven’t learned how to deal with constructive, if trenchant, criticism, the College has failed them.

Third, all of our honors presentations are advertised in the college calendar and we welcome attendance at our presentations. (We even provide free coffee, tea, water, and cookies!) The best way to see what our students are accomplishing is to attend those presentations.

Again, I have always thought that the economics department did a fine job of this. Alas, many of the people who would be interested in knowing what, for example, Gordon Winston had to say about Lindsey Taylor’s thesis are unable to make it to Williamstown in person.

The more “public” that intellectual discourse is at Williams, the more seriously it will be taken by all concerned.

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#1 Comment By Guy Creese ’75 On May 27, 2005 @ 7:17 am

You’re OTT (over the top) on this one, David. Remember the reason for an honors thesis. It’s to educate the student — not to serve as online content generation. After the thesis is published, if the student wants to make his or her thesis available online according to his or her timetable, great.

But making comments like “Pretty pathetic” and treating this as some kind of crisis is overreaching. I agree with Professor Bradburd; it probably would be “a very small number of alumni” reading them.

Once again, if this is to be done at all, I think Williams-centric theses should be posted, rather than all theses. I’m not dying to read Econ or Poly Sci theses; I can go to the library or buy a book on the subject if that’s the center of my being. However, since I can’t get it anywhere else, I would be interested in a study on Williams fraternities or admissions strategy.

#2 Comment By David On May 27, 2005 @ 7:31 am

Being OTT in defense of academic seriousness is no vice!

;-)

Again, my mission here is not so much to post theses for the sake of posting theses. Like you, I am unlikely to ever read any thesis that is not Williams-related (or connected to my field). Instead, my broader interest is in raising the level of intellectual engagement at Williams.

Of course, the level of engagement is aleady pretty high. But it seems to be a general opinion on the faculty (c.f., the Report on Varsity Athletics as well as comments on EphBlog by professors like Sam Crane) that it could be much higher, especially in Division II. That is, the faculty seem to wish that students would, on average, spend more time on their academic work.

I agree. But how to achieve this worthy goal? Not an easy question. To my mind, one good answer is to make student work more “public”. A typical student — not one of the very engaged ones that already flock to tutorials — is much more likely to take his paper for a political science class seriously if it is going to be posted for all to read.

So, in the big picture, my interest in student theses is not so much because I am going to read the chemistry theses. I am not. But getting those theses on the web is the first step toward getting much more student work on the web. And that, I think, could significantly change the intellectual atmosphere on campus.

By the way, do you really thing that my “pretty pathetic” comment is over the top? The Economics and Political Science Departments, as best I can tell, treat the work product of their senior thesis students very differently. If you think that what Economics does is excellent and wonderful, as I do, then, by definition, what Political Science does is pathetic.

If you think that what Political Science does should be the norm, then you should criticize Economics for being so over the top.

#3 Comment By Aidan On May 27, 2005 @ 9:37 am

Yeah, we should post every student’s full transcript online in the hopes that would inculcate greater academic rigor!

#4 Comment By David On May 27, 2005 @ 10:06 am

1) I am not sure that posting transcripts on-line would increase rigor.

2) Not everything that would increase academic rigor is worth doing. Life is full of trade-offs.

3) Although full transcripts are not on-line, some of your Williams academic record is public. See here for details. Unless you opt-out, anyone can contact Williams and find out things like your major, honors, graduation year and the like.

4) Although I am not a lawyer, it seems fairly clear that public posting of grades would require a radical change by the College. In essence, it seems that you would need to get every student (applicant?) to agree to it. Since this is unlikely to occur, the suggestions is largely moot, whatever merit it might otherwise have.

5) In the past, I have found that the public posting of the work itself is enough to generate a rise in academic rigor. Your mileage may vary.

#5 Comment By Aidan On May 27, 2005 @ 10:40 am

here’s the issue:

whatever you may feel about the garden variety jock in Div II departments, such criticisms do not, obviously, apply to kids doing honors thesis work.

posting internal critique (that is, between the advisor and the student) publically is inappropriate. Would you want a private job evaluation posted online? Should the student’s grade for the thesis be posted?

I don’t disagree that online publishing is a viable (and inexpensive) route for disseminating information. That being said, these theses have always already been available by conventional methods, such as ILL. If you want to read Guy’s thesis, for example, you could do so by next week. I’m not sure why you are arguing it is so difficult to obtain this information when it is in plain view.

#6 Comment By David On May 27, 2005 @ 10:55 am

Who said anything about “internal critique”? The comments that Winston and others made were public. Everyone was welcome to come and here them. Coffee was served. I am not proposing that whatever private critques/comments are made on a thesis get posted, just whatever is said in a public forum.

I have ordered on of the theses via ILL and will let people know how that works out. The problem with ILL is, obviously, that it is hard for the readers of EphBlog to, as a group, discuss something that is not publicly available via the web.