Category Archives: News


Tortoise Tuesday: Orienting in Hadestown

As an artist and a scholar, I am excited when I see the writing lexicon paralleled in creative works. Recently, I noted the use of orientation techniques in the musical Hadestown, a retelling of the myths of Persephone, Hades, Orpheus, and Eurydice scheduled to hit Broadway this spring. The narrator of Hadestown introduces the audience to the musical’s world just as good writers orient their readers: by providing foundational information and defining key terms.

The narrator, Hermes, orients the audience by providing information necessary to understanding the play. Hermes establishes three essential facts in his first sung lines: 1) the road to hell is a railroad line, 2) times are hard, and 3) the audience is entering “a world of gods and men.” These facts are crucial to understanding everything else from that point on, so it makes sense that this information appears first, before the details of the plot are introduced. Similarly, a writer must establish foundational information regarding the world of the scholarship before introducing the specifics of the paper.

Hermes then introduces the audience to key characters, identifying them and briefly explaining their roles in the story. For example, Hermes introduces himself as “a man with feathers on his feet who would help you to your final destination.” The audience now knows who Hermes is and what purpose he serves. This introduction of characters can be likened to key term definition. A writer must define the important terms used in a paper so their meanings are clear to any reader. Hermes defines himself at the outset in order to establish what “Hermes” means in this play. The audience may have different understandings of the mythological Hermes or have no prior knowledge at all, just as a reader may not be familiar with a key term or understand it in the context of the paper. Defining himself allows Hermes to establish his role in this context clearly.

Hermes’ introduction of important characters is also analogous to the way a writer orients the reader to important scholars who appear in the paper. In the introduction, the writer usually provides a brief explanation of scholars’ arguments or roles in the paper, just as Hermes explains the basics of his role in the show. Whether viewed as an introduction of key terms or relevant scholars, these brief introductions serve the larger purpose of orienting the audience. The opening song in Hadestown thus functions as an introductory paragraph, building a necessary foundation for the rest of the piece.

— Paige Allen ’21


Tortoise Tuesday: Motive in Screenwriting

This semester I am taking “Introduction to Screenwriting: Adaptation.” It is my first time experimenting with screenwriting, and as a Writing Center Fellow who works closely with Princeton’s lexicon, I have been very struck by how screenwriting, and screenwriting for adaptive works particularly, relies so heavily on the same process of identifying a strong motivating question to frame one’s work. In my first-year writing seminar, I remember constantly being told to look for a puzzle in the primary source: to seek out a point of tension, or contradiction, or even confusion which I could then aim to reconcile or explain through an academic analysis of the text, as informed by what other scholars had to say. This is what is called a motive. At first, I definitely found this notion of finding a motive to be a somewhat difficult concept to grasp.

However, now that I am more comfortable with looking for puzzles while I read and developing motivating questions which arise out of those puzzles, it has been rewarding to see how this same process is used in creative writing. As its title suggests, “Introduction to Screenwriting: Adaptation” introduces students to screenwriting techniques for adaptation as we work to dramatize true stories for the screen. While the stories we are adapting are true, a lot of our class discussions center around how to go about developing our own perspective on those stories through the specific choices we make regarding the translation of stories to the screen.

In tackling our first assignment, we had to write a short screenplay based on an article we had read. Our professor instructed us to look for gaps in the article, moments that puzzled us or confused us or that left us with questions, as she explained that our own unique adaption could arise in how we imaginatively chose to formulate an answer to those puzzling, troubling, or not entirely reconciled moments of the story from the article. Thinking about the process of adaption in this way, as motive, has proven helpful for me. When I read through my article I was looking closely for a moment in which I felt the timeline progress from Point A to Point B at the same time that some sense of tension or confusion remained in terms of the space between those two points. This between space is what I chose to further develop in my own screenplay.

Taking a screenwriting class has really shown me a whole new context in which motive can be at play. Just as I begin writing academic essays by looking for a puzzle from which I can formulate a motivating question, I have found myself going through this same process, almost in a more direct way, when working through my creative writing assignments, which has been really exciting!

