As everything becomes pumpkin-spice-flavored and as cooler weather approaches, seniors across campus huddle into their carrels—or, for the unlucky, their beds—and begin to work on their senior thesis projects. The Argus caught up with eight seniors to discuss their ideas, their progress so far, and where they’re headed over the next few months. The Argus will follow up with them about their progress throughout the year.
Nina Gurak ’16
Majors: Feminist, Gender, & Sexuality Studies (FGSS) and Government
“I didn’t need to buy books this semester, so I decided to buy this fun dry erase board,” Gurak said, showing The Argus her carrel in Olin Memorial Library.
Gurak’s thesis is in the FGSS major and examines comedy as a tactic or tool of resistance in anti-violence movements, specifically movements against sexual violence. She sums her project up simply as “how to tell an empowering rape joke.”
To do address this concept, Gurak will examine comedy theory—what makes people laugh and why—as well as strategic uses of humor in history.
Gurak notes apartheid and out-group American humor as examples of past approaches that have successfully used comedy to reverse damage and confront oppression in society. From there, Gurak will broaden her research to rape jokes and sexist humor in general; with this knowledge, she’ll discuss how rape jokes and sexist humor have proven to empower.
“I’m diving deep [into the broad topic of humor] and will hopefully surface with some feminist critiques of these theories,” she said.
Helen Handelman ’16
Majors: Religious Studies and Theater
Handelman is writing about the moon.
Historically, she explained, lunar conquest and ideas of accessing the moon have played large roles in human culture.
“It’s in literature, philosophy, political documents,” Handelman said.
She will look at three different periods in history: 17th-century France, 19th-century France, and the 20th-century United States space race with the U.S.S.R. The common thread among these periods is, of course, the moon.
Handelman described the moment in which she found inspiration.
“I was at a museum exhibit last summer about 1968,” she said. “The last thing in the exhibit was this little TV screen, and in it was this video from Apollo 8, the moon orbiting mission of that year. The astronauts were like, ‘We have a message for everyone back on Earth on Christmas Eve of this year!,’ and they started reciting Genesis.”
Handelman remembers being absolutely baffled.
“I was like, ‘What are they doing? Why are they doing this? How is this possible?’, considering that America is seen as a beacon for religious tolerance,” she said.
In conjunction with her thesis, Handelman will lead a performance component, to be held in the Van Vleck Observatory in either late October or early November. The purpose of this performance will be to explore this larger theme of the moon in an embodied way rather than one that is purely intellectual.
Flora Donovan ’16
Major: Art History
Donovan, a native New Yorker, has always been interested in what compels curators to choose the exhibitions they do, and why they choose to display artwork that could be seen as polarizing.
“Motivation could come from within the museum, but also there might be outside pressures where it is just trendy to make a show about racial diversity,” Donovan said.
Her thesis will explore the exhibition history of the Whitney Museum from about 1985 to 1995. She will focus on two exhibitions specifically, the 1993 Biennial Exhibition and the 1994-1995 show entitled “Black Male.”
The first exhibition Donovan explained was controversial, receiving many bad reviews. The public was scandalized by the artwork, but did identify the mission of the show as valuable. For Donovan, the show is interesting to examine because the curators attempted to include artists of more diverse backgrounds, and today many of the artists are well respected.
Over the next few months, Donovan hopes to contribute to the discourse on this topic by conducting interviews herself.
Nick Murphy ’16
Majors: Government and College of the Environment
Murphy has been passionate about climate change politics for the last three years, so it makes perfect sense that his thesis will be focused on carbon pricing in the United States. This past summer, he received funding to do research in Washington, D.C. He interviewed people at think tanks and N.G.Os, and also spoke to legislative aides in the House and Senate. These interviews focused on existing carbon pricing bills as well as bills that he says ought to exist.
Murphy explained what he hopes to address in his thesis.
“I’m writing on carbon pricing, specifically a carbon tax, as the foundation of national policy to address climate change,” he said. “Not that a carbon price solves the whole problem, but that it is the cornerstone of any climate policy solution worldwide. It is the basis of why I think the tax is important.”
Although economists and increasing amounts of environmentalists share Murphy’s position on the carbon tax, he does note that there are political tensions surrounding it, and he adds that this very controversy will be what he tries to unpack as a government major.
“It all gets tied up into a narrative,” he said.
Zachary Kaufman ’16
Majors: Earth and Environmental Sciences
Kaufman will work in the lab of Professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences Suzanne O’Connell, who studies geologic climate change in the Antarctic.
Kaufman first gained interest on the subject while studying abroad in Denmark.
“I learned a lot about that aspect of science,” he said. “Denmark owns Greenland, so they are really good at working with ice and with glaciers and how that affects climate.”
After returning from Denmark, he searched for professors doing research in his area of interest and ultimately found O’Connell. Within the lab, he studies sand glaciers that drop to the bottom of the ocean. By examining the sand, he can learn how the ice has moved and how it behaved three million years ago.
“The implications of that are important, because the time period, setting, [carbon dioxide] content and general climate were comparatively similar in the Antarctic to how we think it will be the future from human-caused climate change,” he said.
Kaufman has already begun his research: this past summer collected all of his samples from Texas A&M University, in College Station, Tex.
“It was about as different as you could possibly get from Wesleyan, so that was really neat…just working in a different university environment,” he said.
Zacko Brint ’16
Majors: History and French Studies
Brint’s thesis is tentatively titled “Assessing the Memory of Foreign Jews in France who Fought in the French Army during WWII,” and it examines the experiences of this group in the war.
“I found that many of these soldiers were from Poland or Romania or Germany and asked, ‘Why then did they fight for France?’” he said. “Were they fighting against Nazism? For France? Because their friends were doing it? Or simply to get citizenship?”
Brint’s interest in the subject began when he was studying abroad and taking a contemporary Jewish history class. During a class visit to a cemetery, Brint noticed a monument to Jewish veterans who died for France. This monument prompted him to dive into his own research into the subject.
“I entered a historiographical world that lacked a concise narrative about these soldiers, yet that was prolific with memories and interviews of these soldiers,” he said.
This phenomenon turned out to be what focused him on his project: writing a history that has not been previously discussed while using the ample literature about soldiers’ firsthand experiences.
Brint has been in contact with the children of many of the soldiers, which has aided him in the structure of the understanding and its history.
Lily Kong ’16
Kong’s favorite novel has been “Ulysses” by James Joyce ever since she first read it in high school. Last semester, she took another course on the novel and is now writing a thesis that will focus on gender and sexuality within the novel.
“Right now, I’m just doing research,” Kong said.
The starting point for this research is a 150-page play within the book that is a mix between dream and reality. Within that dream, there are many different fantasies that play out.
“There is some sadomasochism going on, some gender-changing, a lot of costume changing, and cross dressing,” she explained.
Due to this, Kong has read not only the text on which masochism is based and the text after which sadism is named, but also excerpts from Freud’s “Interpretation of Dreams.” She will examine how Freud believed unconscious wishes translate into dreams.
Kong described her goals for the project.
“Eventually, I want to get to a place where I can take this information and use it to figure out the psychology of two of the main characters,” she said.