Category Archives: News

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Tortoise Tuesday: Motive in Animal Crossing: New Horizons

One of the most popular video games of quarantine so far is Nintendo’s latest installment of the Animal Crossing franchise, titled Animal Crossing: New Horizons (ACNH). Like its predecessors, ACNH is a slow-paced simulation game where players are moved into a new community and tasked with developing it by cultivating relationships with other residents, stimulating the local economy, and enriching cultural institutions. Unlike previous games, ACNG is set on a deserted island in order for the player to “create [their] own paradise” and “escape” the real world, according to the Nintendo official website.

At the beginning of the game, players must take a plane to their island, during which the player is subject to in-flight entertainment courtesy of Nook Inc. This movie consists of scenic videos and snapshots of other players enjoying their own idealized, fully developed islands, as in Image 1 below. These scenes prepare the player to land in an immaculate, tropical landscape.

A picture containing cake, decorated, table, grass

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Image 1 One of the scenes presented to the player before they arrive on their island. Screenshot from game.

However, when the player starts the game, the island they arrive at is far from paradise. It is overrun with weeds, and the town consists of only a handful of small tents, illustrated in Image 2 below. As it turns out, the player is expected to deplete the island’s natural resources in order to literally build their town from the ground up, all while facing debt at the hands of a Nook Inc. executive, Tom Nook. So much for escaping the real world…

A picture containing cake, birthday, decorated, table

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Image 2 The island as it is visible from the airplane for the first time. Screenshot from game.

The tension between the game’s presentation of an idyllic island in the airplane movie and the reality of the undeveloped island is meant to inspire players to complete the game’s tasks. The game promises that if players follow the orders of Tom Nook, then their islands will be just as beautiful as the photos they viewed prior to landing. By presenting this drastic visual tension at the point when the player’s island is at its least appealing (and thus potentially the point when players might feel discouraged at the prospect of having to clean it up), the game motivates its own playthrough.

Motive in academic writing operates similarly, since it can manifest itself as a tension beckoning the reader to follow along in the author’s reasoning. Like in academic writing, ACNH uses this tension to support its premise or thesis of escapism, since the promise of what could be is ultimately what drives the player to escape to the game again and again (that is, if they ever put it down at all).

If you are struggling to motivate your own writing, consider whether there are any tensions, puzzles, or surprises in your sources which might compel your readers to follow your argument. Think to yourself, “What would Tom Nook do?”

— Leina Thurn ’20

Works Cited

Nintendo. “Animal Crossing™: New Horizons.” Nintendo.com. Accessed May 9, 2020. https://www.nintendo.com/games/detail/animal-crossing-new-horizons-switch/.

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Tortoise Tuesday: Structure in Quarantine and in Writing

It’s been over a month since Kentucky officially shut all nonessential businesses and ordered everyone to shelter in place.  Even though everything has burst into bloom here, I spend my days in my room in the basement, writing papers, zooming into seminars, and fighting against a rising feeling of desperation and fear. It’s hard to feel anything other than resignation when the days bleed into one another. The markers of time that used to rule my life are meaningless now. No matter what day it is or what hour of the day, my life looks pretty much the same. 

For me, a control freak, the unpredictability of this pandemic is terrifying. It’s impossible to know when this will end, when the world will return to normalcy, when days will again be differentiated from one another. But something that’s been helping me feel in control of my days and my life is that I’ve started making extremely detailed schedules. Every morning when I wake up I sit down and write down a plan for my day. I schedule in everything from zoom classes to helping my brother practice lacrosse. Being able to look down and see the plan for my day makes me feel better. For at least the next eight hours, I can predict the future.

When writing, this kind of structured plan is also helpful. Both when preparing to write a paper and in the final draft, it’s useful to be able to communicate to yourself and the reader what the plan is for the duration of the paper. Articulating ideas in an outline can make it so much easier to understand what you’re trying to say in a paper. Often when I’m writing, I get lost in sentence structure or word choice. In those moments, I look back at my outline to remember what I’m trying to say. Having the plan for my paper helps reorient me and feel that, rather than being a daunting impossible task, writing this paper is totally doable. 

