Posted by Tanya Sharma, August 15 2019
It was a calm Friday, the 5th of April to be precise, when the seniors at Bard College Berlin (BCB) did the deed: we submitted our final B.A. thesis projects to the Registrar’s office. The afternoon felt strangely calm; existential dread at our post-thesis future not fully having set in yet. After four years of undergraduate classes we walked around campus, three printed copies in hand, as relief flooded our faces, and there was a momentary peace at having finished such a long and arduous project. After over nine months of dedicated research, writing, analysing and brainstorming, we had finally created a piece of academic work that was meant to represent the culmination of our university years. The feeling surrounding thesis submission should have been more exciting, but there was something lacking. We journeyed so long to get to this point and it was all over in a snap and I desperately wanted to change that.
Towards the end of Fall semester, we faced the gargantuan task of explaining our research to friends, family members, professors and strangers who had just learned that we were about to graduate. In the midst of still developing full research topics, we suddenly found ourselves giving elevator pitches of almost a year’s worth of research to just about anyone. We were all in the same boat, swimming in the ambiguity of rough ideas and grasping at the ghost of a research question like a life raft. We learnt so much by just listening to each other talk about our ideas and what we wanted to write about. In the end, although we didn’t end up including all of the content we had researched, my classmates and I had stored up a wealth of fascinating information about our respective topics.
By the time the rough idea of ThesisSlam had begun to formulate in my head, I was considering two questions: one, how could we create a space wherein these diverse ideas could be exchanged, and two, how could we do this in a way that was separate from our assigned thesis presentation? An integral part of our final submissions is the B.A. thesis presentation, wherein students present their projects to a panel comprising at least their advisor and second-reader. Although encouraged to attend, many other students couldn’t watch their peers due to timing clashes and missed out on learning about their fellow students’ projects. The question, then, was whether there was a way to create a knowledge-sharing platform that was separate from our assigned presentations.
Indeed, there was.
When I came back from winter break, I reached out to a contact, Natalie Magee, who was working at TeachSurfing at the time to run my idea by her. I was so excited to share the idea of ThesisSlam with her; we sat down at a cafe and, before she could say anything, I went off. I talked for 10 straight minutes and, when I was finally done, she was looking at me intently. Nervous that I might have botched the pitch, I sat back and pretended to be interested in my coffee that had gotten very cold by then as she scanned the sheet of notes I had brought with me. She didn’t look at me.
“I like this,” she said.
Over the next hour, cold coffee forgotten in the corner, we sketched out a rough idea of the program, delegating work between ourselves. She would be in charge of venue-scouting and I speaker-finding. We discussed various ideas for advertising the program, the feasibility of whichever location we chose, the extent to which TeachSurfing could be involved, and how we were going to scout speakers. By the end of the month, Natalie had found a gem of a location, a cozy cafe in Moabit, and I, through the luck of the draw (or, rather, through bombarding seniors with emails for interested participants) had found my speakers.
On Wednesday, the 8th of May, nine Bard College Berlin seniors gathered in be’kech Anti-Cafe to present their thesis research to a room full of students and strangers alike. The event, titled ThesisSlam, attracted a total of 40 people who all cozied up in the basement of the cafe, which had comfortable sofas and chairs. Think of it like a living room — as each of the nine presented, people sat around with food and drinks, legs stretched out. It was a wonderful space that accommodated our speakers and our guests well. But it was our speakers who really brought the event to life.
Our first speaker, Alona Cohen, talked to us about her project on Photo Ecology and Susan Sontag’s On Photography; next, Clara Canales presented succinctly on the power and growth of populism in Spain; Farah Badr explained the ideological growth of Nasserism in Egypt (from Gamal Abdel Nasser); Nancy Stanley gave us a funny run-down on her project on Brachen, nature and public spaces in Berlin; Wilma Ewerhart brought to us her research on stenographers in the Bundestag and their relevance to parliamentary discussion (after which we took a break because Wilma’s cursing — relevant to her thesis, I promise — had left us all in splits and slightly dehydrated).
Although many had settled into their comfortable couches, the break was necessary. No matter how interesting and substantial, listening to nine consecutive speeches on such diverse topics is a tiresome activity that needed to be broken with a Club Mate from the upstairs bar — our audience needed a breather in order to process all of it. After about fifteen minutes of mingling, the audience was re-seated, and off we went again!
From here, Paula Pinto took over, presenting on the effects of oil giants in the Ecuadorian Amazon on indigenous tribes in the region; next, I presented about the history of forced sterilizations in India, especially during India’s state of Emergency in 1975; Elena Gagovska analysed Orientalism and balkanism in Rebecca West’s hybrid travel writing magnum opus, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon; and we finished with Nanuka Iashvili, who brought us a concise and clear understanding of certain Soviet Union national policies that developed in the 1920s at the beginning of the country’s formation.
Notice something similar about all these topics? That’s right: they’re nothing like each other. That was another inspiration for ThesisSlam. Rarely can you get nine people in the same room that don’t share a nationality, nor a mother tongue, nor research interests, and somehow we did. Being at BCB has meant that we’ve been exposed to a diverse and vibrant student body. Much of that experience has culminated in the senior class writing their theses about either their own countries or about topical issues. In creating ThesisSlam, we hoped that not only would students get to hear what their peers had written about, but also that other members of the Berlin community could go on a small international journey with us as we all presented our work. Having an organization like TeachSurfing support us propelled the event to a platform that I could never have imagined – it gave us legitimacy. By sponsoring us, TeachSurfing allowed us to take ownership and accountability of our research by presenting it as credible individuals.
More people than expected happily came along, listening intently and respectfully as each of the speakers, in their own style, presented their research. Audience members comprised students from BCB, Humboldt University, the Free University, members of TeachSurfing’s network, as well as be’kech regulars, all there to listen to our BCB students condense their research into exciting 10-minute speeches. The event ended up lasting a little over an hour, and, by the end of it, I realized what a great way this was for myself to learn more about my fellow seniors’ projects. Instead of simply reading a thesis, each speaker had brought their own personality to their research, which made their ideas come to life. The last twenty minutes of the evening was spent over drinks as audience members engaged whole-heartedly with speakers, approaching them with questions and comments. Some even approached us with their own ideas to conduct a ThesisSlam of sorts.
My hope for this project is for someone else to take it and run. To expand it beyond BCB and perhaps some day beyond Berlin. But, for now, I’m more than happy with our nine-member basement event that really turned out to be a beautiful and educational evening; one that will stay with all of us for years to come.
*** This article was originally published by Tanya Sharma (BCB Alumni '19) on the Bard College Berlin blog. It has been slightly modified for this platform. ***