Marie Hubbard, '15
Hello! I’m Marie. I graduated with a B.A.H. in 2015, majoring in the interdisciplinary track for Literature and Philosophy through the English department. I also completed a minor in Education. Most of the time during my years at Stanford you could expect to find me in the Hume Center, where I was either working as a peer writing tutor, finishing homework between my classes in the Quad, or seeing other tutors about my own papers. For a quarter in junior year I lived in Paris, where I studied literature and art and volunteered in a local school. My senior year, I completed an honors thesis on postcolonial literature, which received a Golden Award for excellence in undergraduate research in the humanities. I currently work as a reading and writing tutor for K-12 students, and I’m considering pursuing a PhD in Literature studies.
I participated in BHC as part of the English honors cohort of 20142015. I chose to do BHC because I wanted to get a head start on my thesis before I had to cope with both writing that and doing work for my regular classes once the school year began. I also wanted to meet the other members of my cohort and knew that several members would be in BHC. What really convinced me to join was how easy it was to enroll and that it wouldn’t cost me anything to get this much-needed boost in my work.
BHC gave me a comfortable space in which I could experiment with the goals of my thesis and the details of my argument. This was invaluable because I felt like even if I produced nothing good in those weeks, I’d still be ahead of the game once the year started, and I’d have a much more solidified plan for my thesis. BHC also introduced me to ways of researching and got me in the mindset of finding and reading articles to foster insights and propel my thesis forward.
Something important that I learned about researching and writing through BHC is that it’s collaborative. We did a lot of partner work in BHC, and this helped us all develop our ideas and foster an environment of support and encouragement.
There were so many challenges in researching and writing my thesis. Mostly it was facing moments of crisis in which I doubted both my idea and my ability to communicate it. At the beginning of spring quarter, I had completely lost sight of my argument and had gotten bogged down in the ever-expanding details, and I felt sure that I wouldn’t be able to produce anything worthwhile. All along I had used my new friends from my cohort, advisors and professors, and tutors in Hume to help me clarify my idea, but now I relied heavily on them to get over this hurdle. They were all invaluable to me as they helped me uncover the interesting kernel of an idea beneath all my research and details, and by helping me clarify it to myself they enabled me to make it come out clearer in my writing. They also offered boundless moral support and helped me by believing in me when I had almost lost hope.
The best piece of advice I received was from a former English honors student who sent our cohort advisor a letter filled with lessons she had learned from her experience. Our advisor gave us this letter at the start of BHC. The advice was to stick with your original topic, no matter what. She told us to give ourselves permission to doubt our topic once, and she directed us to then take a deep breath and push forward, never looking back and questioning “what if.” Although I doubted the specific articulation of my idea multiple times and changed it drastically at least once, I took this advice to heart and only once allowed myself to think that I should have chosen a different book or a different author, or come at my chosen book from an entirely new angle. At that moment of doubt, I remembered this advice and took that deep breath, and I know now that if I had allowed that doubt to derail my project, I never would have been able to finish a high quality thesis.
I would give two pieces of advice to incoming honors students. First of all, get a support system and make liberal use of it. People are there to help you. Go to office hours, go to the Hume Center, reach out to professors you’ve never met, and get a graduate mentor (the English department pairs honors students with mentors completing dissertations in related topics. If your department doesn’t do that, see if your professors can introduce you to someone interested in your topic. These mentors can offer the wisdom of experience and the empathy of someone going through a similarly difficult process. My graduate mentor was the best support I had). When the going gets tough later in the year, you’ll be so glad you have a network of helpers to fall back on. My second piece of advice is to take classes that help you with your thesis. Sometimes professors will even let you explore your thesis ideas in papers for their class, as long as the topics are similar enough. This not only allows you to cut your workload by combining your thesis with normal classwork, but the practice of fitting your topic to different fields and critical lenses can also help you expand your understanding of your topic and gain new insights and ideas. Remember: if you’re always thinking about your thesis, you’re always making progress.
The most profound way that completing an honors thesis affected my relationship with reading and writing was by teaching me this: Good writing should change the way you understand a book (or whatever else), not just confirm your first impressions. In my normal classes I would have an idea and just explain and defend it in a paper. I didn’t even realize how little I was challenging myself by doing that. Working through my thesis tore apart everything I knew about my chosen book and pushed me to take research from fields that I never thought I had any business in, until I saw my book in a whole new light. This is one reason the thesis is so hard; I often felt like my ideas were bad because they were constantly falling apart, but they were actually just a first step on a journey that I never expected to take through writing. And there’s a happy ending: through all this challenging and reworking of a single idea, you find you can maintain your interest in your topic for months on end, and when you finish you still surprise yourself with what you’ve come up with. If you can do that, you’re guaranteed to find a receptive and interested audience in others.
My biggest misconception was that I thought this was going to be easy. Writing in classes was always easy and fun for me, so I figured this would just be like a longer version of that. But nine months is a long time to stick with a single idea, and 40-60 pages is a lot of white space to fill in, so what I thought would be a simple process of clarifying and writing down my idea turned into a marathon of trying to shape and reshape that idea as it kept falling apart around me. Writing became a challenge where it had never been one before, and I learned that writing a thesis for the first time isn’t easy for anyone, even if you consider yourself a writer. The thesis is a skill unto itself.
Before writing a thesis I had written off the idea of a PhD as too lengthy, difficult, and onerous a pursuit for me. Throughout my senior year, however, I so loved the process of researching, writing, and collaborating with brilliant people, that now I’m seriously considering returning to school for a PhD. Completing a thesis made me realize that I have potential I never saw in myself. It showed me that I can be a contributing member of my field, that I have the ability to develop and communicate important insights about literature, and that I could make a career out of doing what I love: reading and writing.