The senior thesis defense is an annual rite of passage at Thomas Aquinas College that in many ways marks the culmination of the students’ four years. At the start of the academic year, each senior chose both a thesis topic and a thesis advisor, and for the next six months, worked on a 20- to 30-page paper that would demonstrate his or her ability to fashion logical, sound, and worthwhile academic inquiries. “The senior thesis provides an opportunity to pursue a deep question, the kind of question that the great minds have wrestled with, in a leisurely and reflective way,” says Dean Brian T. Kelly. The thesis topics are of each senior’s own choosing — “the only elective in our fully integrated program of studies,” Dr. Kelly adds, and can derive from any of the disciplines presented in the College’s curriculum.
Sometime after turning in their theses in mid-March, each senior presents a 30-minute oral defense before a panel consisting of the advisor and two other members of the teaching faculty. In these discussions, the tutors listen to each senior’s defense and ask pointed questions, then recess to decide whether the student will pass, fail, or pass with distinction. Given the amount of time taken to prepare the theses and the advisors’ oversight, failures are rare, as are marks of distinction, which are awarded only in instances of truly superior work.
“The defense comes after months of intense and semi-private focus on the question, and it can be something of a relief to talk about it with the panel,” says Dr. Kelly “It is also a ‘grown-up’ moment when the student takes public responsibility for the outcome of his investigation. In this way the defense is a very formative experience. A successful thesis and defense testify that the habits of reasoned discourse have begun to take root in the student’s soul.”