The Senior Experience
All English Majors at Dickinson complete both a senior seminar on an advanced literary topic, and write a senior thesis. Students compose and revise the thesis — an independent piece of critical writing of about 50 pages — in the challenging and supportive company of the senior workshop. Each week in workshop the text is one's own and other senior majors's writing; both students and the professor critique and edit sequential drafts of the project.
In addition to class time, students meet the professor in individual conferences. They also find they talk to their roommates a lot. At the end of the term, they present their work in a public forum and submit two copies of the thesis — one bound for the department collection, and one unbound to be catalogued in the Special Collections of the May Morris Room in the Waidner-Spahr Library.
English 404 Thesis Format instructions
Search for senior theses in Dickinson's collections here
What is the Senior Experience all about?
During this year-long sequence of
classes, students usually remain with the same professor and group of
peers. Because there is no other way to describe this transformative
process of becoming an author, we call it the Senior Experience.
ask any one who's lived through it, or read about the experiences of three Dickinson English majors:
Particularly in the de facto community formed by the staff of the Writing Center, the 404 process is anxiety-producing. For the first three years of my experience, I watched senior English majors freak out about the process and assumed this was a natural part of writing that would inevitably occur when it was my turn. This was far from the truth: all of the skills you leverage to make you successful in other classes – time management, preparation, giving and receiving feedback, visiting the Writing Center – are important to the 404 process as well. I started with a paper written in the previous semester for an Africana studies class and it slowly morphed and grew into my thesis. Throughout my research and writing, I worked consistently, but never really felt anxiety or pressure for time. And the thing that surprised me most was that I genuinely enjoyed the writing, research, and conversations in which I engaged. Once I found a topic I could legitimately write 50 pages on, the process became exciting and self-perpetuating; writing one chunk and receiving feedback made me want to write more. If I could give any advice on the process, it would be to hone in on a topic you really are passionate about, and give yourself the time and physical space to research and write so you don’t feel rushed to submit work.
Now that I am beginning the process of applying to graduate school, I can’t imagine doing it without having gone through the 404 process. Finding a topic, engaging with peers and faculty, researching, and writing for a sustained period are all vital skills that I am now drawing upon in thinking about future goals. (Additionally, it helps to have 50 pages of your best work to draw upon for writing samples and the ability to reflect on the process as a whole for my Personal Statement.) This is not an experience that all majors at Dickinson have, and it certainly isn’t easy. But I would say it is the single most valuable academic experience I had in college. The major is constructed in such a way that every English major is ready to create meaningful work at the 404 level, and future students should see this as an incredible academic opportunity to explore and bring forth an opinion on a subject on which they are passionate, rather than a burden.
Megan N. Liberty:
The 404 thesis process was one of the best experiences of my time at Dickinson. It gave me the opportunity to bring together my personal interests in both the visual and literary arts, and is consistently a huge asset to my resume and in interviews. It wasn’t until I graduated and began discussing my college experience with my colleagues that I realized how unique and rare this level of undergraduate research and writing is. One of the things I liked most about the way 404 works is the freedom each student is given to find a topic her or she is passionate about and develop his or her own research methodology. I also learned a great deal about the difference between writing a final paper for a 300-level course and writing a three month research paper. With the thesis, the argument goes much deeper. The depth in the research is greater, and thus the argument is much stronger and more complex. When I came out of the process I really felt like a scholar; I felt like an expert on my topic in a way I never felt after writing other final papers.
There was a point in my research, just before the second chunk, when I thought I’d lost my argument. My research took a sharp turn when I discovered I was using a different edition of my text which changed the nuances of my argument. But this hurdle actually ended up strengthening and expanding my argument. My biggest piece of advice would thus be to let your argument/topic lead you and not try to shape your research into what you planned in your proposal. Everyone’s project changes by the end, and usually for the better.
Crafting my 404 paper on Chris Ware's Jimmy Corrigan: The
Smartest Kid on Earth served as a rewarding capstone for
my Dickinson academic career. I can reflect contentedly on my
experience within the walls of East College with my "Modern to
Postmodern" seminar and 404 group as one that prepared me to think
critically with distinct focus and determination. By the end, my
peers and I had learned the idiosyncrasies of each other's writing,
and we had a communal sense of pride in viewing the seeds of each
of our ideas come to fruition.
The active thinking and communication skills that I acquired
throughout the 403/404 experience prepared me for a range of realms
outside of Dickinson's walls. Post graduation, I felt much more
comfortable interviewing when I was on the job market. And now that
I am a high school teacher, I encourage my students to think
critically and creatively, while fostering a dialogue of inquiry
within the Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate
classes that I teach. I owe a lot to the professors who carefully
guided me through the English major to my success in my current
This past year, I independently wrote the curriculum for
Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate Spanish at
Cumberland Valley High School. While my classes are taught entirely
in Spanish, I accredit the abilities that I learned as an English
major to be able to research a question relevant to my curriculum;
to collect primary, secondary, and tertiary documents; and to
creatively present units to my students that will be interesting
for them to study and explore. It is my goal to invite them to
uncover the overarching themes of Hispanic Diaspora while actively
using some pretty heavy critical thinking skills comparable to
those of college-level courses.
I was very lucky that Professor Ball recommended Ware's text to
me as an extracurricular read. Though it was the first graphic
novel that I had ever read, I found that it strangely aligned with
my interests in New Historicism, psychoanalysis, and gender theory,
and I was able to center them around one of my favorite topics of
my Spanish major -Christopher Columbus. At times I felt like
working with the text itself (close reading pictures and putting
huge scanned images as block quotes in my writing) was a huge risk,
but the rewards of presenting my interpretation of it at the end of
the 404 experience certainly paid off.
If I were to recommend to a current student how to go about the process, I would say:
1. Find a text that you're excited about, but that makes you scratch your head, a lot.
2. Make a list of all of the things that you could potentially write about your selection that are interesting to you personally and could connect to paint a bigger picture.
3. Test out ideas with your peers during workshops and with the professors your trust most - they'll let you know what works, what doesn't, and what might work.
4. Visit the Writing Center and speak to someone new about your work when it's close to finished and you're able to clearly articulate your thoughts about it.
5. Spend the last week collecting your cool and carefully revising your work - make this timeframe as stress free as possible.