I first picked up Umberto Eco’s How to Write a Thesis at the campus Barnes and Noble while writing my own. It didn’t seem particularly instructive, but I skimmed the book, already too far into the process to use Eco’s meticulous suggestions about organizing readings and archives with notecards. But his belief in the importance of the thesis, both as an intellectual endeavor and as a human one, helped to carry me through. Though the humanities thesis was a requirement in the Italian University system until recently, Eco saw it as more than a hoop to be jumped through on the way to degree completion. Instead, what was most important to Eco was the process of writing the thesis itself. It allowed naive twenty-somethings to engage a project from beginning to end; to explore connections between themselves and far flung academics; to converse with texts; and to realize that their ideas matter.
I defended my Masters thesis nearly four years ago now. Since then, I have spent two years in a Ph.D program, and a year working part time jobs, freelance-writing, and applying to even more graduate schools. I have, arguably, never needed a thesis writing guide less than I do now. But because I’ve had more time for pleasure reading than I did while in school, I decided to give Eco’s book a more thorough read. This time I found a love letter to the humanities, and a seeming “defense” of their importance years before such arguments became regular features in online magazines. Eco argues that the humanities thesis is a life-altering rite of passage for students, the likes of which it is impossible to duplicate. And the book made me see how anxious I was to return to the classroom.
At first glance, Umberto Eco’s How to Write a Thesis seems like an outdated academic guide, translated into English 25 years too late. He discusses typewriters, notecards, and other methods of research and study largely replaced by more recent technology. That being said, unlike some of the more mechanical writing guides out there—like Shrunk and White’s Elements of Style—, Eco’s broader argument transcends his specific suggestions. For example, much of Eco’s discussion of notecards and bibliographies are focused on modes of thinking rather than the specific organization tool. Instead of notecards, one might be using Scrivener or Evernote, but Eco’s ideas about gathering sources, reading books, and organizing information are still relevant.
Books, languages, and organization are all central to both the process of studying, and to the skill set a humanistic education provides, according to Eco. The humanities (and writing a thesis, something many students no longer do) teach students how to organize and synthesize information, how to take concise notes, how to identify significant quotations, and—most importantly—how to read widely.
Reading widely is fundamental to Eco’s argument, and offers a guideline for those at every stage of humanistic study: undergrads, graduate students, scholars working on their books. Eco suggests that, if possible, students shouldn’t limit their engagement with primary and secondary sources to English language volumes. Even if students haven’t acquired the language skills he encourages, reading academic articles and primary sources in translation can broaden the scope of debate. For Eco, a good reading list should include books written in other languages, works written across time periods (for example, scholarship, theory, or historiography deemed irrelevant or old), and room for surprises and additions.
Crucially, Eco writes about the challenges of an “overabundance of information” that can overwhelm even the most advanced academics when writing. This has only increased with the advent of the internet, databases, and more advanced interlibrary loan systems. Instead of gathering every piece of data or taking photos of every document in the archive, Eco suggests honing in on a few pieces of writing or archival documents. When academics take thousands of archival photos and scans, we often end up with as little as we started with. It’s difficult to read, condense, and annotate all of these works, much less write about them. For Eco, less is more when it comes to selecting the texts humanistic scholars work with.
However, creating a bibliography, and being selective about doing so, isn’t simply a step on a long to-do list; it is an integral part of intellectual development. In the same way that putting together comprehensive exam lists can help graduate students make sense of their fields, pulling together important primary and secondary sources can do the same. But instead of reading books chronologically, or in some sort of discipline-based order, he argues for “consuming texts in a disorderly way,” which allows both students and scholars to see connections between writers that they may have missed otherwise.
These steps are, of course, deeply rooted in privilege. Language training is expensive and often difficult to obtain, even for graduate students using primary sources in other languages.
Assumptions about a “neo-capitalism” of information, as Eco has put it, assume library and database access, as well as the accessibility of a computer and other technological needs.
And annotating texts, are of course, circumscribed by the ability to purchase books.
In other words, many of the elements that Eco finds essential to humanistic inquiry betray the very real class barriers to entry for many. Be it no direct line of employment, to lack of language funding, those without access to elite education may find it difficult to engage in these worthwhile humanistic endeavors. But by recognizing the vital experience of a deep engagement with texts, and with the humanities writ large, it becomes clearer what we lose when we prop up a university system that was built on excluding.
Holly Genovese is a Ph.D student in American Studies at UT Austin. She has a M.A. in history from the University of South Carolina and a B.A. in history and political science from Temple. She writes about incarceration, activism, pop culture, and books. Find her work in the Washington Post, Teen Vogue, the LA Review of Books, the Chronicle of Higher Education, Bustle Books, and many other publications. Follow her on twitter @hollyevanmarie.