Thoughts on Theses: Lianbi Ji

Lianbi Ji is an English and mathematics double major who wrote theses in both subjects. Her English thesis focused on the writings of the Chinese writer Lu Xun, and her math thesis studied elliptic curves. She also has a passion for education having volunteered to teach in China, India and the U.S., she is currently a Math Fellow for “Introduction to Analysis” and an aspiring math teacher.

Q: What are your thesis topics? 

A: My English thesis is titled “Translation as a Mode of Thought: Non-Teleological Readings of Lu Xun,” who is one of the most important Chinese writers in the 20th century. I have done literary translations, I’ve also studied [translation] here at Amherst and I’m an editor of Confluences: [Lost & Found in Translation], the multilingual magazine [on campus]. So I care about this issue of literary translation a lot. I’ve done it; I enjoy the process. What I do in my thesis is basically read or reread this really important writer through the lens of translation. It’s a really complex, complicated process. My translation informs my reading, and my reading also informs my translation [in terms of] what I want to focus on, and do, and achieve in my work. [I] also [get to] introduce this great writer to my peers and my professors in the English department, as well as draw attention to the nuances of translation, the importance of it and what’s interesting and creative about it. I always think of translation as a process that involves or demands a lot of close reading as well as creative writing. That’s the overarching idea.

There are many other reasons why I wanted to do this — what [Lu Xun] talks about, the kind of critiques of society [he makes]. [He’s] very relevant to many things happening today, and people keep rereading him, just like people keep rereading writers like Dostoevsky. I first started wanting to study Lu Xun because of [the] course [I took with] Professor [Catherine] Ciepiela from the Russian department on Dostoevsky and [other] great Russian writers. I see many similarities between them: They’re fearless in discussing the darkest sides of humanity and telling stories from criminals’ minds, or from a tortured mind — interesting things like that. I can talk on and on about it!

My math thesis, “Torsion Subgroups of Elliptic Curves over Q and over Quadratic Fields,” is on elliptic curves. It’s a very pure math topic, basically discussing points of finite order. [Finite order means that] if you add them a finite number of times, it gets to the identity point. What’s interesting about elliptic curves is that this group of points with finite order [can only] have [a] very small number of structures. But [elliptic] curves are [a] very broad [category] — they can just be anything that’s in the form of y2 = x3+ ax2 + bx + c. So anything in this form [is] an elliptic curve, [given] a few conditions [that] need to also be satisfied in the rational field.

I’m extending [elliptic curves of the rational field] to something called quadratic fields, which basically adds a dimension. Quadratic fields [are] anything written in the form of a + b√d, [where d] can be anything — [for example,] -1, which would be the case for complex fields, complex numbers. So [I’m] extending the rational field and looking at what this group of points of finite order looks like there. [I’m] moving away from the numbers that we’re most used to working with, which are [the] rational numbers. 

[I’m] using very elementary tools because I don’t have access to complex stuff — mainly number theory and group theory, like divisibility rules, or unique factorization — so really not very fancy. But [the] process can be long. [I’ve] encountered a lot of  not understanding anything from the textbooks or what my advisor said, accepting understanding nothing for a long, long time and then just achieving a little bit. 

What I’ve worked out is basically a limit on the order of groups of points with finite order — a limit on how many elements there are in this [group] — for two types of elliptic curves. One is when a and c are both equal to zero, and then the other case [is] when a and b are equal to zero. 

Q: What led you to pursue your theses?

A: I guess [for my] math [thesis], I basically just wanted to try doing research. It’s very hard for someone who’s not the best at math; there are people who are just really devoted to math, and they like to take many graduate level courses. And getting to things like REUs [Research Experience for Undergraduates] [for] research — those are really competitive. 

I never had an opportunity to do research. I want[ed] to know what it’s like, partly because I’m interested in math education. I will be a math teacher next year, and my favorite math teacher back then was someone who [had] really explored this field [and] knew what it’s like further on. He was able to let us peek into the big world of mathematics, like a bit beyond what the exams we had to prepare for at the moment [tested]. With him, I was able to see how much more there was, and I want[ed] to get a sense of that too.

And [I wanted to write a thesis] also just to try independent learning, working closely with a professor — I think that relationship has been so special [and] precious — and take initiative in [my] learning, not just be fed materials. In the end, I found that doing a math thesis is very, very different from taking a math course. It’s actually a bit more similar to designing or teaching a math course. [It] involves telling a narrative about a topic, and [it’s] much less about solving particular questions, exercises and applying tools; it’s more like developing tools or understanding how tools are developed. It’s also about reading and writing, which I think usually math courses are much less about. And also, I hadn’t done such long projects (I consider myself a great procrastinator), [and] I want[ed] to challenge myself to complete this and to have better time management skills. 

