Category Archives: Spring 2024

Sp '24 Feature, Spring 2024

Compulsory Heterosexuality in Mao Era China: Marriage as a Union of Equals

In a Tortoiseshell

In this Writing Seminar paper on queerness in Mao era China, Katherine Ren identifies a gap in the scholarly conversation on compulsory heterosexuality to argue that queerness manifests uniquely in societies predicated on gender equality. Kat’s paper is particularly evocative for its treatment of the scholarly conversation, its development of motive, and its strong writerly ethos.

Excerpt / Katherine Ren


Current scholarly literature regarding compulsory heterosexuality, including the landmark paper, “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence,” by Adrienne Rich, situates almost all discussion of the perpetuation of compulsory heterosexuality in a Western context. In order to bridge this gap, I analyze the perpetuation of compulsory heterosexuality in Mao-Era China. Current theory is often inexorable from the discussion of the objectification of women for the service of men, but in Mao-Era China, the government made a conscious effort to raise women up as equals to men. In this paper, I investigate how compulsory heterosexuality is perpetuated in a society that insists on equality of the sexes. I additionally connect this investigation of the differences between Western and Eastern compulsory heterosexuality to differences in Western and Eastern queer culture, concluding that compulsory heterosexuality and queerness in a capitalist society is distinct from compulsory heterosexuality and queerness in a socialist society.

Queerness and Socialism

Current scholarly conversations on lesbian culture in China tend to be situated in post-socialist China, as Hongwei Bao (2020)’s Queer China is, or pre-modern/pre-Mao China, as Tze-Lan D. Sang (2003)’s The Emerging Lesbian is. Both books acknowledge the gap of queer literature in Mao Era China in their analyses, explaining that queer histories and stories were essentially erased from the People’s Republic of China (PRC)’s records. Sang, citing Harriet Evans’ research in her book, writes that “in the early years of the PRC, homosexuality was declared not to exist in liberated China” (Sang, 2003, p. 163). Bao, in his introduction to a section titled “The Emergence of Homosexuality,” writes that “[homosexuality] vanished for several decades in the Mao era” (Bao, 2020, p. 29).

However, we must not interpret the lack of records of “homosexuality” as a lack of queerness during the Mao era. (For clarification, I will use the word “queer” in this paper as a description of close relationships outside of traditional heteronormative relationships (spouses), even if the relationships are not inherently romantic.) Maoist “sexual puritanism” was based on the ideal of having men and women be equal in every way. Traditional femininity, such as clothes shaped to accentuated feminine features (such as dresses), were frowned upon by the socialist regime, and the national body of China became a unisex body in a Mao suit, which was a shapeless, modest outfit (Chen, 2001). Furthermore, relations between a man and a woman outside of wedlock were seen as scandalous and indulgent, and so close relationships between those of the same sex (homosocialism) prevailed. The Chinese population were labeled not as men or women but as comrades, no matter the sex or gender. Socialist China’s culture, which involved “[departure] from bourgeois individualism and private property, [redefinition] of traditional regimes of family and kinship, and [challenge] of conventional gender norms,” was a complete deviation from past heteronormative ideals (Bao, 2020, p. 34). In his book, Queer China, Hongwei Bao even goes as far as to say that Mao China’s culture was, in the Western definition, “queer in itself” (Bao, 2020, p. 34).

The homosexual identity did not exist and was not spoken of, yet homosexual acts and romantic relations between members of the same sex continued. Though this statement seems contradictory, it is important to situate discussions of queerness with Chinese queer identity as opposed to the (Western) “global gay.” The concept of “the global gay” asserts that ideas of sexual identity (such as names and labels) originate from the West as a result of neoliberalism and spread around the world, allowing others to exercise freedom by being able to label themselves as their preferred sexual identity (Bao, 2020, p. 71). In contrast, queerness in China, as presented in work such as Shi Tou’s Women Fifty Minutes or the online queer novel Beijing Story, is often unlabeled; queer characters are not defined by their queerness, nor do they label themselves as any specific identity, simply existing and enjoying a relationship that is “other” to the heterosexual norm. Bao points out that these stories are often imbued with a nostalgia for socialism, as the utopian relationships they portray stand in direct opposition to the commercialization of heterosexual relationships, love, sex, and marriage under capitalism (Bao, 2020, p. 79). Queer relationships are portrayed as a pure type of love asking for nothing else but love in return, while heterosexual relationships are portrayed as imbued with ulterior motives and social burdens. In this way, Chinese queer identity is inseparable from critiques of neoliberalism and nostalgia for socialism; this was a time when queerness was not labeled nor discussed, yet deep connections outside of heteronormative relationships still prevailed (Bao, 2020, p. 80).


In the following sections, I will study heterosexual marriage as an institution during the Mao era in order to study queerness. More specifically, I investigate how compulsory heterosexuality was perpetuated via Mao’s propaganda for marriage. Queerness, especially in China, is not so much of an extension of heterosexual relationships (as it is perceived in the West) as it is a desire for a relationship free from the burdens of a heterosexual relationship. In other words, Chinese queerness represents the relationships outside of heterosexual, socially acceptable relationships, such as marriage (Bao, 2020).

In an attempt to determine whether or not compulsory heterosexuality in Mao Era China functioned differently to compulsory heterosexuality in the US in the same time period, I will also evaluate my findings alongside Vandermeade (2015)’s findings in her paper, “Gender Roles in American Propaganda and Advertising, 1941 – 1961.” Specifically, I compare the image of the wife in Mao Era China marriage propaganda to the image of the wife in post-World War II America.

