Category Archives: Ford 2016

The Evolution of Chinese Characters and Their Phonological Presentations

Qufu Interview

Professor Du and I interviewing Qufu residents


This summer Professor Wenwei Du and I travelled to Shandong Province, China, to examine the evolution of Chinese characters and the various phonological presentations of the same characters. Residing mainly in Qingdao, we also travelled to Qufu (Confucius’ hometown) and Tai’an.

Over the course of the eight weeks abroad, we consulted linguists at Qingdao University and Ocean University of China. We also interviewed the local people who spoke various Shandong dialects. I recorded and translated these interactions as well as created a manuscript of the recordings. From these interviews, we hope to track the historical phonological changes of Chinese.

Confucius' descendant

Professor Du and I with one of Confucius’ many descendants



We also explored how character composition impacts sound and meaning. As there are over 50,000 characters in the Chinese language, we chose the 1000 most frequently used characters as the basis of our research. I examined the list for phono-semantic compound characters 形声字. Phono-semantic compound characters are made up of a semantic classifier (形) and phonetic indicator (声). The semantic classifier refers to the meaning of the character while the phonetic indicator contributes to the pronunciation/sound. I analyzed the characters, defining components that influenced sound and meaning. I combed through primary and secondary sources regarding the history of Chinese characters and their evolution to assist with our research. According to our findings, approximately 51% of the 1000 characters are phonograms in the simplified form, traditional form, or both.

Next, I organized the 1000 most frequently used characters into several lists: by simplified form, by traditional form, by radical, by semantic classifier, and by phonetic indicator. I analyzed these lists, looking for a connection between character composition and its sound and meaning. We then invited our interviewees who spoke various Shandong dialects to read aloud the list of characters that were arranged by phonetic indicator in order to pinpoint the evolution of phonological representations of characters as well as the relation between contemporary Mandarin and local dialects.


This research opportunity has allowed me to experience and appreciate the beauty of the Chinese language through its many facets. I plan to continue and further my Chinese studies and I hope to translate the skills and knowledge I’ve learned during this summer to fellow Chinese learners at Vassar and to help shed new light on teaching and learning Chinese characters and their pronunciations.



Henry Kissinger and the Paris Peace Negotiations

Screen Shot 2016-08-04 at 12.21.45 AM“History presents unambiguous alternatives only in the rarest of circumstances,” writes Henry Kissinger in his memoir, Ending the Vietnam War. “Most of the time, statesmen must strike a balance between their values and their necessities or, to put it another way, they are obliged to approach their goals not in one leap but in stages, each by definition imperfect by absolute standards.”

Henry Kissinger, President Nixon’s National Security Advisor, was the chief negotiator for the United States in its effort to end—or at least, extricate itself from—the Vietnam War. Between 1969 and 1973, Kissinger met several times with North Vietnam’s Foreign Minister Xuan Thuy and Special Advisor Le Duc Tho in Paris in order to negotiate a peace agreement. Kissinger himself, and several scholars since, have portrayed this process as a careful balancing of “values and necessities,” resulting in an agreement that, though “imperfect by absolute standards,” was the best possibly attainable. In 1973, soon after the agreement was signed, Kissinger was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts.

Yet the agreement was not only imperfect by “absolute standards;” it was imperfect by the only standard that matters: it didn’t work. The only thing it effectively ensured was the United States’ troop withdrawal. The war in Vietnam continued for another two years, and the Government of South Vietnam—after more than a decade of direct U.S. involvement, hundreds of billions of dollars, and over 200,000 U.S. casualties alone—eventually fell.


Working with Professor Robert K. Brigham, the aim of my Ford project this summer was to study the Vietnam peace negotiations (and Kissinger, their leading character) in order to develop a more complete understanding of the defining motives, methods, and mistakes.

