Frequently within the Writing Seminars and introductory college courses, students are asked to do the seemingly impossible: to make compelling, original arguments about classic texts, ideas, and phenomena that have been written on extensively for decades or even thousands of years, from Homer’s Odyssey to Judith Butler’s theory of gender performativity.
More specifically, these students must attempt to articulate (and then answer!) questions that could be considered equally puzzling, interesting, and urgent to expert scholars in the field, often with only partial or vague knowledge of the secondary literature these experts have produced and proliferated. These questions are the beginning of what the Princeton Writing Lexicon more concisely calls “motive”—that is, the paper’s purpose, which can also be defined as the intrinsic why necessitating both the student’s thesis argument and the reason(s) that such an argument must be made in the first place.
This is no small order, especially when the scholarship surrounding what a student is writing on might be vast enough to fill a thesis or doctoral dissertation. However, some of the best student writing often results when a student placed in this situation ultimately uses to her advantage 1) her limited tools and 2) the intimidating establishment of scholarship around the paper’s topic.
Instead of claiming authority on the big picture of a text or theory, the student has several options: for example, she can disagree with or qualify the dominant approach used by existing scholarship to explore that text of theory, substituting instead her own ideas and/or the approaches of a discipline with which she is more familiar.
These are exactly the kind of against-the-grain arguments we are featuring and celebrating in this issue of Tortoise, although each argument and author accomplishes such an approach in their own way.
The first excerpt, by Julia Schorn, similarly presents a new take on an old, much-beloved work, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Unlike Carolyn’s argument, which succeeds in suggesting an alternative approach to complement existing scholarship, Julia directly attacks the establishment surrounding Alice to argue that feminist praise for the titular heroine’s curiosity and agency in Wonderland is actually unsupported by several details in the text, details which she addresses in her paper in order to argue that Wonderland is perhaps more static and less wonderful than we may have thought it to be.
The second excerpt, by Carolyn Kelly, demonstrates the value of approaching a classic work such as Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse by studying not the most obvious symbolism and imagery in the novel—the sea, for example—but instead the recurring instances of a smaller body of water, pools, in order to show through close-reading how, taken together, the seemingly insignificant cumulatively speaks to the larger introspection of Woolf’s work. Carolyn successfully showcases how an in-text motive and roadmap thesis can be developed by first rejecting (or, rather, innovating upon) traditional approaches to how literature is typically analyzed.
Finally, my “works in progress” excerpt ending the section showcases how motive can come from an interdisciplinary place: in this case, the application of literary close-reading techniques to the postwar writings of John Maynard Keynes, an economist. Even with its flaws, this excerpt—much like Julia’s and Carolyn’s work—attempts to approach a work that seems untouchable and over-studied in an entirely new light, demonstrating that sometimes the most interesting arguments begin as radical, risky ideas, counter to the consensus and seen out thoroughly to their ends.