The University of Massachusetts Amherst
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Sample Theses

The following represent a sampling of outstanding English honors thesis projects.

“This Is Hardly the Happy Ending I Was Expecting”: NIER’s Rejection of the Heteronormative in Fairy Tales (PDF)

Author: Emily Cerri
Thesis Type: Independent Thesis
Approved By: Caroline Yang and TreaAndrea Russworm, English Department
Published 2019

Abstract: Despite the perception they are just entertainment, video games have the potential to present criticisms on aspects of culture such as race, gender, and sexuality. Games such as Gone Home and The Missing: J.J. Macfield and the Island of Memories subvert stereotypes of gender and sexuality or highlight the struggles of sexually marginalized groups in a heteronormative society. However, games often miss the opportunity to subvert expectations or represent racially marginalized communities. The game NIER both creates and overlooks critiques of this lack of attention through its use of the fairy tale genre. NIER’s destabilization of binaries and refusal to conform to gender roles and performance present a critique of heteronormativity and the gender binary of the fairy tale canon. And yet, NIER also misses the opportunity to fully present criticisms on the topics of race, gender, and sexuality. The game’s presentation of race is especially lacking, particularly through its tacit assumption of whiteness as the “unmarked” race. Though attempts to it dismantle some stereotypical racial imagery, it shuts out the possibility of nonwhite people persisting through the apocalypse. Furthermore, while its portrayal of nonheteronormative characters destabilizes the stereotypes of these characters in other media, censorship and pandering to the male gaze ultimately hinder the representation of these marginalized characters. That is, the localization explicitly alters characters’ identities in favor of heteronormativity and the game uses clothing and camera angles to hypersexualize the female protagonist. Its use of fairy tales, which are typically European tales, sometimes highlights their normalized gender and sexual stereotypes and expectations and sometimes subvert them. In other cases, it misses the opportunity to destabilize these notions and instead maintains the status quo. In such ways, NIER also fails to completely queer the fairy tale canon even as it tries to subvert the genre. Nonetheless, while NIER falls short of being a queer critique, it provides the opening for the critical player to do so.

Using Genre Theory to Understand the Way Opinion Journalism is Changing in Today’s Digital World (PDF)

Author: Tess Halpern
Thesis Type: Independent Thesis
Approved By: Donna LeCourt and Janine Solberg, English Department
Published 2019

Abstract: As an editor of opinion journalism during my college years, I have always struggled to not only articulate but also determine which texts constitute opinion journalism and which are simply opinion. As opinions become more ubiquitous with the rise of the digital era, and as they can now be published on platforms like blogs, podcasts, and social media with no regulation or editorial review, this distinction has become even harder to make. Unfortunately, the blurring of the line between opinion journalism and opinion has happened at the precise moment that the legitimacy of journalism has also begun to be questioned more than ever before in my lifetime. The purpose of this research was to definitively draw that line, separating opinion journalism from opinion. To do this, I first determined the genre norms of opinion journalism by studying the texts, the writers, and the publications that define the genre. Following, I then determined where the genre set of opinion journalism ends by studying articles written for non-reputable, digital-only platforms, and platforms that were self-publishing or otherwise had minimal editing and regulation processes. A total of 63 articles from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, The Huffington Post, Buzzfeed, Odyssey Online, and personal blogs were analyzed for this research. The results of this study allowed me to track the transformation that opinion journalism, and journalism in general, is currently undergoing. Additionally, it clarified the distinction between opinion journalism and ordinary opinion, allowing me to better understand the genre and the texts that are excluded from that genre.

"You Can Be Useful to Us in a Hundred Different Ways”: A Study of Stage and Screen Adaptations of Dickens’s Nicholas Nickleby (PDF)

Author: Emma Piscia
Thesis/Project Type: Independent Honors Thesis
Approved By: Heidi Holder and Suzanne Daly, Department Of English
Published 2016

