Category Archives: Spring 2017

Motive, Spring 2017


Motive begins with a question or a problem. This can be in the form of a gap in the evidence, a puzzling passage, or a new phenomenon. Thus, motive is the driving force behind an essay’s line of inquiry or argument. It is the question to which the author hopes to provide an answer.

Without a strong motive, it is difficult for readers to grasp the reason for a certain paper’s existence. Even the most brilliant points can seem meaningless without an understanding of the posed question. Even then, motive must extend beyond just this initial question. The motive of a paper has to be compelling enough to imbue readers with a sense of that paper’s significance. It ultimately helps answer the question, “Why does it all matter?” It helps readers understand not only why a paper was written but also why they should care that the paper was written at all.

In this section of 2017’s issue of Tortoise, we learn that, in asking the right questions and providing the necessary context, Sam Rob ’18’s paper about farming at Princeton brings to light larger environmental issues at work in the world. Similarly, Pragya Malik ’19’s paper demonstrates broader societal trends that could influence elections beyond the tumultuous 2016 cycle through her discussion of the generational divide governing the demographics of Hillary Clinton’s supporters. These compelling ideas and their implications ultimately owe their existence to motive.

Methods, Spring 2017


Method refers broadly to the system of principles, ideas, and theories that undergird any substantive scholarly project. Academics often refer to a set of methods as a methodology, which refers more specifically to any number of research conventions typical of a particular field or discipline. For instance, under this framework, the close reading of written texts, the distinction between primary and secondary sources, and the use of archives for the discovery of primary documents all comprise distinct methods. Taken together, they represent part of the methodology of history as a field of study.

Method is thus crucial to most scholarly works because it allows readers to position the papers that they read in a recognized category. In humanistic disciplines, methodology often manifests as an analytical framework for the understanding of evidence. In the social and natural sciences, methodology enables authors to provide strategies for reproducible results.

Though methodology is often bound by understood conventions and systemic methods familiar to academics within a certain field, it is also possible to discern a range of methodologies in scholarly projects that adopt interdisciplinary approaches to answer their research questions. By employing the analytical frameworks from a range of disciplines, these projects can propose bold arguments with unexpected implications. The papers excerpted in this section are emblematic of this approach. Both papers feature authors who make risky moves. In the context of method, this risk involves the interlacement of a variety of disciplines to craft a new and unique analytical framework.

Abigail Denton’s paper, which analyzes the popular Great British Baking Show, uses theories and concepts from media studies, sociology, and history to propose a fascinating interpretation of the television program as a site for national cohesion. Abigail relies on a vast assortment of diverse sources to build her argument. In doing so, she refrains from swallowing her own voice. Instead, the remarkable clarity of her paper allows her to distinguish her own opinions and arguments from those of the secondary authors, a tricky move to pull off in a paper as interdisciplinary and ambitious as this one.

Lavinia Liang’s paper is inherently risky because of the nature of the prompt, which asks the writer to perform an ethnography of a university dance group. As demonstrated in her excerpt, Lavinia is more than up to the task. Her paper entwines observations from her anthropological fieldnotes with relevant and often surprising insights from a range of other disciplines. The excerpt here demonstrates this effective method, pairing together primary evidence with a sociological key term to arrive at a more nuanced understanding of performance and performativity.

These excerpts provide readers with noteworthy examples of risky, cross-disciplinary methods that unite to form a unique and cogent argument. The accompanying commentaries, supplied by the authors and Tortoise editors, furnish readers with additional insights that explain why the excerpts are exemplary.

Against-the-grain arguments, Spring 2017

Against-the-grain arguments

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.

Analyzing a medium, Spring 2017

Analyzing a medium

Often in academic writing, the sources we use are written down. While this poses unique difficulties in terms of analysis and tone, the “meta” act of writing about writing itself allows the writer to use the same rhetorical devices that composed the evidence as tools for analysis. However, when the primary sources of an academic study are not written—in the case of art, architecture, music, and more—what strategies are possible to create a language that is not only descriptive (painting a word image of a source outside of the reader’s knowledge), but also argumentative? The pieces in this section are but two examples of academic writing that manage to find an appropriate language for analyzing a specific medium.

In her essay on Moretto da Brescia’s painting Entombment, Sandy Carpenter transitions seamlessly between descriptive orienting and insightful analysis. Using as evidence the scenery, figures, and lighting, she argues for the nuanced depiction of instantaneous and eternal anguish in the representation of Christ and the Virgin Mary.