— Danielle Hoffman ’20


Entering the Scholarly Conversation in Good Will Hunting 

For history geeks like me, the 1997 Academy Award-Winning Drama, Good Will Hunting, offers hope that obscure knowledge might someday be converted into social capital. In one classic scene, the secretly brilliant blue-collar bibliophile, Will Hunting (Matt Damon), comes to the rescue by engaging in a nuanced discussion of American historiography. While hanging out at a college bar in Cambridge, one of Will’s working-class friends, Chuckie Sullivan (Ben Affleck), begins flirting with two Harvard students, claiming that he recognizes them from his history class. He is soon cornered by an arrogant graduate student, who wants to know just how much history this hard-drinking Boston “Southie” knows and asks him to reflect on his “class:”

“I was just hoping you might give some insight into the evolution of the market economy in the Southern Colonies? My contention is that, prior to the Revolutionary War, the economic modalities, especially in the Southern Colonies, could best be described as agrarian pre-capitalist.”

Seeing his friend cornered, Will swoops in and criticizes the antagonist for pulling his argument directly from a Marxian historian assigned to all first-year grad students. He then challenges his pony-tailed nemesis to engage with the work of scholars from other historiographical traditions, including James Lemon and Gordon Wood. When the grad student replies that “Wood drastically underestimates the impact of social distinctions predicated upon wealth— especially inherited wealth,” Will nails him for plagiarism, verbally citing the page of Daniel Vickers’ Famers & Fishermen: Two Centuries of Work in Essex County, Massachusetts, 1630-1850 which the student had just lifted verbatim. And asks him if he has any thoughts of his own on the matter? Exposed as a fraud, the grad student retreats in humiliation. Meanwhile, one of the Harvard girls (Minnie Driver), impressed by Will’s intellect and integrity, offers him her number.

Like any good scholar, Will demands originality from any new piece of work. This scene reminds us that engaging in a scholarly conversation requires not only an understanding of the relevant literature but also an original argument grounded in primary research. While these good scholastic practices might not make you a Casanova, they certainly are essential for any piece of academic writing.

— Ian Iverson ’18

Link to clip:


Function and Flair: Key Words in David MacDougall’s Transcultural Cinema

Defining key words in academic writing might sometimes seem like a chore in comparison to the more exciting work of analysis. But key words are the building blocks of any good argument: only by attention to the micro-language of words and meanings can a writer construct a complex macro-language of analysis. Key words are like touchstones, places of necessary return for writer and reader alike, to continually revisit and refine concepts. The key words the writer selects and defines serve an important function in the argumentation of the paper. Perhaps less obviously, the key words present an opportunity for artistic flair as well. In the presentation key terms, the writer can build an idiosyncratic lexicon and style that lays the groundwork and enhances the larger goals of the work as a whole.

The key word is not just an excellent opportunity for orienting; it can also be an excellent opportunity for argumentation. In this passage from the opening chapter of Transcultural Cinema, filmmaker-anthropologist David MacDougall shows how the writer can put key terms to work at both function and flair. Here, he describes a key phrase, “to the quick,” in its colloquial sense, then appropriates the term to his own purposes. His definition, given in a series of progressive, dictionary-like entries, might seem excessive at first reading. But he reins himself in, and in the second paragraph quoted here, converts the intensity of this expository capital into argumentative currency: going to the quick is not only a way of understanding the experience of films for viewers, but also a way of understanding the creation of films by filmmakers themselves.

— Myrial Holbrook ’19

Our bodies provide certain metaphors for what films do. People frequently speak of going to the heart of the matter, which in documentaries usually means arriving at some useful social observation or description. In considering the “filmic,” however, it is perhaps more appropriate to speak of going to the quick. In English “the quick” has in fact a constellation of meanings. It is that which is tender, alive, or sensitive beneath an outer protective covering; that which is most vulnerable; the exposed nerve of our emotions; that which moves or touches us; which is transient, appearing only in a flash; which renews, fertilizes or “quickens” with life; which is liquescent like quicksilver: molten, bright, avoiding the touch, spilling away, changing form; that which, like quicklime or quicksand, devours, dissolves and liquefies; that which has a quality of alertness or intelligence, as of a child to learn. Out immediate impression of the quick is of an uncovering, or revelation. We experience it as a sudden exposure, a contrast between dull and sensitive surfaces.

