Theses for Thought
The English department held an honorary luncheon to showcase this year’s honors thesis writers
As the semester draws to a close, six seniors have been hard at work perfecting their English honors theses. Carmen Altes ’16, Caro Langenbucher ’16, Naomi Soman ’16, Katerina Daley ’16, Emily Wishingrad ’16 and Brianna Majsiak ’16 presented their work at a celebratory luncheon hosted by the English department on Tuesday.
Langenbucher, Altes and Daley sat down with the Justice to discuss the core concepts underlying their theses as well as the process behind writing them.
Langenbucher first read “Infinite Jest” by David Foster Wallace over five years ago, and though many classes at Brandeis interested them, they knew for a while that the book would end up as the focus of their senior thesis.
“I think I always intended to write about “Infinite Jest” because [the book] was just something that bothered me — I needed to figure it out,” said Langenbucher in an interview with the Justice.
Langenbucher’s thesis is a queer feminist reading of the text, which they pursued with the help of their advisor Prof. Caren Irr (ENG) after realizing that scholarship on Wallace’s work rarely discusses gender. They were interested in exploring the connection they observed between physical ugliness and deformities and “spiritual unease” in the text and how this was influenced by sexuality and gender.
“The book is full of grotesque figures of extremely fat people who are barely human, or disabled people who don’t have a human form, and lots and lots of misogyny. And this really heterosexist logic that kind of sees masculinity as presence and femininity as absence, men as ones and women as zeroes, and that men do and women are done to,” said Langenbucher.
A large part of their research also analyzes Wallace’s insistence on the intersubjectivity of reader and writer in his work and showcases what they perceive as his hypocrisy regarding this relationship.
Altes was also in part inspired by David Foster Wallace and “Infinite Jest,” though her thesis focuses on three autobiographies that are unrelated to Wallace.
Altes was intrigued by Wallace’s claim that the mathematical model behind “Infinite Jest” is the Sierpinski gasket — a triangular fractal — and says that this model has “been so helpful [in] conceptualizing the way in which the autobiographer as a model tries to create himself as a pattern to be replicated by posterity.”
Altes is writing her thesis on the formation of American identity on both the individual and national level while drawing from the autobiographies of Benjamin Franklin, Henry Adams and Dave Eggers.
A piece of literary criticism by Philippe LeJeune about the nature of autobiographies helped to guide Altes’ writing. “He gave me this great trisection of the autobiographer as author, narrator and protagonist,” said Altes. “And that’s really good because it alleviates that issue of like, ‘Is autobiography fiction or nonfiction?’”
She was advised by Prof. John Burt (ENG) and was inspired to pursue the subject after taking the class “Writing the American Self” with Prof. Kathy Lawrence (ENG).
Daley’s thesis was also inspired by a Brandeis class. Prof. Paul Morrison (ENG)’s class “Hitchcock’s Movies” inspired Daley to pursue her own study of Hitchcock with Morrison as her advisor.
Her thesis focuses on five Alfred Hitchcock movies — “Vertigo,” “Strangers on a Train,” “Rope,” “The Birds” and “North by Northwest” — and compares the tropes of the “icy blonde” characters and the “queer-coded villain” characters that are incorporated into much of his work. She said the order in which Morrison presented the films in his class made her notice this trend, whether or not it was intentional on his part.
“There’s been a lot of discourse on [the tropes] separately, but no one’s really looked at them together. So I thought it would be really interesting to do that,” she said.
Daley said she also wanted to “take a sharper, harsher look at sort of heterosexual male protagonists,” who she felt “hadn’t been given proper criticism.”
Daley, Langenbucher, and Altes all struggled with condensing the information that they would tackle in their theses.
“Writing it wasn’t actually the biggest problem — it was more trying to make sure I knew everything I could from the research,” said Daley, who had trouble with deciding which information not to include. “It’s really just a gut feeling ... Once the critics start repeating each other and citing each other, you’ve basically reached the point where you’re like, okay, I know this material enough — now it’s my turn to talk about it.”
Langenbucher echoed a similar sentiment, saying the hardest part was just starting: “It’s a huge, huge book and there’s so much in it, … I didn’t even know where to begin. That’s where my advisor was really helpful.”
“I’ve had this idea for like two years, and I was so sure that I knew what it was going to be about, and I was wrong because my ideas were too big,” said Altes.
At the same time, they all found the process to be immensely rewarding.
“I’ve done a lot of independent research projects before, but this is the longest one I’ve ever done. Realizing that I’m capable of doing something this long was pretty cool — it’s given me hope for maybe someday writing something longer,” said Daley.
Altes agreed. “I think it’s really rewarding and important to have a structural way in which to make the things you’re personally passionate about urgent,” she said.
— Editor’s Note: Brianna Majsiak and Emily Wishingrad are editors for the Justice