Style and Substance: Preparing Seniors for Their Thesis Defense

Many classical Christian schools rightly expect their seniors to prepare, present, and defend thoughtful, clearly written, and well-argued senior theses. We do a great deal over the course of their education to prepare them intellectually for the written aspect of this task, but what do we do to prepare them for the public presentation and defense? Like the written component, the groundwork for the presentation and defense should be laid early so that students can develop and refine their presentation skills over the length of their school career, culminating in a confident presentation and defense in which the substance of their argument is complemented and enhanced by the style of their presentation. This workshop will examine simple but important steps to take in the grammar/lower school, subsequent and more specific instruction offered in the rhetoric/upper school prior to the senior year, and final preparations for a well-delivered thesis presentation and defense.

Jason Merritt

Dr. Jason Merritt is instructor of Classical Greek and the Senior Thesis Director at Covenant Classical School in Fort Worth. He has been an educator for 15 years, 10 of those being spent in classical Christian education. He has served as the headmaster of a classical Christian school, an instructor of Greek and Religion at Texas Christian University, and as a translation consultant for Bible League International on translations of the Bible into Haitian Creole, Swahili, Japanese, and Croatian.

Rhetoric Awakens

How does the study of Rhetoric and the preparation and presentation of a Senior Thesis culminate the first twelve years of schooling? In developing an extended analogy with Star Wars, I beg your tolerance. Like much of the world, my four sons and I are going through a phase of Star Wars obsession in anticipation of the new movie, Episode VII, The Force Awakens.

-Who are you? -I’m no one.

A dejected young woman (Rey) looks up from a pile of old debris she is sorting through. Her landspeeder cruises through a desert. A half-buried star destroyer juts out of the distant sand dunes. The opening scenes of the movie trailer for Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens convey a listless feeling of living amid ruins of a prior age’s imperial ambition. Rey’s story has been about surviving. Like Luke Skywalker many years earlier, her story is set to grow into something more–an adventure in which she discovers her destiny.

-I was raised to do one thing, but I’ve got nothing to fight for.

An exhausted young storm trooper (Finn) peers over the dunes to behold a horizon of endless sand. He is alone. He has been training to fight for the wrong side. Finn’s story of sudden awakening and transferred loyalty requires him to embrace the danger, which comes with his joining the Resistance.

The climax of the trailer is an exchange between Rey and Han Solo:

-Those stories about what happened?
-It’s true–all of it. The Jedi and the Dark Side of the Force, they’re real.

In the original Star Wars a younger Han doubted the legends about Jedi knights and the Force. He was indif- ferent to the Rebel Alliance. Then Han found friendship, love, and common cause with Luke, Leia, and Obi Wan.

The once cynical smuggler found a larger story, or rather he was swept into it. Han, who once was suspicious of Obi Wan, now plays the same role as a mentor of the Resistance guiding the younger generation with hard won wisdom. Han’s new story is about passing on to the next generation the wisdom they need to struggle against the dark side.

Rhetoric and thesis programs in the classical Chris- tian school movement have diverse needs and face different challenges and opportunities. What do all schools seeking to renew Rhetoric in a Christian context have in common? The Star Wars, Episode VII trailer symbolizes some common elements that I take to be crucial for any program. These common elements are themes each protagonist develops within the plot of a larger story; they receive discipleship, embrace danger, and find their destiny. Our students may not have to dodge TIE fighters and wield light sabers (although my sons think it would be really cool if they did); nevertheless, the thesis process feels like an epic struggle, and in a real sense it is.

PASSING ON A TRADITION TO THE NEXT GENERATION
“A pupil is not above his teacher; but everyone, after he has been fully trained, will be like his teacher.” Luke 6:40

Researching a topic, preparing and refining an argument, presenting and defending it is the most demand- ing assignment our students face in their K-12 education. As Aristotle noted, Rhetoric is the counterpart to Dialectic. Neither of these skills has content besides formal concepts to be applied in the stream of life. Dialectic and Rhetoric have concepts and skills useful for discovering, clarifying and developing any topic. Students have to supply the con- tent by selecting a viable topic and developing an argument. The degree to which seniors must generate the substance of their learning in the thesis process is unlike anything they have done up to this point. In light of the challenge posed, we should seek to follow a model of apprenticeship, or discipleship learning.