            The quick not only provides an analogy for film experience but has a physical basis in the filmmaker’s vision. Just as the quick implies the touching of surfaces, so the filmmaker’s gaze touches—and is touched by—what it sees. A film can thus be said to look and to touch.

 (David MacDougall, Transcultural Cinema, [Princeton UP], 49-50)


Tortoise Tuesday: Using Scholarly and In-Text Motive to Understand Death in Tolstoy

Distinguishing between the two types of motive – scholarly and in-text – in an introduction can be a challenge. As an author tries to convey to the reader why their argument matters, they need a strong in-text motive: the answer to the “so what?” question as to why the argument is relevant to the text, event, or other primary source under discussion. The scholarly motive is, however, just as important: since their paper is entering a scholarly conversation on the topic at hand, the author needs to take a clear position within that conversation. This can mean agreeing with a scholar but expanding on their view, knocking down another scholar’s argument and replacing it with a new model, or any other way of engaging with the existing literature.

In this opening passage from the essay “Tolstoy and the Geometry of Fear,” Kathleen Parthé articulates both her in-text and scholarly motive from the outset as she analyzes a symbol for death in Tolstoy’s short story “Notes of a Madman” (published posthumously in 1912). She explains how an analysis of the symbol, a square figure, can help the reader to understand and appreciate the story in the context of larger questions of death and fear in Tolstoy’s work (in-text motive). She also points out why her article is necessary to Tolstoy scholarship: although the critical literature has focused on the broad theme of death in Tolstoy, it has neglected the author’s use of symbolism, leaving a gap in the scholarly conversation that Parthé now tries to fill.

—Rosamond van Wingerden ’20

“Tolstoy was repeatedly drawn to the crisis of dying because he felt that the traditional literary perception of death was inadequate, Death for Tolstoy was not just another subject; it was an important personal and aesthetic challenge. The critical literature, however, has treated death in Tolstoy only from the thematic point of view, and the devices the author chose so carefully to signify death have been for the most part unexamined and underestimated. Virtually no attention has been paid to the most unexpected of all devices: the first-person narrator in “Notes of a Madman” (“Zapiski sumasshedshego”) experiences the fear of death as “a horror – red, white, and square” (uzhas krasnyi, belyi, kvadratnyi).

The goal of this article is to demonstrate that this “square” is more than simply another interesting example of the various ways of fearing death that Tolstoy observed in himself and others. I will attempt to show how this seemingly anomalous image is actually related to a series of Tolstoyan linguistic devices for depicting death, and is in fact the ultimate device in that series. Three kinds of evidence will be offered in support of this argument: other examples in Tolstoy’s work, independent observations in linguistic and critical literature, and similar groupings of devices in writers such as Bely and Zamyatin. Finally, the square will be discussed as a type of geometric image, which, along with other mathematical borrowings, enjoyed a rich development among twentieth century artists, especially in Russia.”

(Kathleen Parthé, “Tolstoy and the Geometry of Fear,” in Tolstoy’s Short Fiction [New York: Norton & Co.], 404-5)


Tortoise Tuesday: Evidence/Analysis in Project Runway

Believe it or not, even unscripted competition shows can be understood through writing lexicon terms!