Analysis of Marriage Posters in Mao Era China

In the 12 posters analyzed, the Mao-Era Chinese government used both implicit messaging (through the fashion choices made by the pictured women) and explicit messaging (through the poster text) in order to communicate a new image for marriage to women. Three messages stand out: (1) marriage must be resocialized as a union between equals, shown by the similar outfits and styles worn by both spouses regardless of gender, (2) marriage supports and is work for the country, and (3) both parties in a marriage should be collaborative, but independent.

Comparison to 1940-1980s America

Adrienne Rich and other scholars came to the conclusion that compulsory heterosexuality was perpetuated by the socialization of women as subservient to men. While it would be bold to say such socialization did not exist in Mao-Era China, I posit that such socialization was not as strongly pushed on women through public magazines, posters, and images. Furthermore, the American image of a wife during this time greatly differed from the Chinese image of a wife. The Chinese wife is gender-neutral and independent from her husband, where the American wife is overtly sexualized and dependent on her husband, whether it be for self-fulfillment (as seen in American makeup or weight loss advertisements) or monetary support (as seen in the lack of employed women in American advertisements). Therefore, I argue that compulsory heterosexuality in Mao-Era China was not as strongly perpetuated through the spread of the idea that women are “incomplete” without men nor the idea that women must find “self-fulfillment” in men, as Seidman (2009) had written.

Compulsory Heterosexuality in Mao Era China

What separates compulsory heterosexuality in Mao-Era China from compulsory heterosexuality in America is the presence of male-identification. Male-identification, as defined in Adrienne Rich’s paper (where she quotes Kathleen Barry) is “the act whereby women place men above women, including themselves, in credibility, status, and importance in most situations, regardless of the comparative quality the women may bring to the situation” (Barry qtd. in Rich, 1980, pg. 646). Barry also describes it as the “colonization of one’s self” (Barry qtd. in Rich, 1980, pg. 646). Combining this with Rich’s earlier assertion that women are socialized as sex objects for men, Rich appears to be claiming that, under compulsory heterosexuality, women are taught to want to be objectified. This claim is further supported by the analysis of advertisements targeted to women in the 1940-1960s in the previous section, where women are told that they needed to be desirable and therefore needed certain products.

However, this narrative is missing in the Mao-Era marriage propaganda. In its place is encouragement to be independent from your husband, to support each other in work, and to maintain relationships with others outside of your marriage. Like in the US, heterosexuality was compulsory, but, unlike the US, it was not everything. Even prior to the passing of Mao’s marriage law, when unhappy arranged marriages were commonplace, life was framed to be worth living for wives because of the company of  “sworn sisters” (Cong, 2016). While the presence of male-identification in Western compulsory heterosexuality diminishes the worth of relationships between women, the lack of it in Eastern compulsory heterosexuality causes there to be a focus on them, as a type of personal salvation from the hardships of marriage. In contrast, Western compulsory heterosexuality appears to paint marriage as a personal salvation.

As concluded in the previous sections, the Chinese government pushed marriage onto women for the sake of production for the state, whether it be the production of goods or the production of children, who may then be future workers. In other words, a citizen entered a marriage not just for their own sake, but for the sake of the country: a very socialist motive. On the other hand, American industries pushed marriage onto women for the production of the nuclear family, an essential social structure for the perpetuity of capitalism, as Marxists have theorized in the past (Healy, 2009). This innate difference in motive between Chinese propaganda and American propaganda stems from their differences in economic systems. I posit that it is also this difference that separates Chinese compulsory heterosexuality and American compulsory heterosexuality. Through this lens, we can observe how Eastern compulsory heterosexuality and Western compulsory heterosexuality result in different queer cultures in America and China. As mentioned in the section “Queerness and Socialism,” Chinese queerness reflects a criticism of capitalism, while Western queerness champions it, as seen in the spread of the idea of the “global gay.”

From my analysis of Mao-Era marriage posters, I conclude that Mao-Era compulsory heterosexuality was enforced by appealing to citizens’ patriotism and desire to help their country, contrasting 1940-1960s American compulsory heterosexuality, which was enforced through male-identification in order to reproduce power structures within the nuclear family for the sake of upholding capitalism (Healy, 2009). Both types of compulsory heterosexuality manifest in marriage, but, where Mao-Era marriage encouraged women to be independent in order to work more efficiently for the country, American marriage encouraged women to be dependent in order to maintain a power imbalance between husband and wife. Thus, I argue that compulsory heterosexuality under socialism and compulsory heterosexuality under capitalism are distinctly perpetuated, which may also be related to the differing queer cultures between the East and the West. I suggest that future studies further investigate this distinction through more studies on compulsory heterosexuality under socialist or communist countries, as the current scholarly literature focuses almost exclusively on compulsory heterosexuality under capitalism.


Bao, H. (2020). Queer China. In Routledge India eBooks. Informa.

Chen, T. (2001). Dressing for the Party: Clothing, Citizenship, and Gender-formation in Mao’s China. Fashion Theory, 5(2), 143–171.

Chen, Y. (2013). Eye Contact. The University of Texas at Austin.

Cong, X. (2016). Marriage, Law and Gender in Revolutionary China, 1940–1960. Cambridge University Press.

Hamon, R. R., & Ingoldsby, B. B. (2003). Mate Selection Across Cultures. In SAGE Publications, Inc. eBooks.

Healy, L. (2009). Capitalism and the Transforming Family Unit: A Marxist Analysis. Socheolas Limerick Student Journal of Sociology, 2(1).