The excerpt from Ming Wilson’s “What is Truth?: The Relationship between J.S. Bach and Arvo Pärt Considered from their Respective Versions of the Johannes-Passion” exemplifies a successful attempt to find an appropriate language to analyze a medium that might at first seem resistant to description—music. In the text below, Wilson justifies his unusual method while describing and problematizing the melodic lines of two very different pieces of music. Thus, he uses that analysis to argue about the pieces’ respective influences.

Lastly, editor Natalie Berkman’s “Works in Progress: writing about a nontraditional topic for a traditional audience” concerns her own challenges writing about 20th century French math for readers in the humanities.

Against-the-grain arguments, Spring 2017

Treating the Body Politic: Keynes’s Postwar Rhetoric of Corporeality

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In this excerpt from my second paper for ENG 208: Reading the Essay with Professor Jeff Nunokawa, the reader can quickly see that, in terms of motive, I perhaps bit off more than I could chew.

Arguably, my larger motive holds up—that within “The Economic Consequences of the Peace,” Keynes is departing from serious economic analysis for rhetorical purposes, using literary metaphors of embodiment that we should attempt to analyze using traditional methods of close-reading.

However, I then overcomplicated this sufficiently interesting, interdisciplinary approach with another layer of motive: the scholarly motive of disagreeing with my professor, Jeff Nunokawa, who had read Keynes’s metaphor of embodiment in lecture as a purely a sexual one.

While I stand by my original claim that the consequences of Nunokawa’s misreading have a provocative gravity worth reconsidering in the service of medical rather than sexual imagery, this claim was poorly timed in the excerpt above, making for an overly lengthy, somewhat muddled introduction.

Months later, looking at this paper with fresh eyes tells me that many elements of my Keynes close-reading could indeed remain in the paper if restructured correctly. My disagreement with Nunokawa could generate a meaningful concession later on in body of the paper (pun intended) after I felt I had sufficiently answered some of my initial motivating questions (“But what are Keynes’s motivations behind using this political vocabulary of corporeality? Upon further close reading, what does it do to complement his typical mode of written expression?”) through the kinds of close-reading featured at the end of the excerpt.

The lessons here then are clear: first, just like a good thesis, motive too can (and should!) be allowed to evolve over the course of a well-structured paper. Second, especially in shorter papers, I would say it is inadvisable to frontload your paper with more material than can be artfully handled in a single introduction—it isn’t fair to your reader or yourself.


In his 1919 book “The Economic Consequences of the Peace,” economist John Maynard Keynes sought to persuade European leaders that excessive Allied reparations following the First World War would not only lead to the collapse of Germany’s economy but also to that of Europe as a whole—a prophetic warning which few statesmen heeded at the time.

In the essay “Paris,” he warns “the spokesmen of the French and British people” that the Peace “run[s] the risk of completing the ruin, which Germany began,” thus “impair[ing] yet further (…) the delicate, complicated organization, already shaken and broken by war, through which alone the European peoples can employ themselves.” On one level, Keynes is arguing here that, during the Treaty of Versailles, a kind of surgical precision was required from leaders like Lloyd George in order to restore Europe’s “complicated organization” and unity—a precision much unlike the harsh and unrealistic reparations which England actually proposed. But on another level, Keynes is also writing in a format far more accessible than his usual—serious economic analysis—using relatable devices to convey his points and rhetoric to the layman or political outsider—most prominently, the political metaphor of embodiment, the body politic. “Europe is apart,” he says, “and England is not of her flesh and body.”

Keynes’s description of Europe as a corporeal entity should not be read as coincidental. Throughout the entire essay, he consistently anthropomorphizes the postwar state of European affairs, crossing an inchoate body politic to persuade us that there is economic stability in this body being “solid with itself”—or, as Keynes also phrases it, when all of Europe’s constituent nations “throb together, and their structure and civilization are essentially one.” But what are Keynes’ motivations behind using this political vocabulary of corporeality? Upon further close reading, what does it do to complement his typical mode of written expression?

