Several months ago, a handful of Princeton Writing Center Fellows found themselves in the subterranean grottoes of Whitman College, discussing the state of writing at Princeton. Composed of upper-level undergraduate and graduate students hailing from a variety of disciplines, our team boasted over 1000 hours of student conferencing in Princeton’s Writing Center. Because we work closely with both Princeton undergraduate and graduate students, we have acquired an intimate and textured understanding of their writing and research habits.
During this conversation, we came to a consensus: we wanted more Princetonians to talk about—and celebrate—the fabulous writing that students here produce daily. All too often, academic work remains a closed conversation between student and professor. Part of the thrill of working in the Writing Center comes from its bird’s eye view—our access to all the varieties of thought that ricochet around this campus. Though we aid student work along its way, we seldom (perhaps, never) see the polished product. So, we hoped to celebrate exceptional writing—the product of sustained, reflective thought—in a helpful manner.
This is our attempt to create a space for that celebration. Tortoise is a journal of writing pedagogy. And to our knowledge, it is Princeton’s first ever. The authors showcased in this inaugural issue, thought and wrote, drafted and redrafted, and became proof positive that writing, at its best, is a process. In the naming of our journal, we drew on Aesop’s The Tortoise and the Hare, siding with the former to highlight this deliberative, reflective, and ever-winding writerly journey.
Tortoise seeks to showcase the journey of student writers from all corners of the Princeton campus. In our inaugural issue, we publish work from across disciplines and class levels, recruiting exemplary pieces from introductory poetry courses through to abstracts for graduate dissertations in linguistics. The content is as various as its authorship: in your hands you will find essays that take up topics ranging from the invented feminist language Láadan to racial tensions in Cold War era Rhodesia, from Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself” to the controversial social media phenomenon known now as “slacktivism.”
We believe that the celebration of student writing can also serve as a powerful educational tool. Our wish is that Tortoise will serve both teachers and students as they seek to communicate about the qualities and characteristics of successful writing. Because of this goal, and this is key—we do not publish finished products in their entirety. Every piece of writing accomplishes some things better than others, we have selected excerpts of particularly keen research and writing from within larger works and situated them in reflective commentary As far as we know, no other pedagogy journal has adopted this approach. In adopting this format, we hope to emphasize process as much as—if not more than—product. We want to show how a particular writing strategy works at the minute level, instead of providing an example of excellent writing, only to leave it unexplained. No piece of scholarly writing, no matter how masterful, can speak entirely for itself. That is to say, scholarly writing does not explicitly state why and how they work in particular ways—and so can remain steeped in mystique. To clear the fog, our reflective commentary works to identify both the research and writing methods underpinning the product. This commentary—authored by Writing Center Fellows, Princeton professors, and the student authors—targets the process as well as pedagogy. Aggregating various perspectives, it hopes to articulate not only how the writing works, but also how it came to be.
We organized the inaugural issue of Tortoise into sections based on terms from the Princeton Writing Program’s lexicon. The top-ranked PWP equips undergraduate writers with this lexicon—a toolkit of writing terms—which helps students best articulate their shrewd writing impulses. Because we furnish each Princeton freshman with this writerly toolkit, all Princeton students, in theory, speak the same language. Our implementation of a standard lexicon creates a lively community of writers and researchers, across levels, disciplines, and forms. Because this is our inaugural issue, we have sectioned it based on the most fundamental and foundational areas from the lexicon: thesis, motive, structure, evidence, analysis, and orienting. These lexicon elements form the shell of our proverbial turtle, so we wanted to address them first. Accordingly, we have catalogued excerpts for the lexicon move they best demonstrate. In doing so, we hope that student writers will consult Tortoise as a guidebook, and that writing instructors everywhere will both read and perhaps adapt our lexicon to use it to create their own communities of writers.
We send our effusive thanks to the many who helped us to create this writerly conversation: to our student contributors, to the authors of our commentary, including Professor Michael Gordin, Writing Fellows Heather Russo and Stephanie Char; to Pascale Poussart, Amanda Irwin Wilkins, Margie Duncan, Keith Thomas, and Melinda DeNero. Last, thanks to my editorial staff for helping imagine, select, and craft the journal.
Now, months after we first convened, we present to you Tortoise. Just like its contents, this journal is the result of a journey: it moved from conversation and idea to draft, revisions, and now, final product. We consider Tortoise itself a product-in-process, in that future issues will be revised to best fit the needs of our community here at Princeton. But, for now, please enjoy our first attempt.