Abstract: Charles Dickens’s Nicholas Nickleby has been adapted since 1839, when it was still in the midst of its initial serialized publication. It has since been adapted into plays, films, and television miniseries over 250 times, and the number continues to grow. This thesis investigates the history of Nickleby as adapted for stage and screen from 1838 to the present. While there has been much scholarly consideration of adapted Dickens, there has been little in the way of examination of any particular work across periods and genres; Nickleby, with its varied history on stage and screen, certainly merits such critical examination. Works discussed here range from Edward Stirling’s early farce Nicholas Nickleby: or, Doings at Do-The-Boys Hall (1838), through David Edgar’s marathon stage adaptation The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby (Royal Shakespeare Company 1980), to David Innes Edwards’s and Joy Wilkinson’s The Life and Adventures of Nick Nickleby (a 2012 miniseries). This thesis explores the cultural uses and revisions of Dickens’s text. Key topics of discussion include the highly varied representation of the orphan Smike; the portrayal of physical, sexual, and financial violence; and the sociopolitical and economic themes of the novel that allow it to resonate with contemporary audiences down through the centuries. Using reviews, historical context, literary and film criticism, performance history, and gender theory, this thesis endeavors to explain the persistence of an early Victorian novel in popular culture.

Eye on Research (PDF)

Author: Alexandra Foley
Thesis/Project Type: Capstone Thesis
Approved By: David Toomey and Janine Solberg, Department Of English
Published 2012

Abstract: A collection of the newest discoveries and breaking edge research taking place on the University of Massachusetts Amherst campus. Here is a list of some of the research published in this thesis: a new synthetic material called “Geckskin” which mimics the adhesion power of Gecko feet developed in Polymer Science department; UBot, a robot designed by UMass’s Laboratory for Perceptual Robotics, can learn by interacting with its environment; Gregory Tew, of the Polymer Science department, has found a way to look inside their previously impenetrable membranes of T cells; and Dr. Caitlyn Shea Butler of the Environmental Engineering department has designed a “Microbial Fuel Cell Latrine” that purifies human waste and produces electricity at the same time.

“How could the body politic be made to work in the absence of its head?”:Beheadings, Gender, and Power In Malory’s Morte Darthur (PDF)

Author: Kerry Ditson
Thesis/Project Type: Independent Honors Thesis
Approved by: Jen Adams, English Department and Sonja Drimmer, Art History Program
Published: 2015

Abstract: The Wars of the Roses were without a doubt one of the most transformative and traumatic events of medieval England. This bloody conflict called into question commonly accepted notions of nobility, masculinity, kingship, governance, and violence. The deposition of Richard II in 1399 set into motion aftershocks that would be felt half a century later, as the notion of divinely anointed kingship was called into question—in a world where kings could be gotten rid of, who had the right to rule? The answer came down, in many ways, to one issue: blood.

Closets and Transylvanian Castles: Vampires and Queerness in the Nineteenth-Century Literature and Beyond (PDF)

Author: Maxwell Heath
Thesis/Project Type: Independent Honors Thesis Approved by Heidi Holder and Jenny Spencer of the Department of English
Published 2015

Abstract: My thesis examines how vampires have been used in literature to depict queer people and explore issues of queerness. Focusing primarily on the nineteenth century with a brief foray into the twentieth, I analyze seven key texts, both well known and relatively obscure, from John Polidori’s groundbreaking “The Vampyre” (1819) to G.S. Viereck’s The House of the Vampire (1907). This wide range is significant: previous work in the field has tended toward individual studies. I track how the depictions of vampirism and queerness evolved over time, focusing especially on the tropes of disorientation of space and narrative structure, complex patterning of relationships between characters, and conflict between humans and vampires for control of narrative. To this end ideas drawn from theorists such as Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick have been deployed in my analysis. I have discovered that from the first there is a degree of sympathy for queerness which is often occluded by gothic tropes. While the vampires themselves only begin to shift from villains towards more ambiguous figures at the end of the nineteenth century, their victims are often figured as queer and portrayed sympathetically. This suggests that vampires have been used as a way to mask queerness in metaphor so that it could be explored and discussed during a time when any explicit examination was forbidden.

Transplanted (PDF)

Author: Michael Sirois
Thesis/Project Type: Independent Honors Thesis Approved by John Hennessy, Department of English
Published May 2015

Abstract: My honors thesis project is a manuscript consisting of twenty-four poems. This collection of poetry reflects my transition from a working-class upbringing to completing my degree at the university. The many years I spent working in agriculture influence my poetry significantly, so natural settings and elements serve as a prism for my themes of work, the working-class, and the family. The introduction to my thesis project is included to show the departures from my literary influences.