[As for] English, [there were] many reasons, some I’ve already talked about. My love for this writer [is] a very long story. I was forced to read him with the limited view that he can be read as a Marxist symbol, and I want[ed] to read [and] understand him again with the tools I’ve learned in the English department and literary sensibilities that [I] have developed here — close reading skills, ways to really engage with a writer.

So [it was] him, and then [the] translation, [which is] something that I love doing and want to do more [of]. I just think great works should be translated. And translators are in very difficult positions in general; they’re not widely recognized. Sometimes their names are just omitted, and [they’re] not well paid. They’re very, very difficult jobs, so the most capable people are not choosing to do translation, and we end up having bad translations, and cultures don’t have as great interactions and communications because of that. It’s an entire system.

I think [a thesis is] also about understanding what’s next: What’s after taking classes and getting good grades; here in these subject areas, what does research really mean? I guess it’s kind of an obvious point. [But] especially in English, I was very confused, [thinking], “What are critics actually doing? Why do we need to say these things about works that are already very powerful and [that] people already love? What are good criticisms, and what are sort of less exciting ones?” I think I had a lot of doubts for a long time, and I discuss[ed] that a lot with my advisor. [But] I was able to write something that I truly care about and was quite unique. Although there were a lot of criticisms already written about this writer, they come from their personal backgrounds, [a lot of them] being in Western academia, actually, not Chinese. And most of them [were] not translators. [So] I did feel like an original contribution was possible.

Q: What courses have you taken that inspired your theses?

A: Yes, for my English thesis, really everything is relevant. It’s not just the courses that are directly related to my thesis because I entered college never imagining I would become an English major. I am not a first language English speaker; I was nervous about reading, writing and participating in class with very eloquent people [who] are great at reading and writing, especially in the English classroom. I was fluent in English, but I had trouble really embracing the language more than a tool. I want[ed] to feel in this language and express myself as much as possible in this language. I wanted to build a different kind of relationship with English; I want[ed] to face that challenge. 

I started taking some English courses, and the course that really made me decide I want to do this was “Engaging Literature: Close Reading” with Professor [Geoffrey] Sanborn. The ideas clicked with me: the idea of paying attention, through literature, to life and to the way people talk — their pauses, their emotions — in between words and in words. I also felt encouraged. My contributions were valued by professors or my peers. I felt like I could do this, and I enjoyed doing it. 

Many other classes [influenced my decision] as well. I had this semester in my junior year when I took “Lit[erature] as Translation” with Professor [Anston] Bosman and Professor Ciepiela, and [a] Russian literature course, “[Fyodor] Dostoevsky,” with Professor Ciepiela. And that’s two parts to my thesis. One [is a] global literary translation part. And the other, through getting to know Russian writers, [is thinking] back on my experience with great Chinese writers because they experienced similar things like the influence of Western thought [and] liv[ing] during those periods. That semester’s experience gave me a vague idea of this thesis project and was just a great experience. I also received a lot of help from Professor [Lei] Ying from the Asian Languages and Civilizations department. So it’s a collaborative effort for sure. 

But in general, it’s my overall experience at Amherst, having my readings always valued and supported by not only professors, but also classmates, [and the] Writing Center staff. I love Emily Merriman! She’s always been there, from my first[-year] seminar to my thesis writing. [There are] so many people I’m thankful for.

And [for] math, I guess my case is kind of unusual [because] I didn’t take a course on this topic. I knew I wanted to do [something] algebra-related instead of analysis. [So] I basically said that, and then they [the math faculty] were really chill [about it]. They don’t need you to have a very developed idea to start with. I got assigned Professor [Gregory] Call, [who] studies elliptic curves. He want[ed] me to just read a little bit about it, and he suggested [to] me a few possible directions. And then I read some more, and I saw these interesting examples at the back of the book. Two of the examples led to the examples I actually studied in the end.

[In terms of] courses that influenced me — I might say “Mathematical Logic”  with Professor [Michael] Ching. It was just super, super interesting. And [I had] the sense I felt in high school, genuine excitement. I would stay up with a friend, who was also in that class, until really, really late, just trying to solve those problems. Finding beauty in math is always what [has] kept me going.

Q: Have your theses informed what you plan to do after graduation?