Princeton professor Jeff Nunokawa argues that it serves to sexualize Europe or “libidinalize its economic sphere,” suggesting that the economic activity will always be motivated unconsciously by “animal spirits” that are, thus, in some way inextricable from the erotic. However, though Nunokawa is right to probe the importance of organic imagery in Keynes’s essays, I ultimately take issue with how his argument ignores certain clinical dimensions of the economist’s diction that, beyond establishing a corporeal metaphor, are selective about for whom this metaphor applies. Whereas Nunokawa sees every state in Keynes’s writing as a body politic (and a sexual one at that), a closer reading suggests that only those states belonging to continental Europe are bodies at all—England has intentionally been excluded. Furthermore, rather than a voyeur, Keynes in his essays instead casts himself as a sort of medical practitioner who, I will argue, seeks to treat Germany as a limb of Europe’s sick body wracked by unfair reparations, contrasting this body against the aloof, inhumanly “unconscious” England in order to shift postwar political action and opinion toward sympathy for the former.


The economist writes “that Europe is solid with herself. France, Germany, Italy, Austria, and Holland, Russia and Roumania and Poland, throb together,” and even the rollicking sentence structure here ebbs and flows, embodying the palpitations these states together experience. Meanwhile, England, apart and sleeping, is not involved in this at all: in neither “Europe’s voiceless tremors” nor her “fearful convulsions of a dying civilization.” Thus, to throb as continental Europe does is not akin to participation in a sexual body politic, but an ill one: rather than shivers of pleasure to be tamed, these convulsions are death throes. Now enter Keynes, who seeks to address these matters “of life and death, of starvation and existence” much like a doctor does.


Ideally, Keynes believes a fair compromise would leave “Germany and Austria-Hungary now prostrate” to critical care and treatment from policymakers—much “Like a patient etherized upon a table,” as T.S. Eliot (another, more-fringe member of the Bloomsbury group) once wrote in “The Lovesong of Alfred J. Prufrock.”

To Keynes’s distaste, however, the Treaty of Paris turned out to be “a nightmare” — “every one there was morbid,” he tells us. Etymologically, the root of “morbid” is the Latin morbus, meaning “sickness, disease, ailment, illness,” from the verb mori “to die.” Even in passing, Keynes’s language is painfully aware that, in reality, all economic decisions have bodily consequences, sometimes even deadly ones. Dealing with the flesh is ultimately unavoidable, so to assume pure rationality in issuing postwar reparations is like wearing “a tragic-comic mask” instead of a surgical one—a theatrical waste of time, ignoring the reality of Europe’s situation.

Works Cited

Keynes, John Maynard. “Paris (1919).” The Economic Consequences of the Peace: Pequod, 2016. 130-132. Print.

Nunokawa, Jeff. “The Heart of the Matter and Public Affairs: The Essay as Unacknowledged Legislation.” English 200: Reading Literature: The Essay. McCosh Hall, Princeton University. 28 November 2016. Lecture.

Analyzing a medium, Spring 2017

Math in the Humanities? Writing about a Non-Traditional Topic for a Traditional Audience

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Let’s face it: there is a divide between the humanities and STEM fields. As an undergraduate at Johns Hopkins, I felt like I was on the losing side of a battle. I was a triple major in some very different fields: mathematics, creative writing, and French literature. However, this combination was not always well received by professors, and much less by administration. I still recall how the registrar’s office spent an hour telling me how it was not possible to complete a degree with three majors, even though I had finished almost all the coursework and had the appropriate signatures!

As a doctoral candidate, I have been able to combine these interests into a doctoral dissertation about the mathematical methods of an experimental group of French writers, the Oulipo. While it’s been a joy for me to investigate the subtle channels that lead from mathematics to literature and back again, for some hardcore literature scholars, using the word “mathematics” evokes fear and anxiety, which brings me to a big question: how do you write about one discipline to people who have been trained almost exclusively in another? More specifically, how was I to write about mathematics for people who took their last mathematics class in high school?

Below are some of the strategies I’ve found that help me deal with these challenges. Hopefully my experience can be beneficial to others who intend to fly in the face of disciplinary boundaries at some point in their studies.


In my project, I have found that defining a clear thesis early on was key, and that the thesis had to be motivated not just by the interdisciplinary nature of the project but grounded in my own discipline. To use the magic thesis statement (MTS):

By looking at the mathematical methods of the Oulipo, we can see

  1. The historical reasons behind these choices and how the Oulipo situates itself within a literary tradition that precedes it as well as within the larger history of mathematics,
  2. The way the mathematics changes the compositional methods of these authors, and
  3. How this changes the reading experience, which most people don’t see.

