Pursuing Your Own Research

One of the great advantages of a Duke education is the small student-to-faculty ratio affording the chance to get to know professors personally and work under their guidance on your own research. Learning does not end in the classroom; ideally, coursework is a springboard to developing special interests that lead to investigation beyond the classroom. There are two ways to pursue your own research: through an independent study or through an honors project.

Independent Study Research

Majors and minors may take an independent study as an elective to research a special interest beyond the classroom under the supervision of a faculty member. Normally, the independent study would emerge from a course taken with the advisor. A research independent study (MEDREN 293) has the goal of producing a substantive researched paper containing significant analysis and interpretation of a topic, and it carries a Research (R) code. Students wishing to take an independent study must consult with the Director of Undergraduate Studies first and then submit a proposal that must be approved. The completed proposal is due to the Director of Undergraduate Studies one week prior to the drop/add deadline. Once approved, the student will be given a permission number to add the course. See the Trinity College guidelines on Independent Study.

Honors Thesis Research

About a quarter of Duke undergraduates engage in researched honors projects—a higher proportion of MEDREN majors choose to do so. Qualified majors are highly encouraged to pursue a thesis project leading to Graduation with Distinction. One MEDREN major captures the enormous value of her experience writing an honors thesis:

“I would have been happy with my major had I not written an honors thesis, but I would not be as confident as I now am for having accomplished it. The advisor guides you, but at the end of the day, it was entirely my own decision to do this, and I had to make it happen myself.”

Forging a close working relationship with one or more professors is invaluable in and of itself, and the mentor’s familiarity with the student’s work and potential can also be tremendously helpful when the student is applying to postgraduate programs of study. Distinction is an honor that is noted on the transcript, and also represents a high point in the student’s academic career.

Get to Know Your Professors. The more you interact with your professors, the better sense you will have of their interests and approach, which are important considerations in selecting an advisor. In turn, professors are more likely to take you on as an advisee if they know your work. Flunch with a professor whose course has gotten you excited about a topic. Or just visit the professor during office hours to talk further about a topic and get suggestions for extra reading.

Explore Historical Research. To write a thesis, you’ll need to conceptualize a historical problem or literary/artistic issue; identify primary sources that can help you answer the problem or explore the issue; contextualize and assess the evidence contained in those sources; and construct an effective analytical argument based on that evidence. Taking an R-coded MEDREN course would give you an opportunity to learn about historical and interpretive methodology and write a research paper of limited scope before entering into an honors project.

Study Abroad and Discover a Topic. Many MEDREN majors develop honors topics while studying abroad and being exposed to a whole new world with close ties to the premodern past. One student noted that studying abroad “gave me a tactile, firsthand experience that brought to life my historical understanding.” Before you go, you might schedule an appointment with one of the Medieval and Renaissance Studies specialist librarians, Heidi Madden (at Perkins) or Lee Sorensen (at Lilly), to get pointers on taking maximum advantage of archives and resources you could encounter. Then, while abroad, take time to explore archives, museums, and architectural sites that might become a historical source you can explore in depth later.

Develop Competency in a Foreign Language. Many prospective thesis writers in Medieval and Renaissance Studies would like to tackle a historical problem concerning the non-English speaking world. In many cases, students without extensive foreign language skills are able to do just that, either by relying on English-language sources, sources translated into English, or some combination of the two. But your range of options will be far greater if you come into the senior year with a solid ability to read a foreign language.

Qualified students must maintain a minimum GPA of 3.5 in the major. An honors project application, approved by the thesis advisor, should be submitted to the Director of Undergraduate Studies during the junior year.

The summer before senior year—perhaps following a junior-year study abroad experience—is an ideal time to jump into research for the honors thesis. Often thesis writers need to travel, sometimes outside the United States (perhaps returning to a study-abroad location), in order to work in archives or with other kinds of materials like art objects and architectural structures. The Undergraduate Research Support Office offers funding opportunities for engaging in and presenting student research. A Deans’ Summer Research Fellowship provides up to $3,000 for three weeks of research away from Duke or on campus. A URS Travel Grant provides up to $400 for travel to present research at an academic conference. URS also supports a number of specific grants for humanities projects. See URS funding opportunities.

