Transitional Justice in Post-Conflict Societies: The Case of Cambodia
Noah Legner, Government and Law, 2017
Thesis Advisor: Professor Seo-Hyun Park
Q: How and when did you select your advisor and the thesis committee members?
A: Originally, I did not have a thesis advisor in mind. I remember approaching my academic advisor, Professor Park, and expressing to her my interest in doing a thesis. She told me to stop by her office to talk in greater detail about the process of what it is like to write a thesis. At first I was intimidated, but there was something about how Professor Park was informing me about the stages of writing a thesis that made me want to do it even more. Thus, when I asked her if she knew anyone within the department that would be free, she actually volunteered. I was very grateful for that, because not only did I have her for several classes, but she was also my academic advisor. I knew I was in good hands form then on. In regards to my thesis committee members, Professor Fabian came as a suggestion from Professor Park, given that she had expertise in my thesis topic. My third committee member, however, took me a while to choose. But it was not long until I realized that Professor Carr would be well suited. I chose Professor Carr because her passion for teaching and doing research inspired me to always persevere even during difficult times of my thesis journey. She gladly agreed to be on my committee, and once it was official I was really excited even more so to write my thesis.
Q: When did you start thinking about your thesis? How did you select your topic?
A: I did not start thinking about my thesis until end of junior year. I remember watching a documentary about the Vietnam War and being fascinated by the difficulty that the US had with reconciling themselves after the war. As many know, Americans were strongly opposed to the Vietnam War despite the government continuing their military involvement for much longer than what they had anticipated. So when I informed Professor Park about my interest in how nations handle the aftermath of conflict, she directed me to the topic of transitional justice and introduced me to Cambodia. After doing some research, I began writing a research proposal containing my research questions. But it was not until beginning of senior year that I had my research questions fully developed. I drafted and redrafted the proposals multiple times based on new research material I found and also until Park thought that they were narrow enough to form a proper framework for a thesis.
Q: How did you start tackling your thesis project at the very beginning?
A: Because my thesis was on a country I knew very little about, I had to teach myself its history. That was not easy. There were many times where I got events confused with one another, and sometimes could not find a consistent timeline as scholars disagreed with each other. But after watching documentary after documentary, and history book after history book, I found myself at a place comfortable enough to start researching on the genocide that took place in Cambodia. From there on it was easy, as the rest of my research was dependent on looking at the sources that other scholars cited, and primary documents from the United Nations and Cambodia. The real challenge, however, was ensuring that I was guiding myself onto that path. If I had not, I do not think I would have been able to complete my thesis.
Q: Did your advisor explain the structure of a thesis project to you?
A: I really must thank my advisor for being as organized as she was, because while we did develop a structure of my thesis in the beginning, it kept changing depending on the new research I found and also on the first drafts of my first two chapters. I would say it was not until November of the Fall Semester that we agreed that the structure was not going to change much. And we did keep the structure to a rather standard form: Introduction, Theoretical (which is the literature review), Historical, and then the two chapters dedicated to the case study, and then the conclusion.
Q: Did you have to do a literature review? Had you ever done one before?
A: Yes. Literature reviews are extremely critical for when doing research for your thesis. It helps you synthesize the material that already exists on your topic, so that you know what is accurate information and what future work needs to be done. For me this was helpful, as I was able to take all of that into account to improve and strengthen my argument. And I was thankful for being a government and law major at the time, since all research and writing based government classes I took required a literature review before beginning the first draft of your research paper. So in a way my previous experience made writing my literature review for my thesis relatively easy.
Q: Do you remember receiving correspondence from the library about your honors thesis?
A: Yes. I was really impressed with how quickly the library reached out to me when I expressed and was officially registered to write a thesis. I did not only receive support and help from my designated research librarian, but I received aid from all of them, whether it would be about finding new material, citation, or simply just writing advice. I would definitely recommend all thesis students to use the library as a resource, because sometimes in my most pessimistic moments, the librarians revived my motivation.
Q: What did you find most challenging about your thesis project?