This is important because it helps us understand:

  1. The Oulipo’s singularity among other 20th century French experimental groups,
  2. The Oulipo’s influence on mathematics and computer science, and
  3. How mathematics and literature are complementary, and how one can influence the other.

As you can see from how I divided my MTS, I found it necessary to break down my argument and motive into their constituent parts, not only because a doctoral dissertation is extremely long and therefore requires a more complex thesis, but to facilitate the reading experience for my audience. To that end, I have three main parts of the thesis:

  1. History (both literary history and history of science/mathematics)
  2. Compositional methods (rhetorical analysis, the heart and soul of literary scholarship)
  3. And finally the reader (situating the Oulipo within a theoretical context)

In the last part of my MTS, I broke the motive down into three parts, again for my intended audience, which bridges disciplinary boundaries:

  1. Why this matters for literary scholarship of 20th-century France (or Europe in general)
  2. Why this matters for historians of mathematics or science
  3. Why this matters for larger disciplinary questions

This brings me to orienting. The primary reader of my dissertation is my advisor, who is unlike any other literary scholar in that he is not afraid of mathematics! As a translator, he had to learn a great deal about mathematics and the Oulipo to translate the works of Georges Perec, and he has continued to do a great deal of work on the group and mathematics. That said, my other readers are not well acquainted with mathematics, so I felt that I needed to assume a novice reader. Now the question was, how can I orient such a reader without talking down to him or her? Paradoxically, I came to the answer in preparation for my prospectus defense, during which I had to give a brief presentation about my work and answer questions from the French Department faculty. To get them thinking mathematically, I realized, they needed to do mathematics!

So I walked them through a proof, a simple one to say the least. Beginning with a mathematical anecdote to hook them in, I explained the mathematical reasoning that Gauss used as a child and how to abstract that into a theorem about sums of positive, consecutive integers. Then, I linked these notions of formal language and axioms to literature through the Oulipo and a few key texts. Mathematics is the study of abstract patterns, and literary sensibility as well depends upon a human capacity for pattern recognition. In that sense, the reader of my dissertation—regardless of his or her mathematical background—already possesses all the tools needed to decipher the Oulipo’s use of mathematics! It just requires a different kind of reading and—as I have learned—writing.

Risk-taking, Spring 2017

Dead end or Dividend: Falling (Face-First) into the Intentional Fallacy

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In a male-oriented, male-documented society like ancient Rome, how can we reconstruct women as they really were? This was the task I set myself to in the crafting of my essay “Medeas of the Palatine,” in which I examined and made a case for the changed status of late Republican women in Rome. I started with a case study of an elite woman of the late Republic: the notorious Clodia, a wealthy widow who, according to Cicero, behaved “riotously” like “a common harlot” and was involved in all manner of intrigue—financial, sexual, even criminal. I drew on her case study as a microcosm of the broader status of women at the time.

Due to the scantiness of female-authored primary source material, I resolved to distort the already-distorted male-written history and hopefully arrive at something less distorted. No easy task, to be sure—plunging into an intentional fallacy head-on is a messy and confusing business. I was working from Cicero’s speech, a decidedly male-centric opinion in a decidedly male-dominated institution in a decidedly male-governed society.

Nevertheless, I took the plunge, cataloguing Cicero’s known biases against Clodia as well as more general perceptions of women in Roman society at the time that might be coloring his speech. Here’s an excerpt of that passage:

Cicero was an orator; his aim was to win the case, so he molds the story and his argument to the benefit of his client, Caelius, and to the audience of an élite all-male assembly. It should also be noted that, besides the professional motivation, he also had several personal scores to settle with Clodia and her family. Clodius, Clodia’s younger brother, was Cicero’s greatest enemy (for Clodius, the feeling was mutual). Moreover, as Cicero himself mentions in the speech, Clodia had perpetrated violent actions against him and his family, such as burning down his house while he was exiled. There is also an indication that Cicero might have been romantically involved with Clodia himself at one point; Plutarch mentions that Terentia, Cicero’s wife, “suspected Clodia of wanting to marry Cicero” (Plut. Life of Cicero 29). Although Cicero claims he is “brushing aside the memory of what I suffered” in the case, there is no doubt that his personal dealings with Clodia and Clodius shade his arguments (Cicero, Pro Caelio 50).

