April theses bring May graduation…
It is that time of the year again. As Pomona College seniors prepare to slip into their graduation gowns and turn to an exciting new chapter of their lives, there is a big item on their to-do list that awaits a checkmark: senior thesis.
The senior thesis is a yearlong or semester-long capstone project that may well be the longest paper students have written during their undergraduate academic career. Intimidating as the project may initially sound, the general consensus among students is that the senior thesis lies at the very heart of Pomona’s liberal arts education. It provides fantastic opportunities to connect knowledge from across disciplines and to delve into a specific topic in the students’ own academic disciplines, under the consistent guidance of Pomona scholars in the field.
As a rising senior this year who is about to embark on a similar intellectual journey, I was eager to learn more about the fruits of my senior friends’ labor, having heard much about the countless hours that they have each devoted to their projects. Throughout the course of this semester, I have interviewed seniors across different majors to hear about their experiences and advice for future thesis writers. The 11 projects featured here—ranging from a novel about the politics of fairytales to an ambitious endeavor to teach computers how to dance—are each fascinating in their own terms, but of course, by no means capture the diversity of amazing work that Pomona students have produced in the final year of their undergraduate education.
Uber, Lyft and the Environment
David Ari Wagner, environmental analysis (EA)
Uber and Lyft, the “unregulated taxis” that are putting traditional taxi companies out of business, are expanding quickly and changing the landscape of urban transportation as they go. David Wagner’s thesis analyzes the environmental impacts of transportation network companies, particularly in California, with respect to travel behavior, congestion and fuel efficiency. The literature on related topics is quite new, which Wagner says was one of the most challenging and exciting aspects of this project. His analysis suggests that in several major urban areas fuel efficient taxis are being replaced by less fuel efficient Uber and Lyft vehicles.
Wagner selected the topic while interning at UC Davis’ Sustainable Transportation Energy Pathways program, which focuses on what they call “the three transportation revolutions of shared, automated and electrified vehicles.”
Like the EA major, Wagner’s project is interdisciplinary, utilizing economic, statistical and political analyses. In his opinion, it is essential to study economics, statistics and politics to understand environmental issues. He acknowledges that EA can be an emotional topic, which is why it is sometimes hard but necessary to approach it rationally.
Wagner considers it a good idea to write a thesis as an extension of another project—thesis writers may go to Ph.D. students and professors and ask what is important right now in the field. He suggests students who are about to embark on this journey to treat it as seriously as they would treat a job, eventually aiming to send the completed product to employers in hope of making a real contribution and propose solutions to existing problems.
Estimating the Unknown
Benjamin Yenji (Benji) Lu, mathematics
Benji Lu is a math and philosophy double-major interested in going into law or doing data science and statistical research. For his thesis in mathematics, he is developing a method to enhance the predictive power of random forests, which is a machine learning algorithm commonly used in the industry. His research seeks to quantify the degree of confidence associated with random forest predictions so that the predictions are more meaningful and actionable. To do so, he has been working to develop and further understanding of the statistical theory behind the machine learning algorithm.
Lu’s interest in integrating statistics with machine learning began his junior year when he took a course on computational statistics with Professor Jo Hardin, with whom he has taken four courses. His thesis began as a summer research project, funded by the Summer Undergraduate Research Program (SURP) with Hardin that following summer, during which he also worked with an applied mathematics research group at UCLA to detect semantic features in Los Angeles Police Department body-worn videos. Over the course of his SURP project, Lu met daily with Hardin, who encouraged him to write daily reports on what he had learned, what he had done and what he still did not understand. He saw this process as a great way to frame and refine their thoughts and to monitor their progress. Once the academic year began, Lu and Hardin met weekly to continue their project as his senior thesis.
Lu has really enjoyed working with an expert in such a close setting and applying knowledge from his class to research. For him, mathematical reasoning can be fun, creative and exciting, and it connects well with his double major in philosophy. Both subjects share similar methodological approaches: They involve rigorous, purely logical argumentation that can yield elegant theory and practical results.
Cinderella and Its Politics
Bianca Kendall Cockrell, politics
After an angry fairy sends everyone in her castle into an enchanted sleep, Princess Alexis must go to America to retrieve the item that will break the curse: an apple. She befriends Rumpelstiltskin and a vegetarian dragon, and ends up in New York City, a place where democracy reigns supreme: What's a princess to do?
Bianca Cockrell chose to write an unconventional politics thesis through creative writing. Instead of writing a traditional academic paper, Cockrell writes a novel about the politics of fairy tales, an idea that she got excited about when she took Professor Susan McWilliams’ Politics and Literature seminar in the spring of her junior year. She continued her quest for the politics of fairy tales over the summer with a SURP project titled “Once Upon a Regime,” for which she travelled around several European countries and visited fairy tale centers, museums and universities, where she sought insights from fairy tale scholars.
As part of the project, Cockrell is also submitting two other papers—a political theory piece that analyzes the political theory of revolutions and nation-building in fairy tales and a case study analysis of modernism and idea of America presented in early Disney princess films. She proudly calls her thesis "a three-pronged political theory, creative writing and historical case study."
