ThesisCrazy 2022 Part 4: Durham CT Is Closer Than You Think

The internet tells me that this building may be haunted

Hello hello! After a short break we’re back with more ThesisCrazy goodness! Today we have Ann Zhang ’22 discussing Shanghai’s Flatiron building, and Hannah Gearan ’22 sharing her process of making a documentary close to home. Also P.S. these interviews were done before the thesis deadline, so keep that in mind while reading. Keep going under the cut!!

Interviews by zoomy and saph.

Ann Zhang ‘22, (she/her). Art History, Psychology and Science in Society Program Major, thesis in Art History and Science in Society, Carrel #217.

Working title: Reimagining and Reconstructing 1920s Shanghai in 2020: The Preservation of Wukang Mansion in the Former French Concession”

On her topic: “I’m primarily looking at a building that is wedge shaped, so it looks a bit like the Flatiron Building in New York, but it’s in Shanghai, and it’s in the former French concession so it has a bit of the colonial background. I’m particularly looking at a very recent preservation program that ran from the early 2000s until 2019. There are multiple levels of preservation work done on the building as well as the neighborhood, new commercial projects, and a little bit of, not really gentrification, but rather commercialization and transformation of the neighborhood. I’m interested in looking at how this very recent preservation program came into shape and how it’s impacting historic-preservation-related tourism in Shanghai. Towards the end of my thesis, I talk a little bit about the impact of COVID and the emergence of social media. It was quite shocking how domestic tourism suddenly became a very big thing in China because of the travel ban. What I try to suggest is that because domestic tourists can’t really travel to Europe like in pre COVID Shanghai, the colonial heritage there becomes a place for them to make an exotic imagination of what the European cities might look like.”

On how she thought of her topic: “I was born and raised in Shanghai, and I spent my whole junior year back there doing remote studies. I was looking for a topic to explore more, and I thought of my hometown. I think it was just a very popular landmark and tourist spot, and it keeps reoccurring on the news. So I was like, ‘maybe I should look into the scene. Why is it so popular?’”

On her progress: “I’m putting together the citations and images right now. Because it’s an Art History thesis there’s a lot of image work. I’m looking into a lot of architecture work so there’s a lot of floor plans and exterior details, which all need photos of different scales.”

On her current mental state: “It feels…interesting. It’s a little bit weird how this long project is coming to an end, but also I can’t really wait to finish it.”

On her most upsetting thesis experience: “Probably sorting out Chinese sources because some of the websites I don’t have access to here. Also a lot of translation work because a lot of the original sources of books I’m looking at are in Chinese. Also, even though this building and the architect is so famous in Shanghai, there isn’t a sufficient amount of scholarship or research specifically on him. Another thing is that like the sources from the 1920s and 30s, because of war and a lot of like, unsettling social events, A lot of the documents are kind of scattered around, and not really aligned in a particular database. So I sort of have to drag from different websites and sources”

On her favorite form of procrastination: “Cooking”

Her favorite thing to cook: “Well, we cook a lot of Asian food. Sometimes I do hot pot. I also just like talking to my other thesis-writing friends, because we’re all suffering together.”

Her plans for April 14/after she hands her thesis in: “Finish a Taiwanese show on Netflix called ‘Like the Night.’”

Her advice for future thesis writers: “Start earlier and also keep your files organized. Because this project is so much longer than any of the final papers that I’ve written, right now I’m in such a pain to put out the images in place and just try to sort things out. It’s really doubling my work. Also, you have to find a specific reason for why you’re doing this to stay motivated. For me personally, it’s meaningful to me because I grew up in the city.”

If her thesis could be a song/movie/TV show: “Maybe Transformers? Well, it definitely transformed a lot from the original proposal, that’s for sure. I applied a lot of urban theories and there’s just so many layers and you know, it’s almost multifunctional, like different routes and putting them together.”

Her most used word or phrase in the thesis: “It’s a transitional phrase. I use ‘however’ a lot. Because there are just certain statements that people keep imposing on the work that I’m looking at and it’s just not correct, so I’m always saying the popular opinion and then being like, however, this is what I found that’s contradictory. It’s quite an interesting moment when you see the dissonance and the misalignment and you point it out, like ‘oh, I feel kind of smart.’”

Anything else she’d like to add: “This is a special case for myself, but I have two advisors and they work on different philosophies and also different systems. For example, my Art History advisor uses Microsoft Word, while my other advisor for Science and Society uses Google Docs. So I’ve had to do a lot of transferring back and forth. One of them is very free, like ‘whatever you want to do, just do it’. And the other one is more structured. But I like both of them – I think it’s an interesting experience working with two advisors because you get different perspectives all the time.” 

Theses Feces: Normal.”

Hannah Gearan ’22 (she/her). Film and Environmental Studies Major, Thesis in Film.