As regards the limitations of the case itself, one has to wonder how representative Clodia is of the status of a typical Roman woman in the late Republic and thus what quality and quantity of insights can be gleaned from the case. She was a noblewoman, widowed, wealthy, and propertied. She had not remarried, her father had been dead some years already, and her brother, Clodius, was in no place to supervise or criticize her behavior with his own record of scandal (including, but not limited to, persistent rumors of incest with his sisters, as well as his infiltration in 62 B.C. of the women’s festival of Bona Dea to schmooze around with Pompeia, the wife of Caesar), so Clodia was in a position of relative freedom to do as she pleased—up to a point.

Perhaps this is a package deal; a woman can have her fun, but only if she masks it well and plays out her social role of devoted wife and mother. When Pompey, for example, was away on campaign for many months and caught wind of his wife Mucia’s increasingly “loose life,” he was at first unperturbed (Plut. Life of Pompey 42). As he began the return trip to Italy, however, he decided to divorce her (Plut. Life of Pompey 42). As Cicero said of Clodia, “she no longer even bothers to seek privacy and darkness and the usual veil of discretion to cover her lusts” (Cicero, Pro Caelio 43). It is difficult to tell here if “usual” means “usual” for Clodia or “usual” in the lusty pursuits of the elite. However, in the context of some of Cicero’s other statements, it seems to be the latter. He lumps Clodia into “a household of that sort under a woman who behaves like a prostitute,” a situation in which “it is perfectly obvious and universally known” to what extent Clodia pursued “lusts and excesses” (Cicero, Pro Caelio 56). Her particular case might have a few “unheard-of perversions,” but the case of Clodia and her “associates” nonetheless seems to fit a well-known societal mold, whether fitted by Cicero for argumentative purposes or by the ready-made cache of circulating rumors.

I’m still not sure how I worked myself into that “ready-made cache of circulating rumors” (what a mouthful!). Phraseology aside, however, I had set myself up well—I was going to scientifically dissect this case study for biases and account for them in my analysis. But what I failed to do is realize the improbability of my construction. I was trying to be precise, setting up the biases and limitations of my case, then using that same case to prove something bigger. In a case study alone, such dissection might be workable (though still delicate and difficult). But the task of my paper was to make an argument for an entire period of history, not just one woman in a brief moment in that history.

Constrained by a ten-page limit, I was forced to compromise my rigor. By the end of my paper, I had left things rather open-ended, juxtaposing two more male-authored primary sources to hint at a noteworthy sense of male vulnerability in response to spurts of female agency in the 2nd and 1st centuries B.C. In many ways, I had backtracked—my claims were no longer as nuanced nor as persuasive as they had been in the case study format. I should have been prepared for the same level of rigor in my broader arguments. On the small-scale case study level, the intentional fallacy seemed to pay off, but when I tried to extrapolate, I found myself hovering in a realm of ambiguity and uncertainty. Lesson learned: always look (long and hard) before you leap.

Works Cited

Appian. Roman History, Volume IV: The Civil Wars, Books 3.27-5. Translated by Horace White. Loeb Classical Library 5. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1913.

Cicero, Marcus Tullius. “In Defense of Marcus Caelius Rufus.” Selected Political Speeches of Cicero, translated by Michael Grant, London, Penguin, 1969.

Culham, Phyllis. “Women in the Roman Republic.” The Cambridge Companion to the Roman Republic, compiled by Harriet I. Flower, 2nd ed., New York, Cambridge UP, 2014.

Evans, John K. War, Women, and Children in Ancient Rome. London, Routledge, 1991.

Livy. “The History of Rome.” Perseus Digital Library. Tufts University. Accessed 16 Jan. 2017.

Plutarch. Fall of the Roman Republic. Translated by Rex Warner and Robin Seager, Rev. and expanded ed., London, Penguin Books, 2005.

Plutarch. Makers of Rome, Nine Lives: Coriolanus, Fabius Maximus, Macellus, Cato the Elder, Tiberius Gracchus, Gaius Gracchus, Sertorius, Brutus, Mark Antony. Translated by Ian Scott-Kilvert, London, Penguin Books, 1965.

Richlin, Amy. Arguments with Silence: Writing the History of Roman Women. U of Michigan P,