Clearly articulating the structure of your argument to a reader is also helpful. Making sure to include a roadmapping paragraph, where you explain to a reader what sources you’re planning to examine in the course of your argument and what subarguments you plan to make, help a reader feel secure as they read your paper. I know that especially when I read long papers, roadmapping paragraphs in the introduction help orient me and keep me from getting confused. Such paragraphs remind me that the author has a plan for the paper and that I, as a reader, can relax and just follow the argument. 

Regardless of whether you’re a control freak like me or not, in the next week, when writing your papers and studying for exams, give outlining and roadmapping a try. Maybe in this bananas time, making a clear plan will help propel you across the finish line at the end of this wacky semester.

— Malka Himelhoch ’21

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Tortoise Tuesday: Practicing Writing with Marchesi’s Vocal Methods

Learning to sing is a bit like learning to write: time-intensive, often discouraging, ultimately rewarding—and based on a foundation of technique that you’ll need before you can move on to the more exciting stuff. Scales come before arias, just as D1s come before dissertations. Where writers have writing seminars and thesis bootcamps, singers have books like Mathilde Marchesi’s Theoretical and Practical Vocal Method. In her introduction, Marchesi, a 19th-century teacher who trained many of her era’s great singers, lays out her foundational principles. These prove to be useful guidance for aspiring musicians, but they’re also applicable to writers—at any stage.  

“In order to obtain a speedy and satisfactory result,” Marchesi writes, “pupils should never be burdened with more than one difficulty at a time, and they should be assisted in overcoming obstacles by having them presented in a natural and progressive order.” Thinking about only one issue at a time might sound impossible when you’re juggling what feels like a dozen lexicon terms in writing sem, but breaking your assignment down into pieces can make a paper feel much more manageable. Instead of trying to get from a prompt to a 12-page paper in one go, it can be helpful to think about one step of the process at a time. What question are you trying to answer in your paper? What sources do you need to find? How will you select useful evidence, and what conclusion can you draw from it?

Taking the writing process one step at a time also makes it easier to identify the place where you’re getting stuck. Just as when you’re learning a new piece and find that you keep stumbling over the same passage, it helps to take a step back and return to the basics. In her Vocal Method, Marchesi notes that she’s included “special Exercises and Vocalises for each particular difficulty,” and a glance at the table of contents confirms this: there are exercises for flexiblity, exercises for singing appoggiaturas, exercises for blending vocal registers. By focusing on one skill at a time, the student builds the technique needed to approach each challenge in the context of a full piece of music. In the same way, when you feel stuck on a particular aspect of your writing, it can help to pull out exercises that isolate one lexicon term. The Magic Thesis Statement is a personal favorite, but there are many more: cartoons to help you take a position in the scholarly conversation, highlighting exercises to reveal the ratio of evidence to analysis, reverse outlines to check that the structure of your draft makes sense. Once you’ve built the technical skills that are fundamental to any piece of writing, you’ll be ready to take on even the most complicated projects. Whether you’re writing your dissertation or singing Brünnhilde, having basic skills to fall back on makes for a more secure—and much less stressful—performance.

–Rosamond van Wingerden ’20

Source: Marchesi, Mathilde. Theoretical and Practical Vocal Method, Op. 31 (via IMSLP).

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When in Quarantine: Key Terms in Netflix’s Tiger King

During such unprecedented times like these, I have found that people have taken to passing the time allocated indoors to catch up on more productive hobbies like cooking, or perhaps even reading novels. However I, like so many other evicted college students, have not quite lived up to the tranquil dreams I had imagined before beginning self-isolation procedures. Indeed, instead of reading A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini, I have been scrolling through TikTok and meme pages, comforting myself in the collective frustration that can only be illustrated through the Facebook page “Zoom Memes for Self Quaranteens.” Over the past week, a new addition has joined the ranks: Netflix’s Tiger King. My best friends and I have been streaming it over group video calls, and I think it is safe to say that the docu-series, which follows the big-cat business in America, is peak self-isolation entertainment. 