I began the summer by reviewing the existing literature: Kissinger’s own memoir (as aforementioned), as well as the Vietnamese account by Luu Van Loi and Nguyen Anh Vu, Le Duc Tho-Kissinger Negotiations in Paris. I also read secondary texts such as Pierre Asselin’s A Bitter Peace; Larry Berman’s No Peace, No Honor; and Jeffrey Kimball’s Nixon’s Vietnam War. Using these sources, I constructed a timeline of the negotiations and discovered several inconsistencies between Kissinger’s account and the others—suggesting that Kissinger has attempted to rewrite and revise the history, thereby casting himself in a more positive light.

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At the end of June, Professor Brigham and I travelled to Yorba Linda, California, in order to research at the Nixon Library. In our week there, we found more material than we could’ve imagined—ranging from the State Department’s Vietnam subject files, to National Security Council policy briefs and memoranda, to direct transcripts of the  Kissinger/Tho conversations and years’ worth of transcripts from Kissinger’s telephone calls—much of it recently declassified.

We’re still sorting through all the documents we collected—but sometimes, it is just as important to recognize what isn’t there. My personal favorite research discovery was when I found a group of folders that outlined a plan of military escalation against North Vietnam (with the goal of forcing Hanoi to make concessions at the negotiating table). In between two folders that were overflowing with the details of the bombing campaign was a folder titled “Legality Considerations.” The folder was empty.


As we continue to read and analyze all this evidence, one thing is abundantly clear: Nixon and Kissinger were both more concerned with politics and public opinion than negotiating a rapid, legal, and truly reliable peace. In his memoir, Kissinger predicts future criticisms of his negotiating efforts, writing: “It is always possible to invoke that imperfection as an excuse to recoil before responsibilities or as a pretext to indict one’s own society.” In the wake of the Vietnam war, there exists a “credibility gap” between U.S. policy makers and the public—“That gap,” Kissinger insists, “can be closed only by faith in America’s purposes.”

Kissinger asks us to ignore the result of the peace process, and simply trust that the Nixon Administration’s intentions, at least, were pure. My work this summer has only affirmed that (particularly when examining international relations) one should never be so naive—and, more likely than not, the person making such a suggestion is the one with the most to hide.

Political Selection in China

One of the projects I worked during the summer with professor Ho was the role of connections and performance in China’s political selection. More specifically, we wanted to understand which of these traits dominates the other under different conditions.

To do this, we had to first develop a formal model to derive specific hypotheses. Our model was a relatively simple two period decision game where a senior official decides to promote from a pool of junior officials. We specified the senior official’s utility as the rent she obtains in both periods. However, we assumed that the rent she obtains in her second period is conditional on her surviving onto the next period. Here, we said that rent is a function of the junior official’s ability and the probability of survival is a function of the junior official’s connection status. Taken from a standard career concerns model in the industrial organization literature, we believed that ability is unobservable, but that the senior official can predict the true value of ability using the junior official’s performance. With this, we were able to derive the senior official’s expected utility given the junior official’s performance and connection status.

From this model, we obtained various propositions. The first was the both performance and connections matter, and an increase in either one would increase the junior official’s probability of promotion. The next propositions suggested that when the senior official has a larger external (exogenous) threat, an inaccurate performance signal, and a shorter time horizon, the value of connections would outweigh the value of performance.

To support the propositions derived from the model, we used a dataset from 1978-2012 that had all of China’s provincial (junior) officials as well as their connection status, performance, and promotion status. The dataset also included other characteristics that we used for controls as well as information on the senior officials. Using the dataset and various econometric strategies, we found that most of our hypotheses were supported. First, we found that connections (sons/son-in-laws) seemed to be positively correlated with the probability of promotion. However, performance (GDP growth rate of the junior official in his province) does not seem to impact the probability of promotion.  Additionally, we found strong evidence that as the senior official becomes younger (and has a longer time horizon) or as the senior official receives an inaccurate measure of ability (high variance in performance) of the junior official, the value of connections for the junior official increases.