Marriage Law | Chinese Posters | (n.d.).

Rich, A. (1980). Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence (1980). Journal of Women’s History, 15(3), 11–48.

Sang, T. (2004). The Emerging Lesbian: Female Same-Sex Desire in Modern China. Comparative Literature, 56(3), 276.

Seidman, S. (2009). Critique of compulsory heterosexuality. Sexuality Research and Social Policy, 6(1), 18–28.

Vandermeade, S. L. (2015). Fort Lipstick and the Making of June Cleaver: Gender Roles in American Propaganda and Advertising, 1941-1961. Madison Historical Review, 12(1), 3.

Yang, W., & Yan, F. (2017). The annihilation of femininity in Mao’s China: Gender inequality of sent-down youth during the Cultural Revolution. China Information, 31(1), 63–83.×17691743

Author Commentary / Katherine Ren

I cut the Introduction (with the discussion of current literature into compulsory heterosexuality being very and maybe even inherently Western), and the nitty gritty of the poster analyses (though I kept the conclusions) — I hope the paper still makes sense regardless!

I knew from the beginning of the semester that I wanted my final paper to incorporate the concept of compulsory heterosexuality somehow, since it’s a fascinating topic that not a ton of people talk about, as some argue that it is exclusive to lesbianism. At first, I tried looking for theory-level motives only in Adrienne Rich’s original compulsory heterosexuality paper to see if she raised any points that were contradictions, or any points that I found iffy. When I situated her theory in Mao Era China, an era with queer culture that not a lot of scholarly conversation seemed to talk about, I found a punctum that I felt that I genuinely cared about and that I thought would add a valuable dimension to how compulsory heterosexuality is differently perpetuated in different cultural contexts.

When I began writing, I only wrote about Mao-Era marriage— the context was complicated, and the implications were more so— and I kinda neglected discussion of Western gender norms at this time because I thought most people would just “get” how it differed from what I was looking at. But adding the Comparison to 1940s-1980s America actually 1) clarified my argument, and 2) made my own paper make more sense to me. It’s safe to say that this paper went through quite a lot of different phases in the writing process, where I tried things, removed things, rewrote things, and only cried a little bit. In the end, I’m deeply proud of this paper, and I hope that reading an excerpt from it was enjoyable.

Editor Commentary / Grace Wang

While juggling the analysis of both primary and secondary sources, it can be difficult to find your own voice in a piece of writing. But when I first read Kat’s paper, I was struck by how strong the presence of the writer was. In this excerpt, Kat identifies a gap in the scholarly conversation—the lack of application of compulsory heterosexuality onto non-Western contexts—and uses it to craft her own unique contribution.

Kat is able to achieve this intervention through her clever structure. By introducing the reader to the existing scholarly conversation on queerness in Mao era China, she simultaneously orients the reader while building motive. Then, she explicitly states how she will address that motive by laying out her method. Through neat motivating moves, she employs analysis of her primary evidence—Mao era marriage posters—to build towards her thesis. In the subsequent section comparing Mao era China to 1940-80s America, Kat explains how Mao era China is unique is its treatment of compulsory heterosexuality, helping her cultivate a credible writerly ethos.

When I read Kat’s paper, I feel as though I am in good hands. Her references back to the existing literature tell me that she understands her topic well, and her use of signposting helps guide me through the paper’s argumentative journey. Kat’s concluding section, “Compulsory Heterosexuality in Mao Era China” elegantly closes out the paper by linking together previous points of analysis to arrive at the thesis. The conclusion connects back to the scholarly motive by revisiting compulsory heterosexuality in a new context, providing the full circle moment that the reader has been waiting for.

Producing a final research paper for Writing Seminar is no small feat. It requires self-guided research, thoughtful planning, and sometimes a few agonized screams into a pillow. However, I find that one of the most challenging aspects of writing that paper is finding the tension, gap, or puzzle that motivates the writer themselves to follow their paper through to the end. When I read Kat’s paper, I never lose sight of what the point of it all is—and that is because I see her, the writer, working with motive from beginning to end.

Papers like Kat’s are always a pleasure for readers because we get the sense that what we are reading matters, a feeling which often seems extinct within the drudgery of writing academic essays. It is a sensation that can manifest in the smallest of ways, whether through an intervention into a small part of a scholarly conversation, or a simple application of one theory onto a context where it’s been previously unexplored. These are all worthwhile and meaningful explorations for a Writing Seminar paper, and they are examples of how academic research happens—through tiny additions to the Pool of All Knowledge. Kat’s paper reminds me that what we write as college students can and should matter—even and especially in Writing Seminar.

Professor Commentary / Jorie Hofstra

Kat knew from the start of her project that she wanted to engage with Adrienne Rich’s argument about compulsory heterosexuality. Her initial plan to fill a gap in the literature by investigating queerness in China, however, hit a speedbump when she visited Princeton’s librarian for Gender and Sexuality Studies, came away with a copy of Hongwei Bao’s Queer China, and realized that the gap wasn’t quite as large as she had expected. Kat humorously captured the experience of being “scooped” by another scholar in her project proposal entitled “Research Proposal by Kat, who changed her entire idea today because Queer China practically stole everything she wanted to say, so she was both super interested and devastated as she read 233 pages of analysis on queer culture in China.” But having read extensively on compulsory heterosexuality in the West, and on gender and sexuality in both the West and the East, Kat had primed herself to recognize a genuine puzzle—aka motive—when it arose. She found new footing quickly in the puzzle of how the 1950 Marriage Law made heterosexual marriage simultaneously compulsory and easier to dissolve. Rich argues that compulsory heterosexuality is enforced through the diminishment and objectification of women, but might it take a different form when accompanied by rhetoric of equality and sameness between women and men? 