Perkins Library also offers special services and opportunities to support students who are writing an honors thesis. Check out the perks!

Expected Product. A written thesis based on at least one independent study (MEDREN 491 or 493) with a Medieval and Renaissance Studies faculty member who directs the thesis.

Evaluation Procedure. Evaluation by a committee of three Medieval and Renaissance Studies faculty members, one of whom must be the thesis director.

Levels of Distinction. Recommendation from the review committee for distinction, high distinction, and highest distinction based on the quality of the thesis.

Special Courses. One Medieval and Renaissance Studies independent study course (491 or 493) may count toward the major. The thesis should be written in conjunction with independent study work in either the junior or senior year. A thesis research independent study (493) is best taken in spring of the junior year (if you are not studying abroad) or fall of the senior year. The writing of the thesis is normally completed during spring of the senior year. A thesis independent study (491) may be taken while writing the thesis.

To find out more, check out the Trinity College distinction requirements.

Students double-majoring in Medieval and Renaissance Studies and another department or program may elect to work on an honors project and receive honors in both areas. The following additional guidelines apply.

The student must propose a double-thesis to both departments/programs and seek their approval together. A student may not seek the approval of a second department or program after already beginning work on an honors project.

To qualify as a legitimate double-thesis, the thesis must clearly draw on advising from and work done for both departments/programs. Specifically, the student must form two separate committees; only one member may be on both committees (the thesis advisor). The student must also take at least one thesis-related course from each department/program involved, as determined by each area (e.g., thesis seminar or independent study). A double-thesis, therefore, should benefit clearly from its basis in two different departments/programs, exemplifying a strong cross-disciplinary quality.

Evaluation of the double-thesis is done separately by the two committees. This means in practice that the committees may evaluate the thesis differently according to their own standards.

Here are several samples of previous honors projects in Medieval and Renaissance Studies.

In principio erat sermo: A Linguistic Imitatio Christi in the Johannine Prologue of D. Erasmus Roterodamus” by Timothy Paul Kowalczyk, directed by Dr. Tom Robisheaux

Examining the Renaissance humanist Erasmus of Roterdam’s works of rhetoric—LinguaAntibarbari, and De libero arbitrio—this project challenges the usual perception of Erasmus as a minor philosopher lacking systematic rigor. It is argued that Erasmus’s theory of speech is not a rough mosaic of disparate approaches to certain problems, but rather a cohesive organization of the whole of human speech acts. Educated in the practices of the devotio moderna, Erasmus sees all speech as united in its purpose to achieve a greater personal and communal likeness to Christ.

“The Stymphalian Project” by Elijah Weinreb, directed by Dr. Tom Robisheaux

Is there any chance that Leonardo Da Vinci’s concept of a flying machine could be realized in a model drone with an 87 inch wing span mimicking a large bird of prey? This project, by a double major in Mechanical Engineering and Medieval and Renaissance Studies, attempted to create an ornithopter that might glide and flap to keep it aloft. In the process, the limitations of studying flight from the observation of nature gave way to appreciating on a deeper level the importance of modern physics.

“Time-Traveling Magic?” by Stephanie Crowell, directed by Dr. Clare Woods

Magic in literature has persisted from medieval romance into modern fantasy. Studying the figure of Merlin, this project seeks to explore the resiliency of magic, how it disappears and returns in new forms, demonstrating the continual felt need to be enchanted and for such a force to be used with knowledge and wisdom. Yet magic’s ancient association with the demonic threatens for it to be driven away, despite Merlin’s and other magicians’ good works.

“Dialogue and Disputation in Medieval Anti-Jewish Polemic: Converts to Christianity and the Assault on Rabbinic Traditions” by Rebecca Reibman, directed by Dr. Tom Robisheaux

This thesis explores the connection between Jewish converts to Christianity and anti-Judaism, seeking answers to why and how three Jewish converts well educated in the Jewish community subsequently produced some of the most virulent anti-Jewish argumentation that was deeply intertwined with influences of their former lives. It is argued that the very nature of their conversion identity contributed to the refashioning of Judaism and the lives of Jews in the later Middle Ages as targets for Christian polemic and violence.