Let’s face it: a lot of us are binging Netflix and other streaming platforms. So, when brainstorming ideas of plausible topics to write about for this edition of Tortoise Tuesday, I wanted to attempt to make our binging habits a tad more constructive. While reflecting back on my time spent in utter disbelief over the range of topics explored in Tiger King (which in addition to the inner workings of the big-cat enterprise also deals with murder and polygamy), I couldn’t help but notice how the manner in which the show is constructed can illuminate the significance of using key terms. 

According to our beloved Writing Lexicon, a key term is defined as “a paper’s main terms or concepts.” Despite being an important part of constructing a great paper, in the conference room I have often found students forgetting to establish key terms at the beginning of their papers. Forgetting to incorporate key terms is very much analogous to what would have occurred if Tiger King did not take the time to introduce the main actors that propel the documentary forward. It is exactly this that Tiger King does so well; if they hadn’t established the identities of Joe Exotic and Carole Baskin along with their respective roles in the big-cat business during the first episode, the job of the audience member would have been even more difficult than it already is. 

When writing your paper, remind yourself that whoever ends up grading your work, whether it be your professor or preceptor, is looking for clarity. In this case, your professor reading your paper is like you watching Tiger King. So be like the makers of this documentary and establish your Joe Exotics – the main actors and concepts in your paper that you build a discourse around.

— Doruntina Fida ’21

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Tortoise Tuesday: What Poetry Can Teach Us About Orienting

I’ve been reading a lot of poetry lately. It feels somehow that poetry is the perfect antidote to this bananas time: brief yet emotionally satisfying. For just one moment I get to slip into someone else’s experience, be it a queen or a wild iris, and feel those feelings alongside my own unruly ones. When I try to explain my deep love for poetry, I’m often met with blank stares. Poetry can seem daunting and overwhelming, and sometimes it is truly obscure. But a good poem is one that is able to orient a reader to its subject, emotional urgency, and argument without sacrificing beautiful language. The same qualities that are necessary in a good paper.

One of my favorite poems right now is “Minimum Wage” by Matthew Dickman. It begins:

My mother and I are on the front porch lighting each other’s 

cigarettes

as if we were on a ten-minute break from our jobs

at being a mother and son, just ten minutes

In these four lines, I, as a reader, already know so much both about the physical reality of this poem and the emotional landscape Dickman has created. With very few words, I can already imagine what this mother and son look like. I know that they are standing on a porch smoking cigarettes. I know that they are both adults, both old enough to be working and smoking. I know that the relationship between the mother and son feels the way working a minimum wage job feels: transactional, exhausting, unrewarding. This poem gives me just enough information to feel the full emotional reality of this relationship. There is nothing extraneous here, no rogue details about other family members or the shape of the cigarette smoke. The poem is about the fraught relationship between this mother and son, and Dickman communicates this in the first four words of the poem by narrowing the focus of the poem to these two characters. When writing a paper, it’s helpful to keep this in mind, to share enough information for the reader to understand why the argument you are making is important without oversharing.

Often in writing center conferences, students tell me that they just don’t have enough space within their page limit to do the kind of orienting work that I feel their paper needs. Truthfully, in my own work I sometimes share this worry: wouldn’t it be better to use my space to make my argument rather than wasting it on background information? But it doesn’t take much space, or many words, to provide a reader with enough information to make sense of your argument. It’s always worth the extra sentence or two to orient a reader to the relevant information that makes your paper relevant and worth reading. Without the first line of  “Minimum Wage,” I wouldn’t grasp the emotional reality of this kind of transactional relationship between a mother and son — I wouldn’t be able to imagine these characters as they smoke on their front porch — and without that understanding, this poem wouldn’t make me cry every time I read it. 

— Malka Himelhoch, ’21

Works Cited

Dickman, Matthew. “Minimum Wage.” American Journal: Fifty Poems for Our Time, selected by Tracy K. Smith. Graywolf Press, 2017, pp. 56. 

