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How Duke closing down for COVID-19 affects senior thesis work

For some Duke seniors, COVID-19 has affected the culmination of several semesters of work: the honors thesis. But in response to this rapid shift, some departments have implemented new standards to guide students through this precarious time. 

Nothing can really continue as normal’ 

On March 13, nine history majors drafted a petition to Malachi Hacohen, professor and director of undergraduate studies in history, and Jehangir Malegam, associate professor and graduation with distinction program director for history. 

The students asked for a two-week due date extension for their theses, requesting a move from April 13 to April 27. While these students recognized that the new conditions would not prevent the completion of a thesis, they wrote that the new stress—particularly about housing and graduation—warranted more time. Among other concerns were the lack of access to pertinent materials, like those only found at the Duke libraries, advisers and writing consultants. 

“Just last night, the university announced that it would be evicting most, if not all, students from their dorms effectively immediately, and that no one can come back,” the petition read. “This is an incredibly stressful situation — nothing can really continue as normal. As you might imagine, this makes focusing on any of our academic work impossible while we attempt to secure other arrangements temporarily.” 

Senior Lucian Li is writing about the entanglements of two Sanskrit professors from Oxford in the affairs of the British Empire, yet he wrote in an email that he might have “to scale down some arguments because of lack of secondary support,” especially those from the library and his thesis adviser. 

Likewise, senior Gino Nuzzolillo, who is also a columnist for The Chronicle, relied heavily upon physical microfilm copies from the Duke archives in researching community organizing and mutual aid for black Americans in response to urban change in post-Civil War Atlanta.

“I spent much of the past three days collecting nearly 400 pages of material from them before Duke's libraries closed,” he wrote in an email. “My thesis will likely have some gaps because I lack more time to thoroughly comb through the sources that I needed.” 

In light of the pandemic and this letter, Malegam wrote in an email that he agreed with the spirit of what he termed a “collective appeal,” which “matched up with [the department’s] own inclinations even as things were unfolding.” 

By pushing the deadline back to April 24, “as far as practicable given the time it will take to evaluate theses,” Malegam noted that he hopes to alleviate stress for his students and demonstrate understanding of this predicament. 

Still, the expectations remain largely the same for the final product given the amount of time already invested into each student’s thesis. In the history department, the process begins in the spring of junior year and continues in the form of a year-long seminar. Students had already completed a significant chunk of workshopping individual chapters before spring break. Additionally, Malegam sees value in holding to the initial calendar as closely as possible. 

“Structure is useful in the face of chaos, as long as people remain flexible and compassionate,” he wrote.

“That said, as committee members, we will be taking into account these extraneous circumstances when evaluating the final product - especially those aspects of the thesis that are usually developed in the later stages of any writing process,” Malegam added. 

The department is also seeking alternative measures to host the annual celebratory symposium for the students, who “deserve to be recognized publicly and collectively.”

Traditionally, the history department does not hold defense hearings and instead has adopted committee readings, which evaluate theses on the basis of written work. 

“The history department has been generous, accommodating and flexible, which reassures me about my ability to put a decent project together,” Nuzzolillo wrote. 

This time of seeming crisis will germinate new energy’

For neuroscience theses, one might expect even more strain with the lab component, yet the department was able to create a coherent plan moving forward to anticipate this challenge. Most labs are operating at a bare minimum at the University’s direction, and the neuroscience department doubled down on this measure by forbidding students from returning to their labs. 

In an email sent to seniors who intend to graduate with distinction, Leonard White, the director of undergraduate studies in neuroscience, offered students the opportunity to alter their theses from scientific manuscript format to a grant proposal.

“What we mean by this is that you may choose to use the data in hand to focus your thesis on future aims and experiments based on your work to date, as if you are writing a grant based on preliminary evidence and promising hypotheses,” he wrote in the email to students. 

White told The Chronicle that he expects most students to be able to proceed without any hiccups because they could already have enough data in hand, but he is offering greater flexibility in terms of “robust empirical results and fully defensible conclusions.” 

Throughout these weeks of quarantine and social distancing to come, White will provide “an extra measure of patience, flexibility and kindness” with that in mind. Still, White decided to keep the same due dates as planned before the Duke sent students home: April 17 for defense hearings and April 24 for the final paper. 

“We are certainly open to working with any senior who has challenges and extenuating circumstances, as we have always done,” White wrote, adding that the situation is still fluid and could change accordingly. 

All hearings will take place over video conference, which may cause some issues because Duke’s enterprise license for Zoom covers only undergraduate faculty—not those in the School of Medicine, which White explained constitutes many advisers and members of the neuroscience thesis committee. Although White has taught online for the past seven years and feels comfortable with the technology, he realizes that other professors may need time to become well-adjusted.

“We have amazing students, especially our seniors, and my confidence is mainly grounded in their achievements and capacities,” he said.

Despite the problems that COVID-19 has caused, White also sees a silver lining. 

“I hope… that this time of seeming crisis will germinate new energy, new creativity, and new means for fulfilling our mission,” he said. 

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