Category Archives: Spring 2016

Spring 2016, Thesis


The eternal refrain goes like this: “What’s the thesis?”  It’s as ubiquitous as “Where’s the beef?” But a thesis is not a call to action for a mundane fast-food restaurant. It’s much more important than that. It’s the argument. Or more eloquently, the Writing Lexicon defines the thesis as “an arguable claim—i.e., an assertion someone could reasonably argue against; as such, it provides unexpected insight, goes beyond superficial interpretations, or challenges, corrects, or extends other arguments.”

There’s a reason why a great deal of high school English teachers place an emphasis on the thesis. It functions as the raison d’etre. It lays out the terms of the argument—what the essay is analyzing, with what it is analyzing, and what it all means. Strong theses go above and beyond this, however, by explaining why all of that stuff is important.

The essay excerpts in this section were chosen for their strong theses, though they accomplish these arguments in different ways.

The first excerpt shows how to write a different kind of thesis. In Hannah Tandy’s “The Zodiac of the Beth Alpha Synagogue,” the thesis develops with the introduction of evidence—a thesis variant known as the delta thesis. A delta thesis is an argument that develops throughout the paper, its trajectory informed by examining the evidence. Difficult to attempt, and tricky to master, Hannah shows a worthy example of how to do it—through the introduction of complicating evidence.

The second excerpt demonstrates how one can write a sophisticated thesis from a more simple argumentative framework. In Eliza Mott’s “The Shade of the Body: Notions of Materiality in Rauschenberg’s Dante Series,” the thesis is an example of an advanced lens essay. Lens essays use a particular theoretical framework to analyze a source text. Though lens essays are commonly assigned as part of the freshman writing seminar, Eliza’s example paves the way for revealing how to compose a sophisticated one.

Lastly, our “Works in Progress” section demonstrates a problematic thesis, written by Harrison Blackman. In the excerpt, Harrison ended up writing a paper with two distinct theses—the thing a delta thesis paper should never become.

The thesis is tough. There are different kinds—some are tricky, and some are examples of how to make a simple framework sing. And don’t write more than one thesis in an eight-page paper. Read on, true believer—“What’s the thesis?”

For more details, refer to the Thesis Preface from our 2014 issue, available here


The Zodiac of the Beth Alpha Synagogue

In a Tortoiseshell: This excerpt of Hannah Tandy’s “The Zodiac of the Beth Alpha Synaogue” showcases a strong delta thesis–an argument that develops over the course of the paper through the analysis of evidence. The paper analyzes an ancient mosaic in the Beth Alpha synagogue and argues that its design, which includes a pagan zodiac, was a conscious design decision meant to reinforce its purpose as calling for obedience to God, using the precedent of other synagogue mosaics examined in the paper. The development of this argument from the paper’s start to finish is highlighted to emphasize the delta thesis’s potential. With a delta thesis, one can see that as the argument builds, the paper’s  finale has the ability to lead to a conclusion that fills in all the gaps.

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Spring 2016, Thesis

Thesis: Works in Progress

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Crafting a cohesive argument is hard. Doing so with an argument that grows more complicated with additional evidence is even more difficult. This phenomenon, known as the “delta thesis,” is one of the trickiest academic writing techniques to pin down. The risk is that if the delta thesis is not successful, it can become more of a double thesis.  That is, your paper might become two papers, with two tangentially related arguments, weakly linked and hindering the success of both. It can even sidetrack your paper with a digression on the historic range of the American bison (buffalo).

This happened to me once. My second research paper for my writing seminar, “Cultural Landscapes,” was hampered by its dual and somewhat contradictory aims.

What exactly was I trying to say? A little background: in cultural landscape theory (let’s run with this, please), there’s this idea of fossil landscapes, which are landscapes modified by cultures that have since disappeared. This idea came into conflict with the ideas of the famous geographer Carl Sauer, who thought that landscapes were modified by humans, but more critically, landscapes evolved on their own without human influence. Because no landscape can remain “unchanged” after human de-settlement, the UN’s World Heritage Committee was wrong to have a category called fossil landscapes, because it confirmed human-centric biases in landscape ecology. Sounds great, right? Or at least ultra-specific. Take a look at my introduction and thesis paragraphs:

The World Heritage Committee (WHC) defines cultural landscapes as the “combined works of nature and humankind,” and explains that certain cultural landscapes, termed ‘organically evolved landscapes,’ evolve based on the interactions of humans and the landscapes they inhabit over time. Of organically evolved landscapes, the WHC makes a distinction between ‘fossil landscapes’ and ‘continuing landscapes,’ the former consisting of landscapes that have stopped developing because the inhabiting culture has disappeared, and the latter, where the roles of culture and landscape continue to develop in contemporary societies.

