By Guest Contributor Steven Dunn
Cheese. Not Beaufort D’Ete or Caciocavallo Podolico, fancy cheese that hardly anyone knows. Ordinary cheese, a generic block of processed dairy. That was my unexpected yet oddly satisfying starting point for writing a Master’s thesis.
In my graduate program at the University of South Florida, writing a Master’s thesis was optional. We could chose our final torture for ourselves: endure additional coursework or write a chonky essay. But even if you were bold (or mad) enough to write the thesis, it came with a warning: if you wanted to finish on time, you essentially needed to know your topic from day one. This was a somewhat unreasonable expectation for budding historians, which is why the program made it optional. Most people don’t know which crumb in the vast bread-basket of history they want to focus on; and even if they do, they don’t always know how to approach researching it. Everyone in my cohort, including those of us who thought we knew what we wanted to study from the very beginning, grew into the historians we are now because of the experiences we had in that program. I may still be studying medieval Iceland, but I certainly didn’t ask the same questions nor look at evidence from the same perspective that I do now. I knew the ‘what,’ but not the ‘how.’
Either way, I was one of the fortunate people who knew which crumb was for me, and that’s all you really need to start writing a thesis. For me, that meant knowing I wanted to continue my undergraduate research on feud in medieval Icelandic saga literature. But don’t be fooled. That may sound specific, but it’s still too vague. I simply knew where to start looking, but I hadn’t found a question that needed answering—I hadn’t found my cheese just yet. A Master’s thesis needs…well, a thesis. What am I arguing? What’s my contribution? How should I approach this subject? That was much harder to figure out, so I spent my first semester familiarizing myself with the crumb I chose by writing a historiographic essay to learn what scholars in that field have been up to. This would eventually become my thesis’ introduction.
With that, I entered my second semester with better footing, but still lacked direction. Luckily, the answer came from a seminar called Material Matters on approaching history through the lens of material culture (hence the pun). That seminar taught me two important things: to let historical sources speak to you rather than forcing your ideas upon them, and to regard even the finest details with significance. So, after a chat with the professor who got me into Norse studies and a re-read of my favorite saga, I found my cheese. Instead of writing about feuds in general, I noticed seemingly insignificant objects were often central to those feuds and, in the context of literary narratives, gave them deeper meaning. They also said a lot about the women making and using those objects to engage in a seemingly male-exclusive activity.
Details aside, the final paper I wrote for that seminar eventually became the second chapter of my thesis; and then, in my third semester, I continued to use that methodology in other courses, which helped me write yet another thesis chapter in the guise of a final paper (this time on clothing). This meant that, by the end of my third semester, I had rough drafts of my thesis’ introduction, first chapter, and second chapter. All I needed to do was put them all together, polish them up, and write a conclusion! Simple right? Not quite…. For starters, I had to tweak (and often rewrite) the argument and conclusion of each paper. Then I was hit with hundreds—yes, hundreds—of annotations and corrections sent by my major professor. While most were minor grammatical errors, several were serious flaws in my argument or use of evidence that took time to correct. Despite all that, though, I still finished on time and passed my defense!
Despite my struggles, writing a thesis was the best way to get a taste of what writing a dissertation in a PhD program would be like, which helped me decide which course to take after completing my MA. But if you’re thinking of writing one yourself, I recommend you at least know what you want to write about as early as possible. Armed with that, your program, professors, and cohort will likely help you find the how as you engage with new methodologies in your seminars and papers. Just keep an open mind and work on that thesis one semester at a time. You may not end up with cheese like I did, but you will end up with a thesis that you can be proud of.
Steven T. Dunn is an independent medievalist and the founder of Fjorn’s Hall (fjorns-hall.com), a website dedicated to helping people learn about Norse history, literature, and lore through inexpensive online courses. Outside of academia, he is creating a fantasy world inspired by the history he studies and hopes to write many books set in that world. All of these endeavors are powered almost exclusively by tea. Lots of tea.