08/15/2012 03:08 pm ET

Defending Your Thesis

How many graduates discuss (and face critique of) their senior thesis project with the college's top man? All of them, if they go to Bard College at Simon's Rock: The Early College, in Great Barrington, MA.

"I can't imagine there are many places where the head of the place is expected to read and comment on each thesis," says Dr. Peter Laipson, provost at Simon's Rock, who recently finished up his remarks for his second year of graduating seniors. "It's really an illustration of how important they are in the life of the college for B.A. students."

The tradition began over 20 years ago (about half the life of the college) with then-provost Bernard Rogers, Jr. "Bernie is not only a fast reader, but is an articulate speaker with a prodigious memory," says Laipson. "I think he read each thesis in its entirety, would internalize the content and then at ceremony preceding the traditional commencement dinner would stand up and make seemingly impromptu comments about each senior's thesis."

Doing so was a bit easier then. "When the tradition started back in the day, we probably had only 15 to 20 B.A. students," he says. "But we've grown since then." In 2011, Laipson's first year as provost, he had 61 theses to read.

"The theses come in -- each one an average of 80 pages -- and 10 days later the provost is supposed to comment on them," he says. "So I decided to modify the practice a little bit."

Laipson makes an appointment with each graduating senior in the spring semester. "It gives me a chance to meet them and really chat and take notes on what their thesis is about," he says. "I still read each one -- at least a chapter or two -- to make sure my understanding from our discussion was coincident with what they'd written."

"Meeting with the students is my favorite part," he says. "They're so enthusiastic. We have students who transfer out and then back in because they really want to do a thesis."

The sophistication of many of the papers still surprises him.

One biology student, for example, worked with professors at Cornell and came up with a new technique for staining steroids. "She did some real research," he says. "Not replicating someone else's study, but doing something new." Another student -- who came to Simon's Rock after totally exhausting his high school's curriculum -- developed a new theory of moral blameworthiness.

"I was expecting good, long papers," he says, "But in many cases I found not just talent, but a depth of work I hadn't anticipated. The best students are really writing a Master's thesis. That was a little humbling."