Working Title: “Toxic Faucets; Five Decades in Durham, Connecticut.”

On her topic: “I’ll just pull up what’s going to be like the public little logline for my film thesis. It’s a documentary film thesis for the film department. And my logline is, “after toxic chemicals are discovered in the drinking water of Durham, Connecticut, local, state and federal government representatives unite in a five decade long fight for clean water while Durham residents confront alarming disruptions to daily life and face serious ailments.” So that’s the succinct logline, the little bit longer story that there’s a program called Superfund, which is a federal EPA program that registers and manages the cleanup for the most hazardous waste sites in the country for soil and water. So my film is about a Superfund site in Durham, Connecticut, that, as I said, because of contamination from two local metal cabinet manufacturers, led to over 40 years of water loss for the central center of town. So my film chronicles the multi-governmental level effort to fix this problem, and then the effects that this loss has had on the residents for these years.”

On how she thought of her topic: “It’s not necessarily a fun thought process. I’m from Acton, Massachusetts, and during July of 2020 — so during the pandemic, but not related to the pandemic— my town, it was discovered that there were high level of PFAs microplastics in our water. So kind of, consequently, to also thinking about topics for my thesis, I was looking into towns like other towns in New England that were going through water issues. And I found the Superfund site in Durham and I was so shocked because Durham is right down the street. Like if you go down High Street, like past Swings, you just take a right and you’re in Durham, basically, like five miles away from where I live now, which is crazy that I didn’t know about this. And I learned that a lot of other people didn’t know about it either. So I thought it was a really important story to tell. I wanted to explore that that way.”

On her progress: “So the nature of a film thesis is pretty different than some of the written theses, obviously, because we’re not writing anything. But basically, I shot everything in the fall in terms of my original footage, and then edited all spring. So the fall was, in terms of day to day, it wasn’t like, ‘oh, I work on my thesis every single day for two hours’ or whatever. It was, like, some weekends, I might have two to three interviews, and some I might have none but I’m prepping for all the other interviews. So in the fall, it was like a crazy logistical time of trying to schedule everything and then actually go out and shoot. I think we shot over 13 days, not consecutively. So it was a mixture of prepping for that and then day to day this semester, I didn’t take a lot of days off this semester in terms of the thesis but it was like a lot of Monday’s doing a lot of that because I don’t have class Mondays and the editing room was open. So it was a lot of like, heavy editing on Mondays and then the weekend as well. Kind of scattered throughout the week.”

On her mental state: “Well, my thesis is done. So it’s good. It’s being officially turned in tomorrow to the film department because we have to turn it in person. We have to physically copy it over. But it is done as of Monday. So, that’s really exciting.”

On her most upsetting thesis experience: “So I have a hard drive and a backup hard drive. And they both failed on Friday. I had my entire files for my entire thesis on it. And I went to the tech people in Exley. And they were like ‘we don’t know.’ So I had to get a new hard drive and copy all the files over. It took five hours to do that. I missed class. And that was five days ago, so that was the worst time for that to happen. I do not know why. Something got dislodged in the port. It’s some boring hardware technical thing, but like, it was super frustrating, super stressful.”

On her favorite form of procrastination: “My form of procrastination was watching movies that aren’t at all related to my thesis.”

On her favorite part of her thesis: “So what I enjoyed working on the most would probably be actual interviews with people in person. Because there’s so much stress on paper, you know, trying to organize it. I had seven interviews, which was a lot for a documentary thesis that’s only 12 minutes long. But it’s so rewarding to actually get to talk to the people in person. These are real people that are part of the story. So that’s really, really awesome.”

On her plans after it’s turned in: “So I might take one of my roommates who was super helpful in the, you know, emotional support process for the thesis, with me to physically submit it. That I might do, I’m not 100% sure. And, unfortunately, I have other homework to do tomorrow. So like, immediately, you probably do my other work for my other classes. Yeah. But you know, I will be on the steps of Olin at four. I got permission to leave class early to go party on the steps of Olin. So I’m very excited.”

If her thesis was a song/movie/tv show: “People were like, oh, so is it like an Erin Brockovich thing? Because, you know, it’s just like environmental studies! And that’s what people think of. I don’t necessarily think…it’s not like a gotcha story. So like, it’s about the effect on people but it’s trying to push for a human perspective, not a we hate the government perspective. So I don’t think it’s like a lot of the mainstream.”

Questions she wishes we asked: “Not really, just as long as there’s a note in there about like, it being my Environmental Studies capstone because that I almost forgot to mention. But yeah, it’s just been a great process working with a lot of people on campus to make it happen. And I’m really excited. I’ll be actually getting to see it with other people in the Goldsmith family cinema on May 6th or  7th. Oh my gosh.”

Theses Feces: “I don’t know…what is that…literally? Is this the actual question? I don’t know if I thought about giving this that much thought.”

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