Teachers, parents and administrators should seek to foster a culture of discipleship as a key ingredient in any Rhetoric and Senior Thesis program. Every student should have a faculty advisor. Parents should help stage practice sessions with family friends as the day of their presenta- tion and defense approaches. If possible, as many teach- ers, coaches, administrators and staff members as possible should be invited to advise and judge theses. These are some simple ways to build in support. Less obvious, but just as crucial, is the tenor in which we mentor our students. We must discern the appropriate mix of adult input and student independence. It can be tempting as an advisor, teacher, or parent to want to take over a student’s thesis.

As we mentor, we need to remember it’s not about us; it’s not our thesis. But neither is it entirely theirs. Successful theses are the fruit of a community effort that calls forth the emerging adult in each student. We need a healthier model than either codependence or independence. Discipleship offers a biblical and classical model to temper the extremes that we are prone to pursue.

What does full or completed training look like in the context of our movement, and especially the capstone Senior Thesis program?

The last two winners of Regents School of Austin’s Thesis Award, Brandon and Jennie, are fine examples of stu- dents who embraced discipleship as integral to their thesis process. In addition to working with their advisors, they took initiative to seek out other teachers. Both students regularly sought input and more reading material from mentors. They took ownership of their learning beyond the minimal requirements of research. In turn, Brandon and Jennie modeled for their peers the creative balance of actively seeking guidance and discovering their own voice as rhetoricians contending for the truth. Discipleship can be contagious.

I love the Star Wars saga for the way traditional vir- tues and institutions are reinterpreted in a fantastic world. Luke’s training to become a Jedi requires the discipline and training that only comes from Master Yoda. Like Luke, our students have to be allowed to learn through struggle. All the adults in the thesis process must strike a wise balance of involvement and letting our apprentices work out their difficulties.

EMBRACING DANGER

“I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have over- come the world.” John 16: 33

Embracing danger is the counterpart to receiving discipleship. Discipleship without danger is stifling and danger without discipleship is harsh. As the Star Wars saga shows, all good stories involve some danger and risk. But it’s one thing to recognize this in the fantasy world of mov- ies, it’s another thing to embrace danger in reality.

Parents and schools bear an enormous responsibil- ity to protect our children especially when they are young. But as our little ones grow, enter high school, begin to drive, and eventually graduate, we have to let them face the dangers of being responsible adults. Helicopter parenting and schooling that endlessly coddles the egos and emotions of children will not help prepare students for handling the struggles of independent life, much less leadership. Many college students leave overprotective homes only to find more of the same, but from the opposite end of the politi- cal and ideological spectrum; patronizing professors and administrators encourage students to hunt for “trigger warnings” and use evasion strategies such as labeling as “micro aggressions” any position or view that threatens their comfort.

It is not entirely safe to take a stand on a controver- sial topic in a divided society. Even in the actual presence of family, friends and the school community, the very act of taking and defending a stand is intimidating. Especially in our time, the wider culture offers few healthy models of honest, intelligent debate. Since human nature naturally avoids or minimizes threats to security, we need to face and embrace the countercultural role of the entire thesis process.

One of my best thesis memories is of a student who struggled to find her courage. She struggled all year with anxiety over the thesis process, especially the public speak- ing it requires. Since delivering and defending a thesis is a graduation requirement, she simply had to face her fear and do it in spite of the risk. Melanie argued for propaga- tion of classical Christian schools in Tanzania. During the question and answer period she was asked a very tough question: “Isn’t your claim basically a form of cultural imperialism–the rich Western world imposing itself on the model of educational colonialism? Why should Africans want to embrace a Western tradition of learning rather than developing their own indigenous traditions and resources?” After a long pause, Melanie answered by quoting a true au- thority– a girl who attended a Raffiki Village school (classi- cal and Christian) in Kenya, who was asked to describe her education: “I have become an explorer and now I see things more clearly than before. Through the Bible study, my heart has grown to love God and seek to know Him more. I am anticipating opening a classical Christian school in Nairobi to share the Good News with small children and society at large.” Some things cut through cultural relativities. Saint Augustine couldn’t have summed up the purpose of educa- tion better. Regents’ strict requirement and Melanie’s cour- age to face the danger of defending a thesis set the stage that allowed that incredible answer to happen in the face of fear. And we know that will not be the last time she is asked to be bold for truth, goodness, and beauty.

