The Process and Writing of a Thesis with Jasmin Jin

Sunday, December 16, 2018
By: Caitie Buteau, English Department 2018 Fall Digital Media Intern
Jasmin Jin

Going into school, many people have heard of a thesis and usually understand that it is a long independent project. However, because very few people really get the chance to have complete control over the subject, form, deadlines, and all the other things that come with a class, it is hard to fathom for many where to even begin or how.

I know personally as I enter my Senior year that I am nervous to start my thesis. It just sounds daunting and it is so hard for me to just zero in on something I am extremely passionate about. Because of this, I met with Senior Jasmin Jin who is presenting her thesis at the end of March in 2019, just before she graduates.

When we started talking, she first began with a story from her high school AP English Literature class to explain how she first got into English. She tells me, “we read books like The Brave Wondrous Life of Oscar Wilde and that book is really meaningful to me because it was like the first time that I saw a language, other than English, in a text that was read in an English classroom and that it wasn’t just thrown in there to make it look more authentic or anything, that was just part of the life of the character. I thought that was really meaningful as a bilingual speaker.”

Originally wanting to be pre-vet while at Duke, Jasmin came to school looking to double in English and Biology. She felt that “biology [was] more related to [her] career path and English [was] something [she was] going to major in because [she] love[s] it.” After taking several of the core science classes for Biology her Freshman year, “dug deep and thought about what really brought [her] joy and what [she] really wanted to do with [her] life.” The answer she found was that she really did not want to pursue veterinary medicine as much as she thought. Later, after doing the Duke in New York program, she interviewed a journalist for the company she was interning at and was struck by the woman’s statement that “there is no price you can pay on cultivating empathy and English is a good way to get into the heads of other people and realize that they are different than you. Especially in such a polarizing environment and polarizing political atmosphere, it’s good to build bridges.”

After listening to this advice on why she should not worry about the people that say English is a useless skill or major and a waste of money to study in college, Jasmin decided to declare as an English major. Even if traditional jobs, like journalism and publishing, that people assume English majors would go into, even though English can really go into any job from being a doctor to a lawyer to an event coordinator, don’t pay that much to start, Jasmin tells me, “your life at the end of the day -  what’s your money going to do for you if you’re not going to be happy yourself?” Not only did she decide her major because of the advice she heard, but she decided on English because “where [she] was feeling down English made [her] feel better and it’s a space where you don’t have to have to have it all figured out… the fact that you can ask questions that don’t necessary have answers or like questions that beget more questions” was something really important to her during her undergraduate experience.

This same sentiment was echoed in Jasmin’s feelings on doing a thesis. She felt that while Duke did put an emphasis on learning, it was “learning in boxes.” She tells me that she chose to do a Critical Analysis thesis focusing on a comparative analysis of Chang-Rae Lee’s Native Speaker and Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s Dictee. What is hardest for her right now is that she still is “getting used to the idea that this project is what [she] make[s] of it as opposed to following a curriculum.” She explains that she has never really had the space or freedom to do a project like this and learn outside of those boxes set up by schools.

While one is a technically a spy genre/political espionage-type book, “it like combines also sort of like what’s commonly known as an Asian American literary text ... And although it’s a novel [she’s] going to look at the way it’s experimental, even though its form is conventional. And with Dictee, it’s much more experimental work. It’s part biography, part visual essay, and part poetry. It’s very nonlinear and so [she will be] comparing those two works [where] one has a definite form and … one [that] the best way to describe it is like a work of art.” What got Jasmin interested in these two texts to begin with is that they are two works are commonly cited when talking about Korean-American literature.

While Native Speaker is more “mainstream and has won a couple of prestigious awards…Dictee is mostly relegated to academics,” so Jin wants to focus on how “they are representing the Korean American experience but they’re not claiming to be voices for an entire collective.” Specifically, she will look at “language politics and how those two artists engage with the issue of language politics.” By language politics, Jasmin means the way that language has been politicized in the United States and how accents are stigmatized or corrected and speaking a different language “make you somehow seen as less of a citizen…[even though] there is no one true American. Looking at the long history of immigration to the United States, what we typically think of what the normative American, they were at one-time immigrants too.”

But, looking back on her process as a whole, it did take Jin a while to reach the point where she was sure what works she wanted to analyze, let alone how she wanted to analyze them. Even now almost a semester into writing her thesis, she still feels like she is trying to figure out what to do. She admits that it was very scary and hard for her to decide on doing a thesis. Coming into school she had wanted to because it was a great opportunity, but once she reached Junior year she felt like she had only just joined the major and the department and was already having to pick a niche subject that she really wanted to investigate while she had really only just started exploring the different perspective and works that are out there. While she knew she wanted to write about the Korean American experience and “ the fallibility of language, that’s not really something that’s usually talked about or in the curriculum” so that caused her a lot of uncertainty on her project’s topic. 

