Debbie Wen ’19 is an English and classics double major. Her thesis examines domestic ideology and the role of women in Charles Dickens’ novels. Her thesis advisor is Assistant Professor of English Alicia Mireles Christoff.
Q: What motivated you to major in English?
A: I’ve always loved reading, ever since I was a kid. I was born in China, but then my family moved to Singapore when I was really young. We lived there for about four years and then we moved back to China. But [Singapore] was where I learned English, and where I first became acquainted with reading. There was an author, Enid Blyton, and if you’re British, or lived in an ex-British colony then you’ve most likely read her. She was one of the first authors that I read in English. Then, when I came to college, I knew that I was going to major in the humanities, so I thought I might as well major in English. I still really enjoy reading and writing.
Q: What motivated you to do a thesis?
A: I started thinking about doing a thesis in my junior year, and I spent last semester studying abroad at Oxford [University]. I am an English and classics major, and I took all English and classics classes there. While I was there, I took a class on Charles Dickens. I had never studied him academically. I had just read him in my free time, so that was really interesting because I had never seen his work in an academic light before. So now I’m doing my thesis on domestic ideology in his novels. It’s a very interesting topic that is bigger than just one essay, and I think it could sustain my interest for a project as big as a thesis. I wouldn’t have done a thesis if I hadn’t picked a topic beforehand.
Q: What is your thesis about?
A: So far, my topic is that Charles Dickens’ novels — like all Victorian novels — have an educational purpose, but his is specifically creating domestic ideology in the middle class environment. All of his heroines are from the middle class, and he very rarely ventured into the upper classes, so his novels create an identity for the middle class, which was historically at that point not as fully formed. I am interested in how he creates this domestic ideology and I’m looking at specifically female characters. I’m also interested in how his novels simultaneously create this ideology, but at the same time they expose cracks in this same ideology or how it’s not possible for everyone. There are a lot of women in his novels that don’t conform to this ideology, so I’m interested in why this is so and the educational purpose.
Q: What does a thesis entail?
A: I think it depends. There are two types of English theses — one is analytical, which is what I’m doing, and the other is creative writing. I think even within the analytical thesis you can do different things. Some people might incorporate digital stuff, but there’s a lot of reading of scholars involved. I’ve read two wonderful books on how race and colonialism shaped domestic ideology within Europe as whole. This research isn’t as straightforward as if you were doing a history thesis, but it’s mainly about reading outside scholarship whenever necessary.
Q: What has been the most challenging?
A: There was a lot of reading, but I read all of Dickens’ novels over the summer. That was a bit challenging, but because it was during the summer, it wasn’t as big of a deal. I think so far it has been clarifying my argument, because the answer that I just gave on what my thesis was about I would not have given you that answer in September. I’m sure if you asked me this question in April, I will have a different answer then.
Q: What has been most rewarding?
A: Working towards the goal of answering my overall question. This was originally, “Why do these Dickens women not fit within the domestic ideology?” I think the satisfaction comes in figuring out “why.” Also, I think that finding out that I am capable of doing this is really rewarding.
Q: Who is your thesis advisor, and what is it like being mentored through this process?
A: My thesis advisor is Professor Alicia Christoff in the English department. Her specialty is Victorian literature, so that’s why she was assigned to me. It has been really great having her as a mentor because this is my first time working with such a big project, and she can give me a lot of guidance on how to think about my argument and also how to construct the structure if the actual paper. This knowledge comes from her writing her dissertation and books. It is very much a give-and-take process, so I always enjoy talking with her. She offers great constructive criticism. Without a mentor, I would be very lost.
Q: What advice do you have for future thesis writers, or people who are considering?
A: I’m not sure if I know enough to offer great advice, but I’ll try! I would say to not do a thesis unless you have a burning question, which you are sure you’ll be interested in enough to work on it for the whole school year. If you find out that you’re not as interested as you once were, you’ll kind of burn out and it becomes a case of “why does this matter?” My belief that my thesis material does matter is what propels me. As for a more practical piece of advice, I would say to get as much reading done over the summer as possible. I’m only taking three classes, but I still don’t have as much free time as I’d thought.
Q: How will you take this experience and apply it to the future?
A: If I were going into academia, this would be a very straightforward answer. I’m not thinking about graduate school, at least not immediately. At the end of April, the sense of achievement and knowing I can complete this type of project will be very gratifying. This process is helping me become more self-disciplined. One other thing is that, on an intellectual level, I was able to read a lot more theory and further refine my own thinking.