Thoughts on Theses - Michael Harmon
Issue   |   Wed, 04/13/2016 - 00:02

Michael Harmon ’16 created his own interdisciplinary major “Colonial and Postcolonial Studies.” His thesis focuses on a trip he took by train in South Africa and Zimbabwe. His advisers are history professor Sean Redding, European Studies professor Ronald Rosbottom and political science professor Amrita Basu.

Q: What is your major and what is your thesis about?

A: I designed my own major. In the interdisciplinary major, you list your core classes that you’re going to take and you come up with a project that doesn’t fit into any department. My major is something that I call “Colonial and Postcolonial Studies,” which is a theory of everything, in a way. It encompasses a lot of subjects, but the thinking was that it would bring in history, anthropology, political science, some environmental studies and creative writing.

The thesis that I proposed was not just the history thesis that I had originally thought of writing, but a travelogue, bringing in these academic topics and talking about them analytically — like political history, or colonial or postcolonial culture — and describing that through the lens of my own travels, written in a way that’s more accessible for people to read. That’s the general overview.

Q: What was the process of researching and writing like?

A: My thesis was basically my trip. I took a trip this summer, which Amherst funded, through the Schupf scholarship — and it was a three-week trip. I spent about two weeks in South Africa, and another week in Zimbabwe. The trip itself was my travelling mostly by train from Cape Town to Victoria Falls. That’s the bottom third of what was Cecil Rhodes’ projected Cape to Cairo Railway. That was my means of transportation, but also the narrative framework of my thesis. I was writing about all of these topics, trying to cover tourism and colonialism and the history of this area as it follows the path of this railway.

That was the trip. And the thesis — the chapters were each of the places where I stepped off at. There’s this travel writer, Paul Theroux, who’s written a number of books about travelling, mostly by train. He travelled by train in the 70s from London to Singapore. That was his first book. Each of the chapters is a different train that he’s taken, a different place that he’s been. He uses conversations with locals as jumping-off points to address important issues, so that’s what I’m trying to do with mine.

Q: Would you describe your thesis more as a diary than as creative writing?

A: It’s like a buffed-out travel journal. It was the main text for my thesis — just going through my journal entries, remembering each of the conversations and what I thought of a historical site or a food that I tried. Yeah, less creative writing — it’s not fiction — but more expository, less purely academic.

Q: What was the most interesting entry in that journal?

A: The original plan for the trip was that I would get to Cape Town and travel north on the train until the tracks ran out. I had the idea that it would be more like a backpacking expedition, something like a month or two. But because of concerns, both political and parental, it became a little more scaled-down, and actually, the whole focus changed. Instead of doing the whole backpacking, modern adventure tourist trail, I decided to recreate the colonial trips that I had read about in the travelogues of people travelling from Cape Town to Victoria Falls and staying in the nice hotels, going on safaris. So that’s what I did. It hasn’t changed, really, in a hundred years. That became a main point of my thesis — it’s no longer Rhodesia, it’s Zimbabwe, it’s no longer apartheid South Africa, it’s been 20 years since then — but have things really changed in how we, the western tourists, or any tourists, perceive the place? How is it advertised to perpetuate these stereotypes? Have things really progressed? So I followed this tourist trail, pretty much to a T, with one exception.

There’s a stretch that I had wanted to take the train through, when I was first planning this trip, but I was advised to take a plane instead, since it was a little bit safer. But there was a fuel shortage and all the flights were grounded. So I said, “Screw it,” and took the old train. It was 12 dollars for the overnight train, with no food, no water, no heat — and it was cold, because it was the winter — and no features except the electric light in my room. And it was the most amazing part of my trip.The stars were beautiful. We stopped in the middle of the woods and there was a group of locals just camped outside of the train playing drums and moving cows and goats around in the middle of the night. I talked to the conductor about politics as we were pulling into the station. Part of my thesis was talking about “What is authentic?” We look for authentic things everywhere we go. Was this authentic? I guess so — I mean, I was the only tourist, the only white face, on the train. It was definitely the most memorable thing, and the least planned.

