Exploring New Spaces, But Staying Grounded
Issue   |   Thu, 05/19/2016 - 19:41
John He '16
He’s LJST thesis incorporated his love for geology with his interest in legal theory.

In the middle of our conversation, John He apologized for his hesitant answers. “I feel lost,” he admitted. “That may be my most central theme here.”

I was taken aback, because He has many reasons to feel confident about his achievements — editor-in-chief of The Indicator, leader of the FOOT orientation program, founder of spring break trips to Zion National Park, among others. Yet here he was, shifting in his seat, genuinely unable to talk about his accomplishments.

Instead, he talked about his experience of writing an English paper on “Moby Dick.” “I explore as I write,” he said. “I enjoy wandering.”

A lover of the outdoors — which he discovered upon arriving here from Shanghai — He brings a sense of exploration to his studies, too. “I see myself as a stable-ish person, so I’ve always looked for things that would upset that stability,” He said, on his movement between law, jurisprudence and social thought, studio art, geology and German classes.
He paused and joked, “Can you describe me as very avant-garde?”

Getting Lost
After participating in the FOOT orientation camping trip as a first-year student, He fell in love with the outdoors.
Although he had no outdoors experience in Shanghai, he had always been drawn to nature. He immediately joined the Outing Club, took up rock climbing and canoeing and became a leader of the FOOT program. His love for the outdoors cumulated in brainstorming a spring break camping trip to the Zion National Park with a few friends. The trip ended up taking two years to organize.

They first sent a proposal to President Biddy Martin, which was rejected. But He persisted. The next year, he wrote a new proposal and succeeded, procuring $10,000 to fly a group of students to Utah.

“It was a logistical nightmare,” He admitted.

At Zion, they hiked a backcountry trail for a week. Many of the students did not have any prior outdoors experience.
“To realize the land we walk on every day has a rich history that we know very little about, that a single rock can contain so many stories,” He said. “That changes the way I see the world.”

He’s affinity for the outdoors attracted him to geology in his sophomore year. He credits Amherst’s open curriculum for giving him the autonomy to explore. Having taken many law, jurisprudence and social thought and German classes, it was a drastic turn for He, with no math or science background, to declare geology as his second major in addition to LJST.
“Geology is a science, while LJST is the most humanity of humanities, as far apart as two majors can be,” He said. “Geology is not just a different mode of thinking, on a different time scale and magnitude, but you have to position yourself in a different point of view. Think 4.6 billion years ago.”

Yet he is attracted to both subjects because of their interdisciplinary openness to many perspectives and techniques.
He remembers his junior year summer as his definitive Amherst experience. For the first part, he stayed on campus and researched suicide protest with Professor Andrew Poe. Then, he went to Montana and attended a geology field camp. Afterwards, he stayed in Montana to conduct geological research with Professor Tekla Harms.

“Everything was leading up to me going to graduate school in the humanities,” He said. “Geology changed my trajectory.”

Drawing Rocks
At geology field camp, He walked and studied the Montana earth and learned how to draw maps and cross sections. “It sounds like a 19th-century pioneer activity,” He laughed, pulling out a map to demonstrate, “but geological mapping is very observational while being interpretational.”

The interpretive element made him realize that it is only the surface of the land that he walks and sees. “You construct a two-dimensional picture of the land from which you visualize and make an interpretation of the three-dimensional picture over time of how the area formed,” Hesaid.

He’s observation and drawing skills were sharpened in his studio art classes here.

Harms noted that He’s artistic abilities set him apart in the field of geology.

“We got word back from the field camp that he drew the best cross sections the faculty had ever seen,” Harms said. “He is meticulous in how he represents things, but he can also think and see in three dimensions. And I think that shows up in his artwork. He has a very deft hand in representing things.”

Harms added that this meticulous yet creative thinking also show up in his research. She talked about He’s special topics with her last fall, in which He patiently measured squash pebbles and carefully explored different ways to analyze them.
“This is the kind of situation where you could plug and chug and not really think about what the result would actually mean in terms of the real world, but he did some very careful thinking about that and made me think in ways I had not been thinking,” Harms said. “If you are a faculty member who has been teaching as long as I have, when a student can teach you things or makes you think in ways you had not been thinking, that’s just the most fun there is.”

While He enjoys the crossover between art and geology, he is less sure about the connection between geology and his interest in political and legal theory.

“If I were to do things over again it would be to take more art classes,” He said. “The nice thing is that they always take a lot of time out of your schedule.”

This year, He wrote a thesis in the LJST department titled “Space in the Political Thought of Carl Schmitt,” in which he explored the relationship between law and land and the human conception of legal and political contexts as land-based.
“I didn’t know my argument until I wrote my conclusion,” He confessed.

He’s training in geology shone through in his thesis, in which he questioned whether spatial imagination could form a coherent basis for legal thinking. Yet, it is through geology that He discovered the limitations of political theory.

“What I’ve realized is that the field of political theory is limited when it comes to thinking about space, because it can only do so conceptually and abstractly without a good grounding on where we actually live — land,” He said. “Even the solid ground underneath is not solid. It actually deforms like pudding over geologic time. I think geology is better able to capture your imagination with the processes of mountain building and continental collision.”

It was with this understanding that He decided to attend a geology master’s program at the University of Arizona this fall, drawn to the strong tectonics department there. Nevertheless, He is not ready to abandon his interests in political theory and the humanities. “I can imagine my ideal career as being a combination of LJST and geology, but this does exist,” He said.

Being Grounded
Describing their trip to Montana, Harms recalled the ease He displayed when they attended a rodeo on their first night there. “We stayed in a rural Montana town,” Harms said. “I enjoyed seeing the meeting of the cultures. I said to him, ‘I think the people know you don’t belong here.’”

Yet, though Harms said she could physically fit in easier than He in rural Montana, He seemed more effortlessly at ease. “He’s moved between cultures so much that he is innate in what Amherst is always wanting to teach a person, which is to be able to look at your own culture from the outside, to be objective about your own culture, but also to see someone else’s culture,” Harms said. “So he was very adept at that. He wasn’t at all thrown in Montana, seeing an American culture so different from New England. I think he does it effortlessly.”

He’s willingness to explore and to seek discomfort, allows him to adeptly navigate different social, cultural and academic spaces. Yet, he does so earnestly, away from the public eye. “For such a highly wildly competent person, John strikes people as a fairly unassuming character, and I think so much of it is just a sort of humbleness,” his friend Tiffany Wong ’16 said. “He doesn’t take himself very seriously, but lets his actions speak. I think you learn the most about John through what he does — he just does many, many amazing things and doesn’t feel the need to share it.”

Wong added that He’s earnestness is most evident in his friendships.

“He’s a dependable person in an understated way, like a there-ness probably, dependable in that if I ever need him he will just be there for me. I value that a lot,” Wong added.

He’s desire to wander is grounded in his friends. Mark Boyer ’16, He’s suitemate, mused over his presence. “I think it’s notable how he brings joy to people, particularly by giggling profusely at his own jokes,” Boyer said.