Project Runway: All Stars is a fashion face-off show where seasoned designers compete in weekly challenges for a grand prize of $100,000. Despite being unscripted, All Stars still successfully develops an argument in each episode regarding who wins and loses each challenge by providing evidence and analysis through the structure of the show. The evidence is presented in the first half of the show, as viewers watch designers go through the process of creating their looks. Through a carefully edited mixture of primary sources—like design sketches, footage of the designers working, and interviews with designers about their looks (excerpted below from episode 10 of season 5; spoiler warning!)—and secondary sources—like workroom advice from their mentor Anne Fulenwider and interviews with designers about their competitors’ looks—the audience is able to see what design choices and fashion contexts direct the analysis provided in the second half of the show. This analysis comes in the form of comments and deliberations from judges, some of which are excerpted below. The judges, who are iconic fashion designers or models themselves, discuss which elements of the designs worked and which did not. Viewers follow the logic of these critiques as they ultimately culminate in the thesis of each episode, that is, whose design was the most successful and whose was the least.

By the end of each challenge, viewers remain either convinced or unconvinced by the evidence and analysis Project Runway: All Stars presents to support each outcome. Regardless of whether they agree or not, viewers still find themselves entertained by the structure of the show’s evidence and analysis, and they inevitably find themselves tuning in week after week to experience it all over again.

— Leina Thurn ’20


Tortoise Tuesday: Beyond Just An Awards Show, Motive in Jimmy Kimmel’s Oscars Monologue

An opening monologue for an awards show like the Oscars is not something that we would usually consider argumentative writing in any formal capacity. Often riddled with cheesy jokes and jabs at Academy members, it’s difficult to view these monologues as pieces of writing that employ lexicon terms. While Jimmy Kimmel’s monologue this year did include the usual jabs and jokes, the deluge of allegations concerning sexual assault and misconduct in the film industry in recent months constituted a problem that the Oscars needed to address. In describing the Oscars, Kimmel first acknowledges the fact that historically, it has always been a show known for handing out awards. However, given the controversies of the past few months, he indicates that this ceremony in particular must be different. We can think of these controversies as a motive for the Oscars, a problem to be addressed and grappled with over the course of the show. Further, we can consider Kimmel’s final words as constituting a response to this motive: this year the Oscars weren’t meant to just be an awards show, but “a platform to remind millions of people about important things like equal rights and equal treatment” as a response to the controversies of the past months. In characterizing the Oscars as a platform for social advocacy, Kimmel adds nuance to our perception of award shows and provides an answer to the all-important question: “So what?” Whether or not the viewers believe the Oscars successfully respond to this motive ultimately depends on their analysis of the evidence: the awards, the speeches, the performances, etc.

—Ryan Vinh ’19

Excerpt from The New York Times “O.K., before we start handing out the awards, some history, because we’re going to do things a little bit differently. The first Oscar ceremony lasted, and this is true, 15 minutes, from beginning to end. And people still complained. But — so, if you do win an Oscar tonight, we want you to give a speech. We want you to say whatever you feel needs to be said. Speak from the heart. We want passion. You have an opportunity and a platform to remind millions of people about important things like equal rights and equal treatment. If you want to encourage others to join the amazing students at Parkland at their march on the 24th, do that. If you want to thank a favorite teacher, do that. Or maybe you just want to thank your parents and tell your kids to go to sleep. What you say is entirely up to you. You don’t have to change the world. Do whatever you want. But with that said, this is a really long show. So here’s what we’re going to do. Not saying you shouldn’t give a long speech, but whoever gives the shortest speech tonight will go home with — Johnny, tell them what they’ll win.”


Tortoise Tuesday: Building Motive in “The American President”

Though mostly regarded as a form of entertainment, movies oftentimes contain powerful examples of rhetoric and quality writing, especially cinematic classics. In “The American President” (1995), Michael Douglas plays President Andrew Shepherd running for reelection against Senator Bob Rumson. Well-structured and well-argued, Shepherd’s speech at the end of the movie features a series of strong motives building off one another that explains why his speech is significant and needs to be presented in that moment. Shepherd begins by addressing Rumson’s attacks on his character head-on, then transitions into discussing the fragility of the state of freedom, both heated issues in the election campaign that Shepherd must immediately handle. He then returns to the question of character by defending his girlfriend’s character, which had been attacked by Rumson. His speech ends with two concrete actions he is prepared to undertake to fix certain problems in the country, concerns brought up in the campaign trail. Throughout his speech, his motive builds and expands, as the audience comes to understand Shepherd’s purpose in delivering the speech: to clear his name from the attacks of his political rival and to prove to the American people that he is the best person for leading the nation.