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Tortoise Tuesday: Motive in Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose

If you, like me, are finding that you have way too much time on your hands for the foreseeable future, you might be consoled just a little by finally having time to read all the books you never get around to on campus. In between baking, sleeping, and half-hearted thesis editing, I’ve been re-reading Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose – which, at over 500 pages, I wouldn’t have bothered starting at school. The book is a medieval murder mystery that purports to be a translation of an account by a medieval monk called Adso of Melk. As Eco brings Adso and his world to life, he also gives the monk an explicit, if incomplete, motive for his writing:

“Having reached the end of my poor sinner’s life, my hair now white, I grow old as the world does […] confined now with my heavy, ailing body in this cell in the dear monastery of Melk, I prepare to leave on this parchment my testimony as to the wondrous and terrible events that I happened to observe in my youth, now repeating all that I saw and heard, without venturing to seek a design, as if to leave to those who will come after (if the Antichrist has not come first) signs of signs, so that the prayer of deciphering may be exercised on them.” (Umberto Eco, translated by William Weaver)

Adso seems to be stuck at a stage that’s familiar to many of us: he knows that he has something interesting to talk about, but he hasn’t quite articulated what it is. Early in the writing process, developing a motive can feel like what Adso calls “the prayer of deciphering,” the step that he describes but leaves undone. He has his evidence (his eyewitness account of “wondrous and terrible events”), and throughout the novel, he even engages in analysis, but he stops short of connecting that analysis to a broader motive for his writing.

Humility might be a virtue for a medieval monk, but in your own writing, you don’t need to leave your motive “to those who will come after.” Once you have your text, your data, or, as in Adso’s case, your corpses of horribly murdered monks, the next step is often the hardest and most important in the writing process: asking yourself, “So what?” What new understanding does your analysis reveal? How do you shed light on a concept that was previously unexamined, incomplete, or incorrect? Once you’ve answered that question, you’ll know why your writing matters, and your reader will know why they should care enough to read it. Assuming, of course, that the Antichrist doesn’t come before your R3 is due.

— Rosamond van Wingerden ’20

Works Cited

Eco, Umberto, and William Weaver. The Name of the Rose. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006.

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Tortoise Tuesday: Spring Air and Bottled Sunshine — From thesis to argument

            I never find it easy to work on the first days of Spring, especially when, as in the Pacific Northwest, Spring comes only after months of drizzly gloom. When the pale, wet sun comes out for the first time, all I really want to do is go outside, smell the still-wet pines and salt-breeze, and bask in the young Spring sunshine. In the midst of that over-bright euphoria, it feels impossible to do anything useful. On the rare occasions when I have been able to overcome the urge to shut my books, the results have been remarkable, but just as often, I have found myself unable to think straight, meandering from thing to thing and always ending by staring out the window. When I am able to make something of that Spring-day euphoria, it feels like bottled sunshine poured still-glowing on the page. When I am not — well, it doesn’t bear describing.

            There is a similar sensation when a thesis crystalizes in your mind. First, there is that golden moment when you finally say, “I have it! It makes sense!” You might even get to the point of writing it down, before you begin to ask yourself what “it” really is, how you got to “it”, and how you are possibly going to explain “it” to anyone else. The jump between “thesis” and “paper” is just as large as that between spring-day euphoria and warm bottled sunshine.

            How does one get from the first to the second? I am sure the precise answer varies by person, and by mood, and by day of the week. The closest I can come is that it requires both concentration and patience. A thesis, however brilliant, can only be a starting point. What seems natural to us must necessarily seem arcane to anyone else, unless we explain it to them first. Before we can make anyone understand why “it” makes sense, we have to state all our underlying assumptions, leading the reader through the leg-work we have already done. This is tedious, or it can seem so when you yourself are already basking in the bright sunshine of a sharp, clearly defined thesis, but when we cannot bring ourselves to walk backwards through our sources, that bright sunshine fades all too quickly into a sticky afterglow of indecision.

