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Recipe for a last-minute scholar

I have not exactly spent my time at the University immersing myself in the world of academia.

I haven't been a bad student, of course. I've passed all my classes, and I've never been on academic probation. My grades have been fairly good, though not stellar.

I spent most of my time doing just what I needed to do to get by. I studied for exams the night before taking them. I aimed to hit the page limit on papers and not go beyond. I did the reading right before tests, not when it actually was assigned. Most of the time I went to class, and most of the time I even stayed awake.

But now, spurred on by my imminent graduation, I have turned over a new leaf.

Yes, that's right. I now would like to christen myself a scholar.

Just at the time when most fourth years are hitting an advanced burnout stage - why do homework when the bars are open every night? - I am spending more time than ever in the bowels of Alderman Library, surrounding myself with microfilm, government documents and very large, old books.

Part of this, of course, is out of pure necessity. As a history major, I am required to write a thesis. Though the required history thesis is small by some standards - only about 30 pages - a thesis still requires much thought, research and effort. These are things I previously had avoided as much as possible and had hoped to continue to do without. For a long time, I thought maybe the thesis would just go away, and I wouldn't actually have to write it.

But there is no getting around it. The thesis must be done, and it must be done within the next 30 days.

In a typically indecisive move, I changed my topic last week. Part of my procrastination, I figured, was because of a lack of interest in my original subject.

The new topic has given me a renewed sense of purpose. Part of this stems from the limited time I have to complete the project - the last day of classes is four weeks from today. But it also has given me a second chance to take advantage of an academic opportunity that is virtually unparalleled.

If I've learned anything in my frantic researching, it's that there are a hell of a lot of books in Alderman. There are whole floors of books on all sorts of subjects - feminist theory, Spanish literature and my personal favorite: the reasons various Southern states chose to secede, thus bringing about the Civil War. (That is what the thesis is about.) There are books that no one has opened in decades, books that are falling apart and books that weigh about 40 pounds.

I've also ventured into Special Collections for the first time. Though clearly 19th-century education did not stress penmanship, there are few things as academically interesting as holding original documents and attempting to decipher the spidery scrawl of their authors. Maybe I am a great big dork, but I think it's pretty cool.

Working on a project like a thesis, independent research or some other academic endeavor lends a sense of purpose to the University experience that can't come from anything else, not even non-academic activities. I am a huge fan of extra-curricular activities. That's a large part of the reason I was such a half-hearted student. But maybe we should place more focus on academics, on finding a few things out and learning everything we possibly can about a subject.

Wading through four volumes of 1861 Virginia State Convention proceedings probably won't have any use in my future professional life. But the feeling of accomplishment and dedication will have a large impact.

I don't want to leave the University feeling like I've squandered a great opportunity. That's why I am just a little bit glad that the history department is putting me through its own brand of torture. Without challenging myself in my last semester, as pointless as it sometimes seems, I probably would have missed out on some of the thrills of scholarship.

At least that's what I'll be telling myself the night before the thesis is due.


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