—Regina Zeng ’18

For the last couple of months, Senator Rumson has suggested that being President of this country was, to a certain extent, about character. And although I’ve not been willing to engage in his attacks on me, I have been here three years and three days, and I can tell you without hesitation: Being President of this country is entirely about character.

For the record, yes, I am a card-carrying member of the ACLU, but the more important question is “Why aren’t you, Bob?” Now this is an organization whose sole purpose is to defend the Bill of Rights, so it naturally begs the question, why would a senator, his party’s most powerful spokesman and a candidate for President, choose to reject upholding the constitution? Now if you can answer that question, folks, then you’re smarter than I am, because I didn’t understand it until a few hours ago.

America isn’t easy. America is advanced citizenship. You’ve gotta want it bad, ’cause it’s gonna put up a fight. It’s gonna say, “You want free speech? Let’s see you acknowledge a man whose words make your blood boil, who’s standing center stage and advocating at the top of his lungs that which you would spend a lifetime opposing at the top of yours.” You want to claim this land as the land of the free? Then the symbol of your country cannot just be a flag. The symbol also has to be one of its citizens exercising his right to burn that flag in protest. Now show me that, defend that, celebrate that in your classrooms.

Then you can stand up and sing about the land of the free.

I’ve known Bob Rumson for years. And I’ve been operating under the assumption that the reason Bob devotes so much time and energy to shouting at the rain was that he simply didn’t get it. Well, I was wrong. Bob’s problem isn’t that he doesn’t get it. Bob’s problem is that he can’t sell it!

We have serious problems to solve, and we need serious people to solve them. And whatever your particular problem is, I promise you Bob Rumson is not the least bit interested in solving it. He is interested in two things, and two things only: making you afraid of it, and telling you who’s to blame for it. That, ladies and gentlemen, is how you win elections. You gather a group of middle age, middle class, middle income voters who remember with longing an easier time, and you talk to them about family, and American values and character, and you wave an old photo of the President’s girlfriend and you scream about patriotism. You tell them she’s to blame for their lot in life. And you go on television and you call her a whore.

Sydney Ellen Wade has done nothing to you, Bob. She has done nothing but put herself through school, represent the interests of public school teachers, and lobby for the safety of our natural resources. You want a character debate, Bob? You better stick with me, ’cause Sydney Ellen Wade is way out of your league.

I’ve loved two women in my life. I lost one to cancer. And I lost the other ’cause I was so busy keeping my job, I forgot to do my job. Well, that ends right now.

Tomorrow morning the White House is sending a bill to Congress for it’s consideration. It’s White House Resolution 455, an energy bill requiring a twenty percent reduction of the emission of fossil fuels over the next ten years. It is by far the most aggressive stride ever taken in the fight to reverse the effects of global warming. The other piece of legislation is the crime bill. As of today, it no longer exists. I’m throwing it out. I’m throwing it out and writing a law that makes sense. You cannot address crime prevention without getting rid of assault weapons and hand guns. I consider them a threat to national security, and I will go door to door if I have to, but I’m gonna convince Americans that I’m right, and I’m gonna get the guns.

We’ve got serious problems, and we need serious people. And if you want to talk about character, Bob, you’d better come at me with more than a burning flag and a membership card. If you want to talk about character and American values, fine. Just tell me where and when, and I’ll show up. This a time for serious people, Bob, and your fifteen minutes are up.”