            Much as we would like to believe the paper is all but done as soon as we find a thesis, it is rarely so quick or so easy. The more difficult hours are usually still ahead of us, when we already have the warm sense of discovery and completion, and yet still have to get through the fussy business of making everything clear to someone else. But when we can translate that bright, euphoric moment when everything clicks into a cogent explanation, the results are extraordinary and lasting. Though the dripping trees and the spring air beckon, staying indoors is not always the worst thing in the world — after all, who would say no to bottled sunshine?

— Isabella Khan ’21

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Tortoise Tuesday: Significant and Scientific — What science and mathematics can teach us about thesis

As a Writing Center Fellow, I believe that good writing is necessary in all fields. However, it can be easy to conceive of writing (as I’m sure most people do) as an inherently humanistic act or practice. Writing in STEM fields is only a necessary way of communicating ideas, not intrinsically part of the discipline.

However, as I read G.H. Hardy’s essay “A Mathematician’s Apology” and Karl Popper’s lecture “Science: Conjectures and Refutations” for ENG 401 Literature and Science, I discovered that both Hardy and Popper describe “good” mathematical and scientific ideas in ways strikingly similar to how we at the Writing Center describe good theses. The foundation of a good argument, it seems, is consistent across disciplines, and we can use the standards provided by Hardy and Popper to inform our writing as much as our scientific or mathematical research.

In “A Mathematician’s Apology,” Hardy discusses what makes a mathematical idea “significant.” Hardy writes: “We can say, roughly, that a mathematical idea is ‘significant’ if it can be connected, in a natural and illuminating way, with a large complex of other mathematical ideas” (89). While we can quibble with exactly what Hardy finds significant or not in his essay, this basic definition of significant — “connected, in a natural and illuminating way, with a large complex of other mathematical ideas” — can be useful when thinking about a motivated thesis. Ask yourself: Does your thesis connect to a larger conversation of ideas? What exactly does it illuminate in that conversation? 

In “Science: Conjectures and Refutations,” Popper articulates what makes a theory or idea “scientific” (versus “pseudo-scientific”) and, like Hardy, describes a good thesis statement in the process. Popper summarzies his conclusions in one line: “the criterion of the scientific status of a theory is its falsifiability, or refutability, or testability” (37). Here, Popper describes an essential element to a strong thesis: arguability. For a thesis to be good, someone must be able to argue against it; it cannot describe a factual state of being. Theses which rely heavily on plot summary or observable facts tend to veer into inarguable territory. Check yourself by asking: is there a counterargument to my thesis? If I had to write another paper disagreeing with myself, what might I say?

    Hardy’s definition of a “significant” mathematical idea and Popper’s conception of a “scientific” theory can be used to understand what makes a good thesis. These criteria relate to Keith Shaw’s four-step thesis test:

  1. Is the thesis arguable? Can a reasonable person argue against it? Popper uses this standard for determining whether a theory is scientific.
  2. Is the thesis manageable? Is it responsive to the evidence at hand and suitable for the size/length of the paper?
  3. Is the thesis interesting? Does it address a question/puzzle/contradiction and go beyond the obvious?
  4. Is the thesis important? How is the claim significant in the context of the field? Hardy uses the term “significant” to describe an important mathematical idea.

The questions we ask at the Writing Center about what makes a good thesis statement are the same questions mathematicians and scientists ask about what makes a good argument in their fields. Rather than simply a form of communication, argumentative writing is in the same category as scientific hypotheses and mathematical theories, another form of the effort to argue and prove a new way of thinking about the world.

— Paige Allen ’21

Sources

Hardy, G. H.. A Mathematician’s Apology, Cambridge University Press, 2012. ProQuest 

Ebook Central, http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/princeton/detail.action?docID=1864707.

Popper, Karl R. “Science: Conjectures and Refutations.” Conjectures and Refutations: The Growth of Scientific Knowledge, Routledge, 2002, pp. 33–41.