A: In general [about the] long term, [I] was very confused. I’ve always been a very interdisciplinary learner, and even at this stage, I haven’t decided whether I want to do more literature or more math. I couldn’t give [either one] up! And I chose to focus on my thesis, instead of applying to a lot of things for the future — I have to say, I want[ed] to  live in the moment. I wasn’t ready to apply to any Ph.D. programs. [In the] short term, I’ve always been interested in education, partly because teachers have always had such a great impact on me, and partly because I’ve studied in many different countries, in different systems, and seen how pedagogical choices and systems really have great impact on me and my peers. And I’ve also [seen] education inequality, and things and students that could be supported.

I decided to do teaching because I care about teaching, but also because I think [that] during my time at Amherst, I’ve been a little detached from society — not completely detached but in this bubble [that is] a little idealistic and, in general, a privileged environment. Amherst’s town is very rich. I’ve been doing very “pure” stuff, like studying pure literature [and] pure math without really a practical purpose, just like for human knowledge. I mean, English is of course related to human experiences; I’m not saying it’s not! But right now the way we do it — it’s not like we’re not really in a chaotic city or situation. We [are] in a very safe space and spending time reading all these texts. But I’ve lived in places full of chaos and inequalities. I’m from China; I was in the public school system until 10th grade, and then I spent one year in Wales, U.K., and two years in India. Especially in India, [there were] just a lot of inequalities. I just want to get back in contact with different kinds of people. 

My teaching is related to that because I’m in this program called Teach Western Mass. Although Western Mass[achusetts] has a lot of towns that are very privileged and doing well, Holyoke and Springfield [are] not. They have [a] very high percentage of immigrants — I think, mainly Puerto Rican and Dominican immigrants. And [there are] a lot of schools [that] always need teachers, and that’s why this program exists. This program is an accelerated teaching licensure program that sends teachers directly into teaching. So I [will] be in training this summer and go directly into a full-time teaching position in late August because they need teachers. 

[The schools] are almost all so-called “turnaround schools,” for multiple reasons. Students usually enter their schools two grades lower than what their actual age is, so a lot need to catch up and perform better, [in order] for them to have better opportunities in the future. So [these are] really high-need places that just want to attract more foreign teachers. And I know I would just encounter real people, struggling in American society, that I haven’t interacted with before. 

I don’t really care [if I teach] in the U.S. or in China; [I] just want [to] do something meaningful for me and for the community around me. [This program] seems like a good option now,  because [due to] Covid, it’s hard for me to return home. And also just to teach in China you have to be in the official system and get official licensure; I don’t think this kind of program exists [there]. I also don’t know if right now I’m very capable of teaching in Chinese because a lot of the academic language is in English.

Q: What has been the most rewarding experience of composing your theses?

A: I would start with connections. I think it’s very special to work with a professor — or in my case, two professors — very closely, for such a long time. I think it’s hard to navigate what kind of relationship you develop with a professor. For me, I was trying to keep a balance between being respectful, having [a] good work ethic, do[ing] things efficiently and productively and actually effectively getting advice to keep my project going, as well as making it an enjoyable and rich experience for my advisors too, because usually, thesis advisors are not already experts in the particular field you research in. So, I think it is possible that this kind of advisor-advisee relationship is a quite collaborative and mutually enriching one. I think both of mine were, and I am very thankful for that. I think we had great experiences, emotionally and academically. 

And then, I’m very thankful to have the experience [of] really taking ownership of my learning because I’m usually taking classes, [which are] much more passive. Although we try to be active here because a lot of classes are discussion-driven, you are just receiving whatever topic is designed, or trying to meet the expectations of [your] professors. But this is really about yourself. And so [through this process] I have experienced all the difficult, different aspects of designing a personal project. It’s much more likely that you actually care deeply about the project. 

But it [also] feels unsettling most of the time because you have such high expectations for these projects, and it’s almost impossible to meet that expectation. It really requires you to constantly take care of yourself, let go of things and avoid illogical judgments — most thesis writers feel like they’re worse than all the other thesis writers. And [the] fighting is also about loneliness, especially in my case, and learning to cherish it. I learned to spend time with the problems at hand, with readings, with the author I’m writing about and with my advisor, and not always feel like I need to temporarily exit the usual social life, or young adult’s existence, that I had. I’m still trying to process what that means, but it’s been interesting.

My thesis defense was actually a very enjoyable and moving experience. [There] was a very diverse committee of three English professors: Professor Ciepiela, who’s [been] a literary translator for years, Professor Ying — two critical professors — and Professor [Thirii] Myint. [My defense] was also an opportunity for the professors to be in conversation with each other, brought together by my thesis, and that was really great. I realized [that] just having people read my thesis is something to be thankful for because it’s super long and kind of dry! They sent me really lovely emails afterwards about their feelings about my work. It was a very lovely celebratory experience.