Andrew Shepard’s Speech From The American President


Source Use in Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Vimy Ridge Centennial Address

April 9th, 2017 marked the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge, a turning point for the
Allies during World War I and a defining moment for Canada as a nation. When delivering an
address at the Canadian National Vimy Memorial in France on the day of the anniversary, Prime
Minister Justin Trudeau distinguished himself among other dignitaries by developing a profound
connection with his audience through his primary source use. Recognizing the difficulty that his
audience would have with grasping the true magnitude of statistical figures pertaining to the
Battle, and the inherent power of personal stories to emotionally move individuals, Trudeau
reconstructed the life of a fallen soldier by citing an excerpt from a handwritten letter to build a
rapport with the many attendees. The targeted and concise use of an excerpt whose content is
unrelated to the war and rather mundane in nature serves to facilitate the audience empathizing
with the plight of fallen soldiers and understanding their ultimate sacrifice. In so doing, Trudeau
transcended the temporal barrier between the Canadian citizens in the audience and those
Canadians who fought at Vimy Ridge.

— Nicholas Johnson ’20

Vimy Ridge Centennial Address Excerpt:

Seven thousand and four Canadians were wounded in the battle that began
here, 100 years ago today. Three thousand, five hundred and ninety-eight
Canadians died.
This, from a population, in 1917, of just eight million.
Think of it, for a moment. The enormity of the price they paid.
These were, for the most part, young men in their late teens and early
twenties. Not professional soldiers. But they were superbly trained. And
supported by months of painstaking preparation.
Yet for all that, they still required courage – to a degree that is hard to
They weren’t impervious to fear, these men. They were human. Homesick,
tired, footsore and cold.
Yet still, they advanced. Uphill, through mud. Under fire. They advanced,
fighting like lions, moving just behind a devastating allied artillery barrage.
And they did not stop. They did not stop, until they had victory.
There were strategic objectives. Vimy is high ground. It had been
transformed into a fortress.

But if you read the accounts of the men who fought here, you’ll find they
focused on other things.
They wrote to loved ones. They thanked them for parcels and letters. They
asked about brothers and sisters. And they wrote about their fellow soldiers
– those who’d fallen. Those still fighting.
Typical Canadians, they talked about the weather.
“The sun has been shining a couple times this last week,” reads a letter from
William Henry Bell, dated April 7th, 1917. “The sun is a kind of stranger
here. Say, that cake you sent was sure fine.”
William Bell died at Vimy, April 10th, 1917. He was twenty.

–Prime Minister Justin Trudeau

Maclean’s, “The Prime Minister’s Vimy Ridge centennial address: Full Text,”
Maclean’s, April 9, 2017,
ministers-statement- at-the- vimy-full- text/.


Tortoise Tuesday: Sources in The History of the Peloponnesian War

Perhaps the most laborious task of any scholarly endeavor is the research process, whereby one scours libraries, archives, or the Internet to find the sources around which they will craft an argument.  But imagine having to hunt for sources in a world without accessible libraries, archives, or even the Internet.  This is the world in which historian Thucydides of Athens lived nearly 2500 years ago.  In this excerpt from The History of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides describes how he evaluated, corroborated, and analyzed various primary sources to arrive at his thesis regarding the cause of the war.  He acknowledges the gaps and flaws within his own argument, and he warns his readers about contradictory firsthand accounts.  While his explicit and conscious examination of his sources seems like an obvious step of the research process to scholars today, there was little precedent for this method prior to his time.  Nonetheless, the clarity and thoroughness with which Thucydides discusses the treatment of his sources are impressive, and it is no doubt why his method of source use created a lasting legacy within the discipline of history.

—Leina Thurn ’20

“Of the various speeches made either when war was imminent or in the course of the war itself, it has been hard to reproduce the exact words used either when I heard them myself or when they were reported to me by other sources. My method in this book has been to make each speaker say broadly what I supposed would have been needed on any given occasion, while keeping as closely as I could to the overall intent of what was actually said. In recording the events of the war my principle has been not to rely on casual information or my own suppositions, but to apply the greatest possible rigour in pursuing every detail both of what I saw myself and of what I heard from others. It was laborious research, as eyewitnesses on each occasion would give different accounts of the same event, depending on their individual loyalties or memories.” (I.22)

Citation: Thucydides. The Peloponnesian War. Translated by Martin Hammond, Oxford University Press, 2009.