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PLS Student Takes Senior Thesis Back in Time and Online

Author: Chris Milazzo

For his senior thesis, Michael McHale '12, traveled across France and Italy, visiting locations significant to the 14th century poet and philosopher Petrarch For his senior thesis, Michael McHale ’12, traveled across France and Italy, visiting locations significant to the 14th century poet and philosopher Petrarch.

Writing a senior thesis can be an uphill climb—in Michael McHale’s case, quite literally.

McHale, a Program of Liberal Studies major and 2012 graduate of the University of Notre Dame’s College of Arts and Letters, decided to take a road less traveled in developing his senior thesis, “A Journey Through the World of Petrarch’s Letters.” Thanks in part to a grant from the Nanovic Institute for European Studies, McHale traveled across France and Italy in summer 2011, visiting locations significant to Petrarch, the 14th century poet, philosopher, and “father of humanism.”

Among McHale’s adventures: climbing Mt. Ventoux in France, which was the subject of Petrarch’s Ascent of Mount Ventoux; spending a night reading Petrarch’s letters in a hillside cave in Vaucluse, France, a place the philosopher frequented; and wandering through Arqua, in northeastern Italy, where Petrarch died.

“My thesis focused on the two things most important to Petrarch: a deep relationship with classic authors such as Cicero and Augustine, and a love of the peaceful solitude found in nature,” McHale says. “I wanted to understand exactly how Petrarch believed the classical authors could be understood better within a natural context.”

The journey was illuminating.

View from the summit of Mt McHale’s view from the summit of Mt. Ventoux in France.

“It made a huge difference. For example, on my first ascent of Mount Ventoux, I thought Petrarch made a somewhat exaggerated account. Five hours later, I was soaked by a thunderstorm and shivering in bone-numbing wind after hiking to the summit,” he says. “I developed a much healthier respect for Petrarch’s state of mind when he experienced the same.”

McHale kept a daily journal, recounting his thoughts and experiences in each location, while considering how they could heighten his understanding of Petrarch. These reflections found an important place in his thesis, but also led McHale to publish a blog called Letters to Petrach, which chronicles his explorations by writing letters addressed to Petrarch from each location.

“I chose to write a series of letters because that’s exactly how Petrarch wrote to both his contemporaries and authors of antiquity, most notably Cicero. Petrarch was one of the first to insert classical thought into a modern context . . . so with this in mind I modeled my blog on his own letters to Cicero,” he says.

McHale encourages students writing a thesis to find creative ways to approach their chosen subjects.

“Make your thesis something you enjoy—and don’t let a schedule turn it into drudgery,” he says.

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