Since I’ve found it useful to pivot to primary sources when feeling stumped among the scholars (and vice versa), I sent Kat a link to an archive of Mao-era Chinese posters promoting marriage. While these posters were fairly opaque to me, Kat’s ongoing reading about gender and sexuality in that period of Chinese history allowed her to perform a deep semiotic analysis of how these posters promoted a particular vision of marriage, gender, and family through the figure of the Mao-suited wife. Kat’s primary-source motive thus nested tightly within her secondary-source motive, and the result is a paper that teaches us something new about marriage ideology in Mao-era China and constructs a theoretical framework that is potentially portable to other projects.

Through her wonderfully detailed analysis of the imagery and captions of the posters and a comparison to U.S.-produced marriage propaganda from the same historical period, Kat finds that marriage in the Chinese case was promoted as “work for the country,” by contrast to the U.S. promotion of marriage as the only road to fulfillment for women. This difference has consequences for how women’s same-sex relations are constructed in each context: as a valve for relieving the pressures of marriage as a productive “union of equals,” or as a siphoning-off of energies that should be devoted to the private project of marriage. Kat’s work suggests that scholars of compulsory heterosexuality have missed the opportunity to deepen the concept through cultural-historical studies, and she offers a new variable—the economic structure within which heterosexuality becomes compulsory—to address in such studies.

Her paper stands as an exemplar of what it looks like to take motive seriously. Kat’s relentless pursuit of tension, inconsistency, or friction within and across her sources led her to continually unfold new layers of motive, complicating her argument and resolving these complications, toward a genuinely meaningful contribution to the scholarly conversation.

Bringing the Motive Home, Spring 2024

Cheese and Dough: The Dairy Industry’s Successful Campaign to Reform The American Diet during the Obama Administration

In a Tortoiseshell

This excerpt concludes my junior paper, which investigates the extensive influence of corporate dairy interests on the American diet and food systems. Focused on the power dynamics between “Big Dairy” and the government, it unveils a pervasive conflict of interest in shaping dietary guidelines and regulatory bodies. The exploration of this intricate influence led us to the presented excerpt, which also introduces potential solutions, including bipartisan legislative efforts and the potential separation of dietary guidelines from USDA influence.

Excerpt / Lina Singh

The power wielded by corporate dairy interests not only molds the dietary habits of susceptible consumers but also extends its reach into broader socio-political spheres. The stark financial disproportion is exemplified by the staggering $202 million accumulated through dairy checkoff dollars in 2011, overshadowing government spending on healthier dietary alternatives such as fruits or vegetables. This contrast underscores a significant misalignment between agricultural and nutritional policies that ought to be intertwined.

This dissonance prompts deeper investigation into the connections linking big dairy and the government, revealing a political landscape where corporate interests permeate public policy, exerting profound impacts on the nation’s food systems and regulations. The 2012 Dairy Report to Congress outlines the pathway for dairy industry leaders to attain such authoritative positions: “The Secretary selects dairy producer members from nominations submitted by producer organizations, general farm organizations representing dairy producers, Qualified Programs, or other interested parties.” The Dairy Board, composed of 36 dairy producers and 2 dairy importers, administers the checkoff program and notably approved contracts with major fast-food chains like Domino’s, McDonald’s, Pizza Hut, and Taco Bell in 2012. This process enables a revolving door that allows industry insiders to access pivotal roles within regulatory bodies. It’s no surprise, then, that dairy industry representation on the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee has also consistently risen over time: “Three out of eleven members on the 1995 Committee had past or present industry ties; seven out of eleven members on the 2000 Committee; eleven out of thirteen members on the 2005 Committee; and nine out of thirteen members on the 2010 Committee.”  A clear conflict of interest becomes evident, as the leaders crafting The Pyramid, or MyPlate, are the very same ones invested in the lucrative sales of specific food products such as dairy, even if it involves collaborations with the nation’s most prominent fast-food brands.

Disturbing revelations of financial irregularities and oversight have cast a shadow over Big Dairy and the government’s transparency, prompting criticism in recent years. In 2017, a Politico article disclosed that the USDA had failed to submit a required financial report to Congress regarding a $400 million dairy research and promotional program — “one of the largest pots of cash among federal checkoff programs for at least four consecutive years.”  This ignited backlash from farmers and advocacy organizations, marking a striking departure from the program’s prior transparency when, before 2012, dairy checkoff reports were routinely submitted to Capitol Hill. The period between 2012 and 2017, following the successful Domino’s campaign and the overhaul of national dietary guidelines, remained relatively subdued in the public eye until investigative reporting revealed questionable ethical and financial management practices among industry executives and government leaders.

In 2017, a year that witnessed the closure of 1,600 dairy farms nationwide, IRS records indicate that 10 executives within Diary Management Inc. received over $8 million in compensation, averaging upwards of $800,000 per person. Thomas Gallagher, the nonprofit’s CEO, received over $1 million three times between 2013 and 2017, which covered tax indemnification, charter travel, and health club benefits. This stark disparity in earnings parallels the revolving door in food policy, exemplified by former USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack’s swift transition to lead the U.S. Dairy Export Council post his tenure, while also serving as DMI’s executive vice president.  Meanwhile, DMI allocated nearly $55 million to Daniel J. Edelman Inc., the world’s largest independent public relations firm, for “agency services,” attempting to counter negative publicity by promoting positive narratives about supporting dairy farmers. Thus, while DMI attempts to conceal its vulnerabilities from small dairy farmers and consumers, the checkoff program perpetuates a political system that continues to enrich the fortunes of only a handful of dairy executives.