Assessing the Distributional Effects of Alternative Health Insurance Programs

This summer I worked with Professor Rebelein in the economics department on his project called “Assessing the Distributional Effects of Alternative Health Insurance Programs”, continuing the work we started this past academic year. The goal of this research is to create a mathematical model of health care choices so that the potential welfare impacts of different health care policies can be analyzed, especially how welfare varies for different income groups. Given the upcoming election, health care policy issues are at the forefront of public consciousness, so I was very excited to be working on this project.

The first thing we did was find income and medical expenditure distributions from Medical Expenditure Panel Survey data to get parameters for the mathematical model. This image shows our beta distribution fitted to the actual distribution of income taken from the data.


Most of the summer was spent reviewing the current literature on health care simulation models. Many other researchers, most notably Jonathan Gruber from MIT, and organizations like the Urban Institute have created their own models of health care and insurance demand, and I spent a lot of time looking at how these models worked and the math behind them. Professor Rebelein wanted to have health status, which is how healthy someone is, included as a factor into consumers’ decision making. Because none of the major models have included health status as a factor, I also spent time reading about utility models that include health status. After reviewing the current research we were able to finalize a model of consumer utility incorporating health state.

I spent the rest of the time writing a function in the R programming language that would solve our model for different parameters like income and insurance premiums. It was a challenge because the model has to predict consumers’ insurance and health care spending choices for a number of different scenarios. Each case has to be written separately into the function. The model is a two period model. Given a certain income in each time period, consumers must choose how much to save or borrow and whether or not to buy health insurance given their expected well being. In the second time period people must choose whether or not to pay their medical bills, which are determined by their health state, based on whether they can afford them or whether they will be better off staying sick but having more money. This image shows what the output of this function looks like in an Excel format.


I’m very thankful for the opportunity to do summer research through the Ford program, and I’ve learned a lot through the process.

Building Racial Literacy: The Joyce D. Bickerstaff Black Girls’ Lives Matter Collection and the Bechtel Lecture Series

This summer I assisted Professor Colette Cann with the expansion of the Education Department’s children’s book library, taking on the distinct task of enlarging and enriching the department’s collection of literature for and about youth of color. For our project, Professor Cann and I focused in particular on collecting literature about Black girls and young women. With the assistance of professor emerita Joyce Bickerstaff, I also helped plan the next installment of Vassar’s Bechtel Lecture Series, to be given this fall by celebrated children’s book author Andrea Davis Pinkney. In honor of her continued commitment to the study of children’s literature at Vassar and beyond, we decided to name the new book collection—the opening of which will be officially announced at the time of the Bechtel Lecture—the Joyce D. Bickerstaff Black Girls’ Lives Matter Collection.

Much of my time this summer was spent researching and cataloging a list of books that center on, celebrate, or complicate narratives about Black girls and young women to be adopted into the library. I also assisted Professor Bickerstaff with the retrieval of several hundred books from storage which now form a significant portion of the library’s overall collection; many of these books have been incorporated into the Black Girls’ Lives Matter Collection as well. With the help of the staff at Poughkeepsie’s Three Arts Bookstore, even more books were purchased for the Black Girls’ Lives Matter Collection, which now totals at nearly 400 titles.

Beginning in November, the Black Girls’ Lives Matter Collection will serve as the booklist for the inaugural season of the department’s new Pop-Up Library Program. Subdivided into groupings of 30 books organized around different themes, it will visit and live with participating Poughkeepsie elementary school classrooms for month-long periods at a time, to be used by teachers and students as they wish. Through this program, we hope the collection—and all future collections adopted as Pop-Up Library booklists—will function as an exciting and readily accessible resource for the development of literacy skills and racial awareness in local youth.