Q: Was language ever a barrier?

A: No. One of the legacies of the British Empire, besides driving on the left, is that wherever they were, they left post-colonial states that generally speak very good English. In Zimbabwe, everyone that I interacted with spoke English. In South Africa, people speak English pretty regularly.

Q: What was the most difficult part of the trip or of writing the thesis?

A: The most difficult thing about the summer was wondering if I could go on this trip. I had surgery at the start of the summer and mono in the middle of the summer while studying for the MCAT. I didn’t know how quickly the mono would go away and if I would be well enough to go on a 15-hour flight and then be in southern Africa for three weeks. Yeah, there were times when the writing was stressful and the editing was stressful and I realized that I had 115 footnotes to put in — that was stressful. But the most stressful part was the summer and wondering what I would do if I had to cancel. My parents had been asking, “Can’t you write this thesis without going on a trip?” And I had convinced myself that no, I had to be there and experience it myself and take my own notes and have my own thoughts about it. As I was writing my conclusion, my adviser asked me, “Could you have done this without going on the trip?” That struck a nerve with me, and I spent about a month trying to figure out how to conclude the thesis — I had already written most of it. I kept undermining my own thoughts and thinking that I could have done that from home or this new idea from my desk in Wieland.

Q: What was the main conclusion you drew from your trip, now that you’ve completed your thesis?

A: Professor Redding helped me come to this conclusion. I went on this trip with a preconceived notion of both what I would see and what my conclusion of this thesis would be. And it was that Africa is postcolonial, it’s been half a century since decolonization in most of these countries. But through development now — through railroads, mostly being built by China, and through tourism, which is a totally different side of the continent which mostly caters to a Western fantasy of Africa that comes out of the “Lion King” and “Heart of Darkness” — really bad stereotypes that converge on this fantasy of safaris and such that differ from the reality of most people living there — that hasn’t really changed since colonial times. It’s rooted in that era.

These two ideas center on railways, one with infrastructure development through building railways that then can take out resources — that’s the payback — and the other is central to tourism because it opens up the interior both for mineral exploitation but also for tourism. So railways are in the middle of both ideas. And my thesis, I imagined, would be that colonialism is still alive and well and show “Here are the ways,” and that there was a train running through each of them. That was the conclusion I reached while I was there and it was only after writing my whole thesis and going through my notes and thinking about it that I realized that there was a key difference between the story that I wrote and that I would have read by someone who was there 75 years ago. It’s that the people are at the center of my story. Not the places, or the hotels, or even the trains — it’s the people that I talked to, both black and white. It’s the conversations I had. And that is something that’s inherently postcolonial. I would only have been able to have those conversations if I had gone.
Professor Redding even suggested in September, “Michael, you could write a piece of fiction if you wanted to. You could write a novel based loosely on your trip.” And I could have imagined what dinner at this restaurant would have been like or what a South African train would have been like, but I couldn’t have accurately imagined what these conversations would have been there. Those discussions I had with people there make up a big part of my thesis.

Q: What advice would you give to future thesis writers?

A: The advice I’ve been giving to underclassmen who are thinking about writing a thesis is, “Is this something you came up yourself? Not your professor’s idea?” And “Is this something you can still be excited about in March, when the going gets tough?” If you can be excited about it up until you hand it in, then it’s worth doing. I was lucky that that’s how it turned out for me, that I was excited about it until the very end of the line.

Something that I found very helpful was just to move around so that I didn’t get itchy feet in any one place. I rarely worked in my room. I worked in other dorms, places around campus — one day I went to Johnson Chapel, it was totally empty, and I just wrote half a chapter in there. But everyone gets to some point where the interest sort of tapers off, and they have to get themselves excited about it again. And sometimes, you just have to take a break from it and do something else. Other times, you need a change of scene. productive.