Amidst this, members of the Agriculture Committee in both the House and the Senate have been susceptible to millions in dairy business donations, effectively turning those intended to represent the citizenry into agents of powerful agricultural interests instead. Most recently as of December 2023, the Whole Milk for Healthy Kids Act overwhelmingly passed the House, restoring whole milk and 2% milk as options in school cafeterias after they were banned under the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act in 2010.  The new bill comes at a time when alternative dairy options such as oat, soy, and almond milk have gained popularity among 38% of American adults. This underscores a concerning trend: while consumer preferences shift toward dairy alternatives, dairy stakeholders have found a way to clamp down on one of their most captive customers — the American youth. Furthermore, politicians have only reinforced the desires of this industry. Illinois Congresswoman Mary Miller referred to the previous elimination of whole milk from schools as “radical Obama administration policies led by Michelle Obama,” alluding to the former first lady’s efforts to combat childhood obesity.  It’s clear that from the Domino’s campaign over a decade ago to the present day, the dairy industry’s sway over Capitol Hill has only intensified, showcasing a recurring cycle between public criticism, defensive industry reaction, and government institutionalization.

Former Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue’s 2019 statement, “get big or get out,” captures the government’s indifferent stance toward both the struggles of dairy farmers who have historically built America’s dairy industry, as well as Americans’ waistlines. This longstanding attitude has fostered an increasingly concentrated food system, benefiting a handful of corporations while overshadowing vulnerable, powerless farmers and consumers. Since the New Deal era, there has been a notable deviation from the checkoff program’s intended function—from providing immediate relief to being leveraged for the long-term prosperity and profit gains of specific industries by influencing the American diet.

The scholarly debate between journalists Michael Moss and James McWilliams over the checkoff program encapsulates a larger discourse surrounding the government’s involvement in enhancing the profitability of private enterprises. Upon careful examination, Moss convincingly exposes systemic flaws and the unjust dominance of dairy’s largest actors in shaping food regulations that run counter to the nation’s best interests. As the trust of marginalized communities in Washington’s leadership continues to erode, it becomes increasingly critical to address this issue.

However, within this complex situation lies a glimpse of hope. Senators from opposing sides of the political aisle, Cory Booker (D) and Mike Lee (R) introduced the Opportunities for Fairness in Farming Act in February 2023 aimed at enhancing the transparency of commodity research and promotion boards. Specifically, the OFF Act would prohibit any board from entering into “any contract or agreement to carry out checkoff program activities with a party that engages in activities for the purpose of influencing any government policy or action that relates to agriculture.”  Co-sponsored by Senators Rand Paul (R), Elizabeth Warren (D), and Kirsten Gillibrand (D), this bipartisan support underscores the recognized necessity for checkoff reform.  Backed by numerous farm groups, including the National Dairy Producers Organization, the Northeast Organic Dairy Farmers Alliance, the Revolving Door Project, and the Campaign for Family Farms and the Environment, the OFF Act holds potential. Though in its nascent stages, concerted grassroots support and constituent pressure on representatives to propel this bill to law could potentially rescue the agricultural sector from peril.

To enhance the nation’s health, medical experts propose separating dietary guidelines from the USDA’s purview, advocating for the transfer of this responsibility to a dedicated health agency. For example, the New England Journal of Medicine suggests assigning guideline development to bodies like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) or the National Academy of Science Institute of Medicine (IOM). Similar to practices in nations like Finland and Greece, the United States could entrust the publication of dietary advice to a government body solely focused on this task, insulated from corporate influence. This measure alone holds the promise of saving lives and delivering the unbiased nutritional guidance that Americans urgently need and deserve.

The Domino’s cheese campaign in partnership with Dairy Management Inc. serves as a stark reminder of the blurred lines between profit-driven initiatives and governmental regulations. The incestuous relationship between agribusiness interests and regulators perpetuates a system that disproportionately benefits large-scale entities while marginalizing small farmers and consumers. By disentangling the web of industry influence from agricultural policymaking, we can pave the way toward safeguarding not only American dietary choices but the integrity of the nation’s democratic values. 

Author Commentary / Lina Singh

My writing process involved careful planning and continuous refinement, beginning with immersing myself in primary and secondary sources to discover a compelling narrative. Almost like an investigative reporter, I delved deeper into my chosen topic, familiarizing myself with the ongoing scholarly conversation. Crafting my argument involved building upon existing publications, supporting certain claims, and challenging others.

Conceptualizing my argument as the culmination of a chronological storyline spread across three parts helped me structure my paper. Each section served as a mini-paper seamlessly leading into the next. To organize my argument, I maintained a chronological document containing evidence, quotes, data, and historical events that naturally formed the basis for my three sections. Alongside each piece of evidence, I recorded initial thoughts on its significance and its potential role in supporting my paper’s claims. This approach not only facilitated the organization of evidence but also laid the groundwork for my analysis during the writing process. While I maintained this roadmap for my paper, I approached it with flexibility and openness to change. Adapting my initial outline throughout the writing process is what allowed for the emergence of new ideas and contributed to the development of a richer analysis.

