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Active Learning and Research
Active Learning and Research
While English professor Sun Hee Gertz delves into literature of the late Middle Ages, her students explore topics as varied as anti-Semitism in the librettos of Wagner and the intersection between literature and Eastern contemplative practices.

Meet the researchers: Something to summarize a college career

Interview with Jana Magner
Jana Magner is a senior English major who is also completing a concentration in Race and Ethnic Relations. She talked about her honors thesis research with Professor SunHee Gertz on the intersection between literature and Eastern contemplative practices, including Zen Buddhism.

How did you end up working with Professor Gertz and choosing a thesis topic?

SunHee became my advisor after my previous advisor retired. SunHee knows what's up, she knows what's going on at Clark, she knows how the system works. She's very with it, very organized, very cool. She's a role model for me-she's amazing. She helped me organize my life when I had no idea what classes I should be taking or where I wanted to go.

Last year the idea of an honor's thesis came up when I was trying to think of something that could summarize my college career. When I was ready to go into the real world and search for jobs, I could say 'here is a summary project of what I've done at Clark.' In spring of last year I was taking a class with SunHee called Still Spaces-East Meets West: Eastern Contemplative Practice in the Classroom (English 254). It was a seminar that met every Monday for three hours, and for two hours after that we'd do yoga. We read a novel a week.

After I took this class, I thought it would be great if I could write something about Zen Buddhism or Eastern contemplative practices in general because it's such a perfect combination of my concentration in Race and Ethnic Relations and my English major. Basically, my thesis is a study in culture, but in a literary context. I enjoy academics very much, but I felt like for my thesis I wanted to do something pragmatic, something that I could use in my own life.

From my race and ethnic relations classes, I had learned to study with an open mind, but I really struggled with SunHee's course in terms of opening my mind. It was such a new thing, meditating in an academic environment. I was learning the academics behind something that isn't supposed to be academic. That's why this is so hard to explain to people. In Zen Buddhism and many of contemplative practices you're not supposed to dissect the meaning of things, or attach concepts and values. They teach that the reason people become miserable is because they place certain concepts on things. They set up their lives with this idea of permanence, that things exist in only one specific way. And when things don't work out that way, people are miserable.

Zen emphasizes the importance of existing in the present moment. You don't let your mind wander elsewhere with questions like 'where is this going to lead me,' or 'will I become enlightened from meditating.' It was also hard doing this in a western academic world where so much emphasis is placed on being competitive. It was really hard to overcome that competitive approach, especially with yoga. The first time you do yoga you're looking around at other people, seeing if you can stretch better than they can. You're even competitive with yourself. In Zen there is no past and no future, there's only the present. So there's no way to compare or to create these concepts of what's good and what's bad. If you have concepts of what's good, bad, real, or unreal, those are only stories you make up in your own head.

Do you have a title for your thesis?

Not yet, but if I had to sum it up briefly, it's that Eastern contemplative thought can be found in many different genres in literature, whether placed there consciously or not. I felt like this was something not commonly thought about, but after taking SunHee's course, I seemed to see it everywhere. A cool thing is that by the time you get to the end of college, your classes start to overlap and you think of connections that four years ago you would never have pieced together. In the last two years it's happened to me almost every semester.

How is your thesis organized?

My thesis is divided into three sections, each of which is based on a text. The first text is by Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, who came from Japan to California in 1959, and started the first Zen center in the US. So he was responsible for bringing Zen Buddhism to the US. His text is based on a series of discussions and talks that he gave. So it's like a conscious meditation book. That's the first chapter and it establishes a base for the rest of the thesis.

The second section is based on a novel by Gail Tsukiyama, an American woman who has a Chinese mother and a Japanese father. It's not necessarily consciously Zen but it oozes with Zen thought.

How did you find out about Gail Sukiyama's book?

SunHee recommended it. We did this in a really organized way. I would have had no clue how to do this without her. The first thing she had me do was write down a list of about twenty sources--books I'd read or that I knew would be applicable. About four or five were fictional novels by Eastern or American writers that seemed like they might have Zen or eastern contemplative influence behind them. Then SunHee remembered The Samurai's Garden by Gail Tsukiyama, which is about a very humble man that works in his garden and finds peace, an utter sense of peace. Gardening is his form of meditation. It takes place in China and Japan in the late 1930s and early 40s.