A: The most challenging aspect of my thesis was the writing process. There were too many times where I doubted myself, and kept thinking that my writing was either not good enough or because I had difficulty understanding the material that the whole project was just a waste of time. But that is an extremely ordinary experience regardless if one is a student or a professor. Writing is difficult, and there will be times where you might have to ask for an extension of a deadline because you are having writer’s block. That happened to me several times, and sometimes the best solution is to take a few days off and look at your research and your thesis with fresh eyes. It is extremely difficult to work on a project that you become so close with. So be patient with yourself and take a break when necessary. You may think you do not have time, but in reality you do. And if you give yourself that break, you will realize how well you have done thus far.
Q: What did you find most rewarding about your thesis project?
A: For me, the most rewarding part is that I wrote it, but more importantly, that I was able to follow through until the end. There are certainly pros and cons to writing a thesis, one of them being that an undergraduate thesis is in the long run not as important as a PhD. But for those who pursue a thesis, it is important because it is a project you take on for a year, and it feels incredible to know that this is your work. I know that I did the research necessary to then spend the time writing to the best of my ability, and in the end, it helped me get into graduate school. Of course one does not need a thesis to be accepted into graduate school, but there is some truth to the fact that you receive research skills that will prove to be extremely useful for a Master’s or a PhD program.
Q: What assistance did your advisor/department offer you throughout the course of the year?
A: My advisor offered me not just academic and intellectual feedback, but also emotional support. There were times where I was not capable of reaching a deadline, and she was beyond flexible and understanding. That alone put certain moments of high pressure off of my shoulders, and while of course the majority of the feedback was constructive criticism, the way in which she gave me that feedback was always in a positive tone. I never felt as if the progress I was making or the lack thereof was negative, nor as if I was not good enough. If anything, my advisor was the most helpful person within my journey of writing my thesis.
Q: Did you meet with librarians in the course of conducting your research? How many times and at what stages of your research?
A:In the beginning I did meet with almost all of the librarians as I conducted my research. However, I could not give an estimated number of how many times or during what stages, since it was not one of those projects where you ask for assistance and then you are good to go. I went to the research librarian desk for assistance multiple times in the same night consecutively throughout the week. Sometimes I only went once a week. But I certainly did take advantage of our research librarians, since they are incredible helpful. I do not think I would have been able to edit and format my footnotes and works cited page if it was not for them.
Q: What other kind of support did you rely on throughout the year to accomplish your thesis (IT, parents, friends, etc.)?
A: The majority of my support came from my friends and from my mom. My friends knew the academic position I was in (I was taking five credits including my thesis fall semester and six credits including my thesis spring semester), so sometimes I felt like I was suffocating. But my friends reminded me of what I had accomplished and achieved up until now and provided me with an extreme amount of moral support. Without them, I do not think I could have persevered as well as I did.
Q: Were you able to get access to all of the research materials you wanted for your project?
A: Yes. I never had difficult accessing any of the materials I needed. That is without doubt one of the major perks of doing a thesis with Lafayette. Our library has connections to anything you need for your research.
Q: Would you do anything differently if you went through the process again?
A: If I went through the process again, I think I would want to stick to the deadlines I was given without asking for extensions. Of course there will be times where life throws quite a few obstacles in your way out of the blue, making it difficult to meet deadlines. But part of the stress I experienced the spring semester came from the fact that asked for extensions and was running out of time. If I had kept to the original deadlines, I would have had more time for editing and making revisions. But writing a thesis is a learning experience. There is no real write or wrong way of going about it. It really just depends on who you are as a person and how you get your work done.
Q: What advice would you offer other honors thesis students, especially in your department?
A:For those considering writing a thesis, here’s my advice to you: If you realize that your topic is actually something quite different than you started out with, that is totally fine. It is such a common occurrence and nothing to worry about. Your advisor is well experienced in the realm of research that they will help you be able to adjust to that. Give yourself time and be patient. Your chapters are not going to be perfect or even well written over time. Listen to the feedback that your advisor has to say, and if you need inspiration, read other scholars’ work or students’ thesis. Sometimes reading how others have written helps you with your own writing style. Do not be afraid to ask for extensions if needed and always consult with those around you for help, whether in terms of needing help with research, grammar, or emotional and moral support. It is not an easy process, but it is certainly rewarding. And if you are unsure, I say give it a try. You got nothing to lose by trying, and if you do not succeed in completing your thesis, that is okay. It is not meant for everyone, and sometimes one can only learn that through trying.