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Starting an Essay: From Prompt to Outline

            Recently, a friend of mine approached me at dinner and asked if he could ask me some questions about my writing process. He explained that he had a five-page essay due in three days and had yet to start—a predicament typical of a busy Princeton student. He asked how he could streamline his writing process to make the most use of what little time he had. I took this opportunity to explain to him my routine, which I have optimized over the last several years.

            My approach to writing every essay is the same. First, I begin by reading the prompt. Second, I create an “idea map”—a brainstorming visual—and research my subject simultaneously. Third, I transition from that idea map into a traditional essay outline. Fourth, I draft my essay, relying heavily on my outline before my fifth and final step of editing.

            This is not a novel workflow process; however, I believe that I differ from the norm in my emphasis and execution of step two—creating an idea map. Many people skip this step altogether, believing that it is an unnecessary prerequisite to a traditional outline or that it is ineffective and therefor unproductive. I would argue the contrary: an idea map can be a brilliant use of time if properly executed because it can not only help you immediately transition from reading the prompt to formulating an argument, but it can also help you tremendously in the research process by providing you with specific points and concepts to explore.

            In order to show this progression effectively and clearly, I will be referencing and dissecting and essay I wrote on the Civil War. Hopefully, this essay be a resource to other students struggling to write as quickly and efficiently as this university demands, or to those simply looking for new writing tactics.

            The prompt of my history essay was incredibly simple: What caused the Civil War? As is important for any essay, breaking down the prompt and identifying and comprehending each of its elements is vital. This prompt, however, only contained one requirement: identify (and argue) the cause of the Civil War. Recognizing that this prompt was so open ended, my intention with my idea map was to find an answer that was narrow, focused, and nuanced, in the hopes of differentiating my argument from the vast scholarly discourse regarding the Civil War.

Figure 1 My idea map for my essay on the cause of the American Civil War.

            As noted by the circled “1” in Figure 1, my initial answer to the question posed by the prompt was simply “slavery.” I immediately broke down the cause of slavery into subcategories, asking myself the questions, “Why did Slavery exist in the South? And why was it so important?” Still having yet to conduct any research, I answered my questions broadly using ideas from my class, referencing economic and social factors, as well as my own idea of “guilt.”

            From this stage, I drew arrows to new places on the page in which I could further break down those sub-causes. I began by looking at the economic reasons why slavery existed in early America and in the American South (Figure 1, Number 2). I divided this economic section in half, deciding to investigate both the economic benefits and detriments of slavery. Now that I had specific categories and a narrower focus, I skimmed my course readings for the implications of slavery on the Southern economy and extracted relevant points to formulate a list on my idea map. Once completed, I observed this list and looked for any irregularities or puzzles which could be the source of my motive. What I found odd recognized was that though the Southern economy was booming from the free labor slaves provided, their dependency on slavery also caused them to miss the industrial revolution that swept through the North. That is, the South was seemingly ignorant to the fact that the very institution upon which they relied was also causing them economic harm.

            Then, I expounded on the social consequences of slavery with the intention of exposing why Southerners let themselves be dependent upon something so detrimental and globally unpopular as slavery (Figure 1, Number 3). Like before, I turned to my sources to find pertinent points about how slavery affected southern social life. The result of this research was likewise interesting; slavery had created a social hierarchy dependent upon and segmented by race rather than economic class, education level, or any typical defining factor of a societal ladder.

            Now I turned to my final subcategory of “guilt”—an idea of which I had yet to derive any true meaning (Figure 1, Number 4). Before I could explore and research this section, I had to narrow down and define this idea. As displayed in Figure 1, these questions all took the form of “what if?” because I didn’t yet know if any of these questions and ideas had any merit among scholars. After these questions, however, I had a research area—the Southern attitude regarding slavery. I found within my sources a pattern of Southern justification for slavery, most often in the form of religion, i.e. that slavery was a god ordained process, giving white men the task of ruling an inferior race. The puzzle was virtually complete.

