Baccalaureate “bacc” season marks the time from late April to the end of the academic year when thesis students present the culmination of a year’s worth of research, achievement and dedication to their chosen topic for their bacc committees and peers. At any other time, official bacc days—April 20 through 23 this year—would have kickstarted this season, giving students three days off of class in order to present their own findings, attend other bacc exams or otherwise catch up on work or relax as the year draws to a close. However, the coronavirus pandemic and subsequent shutdown of campus caused bacc days and bacc exams to look very different from what was anticipated. Not all thesis students are in a position where they can prioritize their bacc exams right now. But those who have had their exams thus far have faced a unique series of decisions and difficulties that have marked New College’s attempts to keep bacc season running smoothly during quarantine.
Once it became clear that alternative measures would need to be taken for thesis students to meet their graduation requirements, Associate Provost Suzanne Sherman sent an email to thesis students on March 24 including guidelines for alternate bacc exams, details about theses and the future of commencement for 2020 graduates. This email stated that all bacc exams would be conducted remotely and that the format of each individual exam would depend on the student and their bacc committee. As bacc announcements began to fill the student’s email list, the mediums, audiences and format of each exam were as varied as their bacc puns.
Take thesis student Parankush Bhardwaj for example, who opted to let students RSVP to sit in on his bacc exam on April 20. Bhardwaj’s computer science thesis, “Information Networks: Improving the Way we Share and Consume Information,” focused on combating clickbait content and online misinformation through manual human curation meant to foster a “healthier state of information between people.” Research for this thesis required building and testing an app on subjects and then collecting feedback which—thankfully for Bhardwaj—could be done from home.
Bhardwaj’s bacc was held over Google Hangouts in a meeting that was attended by approximately 30 people. After the presentation portion, the exam portion of the bacc between Bhardwaj and his committee was primarily discussion-based, and the entire exam clocked in at about two hours. Several students have had open baccs in this way, keeping the format as close as possible to how bacc exams are traditionally conducted on campus. Bhardwaj says that he chose this format for the opportunity to present his findings to the students who had taken interest in his progress throughout the semester and that the idea of presenting something he was passionate about to an audience was what he had been most excited for.
“I felt really bad just doing it with the three or four people in my committee and that’s it,” Bhardwaj said. “I thought, ‘If people want to watch, they should be able to watch.’”
Meanwhile, other thesis students such as Alyssa Borgschulte instead opted for a closed synchronous exam with only her committee present. Borgschulte’s thesis, “What is Enriching for Bottlenose Dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) Across Enrichment Types and Contexts,” is the result of a summer’s internship at a Dolphins Plus facility in Key Largo. Enrichment refers to an object or activity that enhances something’s wellbeing, and the research consisted of organizing and collecting data on various enrichment sessions for bottlenose dolphins. Borgschulte used Google Meets for her exam and recalls the surreality of being asked to leave the meeting and give her advisor her phone number once it was time for the committee members to deliberate amongst themselves.
“It was really weird just sitting there and waiting in my room, just scrolling through Facebook and waiting to get a phone call back,” Borgschulte said.
Borgschulte said that she chose to have a closed exam both because she was worried that having other students present would distract her and because she figured that it would not make up for the fact that thesis students could not have in-person baccs this year. Instead, she held another mock bacc exam after her first on April 17 with just her friends as a way of celebrating.
“I had everybody come on and we just chatted for a little bit,” Borgshculte said. “I gave my presentation for 10 minutes and if they had any questions they could ask, but they really just wanted to see my research and support me and kind of be there for one another in hard times like this.”
But, as noted by Sherman in the original email on March 24, these new flexible bacc guidelines were created primarily for students and committee members that may not have the technology or ability to interact synchronously. Emily Lovett is one such example, and had an asynchronous closed bacc exam where she defended her thesis, “Saint or Seductress? Representations of Countess Matilda of Tuscany in the Eleventh Century,” examining how gender influenced representations of Countess Matilda throughout her lifetime. Lovett’s committee could not do a synchronous bacc exam due to various household responsibilities and prior commitments to other exams happening at the same time, so Lovett skipped the presentation portion entirely and answered her committee member’s questions over email. She said that her professor had only wanted her to do a five minute presentation instead of the standard ten minutes, and decided to get rid of this portion of the exam entirely after the campus shutdown. Instead, Lovett was sent a series of questions at 1 p.m. on April 20 and given two hours to answer and reply for her exam.
“I don’t think I know of anyone else who did the kind of format I did,” Lovett said. “It was weird but it worked out fine.”
While some thesis students have been able to finish their baccs thus far, they are not without their technical difficulties. For example, Bhardwaj prepared to hold his exam in Zoom as a backup in case Google Hangouts crashed or malfunctioned like it did during his exam rehearsal a week before when the audio kept cutting out. And Borgschulte’s audio cut out once she had been called back into the meeting after her committee’s deliberation. She typed out her thanks in the chat once she learned that she had passed. Lovett also said that either due to miscommunication or the busy schedules of her committee members, she received an unofficial email saying she had passed six hours after she finished her exam with promises of more details later.
There is also the issue of whether individual thesis students were able to wrap up their research or gather necessary citations before being removed from campus. Without the typical resources, Lovett said that her thesis was affected in this way.
“There were a couple small sections where I either had to get rid of or pair down to what resources I had,” Lovett said. “I know that some people are really struggling with it in terms of citations, at least in history theses, because they don’t know if it came from a certain source and they won’t be able to remember because they don’t have access to the book.”
It’s true that bacc season this year looked like nothing anyone could have anticipated and presents unique struggles that have caught students and faculty alike off guard, but thesis students are still finding ways to celebrate and continue to persevere. Lovett, for one, recreated a thesis burn using her fire pit and remarks that the experience, while not what was imagined, was “pretty straightforward and easy.”