Intensive BU Academy thesis project links seniors with University mentors
By David J. Craig
It is not every day that Sam Oram meets someone who shares his interest in discussing the finer points of classical music. The BU Academy senior, who’s been playing piano since age seven, can describe a composition as eloquently as he plays it.
So it has been an inspiring and humbling experience, he says, to work with Joel Sheveloff, a CFA music professor and musicologist, who is his senior thesis advisor. Every BU Academy senior writes a thesis, which is the culmination of the school’s writing-intensive curriculum. Since September, Oram and Sheveloff have met monthly to discuss Oram’s progress on the paper, which focuses on the tension between the romantic and modernist influences in the work of the early twentieth-century Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninov.
“I’ll be telling Dr. Sheveloff something about the tonal qualities of a particular étude tableau, and he immediately knows what I’m talking about,” says Oram. “It’s amazing -- I used to think I had a decent knowledge of music, but talking to him can be a little intimidating. It’s exciting to get his perspective on my ideas, though. And every month he’s really supportive about what I’ve written, even though he inevitably finds problems that I need to work through.”
It is understandable that Oram occasionally finds his two-hour chats with Sheveloff daunting, given the uniquely ambitious nature of the BU Academy’s senior thesis project. Upon selecting a topic in September, students personally enlist the guidance of a BU professor and work closely with their advisor for the next seven months, relentlessly reworking their papers until they meet college standards. The paper, which must be at least 8,000 words and footnoted, is longer than those assigned at most high schools, but the length alone does not explain why the project is so challenging.
“The senior thesis is as much about learning to have serious intellectual conversations with a college professor as it is about conducting independent research and developing writing skills,” says Catherine Pollock, BU Academy’s director of studies and an English teacher, who coordinates the project. “That part of the process is as important as the final product, and it’s something that a lot of students find very energizing. This is an opportunity for them to tap into the University’s enormous faculty and to meet a potential mentor, someone they can talk to deeply about a very specialized area of study that they’re interested in.”
BU Academy, a private secondary school for gifted students operated by Boston University, has required seniors to complete the thesis since 1996, the year the school graduated its first class. This year, 23 of them are working on the project, with topics ranging from the Ancient Greeks’ perception of the individual to chemoreception in aquatic vertebrates. The papers are graded by each student’s University advisor, who can invite the author, if his or her work is exceptional, to give an oral presentation to the advisor, a BUA faculty member, and fellow students. Students do not necessarily select a topic that they have studied in school, says Pollock, although they commonly do so. “Basically, I tell them to choose a subject they’ll enjoy thinking about for several months.”
The students are given a few deadlines -- an outline is due in December and a rough draft in mid-February -- but largely they are responsible for managing their own time. The seniors discuss with their advisor, for instance, how much secondary material to read, when to begin writing, and whether they should do additional research after completing a rough draft. It’s no small feat in terms of personal organization -- the seniors, after all, simultaneously are taking a full BU freshman course load.
“I’ve learned a lot about motivating myself and using my time wisely, because there’s no one watching over my shoulder,” says senior and biology buff Jill Barber. She developed her topic -- the adaptive qualities of the chemical sensing mechanism starfish use to locate food -- while interning this past summer at the BU Marine Program in Woods Hole, Mass. She describes how her advisor, CAS Biology Professor and BUMP Director Jelle Atema, encouraged her to rewrite the methods section of her paper so many times she lost count.
“I’m more confident as a writer now, that’s for sure,” says Barber. “I’ve never done so much rewriting in my life.” Among the more challenging aspects of the project, she says, was deciding when she had read enough background material about starfish to accurately describe her findings. “I read a ton of articles, and a lot of them ended up not being useful,” she says. “It was hard to force myself to cut out the interesting little tidbits that weren’t critical to the presentation of my research.”
Even more frustrating for Alan Bifolck, a senior whose paper analyzes the legal, philosophical, and ethical debates surrounding physician-assisted suicide, was his advisor’s suggestion that he scrap his entire introduction, which he had labored on for almost 20 hours. “But after thinking about it, I realized I was flashing too many statistics and dropping too many names in the introduction, when I should have just laid out my main argument,” he says.
Peter Schwartz’s red pen, however, has not blotted Bifolck’s impression of the CAS assistant adjunct professor of philosophy, who also is a senior resident in internal medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. “I thought it was quite an honor that someone as busy as Dr. Schwartz -- and someone I admire so much for what he’s doing with his life, teaching as well as being a doctor -- would spend an hour with me every month,” says Bifolck, who hopes to become a doctor himself. “It was flattering too because while he always told me when I was heading into deep waters and when I needed to fix something, he also seemed really excited to be working with me. He’d tell me when I really hit a point on the head, and he would almost seem in awe of what I had written.”