Final Essay

Final Essay

Thursday, October 29, 2020 - 8:11am
Erik Harms

Paper Description:

By the time we get to the end of this course, we will have explored, in survey fashion, the complexity of Southeast Asian social cultural, political and economic life. We began the course by trying to come to grips with this diversity. Building from a general understanding of the region, we then began to explore some of the challenges and fissures facing the region. This is an admittedly impossible task, and we were only able to sample some among the many examples of Southeast Asia’s challenges of modernity. This paper allows you to explore a topic of your choosing in more depth.

In this open-ended 10-15 page Final Research Paper, you build from your own interests and use your thinking to illustrate and analyze your own example of a Southeast Asian “modern contradiction.”  Using your own outside research into contemporary affairs, city life, ethnic policies, historical interactions, religious movements, economics, cultural expressions – in short, whatever makes your “intellectual antennae go up” – you will come down from the flighty clouds of comparison and generalization to tell us a story about a particular concrete example that you feel illustrates the challenge of modernity in Southeast Asia.

In short, this is a research paper that builds from the general themes of the course to explore how the challenges of modernity play out in a particular case study that strikes your own fancy. You are encouraged to engage with ideas and readings from this course, but you must also build from your own original reading of sources taken from outside the course.  You may build from or borrow ideas you have developed in other work you have done, but you must write a new paper.  That is, you may not simply “add on” to your previous work but should produce new work.

Possible topics may include, but are by no means limited to:

  • The transformative role of culture among Southeast Asian diaspora groups
  • Chinese culture and politics in SEA societies
  • Political Aspects of Religion in Southeast Asian Societies
  • The role of UNESCO in Southeast Asia
  • The relationship between economics, politics and culture
  • The political ramifications of certain Heritage sites in Southeast Asia
  • Assertions of cultural identity among minority groups
  • Political use of “traditional culture”
  • Tourism
  • Ethnic Politics
  • Gender
  • A Critical Study of Newspaper discourse
  • Commemorations
  • Sports as political spectacle
  • Relations between the country and the city
  • Architecture and representation

Final papers will be published to the course web-site, where they will be made freely available to the public. For examples of essays written in previous years, visit the course archives.


Students should prepare a paper proposal before the first fall break (aka October break). Proposals should be a short paragraph similar to a conference abstract, and should consist of a description of the topic, a short working thesis (this may change in the course of research and writing), and a statement of the kind of evidence used. Students should also include a very short preliminary bibliography. Post your proposals to the course blog under the category, Final Essay Proposal.


Saccharine smiles, V-signs, and Mind-Control in the New World Disorder: Notes on Vietnamese Pop-Photography

This paper will explore the significance behind the common practice among young people in Southeast Asia of making a v-shaped “victory” sign while smiling broadly. I will argue that this does not actually signal “victory” but instead conveys what I call “corporate cosmopolitan empty pseudo-happiness,” an insidious form of corporate mind control first propagated by Mickey Mouse. I will draw empirically upon a critical review of Vietnamese language facebook photo albums, follow this up by emailing the people who posted the images, and then interpret their ideas by ignoring their own thoughts and instead shoehorning them into my own post-structuralist lens informed by critical visual studies.

potential references will include:

  • Susan Sontag, On Photography
  • Karen Strassler, Refracted Visions: Popular Photography and National Modernity in Java
  • Bonnie Adrian, Framing the Bride

Key Dates:

Nov. 3 & 5: In-class prewriting exercises. Read a few sources for class on Nov. 3, bring an image to class on Nov. 5th.

Around Nov. 19th: Hypothetical Thesis and Outlines due

Dec. 1: Thesis Workshop

Dec. 10th: Final Research Paper Due

final essay term: