January 24, 2013
From The New Yorker, an acclaimed journalist challenges Stanford students to delve into ethical dilemmas
In writer's workshops with The New Yorker's Larissa MacFarquhar, seniors in the Undergraduate Program in Ethics in Society learn to bring their honors theses to another level.
By Lily Bixler Clausen
The New Yorker's Larissa MacFarquhar lent her writing expertise to Ethics in Society seniors, including David "Strand" Sylvester, during one-on-one thesis workshops. (Photo: Lily Bixler Clausen)
Stanford student Jessica Asperger turned to a familiar topic when it came time to write her senior thesis.
Asperger, who has led service-learning trips to orphanages in Tijuana and spent a summer working with HIV-positive children in Tanzania, planned to chronicle her experiences in an honors thesis about the ethics of volunteer tourism.
Asperger's plans changed somewhat after she met with Larissa MacFarquhar, a staff writer for The New Yorker. In a series of workshops earlier this month at Stanford, MacFarquhar challenged Asperger and her classmates to go beyond the known facts and introduce readers to the meatier ethical dimensions of their research.
While in residency with the Center for Ethics in Society, MacFarquhar gave 13 seniors in the Undergraduate Program in Ethics in Society feedback about how to make their theses more engaging and intellectually rich.
When faced with writing a senior thesis, students tend to use what they already accept to be true as a starting point. MacFarquhar, however, said the better approach is to peel back ethical uncertainty and guide readers through the analytical process.
"You need to have questions that you haven't made up your mind about, or else your reader is going to be left feeling like you're waving your finger at them," MacFarquhar told Asperger. Perhaps there was an argument against volunteer tourism that she hadn't been able to sort through?
A light bulb went off for Asperger. She hadn't been able to reconcile arguments that say this form of volunteerism has the potential to be exploitative and inefficient. When she worked on service projects abroad she sometimes felt a bit like a fraud and, likewise, it wasn't clear if her two weeks of work was as helpful to the Tanzanian children as would have been the few thousand dollars it cost her to get there.
MacFarquhar latched onto the tension. "That's a thesis I really want to read," she said. "I want you to walk me through that conflict."
Known for her penetrating profiles of notable and quirky figures, MacFarquhar is no stranger to the study of ethics. Her current book project, Extreme Morality, is about people with an uncommonly heightened sense of morality. MacFarquhar gave a talk on the topic during her residency at Stanford.
Students have faculty and postdoctoral advisers for help on the academic content of their thesis, said Rob Reich, director of the Program in Ethics in Society, but he's convinced that thesis writers have much to learn from people who are excellent writers.
"In my mind, there's no better writer on the lives and ideas of intellectuals than Larissa MacFarquhar," said Reich, an associate professor of political science.
Don't make up your mind
David "Strand" Sylvester was a freshman when the U.S. Supreme Court made its ruling on Citizens United, allowing large-scale funding of political campaigns by corporations and unions. Though he knew he disagreed with the decision, he felt an inability to describe in concrete terms why he thought it was wrong.
"That's where my thesis started," he said. Sylvester is a political science major but he turned to ethics early on as a way to question why the scholarship mattered. In his thesis he is investigating how free speech is implicated in different interpretive approaches to the U.S. Constitution.
Sylvester describes himself as a process-oriented writer who can't do an outline. Sometimes he writes five or six pages in stream-of-consciousness style only to step back, reprocess and edit. Faced with the biggest writing project of his academic career, he finds himself moving ahead, then pulled in new directions.
He's excited that MacFarquhar's advice will help him create a thesis that's engaging for readers. Her feedback on Sylvester's introduction indicates he's been fairly successful on that front. While constitutional law theory can translate to dry prose, she notes that Sylvester has crafted a lively introduction. But there's one issue.
"Why do you lead with corruption here?" MacFarquhar said, running her fingertips down the page of hard-won, double-spaced scholarly prose. "By framing this as corruption, you send an implicit message that you've made up your mind. That's not an enticing way to begin."
By spending two hours reading a thesis and being exposed to the writer's intellectual process, MacFarquhar said her goal is to think of something in a new way and for the writer to guide her through the complexities.
After his workshop with the expert writer, Sylvester said he's likely to lead with a real-life example of speech that could be construed as corrupt. "That way I'll introduce the reader to the problem at hand without giving away my position," he said.
Finding the line between academic and journalistic writing
MacFarquhar's background profiling intellectuals makes it easy to forget she's a professional journalist, not a moral philosopher. MacFarquhar is quick to point out that she's reticent giving advice about academic writing.
Even so, the line between academic and journalistic writing is not always clear. One student, for example, asked if using the first person was appropriate for an undergraduate thesis. MacFarquhar threw her hands in the air and deferred to the student's academic adviser. "It's really a very different genre," she said. "I'm hesitant to give them advice. … My advice will probably be wrong."
"In a lot of the cases I'm underlining and underlining because I'm so interested in a topic I don't know about," she said. "I have a snapshot into [the minds of] people who have been working on these issues for a while."
For more news about the humanities at Stanford, visit the Human Experience.
Lily Bixler Clausen is the communications coordinator for the Center for Ethics in Society.