(Re)Discovering Purpose in My Academic Work

Category Student Voices

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College student, Cayla
Cayla Lee Class of '21
Authored on June 24, 2020

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In college, for the first time in my life, I found a purpose in my academic work beyond merely getting me to the next stage of the life that had been laid out for me (from high school to college to my career and so on).

At Harvard, since both General Education (GenEd) requirements and Concentration (Harvard's word for "Major") requirements are pretty easy to fulfill, I’ve gradually given myself room to take interesting classes that don’t fulfill any requirements but rather allow me to pursue knowledge for its own sake. For the past three years of college, I’ve explored so many different topics and—for the first time—developed a deep love for studying and pursuing knowledge in itself.

Interior of the Boston Public Library

Inside the Boston Public Library, which I definitely took for granted before COVID-19.

My excitement for learning, though, came to an abrupt halt with the existential anxieties created by a life in quarantine. Online classes were really hard to adjust to—I probably didn’t learn much—and I haven’t seen any of my friends (even my hometown friends) since March. At the same time, I’ve been trying to make sense of our reality—one in which a pandemic has so explicitly revealed the unequal world we live in and one in which, despite this pandemic, Black communities are still being targeted and killed by police and Indigenous communities are still being robbed of livelihoods and resources. But trying to grasp the weight of our current moment from within the walls of my house and through the small screen of my phone has made me feel utterly out of touch with the world and powerless in the face of a world in crisis. Political conversations in my family have reached an uneasy ceasefire, so most of the political “discussions” I’ve been having are internal and lonely. At a time like this, it definitely seems both impossible and irresponsible to pursue knowledge for its own sake.

But alas, I’ve had to work on my senior thesis this summer. Many seniors at Harvard carry out independent research projects during their senior year to conclude their college education, and a senior thesis is required for all Social Studies Concentrators like me. A thesis can be about anything that piques your scholarly interests, and it’s a chance for you—as a college student—to immerse yourself in a topic and become an expert in it. I’ve always found postcolonial art and theory beautiful and deeply important, so I’ve decided to write my thesis on imaginations of decolonization that emerged during the Cold War.

At the end of February, when my wonderful History teacher agreed to advise my senior thesis, she told me—or perhaps warned me—about the inherent loneliness of dedicating so much to a project that’s fundamentally unrelatable to others and too complex to communicate easily. I think this loneliness only escalated when I was forced to change my thesis topic to something I could research entirely from home and start reading the materials without anyone to accompany me in this year-long journey. These past few weeks, I’ve been trying really hard to get started, but I’ve been struggling to muster both courage and energy to embark on this rough, tumultuous journey by myself.

 

Writing a thesis is valuable insofar as it can teach me how to actively create something out of my college education.

 

To be writing a thesis when the world is up in flames feels irresponsible and trivial. It’s easy for academic work to feel distant from the material realities of the world we live in, but when literally everything about my thesis is virtual (virtual archives, pdf books, online artifacts), this feeling that my work is not based in any material experience is inescapable. I don’t feel like I’m doing anything of importance, and I certainly don’t feel like I’m contributing anything to the fight for anti-racist worlds by staying at home and reading for hours on end every day, working on my glorified book report. Of course, I never thought that anything I did in class would change the world or anything, but it was pretty easy to situate the things I did in class within the vast web of interpersonal relations and social structures that exist in the world. Now, it’s hard to feel like I’m contributing to anything greater than mere self-development.

A familiar scene of my laptop next to a cup of coffee.

A familiar scene of my laptop next to a cup of coffee.

To feel like I’m doing something for my thesis, though, I’ve been reading Umberto Eco’s How to Write a Thesis, which was recommended to me by a friend who’s also writing his thesis right now. Slowly but surely, reading and re-reading parts of this book have been changing my mind about the thesis-writing process and, in doing so, imbuing my life with purpose and excitement again. Included in the version of the book I’m reading is a Foreword by Francesco Erspamer, which I thought was so beautifully written and worth sharing with you. In his Foreword, Erspamer writes, “The thesis, is actually less important than the occurrence of writing it, of “making” it. . . They are not a test or an exam, nor should they be. They are not meant to prove that the student did his or her homework. Rather, they prove that students can make something out of their education.” Indeed, he proposes that a senior thesis is not important for the function it serves or the final product it produces. Rather, writing a thesis is valuable insofar as it can teach me how to actively create something out of my college education. Having mostly been on the receiving end of knowledge, I’m pretty excited by this prospect of having an entirely different relationship with knowledge itself. At its best, I think my thesis can become a long-term project that grounds me in the next year, during which I’m sure I’ll be confronted with the challenges of a world in turmoil.

I want to leave you with a quote that really stood out to me. Erspamer writes, “The humanities are intrinsically creative and innovative. They are about originality and invention, not discovery. . . more than a technical manual, this book is an invitation to ingenuity, a tribute to imagination.” If he is right—if writing a thesis (and the humanities more broadly) can be a creative, imaginative act and not merely the discovery of ideas that already exist—then I think I could use my thesis to practice that very act of creation and imagination. Today, we find ourselves in a world where those in power lack the imaginative capacity to grasp more beautiful, more equitable futures.

Academic work, like my senior thesis, has always challenged me to take existing ideas and arrange them in ways that destabilize what I had previously regarded as normal and reveal the radical possibilities of other worlds, societies, and communities. As you’re reading this, you might be about to embark on a journey of your own. Whether that be college apps, creative projects, or college itself, I hope you’re also able to find purpose in what you do and I hope that it pushes you to be more courageous, more daring, and more creative in the act of imagining a more beautiful future for this world in crisis.

Cayla Lee Class of '21

Hello! I'm Cayla, and I'm a junior living in Pforzheimer. My home is Bellevue, Washington, which is about 15 minutes away from the amazing city of Seattle.

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College student, Cayla