The WHC definitions come into conflict, however, with the theories of the geographer Carl Sauer, who believed in an anthropocentric view of landscape succession and landscape evolution based on perpetual variation and divergence. Applying Sauer’s theories to the WHC’s definition of fossil landscapes reveals a startling paradox—it is impossible for fossil landscapes to exist, since landscapes will always evolve through continuous variance, regardless of human agency.

The contradictions inherent in the definition of fossil landscapes reveal the anthropocentric worldview prevalent in landscape studies, a perspective that does not recognize the natural agencies that also exert influence on the land, and in turn, develop the cultural landscape in question.

I hit a lot of the right beats here. Defined key terms (fossil landscapes, continuing landscapes) motivate a conflict by contradicting each other (nature continuously modifies landscapes, not just human activity). The conflict tees up the thesis, which leads to an explanation of why the argument is important (the anthropocentric worldview is problematic for conservation). Great. Well, guess what happens two-thirds of the way through the paper:

Though natural agency’s divergence and variation is continually present, it is more readily apparent when the obscuring human influence is taken out of the picture. The depopulation of native North Americans following Columbus’s arrival in the New World provides a telling example of the limitations of the WHC’s definitions through its anthropocentric perspectives and highlights the influence of natural agency in landscape evolution. In particular, an examination of the landscape evolution of the North American Great Plains and its bison population can demonstrate the limitations of anthropocentricity in landscape studies firsthand.

The North America that European colonists settled was completely different from the Pre-Columbian North America, causing the settlers to misinterpret the landscapes’ previous level of development. According to historian Charles C. Mann, “the Americas seen by the first colonists were teeming with game,” and according to Mann’s quotation of early 20th century naturalist Ernest Thompson Seton, following the Columbian Exchange, the Great Plains region was home to over sixty million buffalo.[5] Despite the perception during the colonial era of the Great Plains as naturally abundant with game, when we follow Sauer’s suggestion to assess a landscape at its first time of human occupation, we discover that the landscape of the Great Plains at the time of European settlement was the direct result of a ‘fossil landscape’ transformed by the divergence of natural agency, agency that was inversely correlated with the decline of Native American agency. The dramatic change in perspective from the traditional interpretation of North America’s abundance of ‘wilderness’ demonstrates the inaccuracies afforded by a purely humanistic history of landscape evolution.

What do you know? The paper starts talking about buffalo!

The first paragraph here is strikingly similar to an introduction. A conflict is set up as more easily resolved when a change is made (human influence is removed from the picture). The transition phrase, “in particular,” begins to set up a new example, one that is quite tangential from the discussion of cultural landscapes (buffalo populations before and after colonization). Even though the example eventually leads us back to the main idea of the problematic aspects of a “humanistic history of landscape evolution,” it does so by tapping into another academic dimension altogether—pre-Columbian ecological history—which is far out of the scope of an eight-page midterm paper. The effort to complicate the argument with a cross-pollinating example fails to bolster the argument and instead directs the paper’s energies into two slightly-related, mostly-distinct areas.

If I wanted to rewrite this paper now, how would I do so? How could I avoid the problems of a dual thesis?

For one, the buffalo case study could have been the primary point of focus for the paper. Or it could have been absent from the paper completely. Since this paper was mostly engaged with theory, a paper entirely devoted to theory might not have been a bad choice. A complex meditation on landscape theory (which is where I started off) followed by a case study on pre-Columbian buffalo populations (where I ended up) are so different, and they’re much more difficult to set up together than they would be as separate entities. There’s a rule in creative writing that William Faulkner propounded: you have to “kill your darlings.” Sometimes phrases, scenes, and entire characters have to go, even though you like them.

The same is true for academic writing. Kill your darlings. Craft a singular thesis—unless you know you can handle the intricacies of a delta one. Don’t kill the buffalo—they are considered a “near-threatened” species—but by all means kill the section about them, if it’s taking over your argument.

Works Cited

Mann, Charles C. 1491: New Revelations of the World before Columbus. 2nd ed. New York: Vintage, 2011.

Sauer, Carl Ortwin. “Historical Geography and the Western Frontier.” In Land and Life: A Selection from the Writings of Carl Ortwin Sauer, edited by John Leighly. Berkeley: University of California, 1965.

———. “Man-Ecologic Dominant,” in Agricultural Origins and Dispersals, Bowman Memorial Lectures 2 (New York: American Geographical Society, 1952).