Another lesson learned from this paper is the value of in-depth research into an ultra-specific event, person, or story. By zooming out from the details of the Domino’s cheese campaign, for instance, this paper shed light on broader implications, inspiring critical reflection and advocating for collective efforts to disentangle industry influence from dietary regulations. Entering this research, I had a broad understanding of the topic but emerged with a deeper knowledge and a refined ability to trace the complexities of this problem. The key to the success of this paper lies in my genuine interest and investment in the subject matter. So, my ultimate advice for tackling extensive research like a junior paper, is to choose a topic that excites you and sustains your interest over an extended period.

Editor Commentary / Nadja Markov

The writing style as well as the expectations of the Junior Paper differ from the ones posed by the Writing Seminars or Freshman Seminars. The writer has had two years of exposure to academic writing at the university level, as well as their department – and this can be reflected in the improvements in their approach to researching and writing a paper. Lina’s paper shows a strong understanding of the source material and an original thesis rooted in evidence. Her scholarly motive leads the paper forward, even in the conclusion.

Even the first paragraphs of the conclusion, we can see Lina restating her motive through using sentence structures such as “This dissonance prompts deeper investigation into the connections linking big dairy and the government…” In this way, she ensures that the reader once again understands her point of view as a researcher, and sees the connections that she is making in her paper. This motivating sentence is then followed by a discussion of her sources, and a deep-dive into some of the statistics that she gathered for the purpose of this paper. This is used in order to orient the reader to the issue at hand. As a reader, I felt as though I was investigating this dairy industry with Lina. This tactic is especially useful when dealing with large datasets and a plethora of sources, which most Junior Papers are. In Lina’s case, she is analyzing her sources through the lens of public policy, but this skill is interdisciplinary.

Next, Lina adds yet another layer to her motive, now restating the scholarly point of view by mentioning the “scholarly debate going on between journalists Michael Moss and James McWilliams”. This helps the reader understand the scholarly significance of her work, as well as the differing points of view that they can take on the issue at hand. This approach also ensures that she is not cherry-picking her data in order to fit one narrative, but is rather looking at the bigger picture, and analyzing her issue through an objective lens.

Finally, the writer turns to expanding the scope of her essay right at the end of the conclusion by introducing a “glimpse of hope” into the discussion. She mentions different approaches that have been taken to mitigate the issue imposed by the dairy industry, and, perhaps most importantly, takes a moment to restate what her essay brings to the scholarly conversation.

Bringing the Motive Home, Spring 2024

Language’s Limits: Delbo and the Incommunicability of the Holocaust

In a Tortoiseshell

This essay was written for a Freshman Seminar called “At The Mind’s Limits: The Holocaust in History, Theory, and Literature.” Throughout the semester, the class read several historical accounts and testimonies describing life inside Nazi Germany’s concentration camps; Charlotte Delbo’s writing, collected in a book titled Auschwitz and After, stood out to me for its literary and poetic characteristics. While other descriptions of the Holocaust written by survivors are conveyed through a sober prose, Delbo’s writing seeks to communicate the unspeakable through non-literal language and stylistic choices that ask to be interpreted in order to be understood. 

Excerpt / Jordan Fraser Angel

On numerous occasions, Delbo writes from the perspective of those who did not survive the camps or are unable to articulate their experiences. This practice, however, raises questions about the tension between the imperative of testimony and the impossibility of communication. Indeed, Delbo writes that “it is hard to come back / and speak again to the living” (256); at the same time, Delbo has stated that “Il faut donner à voir,” which the translator phrases as “they must be made to see” (xvii). However, I propose that “donner à voir” could also mean “display”: look, but don’t touch. Further, Delbo differentiates the detached, articulate “mémoire externe” (“thinking memory,” xx) from the immediate, gripping “mémoire des sens” (“sense memory,” xx), suggesting again gradations of access. Indeed, when Delbo says that “it is not from deep memory my words issue,” she confirms a fundamental incommunicability at the heart of the experience. While this does not imply that non-survivors are barred from any access to the Holocaust, which would prevent remembering it and thinking critically about it, this does reassert the existence of a physicality so subjective that it cannot be transmitted. As the narrator writes through Mado’s perspective, “they don’t understand,” but “at the very least they must know” (261). The danger of transgression lies in the hubris of equating our impression of understanding with the survivors’ experiences, as exemplified by Marie-Louise’s husband. The wife says that “my memories have become his own” (281), but this has corrupted her memories: “I have the distinct impression he was there with me” (281). Knowing does not mean understanding: when the husband says, on a visit to the concentration camp, that “I saw more than you did when you were there,” he is committing an inexcusable error. 

If language is insufficient for the non-survivor to understand the experience of the Holocaust, it is also insufficient for the survivor to describe this experience. When Delbo admits that she “can’t explain the difference between our time here and time over there” (352), she underlines the inextricable connection between incommunicability and language. The language of non-survivors is insufficient, as Delbo experiences when she first attempts to read again and finds all books superfluous, because she possesses a “more trustworthy knowledge, manifest, irrefutable” (238). For example, as Mado states via the intermediary of the narrator, “words do not necessarily have the same meaning” (267) for survivors and non-survivors. One’s hunger is not the other’s hunger. Another fellow-survivor describes herself as “disillusionized,” but adds that the use of this term is only to “imitate the way normal people think” (260). When Delbo writes of “an effort [she] cannot name” (236), she suggests that her experience lies beyond words. And yet, “there is one word only for dread / one for anguish” (11): although words do not suffice, non-literal efforts to convey “dread” and “anguish,” or any other aspect of her experience, are equally ineffective.