Part of the challenge with her project is that it is very self-directed, “I was lucky enough that the department approved my idea -- but because it was my idea, I got to figure it out and decide what it should look like.” She blends theory, case studies and stories together, spending time on each individually with the three different chapters.
Cockrell’s reasoning for using this unique format was of a "practice what you preach" idea: “I wanted to see how using classic 'fairy tale' characteristics like ambiguous characters and clichéd storylines contributes to the success of the story and the successful transmission of the ideas and values in the story. I use my footnotes as a place to explicitly comment on or reference or cite political and literary theory ideas, as well as include jokes and other tongue-in-cheek commentary.” Along this process, Cockrell is able to explore fascinating questions such as whether Cinderella is a revolutionary, whether too much freedom is good or bad, the role of fairy tale as one of the most democratic vehicles we have and other topics.
So You Think You Can Dance?
Huangjian (Sean) Zhu, computer science (CS)
Sean Zhu got his idea when he was playing “Dance Central,” a game that scores the player’s dance moves using motion capture, a couple years back. He thought it would be cool to show computers how to dance This is a relatively new field:
How exactly does a computer learn how to dance? “The computer learns from past data. In this case, the data would come from past dance movements,” says Zhu.
This project connects well with Zhu’s background in dance: He was a member of the Claremont Colleges Ballroom Dance Company (CCBDC) and has taken several dance classes including hip hop and a freshman seminar class on performing arts. Thanks to his dance experience and CS background, Zhu is able to use Kinect, the same device that Dance Central uses, to generate and input data to his program. Who knows, maybe he will even invent a new dance form someday.
“Computer creativity is a rising field of research. We may tend to think that computers cannot be creative, as creativity is a capability that is typically thought to be exclusive to humans,” says Zhu. “This project challenges me to think about what creativity is and ways to approach this question.”
The Philosophy of Political Control
Matthew Daniel Dahl, politics
A politics major specializing in political theory and a future political theorist, Matt Dahl studied abroad in China in his junior year and took a classical Chinese class that exposed him to many original texts in classical Chinese.
While contemporary scholars assume that Confucius was a thinker most concerned with the cultivation of benevolence, Dahl challenges their conclusion through a close reading of the text. His thesis argues that the true message of the Analects is actually one about methods of political control and the maintenance of power. His contention is that Confucius supports rule by the so-called “gentlemen” not because they are benevolent, but rather because they know how to be crafty in their speech. In fact, Dahl claims, "gentlemanliness" is not at all coincident with any of the traditional tenets of Confucian ethics.
Such reading has been neglected because scholars have overlooked the possibility that Confucius wrote the Analects in the same esoteric manner that Plato wrote the Republic. By carefully applying new hermeneutical procedures, Dahl exhumes some of the original, radical political teachings that Confucius subtly sought to impart. His dialogical interpretation—an original endeavor based on his close reading, historical research and philosophical analysis of the Analects—allows the text to finally reveal its secrets about the benefits of hegemonic, gentlemanly rule.
Creating a Mediasphere
Ziv Green Epstein, media studies
Zivvy Epstein describes his semester-long digital media thesis project, “the Mediasphere,” as “very Pomona” — it is interdisciplinary, experiential, communal and creative. The “product” included seven shows at the new planetarium in Millikan Science Hall. Epstein is particularly interested in the planetarium as a space that is somewhat underutilized but has the potential to engage our community in interesting ways.
For him, part of the challenge with this project is that it is quite self-directed, although he did find the thesis seminar helpful and collaborated with many of his peers, helping each other along the way. He worked concurrently on his mathematics thesis and sees ways in which he can apply skills from mathematics to media studies and vice versa.
After Pomona, Epstein is interested in further studying computational social science at the graduate school level.
Exploring the Pilgrimage to the Holy Land
Ana Celia Núñez, late antique medieval studies (LAMS)
Ana Núñez’s year-long thesis examines six early Latin Christian pilgrim itineraria (4th–11th centuries) in order to understand the ways each pilgrim experienced the Holy Land as a landscape of blurred temporal boundaries between the biblical past and the pilgrim’s own present. Her sources were in Latin and English.
Even with the vast amount of existing scholarship, Núñez does find ways to contribute new insights to LAMS. She has included the Gesta Francorum, an account of the First Crusade, into her thesis, “usually these texts are separated into their own particular studies, but I've brought them into the same study in my thesis,” says Núñez.
The thesis experience had been memorable and rewarding for Núñez. Her advice for students who are yet to embark on their thesis journey is “trust yourself, and it will get done.”
Núñez will be headed to the University of Cambridge after graduation for a master of philosophy in medieval history, and aims to return to the U.S. for a Ph.D. and a career in academia. She first came across LAMS when she was a prospective student in her high school sophomore year and happened to attend Professor Ken Wolf’s Medieval Mediterranean class.
Along this journey, Núñez has collaborated with her peers, often finding herself getting nerdy meals with friends and saying, “hey, we are probably the only ones who are talking about this” in the dining halls.