———. “The Morphology of Landscape.” In Land and Life: A Selection from the Writings of Carl Ortwin Sauer, edited by John Leighly, 315-50. Berkeley: University of California, 1965.   

UNESCO, and World Heritage Centre. “Cultural Landscape.” UNESCO World Heritage Centre. Last modified 2014. Accessed March 4, 2014.

Motive, Spring 2016


“Motive” is at once the most obvious part of a paper and the most complicated. It is the reason that the author is writing; the incongruity, puzzle, or surprise being addressed; the why. If the thesis articulates the paper’s promise, the motive presents the paper’s purpose.

A motive can originate in any number of places. It can be, quite simply, the prompt that the paper addresses. It can be the surprising line in a primary source that the writer explains in the paper, or the data trend a researcher has discovered and seeks to explore. It can be the disagreement, hole, or misconception in scholarly literature that the writer resolves, fills, or corrects.

Yet the best motives extend even beyond that. They not only present the question that the thesis answers, but they also tell us why it’s important. Why should we care whether a Malaysian cartoonist’s work is politically neutral? Well, because a more nuanced perspective on what it means to be political can help us make sense of popular mobilization and social movements. Why does it matter whether Caesarean sections make offspring more susceptible to HPV? Well, because HPV presents serious health risks in developing countries. And–to draw from my own misguided attempt at motive–why does it matter whether Obama’s rhetoric and actions in Syria align? Because the relationship between the two might suggest what his strategy (or inclination) actually is, and help us to predict American policy in the region.

For more details, refer to the Motive Preface from our 2014 Issue, available here.

Motive, Spring 2016

Politicized Nostalgia in Lat’s ‘The Kampung Boy’

In a Tortoiseshell: Jenny Silver’s essay seeks to provide an alternative interpretation of Lat’s work ‘The Kampung Boy’ by bringing in theoretical frameworks from scholars in non-literary fields. By clearly situating herself in the scholarly conversation and showing how she differs in her thinking, analysis, and conclusions from established critics, Jenny displays a remarkably good use of motive in the paragraphs excerpted below.

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The immunological consequences of Caesarean sections as associated with host susceptibility to a human papillomavirus (HPV) infection

In a Tortoiseshell: In Isabella’s fall junior paper for Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, she explores how Caesarean sections can affect offspring immunity such that the offspring may become more susceptible to HPV infection. The introduction of the paper is notable for its clear development of scholarly and popular motive, which helps the reader understand the importance of this research, both to expanding biological knowledge and to helping us understand patterns of disease prevalence.

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Orienting, Spring 2016


Bits of information, explanation, and summary that orient the reader.

Orienting is all about context. Depending on the discipline, the assignment, and the expected expertise of one’s audience, a writer will naturally pepper her words with varying tidbits of explanation and information. Regardless of the specificities of the assignment, however, the goal is always clear: you want to hold your readers’ hands and guide them by providing necessary, illuminating facts, but you don’t want to insult the reader’s intelligence with excess repetition and fruitless oversimplification.

While a good essay needs to have a compelling motive and thesis, it is imperative that the author accompanies those elements with sufficient orienting so the reader can understand the underlying concepts and ideas of the argument. To do so, the author oftentimes will define and contextualize key terms, explaining what the terms mean and how they will be used in that particular paper. Depending on the discipline or genre, orienting can also include providing background information on a novel’s plot, the current scholarly conversation on a certain topic, or the data available in a given field. Well-oriented papers employ these techniques throughout the entire work to produce a clear and cohesive piece of writing.  

The papers we have chosen to showcase are exemplary models of orienting done well. Alexandra Marino’s “A Nation of Maniacs” is good at orienting because it explains both key primary texts and the key terms that form the scaffolding of the paper’s analytical lens. In Benjamin Gallo’s excerpt, he provides an excellent example of orienting both key terms and plot points simultaneously in order to prove how “risk factors” affect Tracy’s school and family life in the movie Thirteen.

For more details, refer to the Orienting Preface from our 2014 issue, available here:


Tracy From Thirteen: A Case Study As A Reality Check On The Role Of Contextual Variables In The Development Of Psychopathology In Children And Adolescents

In a Tortoiseshell: In this essay, Benjamin tracks the psychological development of the protagonist Tracy from the movie Thirteen, focusing in particular on how her family and school environments influence her later problematic behavior. This excerpt demonstrates Benjamin’s skilled use of orienting to situate the reader in both the storyline of the film and the psychological theories behind Tracy’s actions, allowing the reader to understand both elements simultaneously.

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