Especially given that most of her past English classes both in high school and college had focused on British or American literature and how it is a tool of communication rather than how it is a tool of oppression, Jasmin was “iffy about pursuing [her topic]...until [she] thought about how the English at its very core looks at how languages create meaning and languages” and how “the relationship between language and identity works.” With this realization she felt it was fruitful to point out the “ways in which English has been for some people like an oppressive tool by the state … and fruitful for creating a more tolerant society...It’s a sort of paradox. You must work within the [language] system to change [its use].”

The next step after filling out the thesis application and finding a prospective topic for Jasmin was to then decide on a potential advisor. She decided to research the different English Department faculty members online. At first she was disheartened because it seemed that most “deal with British Modernism or American literature (but mainly works from the 1920s or earlier like T.S. Eliot).” While she does enjoy learning about those subjects, Jasmin wanted to find someone that could relate to her and her subject both in their field of study but also in their daily life. She needed to make sure that the person who would advise her and work closely with her for the next year would be someone that could understand what was going on in her life outside of academics like, for example, being a woman of color.

Jasmin went to her major advisor, Professor Charlotte Sussman, and asked for her advice. Using her department resources, Jasmin was able to find help and, through Professor Sussman found an advisor she admired and related to. Jin told me that even when she figured out who she wanted as an advisor, she “was still a little afraid to ask [Professor Aarthi Vadde] because it’s a huge commitment.” Originally Professor Vadde was going to be on leave for the fall semester in 2018 and with bi-weekly meetings she was unsure if they could make the partnership work by meeting off-campus. But, Jasmin explained that she “really trusted her guidance and the way she thinks through problems so [she] said that [she] really want her as my advisor” and that they would work through any issues with her being away from school should they arise. 

After selecting her advisor, Jasmin decided to flunch her to get to know a bit more about her and her research. They talked about the kinds of questions Jasmin wanted to be asking, even though it was at a very preliminary stage, to figure out what she wanted to learn more about and why do she cared about this topic. Originally, Jin was considering looking at national identity with language use, but after discussing Professor Vadde's transnationalism and globalism research with her, it seemed much more interesting to her to look at what it means to be a transnational subject “or to feel like you’re not belonging in either nation because even if you went back to your like motherland you would feel out of place.” After their flunch, Professor Vadde suggested some readings that Jin could do over the summer to learn more about her topic and to help her decide what way to focus her analysis. 

Jasmin told me “I think that I got a little burnt out because I didn’t do much work for my thesis [over the summer before I started officially] and that kind of made me panic a little bit because I was like supposed to get a head start” even though the summer reading was meant to be a “low pressure way to get started and explore [her] questions.” Especially since, Jasmin tells me, that for her, her “biggest challenge so far is like really narrowing down [her] question because every time [she] thought [she] narrowed it down [she]  kind of felt a little bit doubtful of whether [she] really want to do this particular question” or not, so Jin came back to campus in the fall feeling very unprepared and nervous about what she was taking on. 

However, with the help of Professor Vadde, Jasmin learned to self-impose deadlines by working  backwards from the final due date. “There were there was a lot of trouble along the way...like [she] spilled coffee on [her] laptop and had to get a new one and that set [her] back a couple of weeks,” but ultimately her deadlines and professor’s guidance proved fruitful as it helped Jin figure out her working style and what her strengths and weaknesses were. She says that “now I know I need discipline and so yeah now I’m actually starting to write chapters and stuff and I think my biggest psychological problem was that I had a lot of anxiety about starting a problem and not being able to finish it. I was worried about going about it in an inefficient way, but there’s no way to tell if it’s going to be inefficient until you actually do.” Especially since she was told by many people that to start writing a thesis you don’t necessarily have a set argument, but find it along the way, beginning her writing and analysis was daunting for a while. 

Jasmin explains that she gets “very self conscious and self critical while writing even though [she] keep[s] telling [her]self that even if it’s bad, it’s better than nothing.” In her latest meeting with her advisor, they spent nearly an hour trying to bring her writing back to the focus of her argument. Jasmin tells me that she really relied on Professor Vadde to help “ease general fears about the process and orient [her] in the right direction.” Not to mention, it was interesting too also get to know a member of the faculty that closely as a person, its different than just taking a class with them “you can really learn a bit about their life and interests.”  

So while Jasmin’s topic may not relate to anyone else’s thesis, her general process and experience from considering a thesis to creating one is something that can be applicable to all, whether it is an English thesis or not. The experience writing a thesis provides is unique and something that not many people really ever get the chance to do. Not only can you learn more about something you really care about, but you can also get to know your mentors really well and make connections that will last. So if your child or you, now or in the future, is ever considering taking on a thesis, consider Jasmin’s journey and give yourself the opportunity to have an experience like no other.