The Screen, the Stage and Beyond
Jaya Jivika Rajani, media studies and environmental analysis
Napier Award recipient, Jivika Rajani, has concurrently worked on two non-traditional theses, each with a unique creative focus.
Though she didn’t have any prior experience creating interactive media, Rajani chose to embark upon the challenge of curating MixBox, a multimedia installation experience that guides participants through an interactive conversation with a stranger, for her media studies thesis. This involved transforming a section of the Kallick Gallery at Pitzer College with paint, lighting, sound and even smell, so as to make the space comfortable and more conducive to conversation. Two participants were led into the MixBox at a time, and were encouraged to scroll and talk through a few prompts and riddles presented on the iPads in front of them. Participants had a few minutes to go “beyond the screen” and choose what they wanted to discuss towards the end of the 20-minute session, but the catch was that they were separated by an opaque curtain and would never see the person they had just gotten to know. Rajani then filmed short debrief interviews with all her participants (students, staff, faculty and even some community members) and encouraged them to reflect upon how difficult or easy it was to make connections with strangers when they couldn’t rely on the snap judgments we usually make based on appearance.
Drawing on her background in theatre, Rajani chose to write a play rooted in identity politics and environmentalism for her environmental analysis thesis. She read others’ environmental plays as well as researched works written about the Indian diaspora in order to develop her three main characters who each represent different schools of environmental thought; from deep ecology to ecofeminism. As one of five winners of the 10-Minute Play Festival, Rajani was able to direct and act in an extract of the play with some friends this semester and hopes to put on a staged reading of the full-length play before she graduates. She has been able to workshop her writing with multiple professors and playwrights and is also working on adapting her work for the screen.
Reflecting on the process, Rajani said that “juggling two theses at once was definitely hard, but I really enjoyed it because I was always working on something that I was genuinely passionate about and felt that I owned from start to finish. I also couldn’t have asked for better advisors - they’ve been very supportive of my plans to continue developing my work beyond Pomona, so I definitely see my projects as much more than just graduation requirements.”
Jonathan van Harmelen’s year-long thesis on Japanese-American history during World War II focuses on the relationship between labor and the war effort. His research began while interning at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, where he worked under Noriko Sanefuji on an exhibit titled Righting a Wrong, currently on display. Additionally, he has worked with Professor Samuel Yamashita through a number of history seminars. The project involves working with public historians, collecting oral histories of survivors, newspaper articles, statistics and site visits.
Even though numerous historians have examined this subject in detail, van Harmelen sees how further understanding these forgotten narratives, and those of others, is now needed more than ever. Van Harmelen notes that, "the subject of Japanese-American incarceration during World War II is one of the darkest chapters in United States history. While I am not Japanese-American, understanding this crucial subject is a step that all Americans should take, and is now very timely given our unstable political climate.”
For his semester-long French thesis, Van Harmelen focused on the Algerian War and memory as represented through Alain Resnais’ 1963 film Muriel.
An Environmental Perspective into Local Issues in Claremont
Frank Connor Lyles, environmental analysis (EA)
Frank Lyles, inspired by a 2015 EA alumni’s thesis, decided to focus on local climate change, groundwater and water right issues in Claremont, by looking at planning documents.
Lyles sees the thesis, accompanied by “lots of caffeine” and many a fun conversation, as an awesome educational opportunity and took a very liberal arts approach, taking full advantage of The Claremont Colleges by applying the skills he learned from his history, geology and statistics classes to complement his work in EA. He thoroughly enjoyed working with Professor Char Miller, who provides feedback on all EA majors’ papers, as well as Professor W. Bowman Cutter from the Economics Department. He is currently taking econometrics and is in the process of expanding his fall semester thesis. Part of the challenge for him was to track down relevant people and to generate interest among stakeholders.
As a Pomona College Orientation Adventure (OA) leader, Lyles likes to think about how EA changes the way he views everything: he stops looking at mountains as just mountains and now understands them as dynamic things that are constantly changing.
Law, Public Policy and Technology
Jesse Solomon Lieberfeld, philosophy, politics and economics (PPE)
Jesse Lieberfeld’s yearlong, in-depth investigation focuses on the relationship between the Fourth Amendment and modern communications, especially how laws developed long before the emergence of modern technology should be interpreted today and in the future.
As a PPE major, Lieberfeld approaches his research question from both legal and philosophical perspectives, poring over a range of U.S. Supreme Court opinions, articles on privacy, law review papers and interviews. In particular, Lieberfeld enjoys the interdisciplinary nature of this project and is grateful for The Claremont Colleges, since the politics and philosophy departments at each school have different specialties. He also appreciates the fact that Pomona does not have too many core requirements, allowing him to take a lot of niche classes.
One of the challenges with this thesis project, says Lieberfeld, is that “there is a gap between studies that focus on law and public policy and those focused on technology: many are experts in one of these fields, but not all.” Lieberfeld’s thesis attempts to bridge this gap. What may be especially original and rewarding is that he may have uncovered, mathematically, a potential instance of inconsistency in SCOTUS case law.
April Xiaoyi Xu ’18 is a junior majoring in politics and minoring in Spanish.