Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Your Thesis in Three Sentences: Sarah Harris (GSAS '14)

On Saturday, April, 12, 2014 twelve GSAS master's students competed in the 2014 GSAS Threesis Academic Challenge. The Threesis Challenge is an academic competition for GSAS master's students. Students present the work of their thesis or final project (eg. creative project, science experiment or research paper) to a panel of judges in accessible language a non-expert can understand in three minutes or less. Competitors are judged on how well they grasp the subject of their thesis, their ability to discuss the topic to non-experts and presentation skills. Students compete for a grand prize of $1,000 and other prizes while learning to organize ideas and speak about them persuasively in a fun, academic atmosphere. This competition is adopted from the Three Minute Thesis Challenge currently taking place in Australia and New Zealand.

Over the next week we will feature the winners of this year's competition as well as a few of the finalists. First up is First Place & Audience Choice winner Sarah Harris (GSAS '14). We asked Sarah three questions about her Threesis experience.

Can you explain your thesis to us in three sentences?

My thesis looks at changing perceptions of human-machine relationships in Romanticism (1800-1840ish) through the literature of E.T.A. Hoffmann (Germany) and Mary Shelley (UK). A lot of important historical and technological changes were going on at this time - Enlightenment (the period before Romanticism) had fallen in love with machines and used them as a model to understand the world, and Romanticism leads in to the Industrial Revolution where machines begin to really impact people’s lives. The automaton, a self-moving machine built to look human, was a figure that was somewhere between human and machine, and these authors used it to comment on the changing landscape of human-machine relations.

How did you prepare for Threesis and what advice would you give to students thinking of participating next year?

It took a while to get a good script, and I kept editing words or flow up until the competition - I wanted it to sound like a conversation and not a speech. I sent drafts to my thesis advisors who helped me fill in the gaps - I’d been working on my paper for a few months and I had to remember that I was sharing it with people who hadn’t done all the reading that I had. I practiced on the subway every day and went to the Kimmel music practice rooms a lot so I could watch the presentation as I was giving it. The workshops also definitely helped - we got feedback about what was working in our presentation and what wasn’t, as well as any quirks - some people rocked back and forward while they were talking, or stared at their feet. My criticism was that I didn’t breathe during my entire 4 minute run-through. My advice to students would be to definitely participate in the Threesis. Winning is a possibility, but meeting other students and learning about the great work being done on campus is guaranteed. As grad students we tend to live in our departments, so this was my first opportunity to meet people from Gallatin, biology, computer sciences, etc and I really appreciated learning about what other NYU grads were passionate about.

If you had unlimited funding to continue your research, how would it change the world? 

“Change the World” is a very STEM way of thinking. In the humanities it’s more about contributing to a pool of knowledge - my work will be used as a resource for others, just as I dip from theirs when I begin to write. Studying literature is important and meaningful, but it rarely has immediate impacts on a global scale - rather, it sends ripples through academia that can be intercepted by others listening closely, and at times can surface to world at large. My work probably won’t change the world, but hopefully I can make an impact on my field and leave behind works that are helpful to the next generation of scholars. Personally, unlimited funding would ensure that I could spend more time in German speaking countries, and get a better grasp of the topics I want to write about. It would also mean that I could afford nicer coffee for the pre-deadline all-nighters, which, let’s be honest, is the dream.

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