IT’S YOUR DESTINY

“All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go, therefore and make disciples of all the nations…” Matthew 28: 18b-19a

In an annual ritual, our community gathers around each one of our seniors. The seniors dress up to the hilt, approach the podium, and spend forty minutes present- ing and defending a case they have developed all year. Gathered together are parents and grandparents, teachers and staff, siblings and friends. A host of emotions and energies pulse through the gathered community. For our community and for each senior, it is a moment of destiny. Our graduates get to give back the fruit of their education to the community that has formed them. What is at stake in this culminating moment? Is it mundane or transcendent or both? What makes this destined event more than just a graduation requirement?

In reenacting this ritual each year, for each student, our communities strive to honor an old tradition of rheto- ric. It is the Ciceronian-Quintilian tradition that refuses
to separate argumentation, ethics, and persuasion. It is a tradition aiming to produce a good person speaking well. The sixteenth century humanist and reformer Petrus Ramus thought that Quintilian improperly included ethics in the domain of rhetoric and sought to reduce rhetoric to tech- niques of ornamentation. Quintilian was right and Ramus was wrong. Rhetoric is inextricably bound up with how we negotiate a wide range of issues in life–for good or for evil. It can and should be distinguished from, but it cannot be separated from other modes of inquiry. Reckoning with the rich scope of Rhetoric may be inconvenient if you, like Ramus, are seeking tidy classifications for all disciplines. But in light of God’s reign, learning effective persuasion is bound up with all endeavors inside and outside academic disciplines.

Senior Thesis is, on the one hand, a moment that passes like all others. On the other hand, by embodying their message and contending for the true, good and lovely, it can be a moment when all the ultimate issues of life in God’s kingdom transform that moment.

This is not safe–this incursion of the Kingdom of God. It is not easy to reckon with the powers and princi- palities that affect discourse. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, in his Gulag Archipelago, said “the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either –but right through every human heart — and through all human hearts.” Once our students have been fully trained, they are asked to enter a difficult world–and they are part of the difficulty. There is no quarter for simple dualisms in God’s kingdom. Learning Rhetoric and going through the Senior Thesis program can help students be more self-aware.

The Force can be used for good or evil. The heart and mind of the Jedi must decide the end for which the Force is used.

In our time the clash of civilizations, political grid- lock, culture wars, social injustices and perennial internal damage wrought by sin all conspire to make chaos in God’s creation. It is in the mess of reality that we pray our seniors graduate as disciples who will face danger with courage because Christ truly is their one sufficient destiny who calls them to be persuasive for His kingdom in all that they do henceforth.

The makers of Star Wars, Episode VII hope that moms and dads, boys and girls will come and find some- thing of their own story reflected in the adventures of the new protagonists of Star Wars, The Force Awakens. I share that hope, for we can see reflections and hear echoes of Christ’s Kingdom in the movie and in our Rhetoric and Senior Thesis programs.

Senior Thesis

In one level, Rhetoric II is a class like any other at Regents School of Austin. It meets four days a week for 55 minutes. It requires homework, participation, and demonstrated learning. It earns 1.0 credits toward a student’s graduation requirements. On his final transcript, it shows up as a single line with a number and a grade posted next to it. But every Regents School graduate knows that this description does not do this course justice whatsoever. Rhetoric II—the Senior Thesis—was always intended to be more than just the last requirement of a senior course, and it indeed is.

For the last ten years the senior thesis has been a requirement for graduation at Regents. Seniors must select a topic for their thesis that is both researchable and debatable, and faculty have the final say in approving students’ topics. Seniors must deliver their thesis in a public forum in front of a panel of judges. The students’ speeches are between 17-22 minutes in length, followed by a rigorous round of 20 minutes of Q & A. This Q & A session weighs heavily in determining the final grade. Students are only permitted two sheets of paper (8 1⁄2 x 11, front side only) when presenting their theses.