The Dome Room in the Maria Mitchell Observatory has been completely reorganized to make way for the growing collection, and all the titles that make up the newly expanded library will be easily searchable through an online catalog that will launch this fall—along with the opening of the library and the commencement of the Pop-Up Library Program—to coincide with Andrea Davis Pinkney’s delivery of the Bechtel Lecture on November 3rd. The Bechtel Lecture Series, which was established in 1990 to honor prominent figures in the field of children’s literature, is open to the entire Vassar community and the larger Poughkeepsie community of which we are a part. We hope you will all attend!

Along with Professor Cann and Professor Bickerstaff, the work I completed this summer would not have been possible without the guidance and assistance of Gretchen Lieb, Heidy Berthoud, Dayle Rebelein, Julie Riess, Andrea Davis Pinkney, Scottie Bowditch, and Walter Effron. Thank you!

Education Policy and Students in Special Education: An Institutional Ethnography

A major change is coming to public education in the USA. President Obama and Congress finally replaced the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). NCLB, which has been shaping national education policy for over 15 years, is often regarded as a major failure. Many parents, students, and teachers across the country are unhappy with the increased standardization and intensive testing regime that it brought about. NCLB failed to actually live up to its name. As the extensive test results NCLB has accumulated prove, millions of students in the United States are let down by our schools yearly. Students, especially racial minorities and those facing disabilities, are often left to flounder. And since NCLB and its successor are both inherently Civil Rights laws, this failure feels especially poignant.

The signing of ESSA in December, 2015.

Professor Erin McCloskey and I began research following the implementation of NCLB’s successor, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). This new bill returns most of the control over education to the individual states, and disempowers the Department of Education for the first time since 1965. Little is known about how the bill will be implemented due to its recency, but major change is coming. Thus, now is the perfect moment to begin gathering data. Our longterm goal is to follow the implementation of ESSA to uncover how the law impacts special education teachers and students with disability classifications. Will every student, including those with disabilities, truly achieve, as the law’s name claims?

Because the law has not yet been implemented, our research has thus far mostly been preparatory—reviewing literature, news, and preliminary interviews with teachers. I spent the summer coding, transcribing, and writing an extensive literature review. My work should provide a foundation upon which Professor McCloskey can build her research as she continues her work.


Japanese Fiction and Film: The Narrative Tradition

This summer, I had the wonderful opportunity to work with Professor Peipei Qiu on examining  Japanese narratives in literature and cinema, with the results of the project being used for the Spring 2017 course, “The Narratives of Japan: Fiction and Film.” In looking at films adapted from literature or connected through common themes, we examined the aesthetic choices of the directors and authors, and the ways in which the narratives interact with their social contexts. This project covers a broad range of Japanese storytelling, from the oldest extant collection known as the Kojiki to the animated films of Hayao Miyazaki.

For this project, I researched, evaluated, and collected relevant secondary and theoretical materials on Japanese film and literature (notably RashomonUgetsu MonogatariThe Tale of the Bamboo Cutter, The Makioka Sisters and Fires on the Plain) for the course syllabus, which I compiled into an annotated bibliography for Professor Qiu’s review. I compiled lists of Japanese films based on the literature of contemporary authors like Banana Yoshimoto, Haruki Murakami, and Natsuo Kirino, and gathered required films and readings from Vassar’s library and through loan systems. Once the syllabus was finalized, I digitized the readings, and learned to “rip” DVDs to create video files using HandBrake and Final Cut Pro. As I assisted Professor Qiu in preparing course materials, I conducted my own research on Hayao Miyazaki’s films Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, Princess Mononoke, and Spirited Away to create a visual presentation on “Environmentalism in Miyazaki’s Animation,” which will be shown to Professor Qiu’s class as part of the course material. This presentation explores how these particular films not only reflect Miyazaki’s personal view of environmentalism, but also embody different aspects of an ancient Japanese philosophy towards nature, ultimately connecting ancient Japanese literature with contemporary cinematic storytelling.