Beyond the limitations of words, there is also the issue of Delbo’s own doubts regarding the transformation of her testimony into a narrative. In the midst of a narrative, Delbo says that she is “writing this story in a café,” only to correct herself, saying that “it is turning into a story” (26). Similarly, describing a different episode, she wonders whether she “reconstituted this whole scene after the fact” (36). When she describes what she envisions recounting in the future to explain what she was thinking in the moment, she contradicts this by saying that even that moment of imagination was itself constructed: “This is not so […] I thought of nothing” (64). In certain instances, language is framed as existing only outside of the Holocaust: Delbo struggles “to explain with words what was happening in that period of time when there were no words” (237). Perhaps language is as alien to Delbo’s experience as is the reader’s understanding of the language she uses. When Delbo writes “today, I am not sure that what I wrote is true. I am certain it is truthful” (1), she emphasizes subjectivity rather than universality. Indeed, reality may be out of reach to both the non-survivor reading and Delbo writing, their disparate subjective understandings of the “truthful” always distanced from the “true.” The difference lies in the fact that Delbo possesses a subjective experience, while the reader only a subjective impression. Although it is not impossible that reality, experience, and understanding may coincide, the only certainty is that one cannot know whether this occurs.

Delbo’s non-literal language, which can be read as an attempt to communicate what a deceptively straightforward account could not convey, suggests that as language attempts to bridge the difference between survivor and non-survivor, it depends more and more on the subjectivity of both writer and reader. The closer one gets, the further one travels. As when Delbo asks, “and now, shall we go from dream to reality? Reality, what’s that?” (346), the “true” is always being supplanted by the “truthful.” 

Author Commentary / Jordan Fraser Angel

I wondered if stretching language to its limits allows the reader to reach that zone at the “mind’s limits” which makes the very fact of the Holocaust so difficult to grasp, let alone understand. Rereading Delbo’s writing, I examined each instance of non-literal language to analyze the effects it produced on the reader. I discovered that Delbo frequently attempts to contrast or liken the world of the concentration camp with the ordinary world, in order to communicate her experience to the non-survivor. However, I realized that when Delbo evokes experiences to which only a survivor could have access, she reaches a boundary which words do not permeate. This is due to the inherent tension in the meaning of a word, bound up in experience: there is an empirical chasm between Delbo and the reader. 

After locating the origin of the tension in Delbo’s writing, between the linguistic exertion performed by her non-literal stylistic choices and the incommunicability of the experience she seeks to convey, I identified the moments in which Delbo’s text meditates on this difficulty. This is what I explore in the extract above. I conclude my argument by returning to the epigraph at the beginning of Auschwitz and After: “Today, I am not sure that what I wrote is true. I am certain it is truthful.” Like much of Delbo’s writing, it is a statement whose opaqueness hinges on questions belonging to language itself. 

Editor Commentary / Grace Kim

A pearl of writing-related wisdom from my own mentors: We write to think. Our thoughts emerge, take shape, accrue layers, and become increasingly complex and interconnected through the process of writing—thinking—on the page. Jordan’s paper is a prime example of this linear, forward-moving thinking. Rather than circling back to the same idea over and over again with every paragraph of her evidence-analysis, Jordan uses the very unpacking of her motive to gradually reveal a newfound understanding of the motive itself. 

The first sentence of this excerpt is a nod to the first half of Jordan’s evidence-analysis, where she close-reads how Delbo “writes from the perspective of those who did not survive the camps or are unable to articulate their experiences,” as a means of thinking through the question she raises towards the beginning of her paper (motive!). Drawing from this initial motive, Jordan then raises another, more nuanced question: “This practice, however, raises questions about the tension between the imperative of testimony and the impossibility of communication.” In essence, her motive that first sparked her ideas for the paper inspires not a solidified answer that she proves over and over again but another question that she aims to better understand through the second half of her evidence-analysis. 

As she unpacks her more nuanced motive, Jordan continually engages in a close-reading of her primary source at the word-level, moving beyond mere paraphrasings of what Delbo writes to examining how Delbo writes it. She weaves together her own observations and commentary (analysis!) with words directly quoted from Delbo (evidence!), interpreting Delbo’s “mémoire externe” as having a “detached, articulate” sense; interpreting Delbo’s “mémoire des sens” as having an “immediate, gripping” sense; and drawing the connection between these two phrasings as being Delbo’s efforts to “differentiate” between the two. Notice how Jordan cues our attention to her own ideas through language that signals her interpretations of Delbo’s writings: “I propose,” “could also mean,” “suggesting.” 

Rather than merely citing more instances of how language is insufficient for the non-survivor, Jordan moves forward into her next two paragraphs by adding layers to this idea, clearly signposting her expansive direction through the first sentence of each paragraph. Her second excerpted paragraph builds upon the first by examining how language “is also insufficient for the survivor to describe this experience,” considering, too, her topic with respect to survivors, upon thoroughly considering the experience of non-survivors. In line with this trajectory, her third excerpted paragraph then builds upon the second by examining how “there is also the issue of Delbo’s own doubts regarding the transformation of her testimony into a narrative,” considering yet another complication of Delbo’s work. As readers, we are able to follow along with Jordan’s thoughtful organization of how she understands what she understands because she clearly establishes how each paragraph not only flows into the next but also contributes to her overarching motive for understanding what it means to stretch language to its limits. 
During one of our conversations about this excerpt, Jordan shared that the purpose of her paper was to present a motive, unpack it, and show a newfound understanding of that movie through her evidence-analysis. This is a stellar model of a motive-driven approach to academic writing, where the paper does not move in a circular logic that constantly works to prove the same idea from beginning to end, but rather moves forward—question after question after question.