Each student is paired with a faculty advisor who mentors the student throughout the thesis process by interacting with the student’s research and written work. The advisor also helps the student prepare for the Q & A portion of the presentation and serves on the judging panel. Each presentation is recorded on DVD and stored, along with the written text, in Regents’ library. We believe that these presentations are the culmination of each student’s education at Regents.

Students prepare an annotated bibliography early in their research, gathering reputable sources for both sides of their issue. This process prepares the students for the more rigorous research method that they will face at the collegiate level and presses them into defending their sources.

Prior to the thesis presentations, students present in class an anti-thesis. These enable the students to honestly consider the opponents’ perspectives and compel them to dig more deeply into the research. Regents gives an annual Senior Thesis Award at graduation based on evaluations from the course instructor, judges, and other faculty.

Since Regents is a Christian school, students consider the spiritual aspects of their topics. Some topics naturally lend themselves to a spiritual bent, but others do not. We challenge the students to consider how their topics have been shaped by man’s sinfulness, by man’s redemption (or lack thereof), and what scripture may relate to their topics.

Quintilian said, “A rhetor is a good man speaking well,” so we spend significant time on delivery. Our students must be able to speak well so others will want to listen. Throughout the year, students practice speaking in front of their classes, honing specific delivery skills. Every student participates, there are no exceptions. The teacher offers immediate feedback. This brief assessment should be both positive and constructive. The rhetoric teachers try to make these days fun and entertaining because mastering difficult concepts, such as movement, can be frustrating for students. By keeping the class lighthearted, students are much more willing to address these more challenging issues and begin to lose their fear of standing in front of an audience.

Students who complete a thesis at Regents know that they have done something substantive and difficult. We believe they have begun mastering the art of persuasion, thereby preparing them for college and beyond.

Listed below are a few of the activities that we use at Regents to help our students improve their public speaking skills.

Bad-Habits Activity – An important first step in speaking well is identifying problems in students’ presentations. For this activity, the teacher lists specific bad habits (e.g., saying “uh”, leaning on the podium, and playing with clothing) on note cards and hands these cards out to students. Each student also receives a paper with a paragraph to read at the podium. One-by-one, the students must stand at the front of the class and read their paragraph while exhibiting the bad habit. After giving the speaker a moment to demonstrate it, members of the audience try to guess the offending trait. This fun activity permits students to look ridiculous as long as everyone looks equally ridiculous.

Psalms Activity – The teacher identifies various portions of the Psalms that lend themselves to passionate or angry pleas. These verses are randomly distributed to the class. Students must display the appropriate emotion in a believable manner. Some students are much more capable than others at expressing the designated emotion. We have discovered that a sincere interaction with this activity can be a beautiful demonstration of religious affections.

Gesture Activity – After providing basic instruction on gesturing, the teacher selects short paragraphs of great speeches from J.F. Kennedy, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., Winston Churchill, etc. (see www.americanrhetoric.com for a collection of great speeches) and asks the students to consider how they would incorporate gestures into their speech. The students must then deliver their paragraph using the appropriate gestures. Immediate feedback is especially important to the success of this activity. An alternative gesture activity is to watch video clips of presidential debates and evaluate the various speakers’ mannerisms.

Eye-Contact Activity – Each student is given a clicker. These clickers make an annoying sound. The teacher asks a student to go to the front of the room and speak on a topic that he knows well and can talk about comfortably. Once the student begins, the audience members begin clicking their clickers. The speaker must make sustained eye contact with each member of the class. When the speaker accomplishes this, the person he is looking at should stop clicking. If the speaker looks up at the ceiling or down at the floor or away from the audience in some way, all clickers resume. When the speaker has made meaningful eye contact with everyone in the classroom, all clicking should have stopped and only then is the speaker finished.

The Dreaded Cowbell Activity – Because we want our students to avoid certain words (e.g., uh, um, well, like, you know) when answering questions from the judges, they need to be alerted when they lapse into saying them. For this activity, the teacher brings a loud cowbell to class. The students must answer classmates’ questions about their thesis. When the speaker utters any of the banned words from our list, the teacher rings the cowbell LOUDLY. Regents’ rhetoric classes do this activity near the time of the actual thesis presentation. Although students hate this day, it works wonders.

Regents’ faculty have many more activities that refine students’ presentation skills. All in all, though, whether speaking or writing, excellence is expected.