Not quite a cakewalk

The students rustled into Rosenwald Tuesday evening, making louder conversation than one usually hears at campus readings—greeting each another, asking questions about spring quarter classes, scoping out the book-shaped layer cake on a table by the doorway. “Congratulations!” the cake read in ornate yellow script. The occasion was the English Department’s annual BA-thesis reading. Ten students had volunteered to read from their newly finished works (due at the departmental office April 27 at 5 p.m.—and believe me, it was tight).

English majors are not required to write BA papers; they do so only if they want to receive honors in the major. So the projects are, for the most part, labors of love. Students who write theses tend to love what they are writing about, whether they manage to actively love what they are writing. We could write either a creative piece (a collection of poems, essays, or stories) or a critical thesis. My BA was the latter—a 38-page argument about the function of subjects and objects in Gertrude Stein’s literary portraiture.

As the audience settled down, Christina von Nolcken, the undergraduate chair in English, addressed us. She noted the incredible number of projects—50—turned in this year. “There were more than I’d ever had before, and they were wonderful,” said von Nolcken. She then distributed the annual departmental prizes—honors in creative writing and two awards for outstanding BA projects, one for criticism, one for a creative thesis. The first reader was Rachel Lewin, ’09, who began by explaining the books she analyzed for her paper, “Classical Friendship: Cicero, Bacon, and Cross-Dressing in The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia. “I’ll assume you haven’t read the book,” ventured Lewin, “because almost nobody’s read it.”

The reading continued with an alternation of creative and critical theses. Critical prizewinner Greg Conti, ’09, read from his “Spectatorial Thinking and Thoreau’s Ethics of Solitude,” explaining that for Thoreau, interacting with society was “secondary to figuring out oneself.” Conti wanted “to connect this to Thoreau’s economic and political thinking," he said. "Solitude is not socially or economically indifferent.” Creative prizewinner Luke Rodehorst, ’09, read from “Shape Notes,” his collection of poems about embarking on journeys. Rodehorst completed his second creative thesis this year—the first, a nonfiction essay, was awarded the same prize in 2008, when Rodehorst was a third-year. Elizabeth Block, ’09, elicited chuckles when she read from her creative thesis. Block’s poem about her hometown, “I Worry for Atlanta,” apologizes for her lack of Southern drawl, noting she was raised by transplanted Midwestern Presbyterians. Her kinship with the city, she explains, came from “a dogwood tree in my backyard and a vague sympathy with Margaret Mitchell.”

I abstained from reading my paper. Afterward, we finished off the book-shaped cake and tea sandwiches. “I don’t want any food left over,” said von Nolcken. We lingered in the hallway, exchanging jokes and library horror stories with friends to whom we knew could relate. There’s nothing like writing a long, somewhat scary paper to ensure solidarity with your classmates. And there’s nothing like a cake shaped like a book to get English majors to cheerfully show up to an event.

Rose Schapiro, '09

May 19, 2009