“Depictions of Odysseus’ Death in Literature: A Study in Myth Reception” by Elizabeth Maria Djinis (dual honors thesis), directed by Dr. Martin Eisner

This thesis analyzes depictions of Odysseus’ death in literature from Homer to Dante to Tennyson and to Primo Levi, especially in terms of the connection between the quest for knowledge and religion. It is argued that Dante’s Ulysses, though implicated in the Inferno, later becomes a heroic ideal for the quest for knowledge at all costs. While this quest in earlier Greek texts is seen as intrinsically going against a god, Ulysses’ pursuit of knowledge becomes more heroic in society as knowledge becomes less associated with religion.

“Anxieties of Power: Pierfrancesco Riccio and the Politics of Art” by DeDe Mann (dual honors thesis), directed by Dr. John Martin

Based on research conducted at the Archivio di Stato in Florence, this thesis explores the ducal secretary Pierfrancesco Riccio’s all-encompassing influence in Cosimo I de’ Medici’s court in terms of Riccio’s effect on both the visible and visual expressions of courtly power. At a time of enormous anxiety in Florence, which was transitioning from a republic to a duchy—a city under the sole control of its duke—Riccio controlled the image of his prince by handling much of the correspondence and artistic commissions so as to project a desirable princely image and help to shape, define, and enforce the message that the artistic commissions were designed to communicate.

“Monticello: The Embodiment of Thomas Jefferson’s Intellect, Status, and Persona,” by Charlotte Bassett (dual honors thesis), directed by Dr. Sara Galletti

Monticello is the architectural embodiment of Thomas Jefferson’s creative and intellectual architectural prowess. As his personal residence and passion, Monticello was redesigned and renovated by Jefferson almost continuously over the forty year period between 1770 and 1809. His Classicized style was inspired by Italian Renaissance Palladianism and English Palladianism, which he learned from architectural treatises and his European travels during his ministry to France. The thesis studies Jefferson’s personas as an intellectual architect and as a Virginia planter through his designs for Monticello.

“To Our Lady We Sing: The Balance of Spirit and Humanity in the N-Town Mary Play” by Mandy Lowell (dual honors thesis), directed by Dr. Sarah Beckwith

The N-Town Plays, a collection of forty-eight short pageants, deals with biblical and otherwise Christian subject matter. This thesis focuses on the “Mary Play,” which presents an expression of piety toward a beloved and revered religious figure; it is both joyful and contemplative, expressed in a lovingly crafted imitation of Mary’s life. Scholars and theater directors, however, have not noticed the possibilities of entertainment in this rarely performed play. The thesis argues that in addition to inspiring liturgical devotion, the play made Marian devotion more accessible and enjoyable for the laity. To prove this point in theatrical terms, Mandy directed a staged reading of her own modern English translation of the play with student actors.

“Sir Gawain the Courteous? Burlesque in Middle English Arthurian Legends” by Chris Kizer, directed by Dr. Ann Marie Rasmussen and Dr. Fiona ​​​​​Sommerset

Medieval Arthurian romances were sometimes comical! This thesis explores burlesque versions of the Gawain tradition, such as Sir Gawain and the Carl of Carlisle and The Jeaste of Sir Gawain, measuring them against the great Middle English Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. These burlesque texts poke fun at an established and popular literary genre rather than parodying individual Arthurian legends. Monty Python and the Holy Grail is by no means the first English burlesque of the Arthurian legend.

“The Genres of Troilus and Criseyde: Chaucer, Henryson, Shakespeare” by Annie Kozak, directed by Dr. Maureen Quilligan

The story of Troilus and Cressida has been told and retold from ancient times, changing as it passes through the hands of individual interpreters. One of the most significant changes comes in the transformation from Chaucer to Shakespeare, and is deeply indebted to the intermediary, Robert Henryson. Chaucer in Troilus and Criseyde pardons Criseyde for her famous infidelity, which ultimately prevents the reader from being able to make easy conclusions about the poem. Henryson in his Testament of Cresseid gives Cresseid the disease of leprosy as a punishment, so that what begins as a romance gets transformed into a moralized tragedy. In Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida, a combination of subtle and overt allusions to syphilis throughout the narrative, targeting all the characters, renders the play utterly and thoroughly diseased.