Almost exactly one year ago, I completed the most important paper of my academic career: my Bachelor’s thesis research project. A lot of students at UChicago complete a thesis (very commonly referred to as a BA on campus), and I thought this would be a good opportunity to tell you all a little bit about what a BA project is and why I found the process of writing one so engaging and enjoyable.
Different departments have different variations and requirements for a BA project, but at the very basic level, a BA is a research project that you start working on during Spring Quarter of your third year and complete one year later during Spring Quarter of your fourth year. It’s required for some departments and optional for others but is often used to help determine who graduates with honors in a particular major. Pretty much universally, BA writers find a faculty advisor to help them with the process and are also assigned a graduate student preceptor to give them additional guidance.
While I was in undergrad, I majored in English and Spanish. Both of these majors have an optional BA project. I knew I definitely wanted to do a BA project but decided to focus on one major and just write a BA for English (some people do write a BA for more than one major or work to find a topic from two separate majors to combine into an interdisciplinary BA, but I am not that brave). Even though my BA was “officially” part of the English department, I also wanted to incorporate some of my knowledge of Spanish into the project. It didn’t take long for me to think about the perfect topic: code-switching.
Code-switching is a very complex topic. In my paper, I explored the various nuances of what it is and its different definitions, but at a very basic, one-sentence level, code-switching is “the act of shifting back and forth between two languages over the course of a single conversation” (Stover 1). Yes, I am citing my own paper in this blog post. First of all, because it’s something I’ve always wanted to do. Second of all, it is actually technically plagiarism to not cite yourself, and at UChicago we really value academic honesty ???? Code-switching can also come in to play when folks who may be part of multiple cultures or communities alter their affect, gestures, approach to others, or anything else about their engagement in a community based on what might fit a norm in different settings.
Code-switching interested me for two different reasons. First of all, my maternal grandparents’ first language is Spanish, so they sometimes code-switch when they talk (my mom and I didn’t grow up speaking Spanish fluently, but even we sometimes do it). I had also taken a class during my second year at UChicago about Latinx poetry. While I already knew from personal experience that code-switching is something that happens very organically, it’s also something that can be used in a very deliberate way in writing to achieve different effects. This class and its instructor, Professor Rachel Galvin, really piqued my interest in how code-switching can be used as a literary device.
While I ended up taking more English classes about novels than poetry during the rest of my time at UChicago, my interest in code-switching stayed with me. When it came time to decide on a topic for my BA at the end of my third year, I decided to focus on code-switching in novels, and one novel in particular: So Far from God by Ana Castillo (she actually got her MA at UChicago in 1979). I had read works by Castillo in other classes at UChicago, and I liked her work so much that I found So Far from God on my own time. The book is about events in the lives of a family who lives in a small town in New Mexico (my home state) and has a lot of interesting uses of code-switching. I knew it would be a really great novel to focus on for my BA.
I very much enjoyed the research process. First of all, I had awesome support. Professor Galvin, who I was still in touch with, agreed to be my BA advisor, despite the fact that she was going to be on sabbatical during my fourth year. It was amazing to be able to work with the person who had originally introduced me to code-switching in an academic context. My graduate student preceptor, Lauren Schachter (who has actually since become Dr. Schachter and is now a teaching fellow at UChicago) also provided me with a lot of help throughout the whole process. As I worked on the project throughout the year, producing annotated bibliographies and draft after draft after draft, they both provided me with feedback that ultimately made me a better writer.
Another great part about writing my BA was getting to learn about things that were interesting to me and being able to fall down a million different academic rabbit holes. There were no restrictions for my BA and very few mandatory guidelines other than a recommended page count. This is pretty common among BA theses in any department—if your faculty adviser and preceptor agree that you’re on a solid and interesting track, you are free (and, in fact, encouraged!) to dive deeply in to areas of the subject that are meaningful or interesting to you. That meant I had the freedom to approach this project in whatever way I wanted and to borrow knowledge from several different fields of study. In addition to literary concepts, I brought numerous other subjects into the conversation: linguistics, sociolinguistics, history, and politics, among others. By the time I was done, I had learned more not only about code-switching itself but about these other subjects as well.
Turning in your BA project is a source of great pride for any UChicago student who completes one. On April 29, 2019, after many drafts (I actually went back and looked through my drafts folder, and I have one draft labeled “4.29 2 pm draft” and “4.29 3:30 pm draft” from that day) and a lot of typing, I finally submitted my BA. A lot of people celebrate by taking a picture with their completed BA and posting it to social media. I chose to celebrate by going to see Avengers: Endgame that night (it had come out the previous weekend and I hadn’t been able to justify going to see it until my paper was officially turned in). About a month later, I learned that my hard work had paid off: I had officially been awarded honors!
I learned a lot of things from writing my BA project, but there was one thing that stood out in particular, and that was how fun it is to just unabashedly explore one of your interests without any limits. I didn’t plan on pursuing this research after college, and I didn’t plan to go on to get my PhD in English. But it was amazing to just have the freedom to learn about something that I personally found super interesting, especially when I knew I probably wouldn’t have the chance to dedicate that amount of time to just one single topic ever again.
To bring this all around and back to today, when we’re all stuck inside, I think I’m trying to recapture that mentality. I’m not going to write another 30-page paper any time soon, and I’m not suggesting that you do so, either. What I am trying to do, however, is let myself get sucked into new interests and explore them. I’m trying to read Harry Potter in Spanish right now. I also think I want to try getting more into art, even though I’m not particularly good at it. I hope that as you come to the end of this post, you might start thinking about some topic that you’re interested in, and that you’ll let yourself get sucked into exploring it. Who knows? You may end up learning something completely new!