It’s that time of year when students are scrambling to finish last-minute papers and projects in time for graduation. It’s a long tradition at Illinois State University for students to write final papers for their course of study. Though the idea of a “final paper” has evolved over the years, the tradition of students racing to finish their work before the end of classes hasn’t changed.

The first time a final paper for graduation is mentioned is in the University commencement programs (read about the first program from last week’s blog here). The 1870 commencement featured graduating Illinois State Normal University students along with the titles of an essay, thesis, or oratorical paper the student had written. We can’t be entirely sure if these students read their work to the audience but given that the programs usually had an intermission period between name groups, it is possible. Graduating classes in the late 1800s were also small, about 15–20 students graduating on average. Though we don’t have their original work, we can guess these papers were the final papers written by senior year students for their graduation requirements.

It’s not until the 1908–1909 catalog that we see in print the requirement for students to write a final paper for graduation: “All candidates for graduation shall write an acceptable thesis upon some educational theme.” Though referred to in the University course catalogs as a “thesis,” these papers became commonly known as “senior themes.” Students were to write their final paper the term before graduation and hand it in at the start of their final term, which for most was in the spring.

By the 1930s the University was facing an accreditation crisis. The newly hired president, Harry Brown, reorganized the academic structure of the University so it more closely followed emerging national standards. The tone of the final paper changed from one that was a universitywide requirement to one that was administered by individual departments with their own specific qualifications. Where some final papers focused on education and sports (“Study of Skill Tests in Badminton for College Women,” Evelyn Martha Stalter, 1948) some discussed administration in secondary education (“Trends in Teachers’ Meetings Affected by Administrative Policies,” William Lester Schultze, 1951).

It was in the establishment of colleges at Illinois State in the 1960s that final papers took on the appearance of what we know of today as a thesis. Undergraduate programs adopted either final examinations or a final paper for the completion of the bachelor’s degree. Masters programs required a thesis for graduation while the newly developed doctoral programs required research intensive doctoral theses.

For many of you, this is your last week until a much deserved summer break or a return for summer courses. For some of you, this is your last week on campus before graduation! Just remember that there are decades of Redbirds before you who know exactly what writing your final paper in your final week feels like. Enjoy your last week of classes!