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I am grateful to have been a part of this project this summer. I had the amazing experience of working with Professor Qiu and conducting intensive research that not only built on my academic skills, but also allowed me to gain some insight into the logistics of creating courses here at Vassar. I enjoyed exploring the richness of Japan’s literary and cinematic storytelling tradition, and I am incredibly excited for my work to be a part of Vassar’s curriculum in the spring.

The Assaulting Caribbean Sea: Climate Change Resilience and the Region’s Endangered Cities


This summer Prof. Lisa Paravisini and I conducted research on climate change, rising sea levels, and the environmental efforts that bring attention to these impending dangers across the Caribbean. She is currently working on a book that describes and expands upon the discourses put forth by artists and activists who denounce or realize the contemporary tension between growing cities and infrastructures, and their unsustainability in a world that is responding to the myriad ways in which we have harmed it.

Lisa chose key locations in the Caribbean that are estimated to be significantly underwater by the year 2050.

Throughout our travels to Cuba, Miami, and Puerto Rico, we contacted artists, journalists, environmental engineers and documented our conversations which continuously magnified the web of associations between their works and efforts to speak to environmental pressures, and their threats to survival. Lisa’s vision of the book fluidly embraces the spectrum of experiences we got to share and learn from, taking shape with every new finding.

We spoke to Alejandro Durán, Mexican and Brooklyn-based artist who has made the Sian Ka’an peninsula the focus of his latest work. He gathers, documents, and later on modifies, the trash that washes up on the shores of this UNESCO World Heritage site. His installations and photographs are also in conversation with previous earthworks such as Smithson’s. The manifestations of this project are many-fold, making community involvement and awareness an integral part of his work.

In Havana, we headed to galleries, workshops, artist’s studios; then travelled to Trinidad (also a UNESCO World Heritage Site) and Casilda. As coastal cities, they are affected by tourism, rising sea levels, fluctuating biodiversity, and the factors that fuel the impact of these phenomena. However, these are one of the few places where tangible changes are being made in order to reach sustainability in the face of rapid environmental shifts. Among the conversations we had, we met with an environmental engineer and journalist who described the Cuban government’s intervention of the coast in restoring it to have less environmentally harmful structures/edifices. She shared with us documents from the archives of these actions, statistics and reports.

In Miami, we surveyed galleries, museums, and met with Haitian artist Edouard Duval-Carrié. His latest series is in conversation with the Hudson River School’s crafting of American landscapes, by reimagining these spaces as ridden with the unspoken and the invisible. He perceives these depictions as nuanced versions of ghostly or hidden histories of the colonizing project. He applies glitter and select colors to a metallic surface and delivers these interwoven narratives, using both their association to landscape painting in the American imagination and the unearthing of all that was strategically removed from those depictions. This description of the colonizing forces entering the Caribbean landscape inevitably quotes the seizing of the physical land and its potential for production as the beginnings of exploitative practices at the expense of its inhabitants, damaging ecosystems, causing erosion, exacerbating soil depletion, deforestation, and basically rendering a geographical space unfit to sustain any sort of life.

Finally, in Puerto Rico, we spoke to artists Teo Freytes, MariMater O’Neill, and Dhara Rivera. They shared perspectives and speculations about environmental issues in the Caribbean, invited us to their studios, and gave us more materials to work with and people to be in touch with.


Here and Elsewhere: Perspectives on the Syrian Refugee Crisis

By Halle Hewitt and Sixing Xu, under the guidance of Professor Thomas Ellman

We were accepted as Ford scholars for Professor Ellman’s summer video game project. Professor Ellman was interested in video games’ potential as an interactive medium through which players could look at a social justice topic in a wholly new way. We decided to create a game focusing on the Syrian refugee crisis. The mass migration of refugees fleeing the civil war in Syria (due to fighting between supporters of and dissenters to the Assad regime, and with several groups, including ISIS, taking part) began in 2011 and continues today. Unlike many other ongoing refugee crises, the Syrian refugee crisis currently claims the attention of mainstream Western media. One of the main reasons for this is that the majority of Syrian refugees are Muslim; many Westerners associate practitioners of Islam with membership to ISIS. However, racism and xenophobia are also significant factors that have played a role in Western countries’ discomfort with and even animosity towards refugees and immigrants throughout history. With recent terrorist attacks by ISIS in the West, the reluctance to resettle refugees has only increased. However, the number of Syrian refugees that have resettled in Europe, Canada and the U.S. hardly compares to their vast numbers in countries neighboring Syria, namely Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan.