That was a turbulent period in Chinese-Japanese relations.

There's war going on! It's such a beautifully written book. It's about a young Chinese man about twenty years old who spends a year in Japan at a small beach town. He goes there because he's sick with tuberculosis and his parents thought it would be good for him to try to recover by the ocean. And also his deceased grandfather had had a beach house there. So that's where he went to live, and the caretaker of the beach house was a man named Matsu who every day just spent hours and hours in his garden. The book is about the young boy's observance of the older man and seeing how he achieved peace of mind. The boy takes that and learns how to facilitate his own peace in a time of war. It was ironic that the Chinese boy became so close to this Japanese man when their countries were enemies.

And what about the third section?

The last chapter is going to be on Samuel Taylor Coleridge, a British poet in the 1700 and 1800s, who was just taken by the present moment. He took it in more than any other poet I've read. At the beginning of his poems he'd get really depressed, or have these depressing thoughts. Then through just sitting with nature, like by a beautiful waterfall, and taking it in, he describes to you all the beautiful things that were going on around him. He comes almost to be intoxicated by the beauty of nature and this takes him to his enlightened state. The fact that he takes the time to sit down with nature and write about it-I see this as his meditation. I'll be looking at two of his poems: "Frost at Midnight," and "This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison."

Did Coleridge know about Zen Buddhism, or was this approach his own independent invention?

I believe the latter. I haven't come across anything to indicate that he was familiar with Zen. That's what I think is really cool about my thesis. I made this connection. Maybe it's far fetched, but it spoke to me as something that was significant.

Wasn't Coleridge one of the romantic poets who was doing a lot of drugs, specifically opium?

Yes. The context of someone's life can help you understand the meaning behind his or her writing. But in some ways, I think knowing about Coleridge's drug involvement unfairly biases my opinion of him. He wrote beautifully, absolutely beautifully, because he wasn't self-conscious about his writing. It just poured out of him. He was so taken by the life and beauty that surrounded him. But knowing that he was addicted to opium makes me wonder whether it was just the opium speaking or whether he truly felt this way.

It's really interesting that these two authors, who are so far separated in time and space, are working with similar kinds of themes.

That's largely what the thesis is about, the fact that people, although from different cultures, are basically the same. We're all striving for some sort of truth, and that overlaps in different cultures. I was originally a psych major, and I'm interested in the way that people's minds work.

You obviously enjoy what you're working on. Can you comment on what you see as the advantages and disadvantages of doing research as opposed to taking a regular class load?

Doing a thesis is almost like running a marathon. It's not like cramming for a final. You really have to work on it every day. I've always been a good student, but I've never been one to grow incredibly flustered over trying to stay on top of things. This, though, is something that's very important to me, and it's all right if I grow a little flustered from time to time. I want to prove to myself that I can do it on my own. It's like my baby, my project. It would be letting myself down to just let my research become another thing that is a burden. So it's an advantage to me really because it's showing me what I'm capable of. It's my decision if I want to go to the library and read five more books about what I'm doing. It may have the potential to make my thesis better, but no one's making me do it. It's my choice.

How often do you meet with SunHee?

Once a week. It's very, very important that I do that because we talk about the structure of my research and we review what I've done over the past week. She makes suggestions for revisions, and then we discuss what I'm going to do in the coming week. I feel like the process has organization and structure. It's not 'here's the semester, go away and do a thesis.'

I would imagine the weekly meetings help you feel re-energized.

Yes. There've been several occasions where I've just called SunHee and said 'I'm so stressed out, I don't know what I'm doing.' I know I'm an English major and I know I can write a good paper, but sometimes I just sit down at my computer and feel like I can't speak English! I have so much to say and so much information that I'm retaining. Where do I start? How do I organize this? Is it going to be done by December? The weekly meetings help me to take it in baby steps. If you look at research as a whole, as this huge project that's ahead of you, it's completely overwhelming. If you break it down into steps, and just do it week by week or day by day, you find at the end of it all that you have this amazing project that you worked really, really hard on. I can't wait to see the final copy! I think that I'm going to have a big graduation party and I'm going to post it up-if you want to come, you have to read it! I think it's really original.


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