            Under the section at the top of the page written as “Conclusion,” I tied my findings from each category together (Figure 1). I concluded that economically, slavery created a vast divide between the north and the south in trades, crafts, and exports. Likewise, I added that this divide permeated from economics into social dynamics, as Southern life was dominated by a racial hierarchy less existent in the North. Finally, from my own idea of Southern guilt, I added that to abandon slavery in the South was to admit it as a mistake and a wrong-doing, and to do so would be to yield the moral high ground to the North—a rival ‘nation’ already thought of by Southerners as arrogant and overbearing.

Figure 2 My outline for my essay on the cause of the American Civil War, based upon my idea map in Figure 1.

            With my argument in a nascent—but existent—state, I was now ready to transition into step three of my writing process: the traditional outline. Creating an outline, however, is a very smooth and easy process if one takes the time to create an idea map. The task of creating an outline becomes finding the best way to structure ideas, rather than having to generate them. As seen in Figure 2, my outline resembles the research and logical progression of ideas that I already had in my idea map. I still had to decide what context was necessary to orient my reader and to present the ‘puzzle’ I had explored in my idea map as a strong motive. Finally, I presented my thesis that white fear and guilt was the final push that eliminated any notion of compromise and caused the South to go to war with the North.

            The purpose of this piece is not to highlight the argument of my history essay or laud my writing process. Rather, it is to show in detail how I go about breaking down a prompt and brainstorming in the form of an idea map before drafting a traditional outline. Hopefully, I have shown how you may use this approach successfully as well. Starting an essay is often the most daunting and lengthy part of writing an essay, but having a routine and formula can make this process easier, more efficient, and less daunting, even if—like my friend—you only have a couple days to get it done.

— Alex Charles ’22

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Key Terms in Ballet: Giselle and Leitmotifs

When thinking about ballet, most people picture scenes of ethereal leaps and turn-sequences, all performed by ballerinas donned in their tutus and pointe shoes. While certainly not an incorrect notion, it is definitely not all-encompassing of the art form: ballets simultaneously attempt to combine music, dance, and plot to create coherent stories. It is not unlike how a good paper strikes a structured balance between our beloved lexicon terms, which I was reminded of this Reading Period.

While recently watching dance clips on YouTube as a mode of procrastinating from studying and finishing my term papers, I was reminded of the ballet Giselle, a seminal work in the classical repertoire. Giselle shares much in common with its romantic predecessors, as its protagonist Giselle falls in love with a man named Albrecht. However, the story takes a dark turn in the infamous “Mad Scene,” where Giselle discovers that her beloved Albrecht is in fact a prince who is engaged to another, causing her to die of a broken heart at the end of Act I. Inspired to watch the ballet in its completion, I was struck by how composer Adolphe Adam manifested our conceptualization of key terms into his score. More specifically, Adam utilized leitmotifs as themes to denote specific characters, objects, or feelings. These musical motifs are exactly what we in the Writing Center refer to as key terms: a paper’s primary terms or concepts. By defining these musical renderings of key terms early in Act I of his ballet, Adam conditions the audience to recognize his leitmotifs, in turn enabling them to follow the themes of the ballet as the plot progresses.

This can be seen most evidently in the leitmotif that characterizes the relationship between Giselle and Albrecht, one that is filled with love yet also bitter deceit. This leitmotif is established during their first interaction in the coveted “Flower Scene” of Act I, a moment that unites each of their individual character-based themes into a single, combined leitmotif. Listen to the leitmotif in this video, starting at 7:55. Adam reuses this theme throughout the ballet, ultimately preparing the audience for the pivotal moment between Giselle and Albrecht, the “Mad Scene.” In this video of the “Mad Scene,” listen carefully at 2:12 for the same leitmotif. Through his use of leitmotifs, Adam continually reinforces the audience’s perception of the codependence between the score, themes, and plot. Adam’s utilization of leitmotifs in Giselle is a proficient model to understand how a paper’s key terms act like a thematic glue that ultimately guides the reader to a better comprehension of the writing at hand.

–Doruntina Fida ’21