We wanted to focus our project on the media (e.g. news videos, interviews, websites, statistics on the refugee crisis, as well as the art made by Syrian refugees and/or about Syrian refugees. For members of the Vassar community, as well as for many people around the world, there is no direct way of interacting with Syrian refugees. Consequently, we rely on media to understand this crisis. While we may agree that there is no such thing as objective media, we often choose to isolate ourselves with media that only support our already-incubated beliefs. This is true especially when the particular society we surround ourselves with reaffirms these beliefs for us, or, to put it another way, pressures us into conformity.

We divided our work: Sixing made a desert with two abandoned buildings, containing media either made by Syrian refugees, or made from close interactions with them. The primary focuses of these media are art and music. Halle made a suburban house and block containing more mainstream, and mainly Western media, as well as comments made by refugees and non-refugees on social media platforms like YouTube and Twitter. We made just one object in the suburbs that, if the player found and had enough interest in, takes them to the desert. Otherwise, they would remain in the suburbs for the duration of the game.

The project is an amalgam of perspectives — perspectives from here, from the computer and TV, from the itty bitty talks on the dinner tables, and those from elsewhere: the faraway Middle East, the real happenings in refugee camps, unseen art and music made by refugee artists and children, the raw images that are covered by those screens in our living rooms, hidden by the more accessible Western media. You can’t be two places at once in real world, but in virtual worlds, it’s easy to be here and be elsewhere.

Our final product will do its work as an educational resource on the Syrian refugee crisis, but other than that, it is about the way we see, hear, watch, perceive and understand. The explosion of media in our lives successfully gives the false impression that we learn and understand issues more quickly, effectively and deeply; but at the same time, we are too drowned in the sea of information to realize that the excess of media is obscuring us.

We hope what we made can at least expose the fact that we are in an age where we need to think critically about what we perceive through media. But critically how? Is there even a right answer to a question like that? We have been looking for that answer throughout the project, and we will always in the pursuit of it — not from here, not from elsewhere, but in between here and elsewhere.




Clerical Masculinity in Old Regime France

This summer, I worked with Professor Mita Choudhury on research for her new book on clerical masculinity in Old Regime France. As a history major, it was exciting not only to delve into the research, but also Professor Choudhury’s process. Beyond my role as researcher, I helped to organize the material through creating a timeline and compiling a bibliography and conceptual notes on a WordPress journal.

Throughout the program, I utilized the resources of the Vassar Library as I researched. At the beginning of the summer, I worked to establish context for the Catholic Church in France throughout the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries. In particular, I paid close attention to the church hierarchy, the establishment of orders and congregations, and the training and roles of priests. Over the subsequent weeks, I researched constructions of gender in early modern Europe and beyond. I worked to identify different models of masculinity, especially as defined by hierarchy in the family and the community, self-control, the body, and sexuality. By the end of the program, I returned to religious research examining deviance, like witchcraft or the convulsionnaires of Saint-Médard, and the church’s response to deviance through ecclesiastical courts. In addition, I looked at the Jesuits and the Jansenist movement.

This summer had a profound impact on me as a student, and encouraged me in the field of history as I consider pursuing a graduate degree. I gained comfort in researching and a much better understanding of how to undertake a large project, like a book. Especially as I look ahead to my senior thesis, the opportunity to work with a skilled and insightful historian like Professor Choudhury will prove invaluable to me.