Bringing the Motive Home, Spring 2024

The Death of the Author: The Convergence of ‘Now and Then’ and the Resurrection of a Pluralized Authorship Through Posthumous Publication

In a Tortoiseshell

This excerpt is chosen from my R3 for my first-year writing seminar, WRI 178: The Posthuman. Using the Beatles’ newest and final single, “Now and Then” as a form of posthumous publication in the digital era, my paper focuses on understanding how the details of the song’s publication following the death of its original creator was reconstructed into a new interpretation irrespective of what the original creator might have intended. To understand the cause of an unexpectedly positive response to the song’s release despite numerous revisions and the explicit presence of living collaborators that John Lennon did not consent to, I analyzed critic reviews, promotional materials, and differences between the official and original audio to recognize a pattern for its positive reception. The excerpt occurs towards the conclusion of my essay during my revision of current theories of authorship to suggest a pluralized view of authorship, in which “Now and Then” is attributed to the collaboration of all four Beatles preserved through time, rather than John Lennon on his own.

Excerpt / Cheryl Li

The dedication to preserving elements of an authentic Beatles recording is particularly prominent in the short film when Lennon’s voice, isolated from background noise with the help of technology, sings for the first time since his death. With the sound of electronics beeping in the background builds to the reveal, the sudden cut off mid-beep reaches the height of the viewer’s anticipation just before Lennon’s voice cuts through the silence, focusing the viewer’s attention to the voice’s strength and clarity in contrast to its muffled sound in the original demo. The camera cuts to an empty recording studio as Lennon sings in the background, and the frame pans in on the microphone stand where Lennon would have stood in the present had he been alive, suggesting that Lennon has been brought back to life to reunite with the rest of the Beatles one last time. Starr expresses in amazement, “it was like John’s there,” speaking to how hearing Lennon’s voice with such clarity decades after his death almost felt as though Lennon himself was working with McCartney and Starr in the present to complete “Now and Then”’s production like any other Beatles recording before his death (“The Beatles – Short Film”). The moment is emotional as the viewer is confronted with Lennon’s absence, and yet the short film’s subtle suggestion that Lennon is there in the recording studio demonstrates the authenticity of “Now and Then” through Lennon’s voice. Through the song’s portrayal of a faithful collaboration between all four members of the Beatles in the past and present similar to when all four Beatles were alive, “Now and Then”’s marketing appeals to authenticating the song’s plural authorship, successfully establishing “Now and Then” as an authentic Beatles recording. 

“Now and Then”’s depiction of a thematic convergence between past and present justifies the extensive revisions to the original demo recording as a transformation from a lonely solo to a joyous reunion, reframing the band’s conclusion from a death to a resurrection. With the band’s dissolution in the 1970s that marked the “death” of the Beatles as an identity, it became difficult to discern whether a reunion was foreseeable despite the public’s overwhelming support for the band. Lennon’s abrupt murder seemed to finalize the Beatles’ death, creating a dissatisfying end for the public and leaving the greatest hypothetical of what would have happened had Lennon been alive for just a little longer. However, the abrupt and unnatural death of not just a talented songwriter but also an adored musical group with “untapped potential and unsettled legacies” was crucial to “Now and Then”’s success by appealing to the public’s desire for a satisfying conclusion to one of the most popular rock bands in history (Prewitt and Accardi 95). While the significant amount of revisions to the demo flagged the song to scholars as a focal point for widespread disapproval, it’s this very transformation that fulfills the public’s desire for a satisfying conclusion to the Beatles in the form of the reunion fans have always hoped for. The original demo takes on a solemn tune, an equally sorrowful piano playing quietly in the background. The lyrics sound nostalgic as Lennon harmonizes his lonely grieving of a past relationship, something that McCartney builds upon to express his own remorse and desire to reunite with a lost friend, Lennon himself. In both the demo recording and the official audio, “Now and Then” seems to bridge a connection between two friends, Lennon and McCartney, each struggling to express a desire to reunite with one another despite being unable to say these words directly to each other (Sheffield). However, the transfer of authorship for “Now and Then” from just Lennon to his former bandmates creates this long desired reunion among friends despite the chronological barriers. In contrast to the demo’s mournful ballad, “Now and Then” takes on an upbeat tune, the harmonization of guitar, drums, strings, and a more confident piano adopting a rock style characteristic of the Beatles’ past songs as Lennon’s voice sings stronger than ever. While the demo’s audio sounds vulnerable, a private confession coupled with hopelessness that the relationship being grieved will never be restored, the official audio’s addition of a collaborative symphony of instrumentals played by the very bandmates Lennon had missed presents a harmonization between Lennon and the rest of the Beatles, communicating a reciprocation of the sentiments Lennon expresses. The demo transforms into a hopeful reconciliation as McCartney’s voice in the present intertwines with Lennon’s in the past as though McCartney was supporting Lennon half a century from the future, “[reframing] the group’s ending” from “solo competition” to “studio unity”, from “losing…friends” to “finding their voices once more” as the harmonization of all four Beatles in the official audio triumphs over the discord that had previously broken the band apart (Murray). As one listener points out, “Now and Then” is “powerful because it feels like the final goodbye of the most influential rock band that ever existed” (Isaacalconrovira5231). While “Now and Then”’s status as the last song would suggest a conclusion to the Beatles, the significance of the band’s reunion reverses its death, rewriting the Beatles’ conclusion into a simultaneous resurrection. Therefore, the transformation of “Now and Then” from a solo work into a pluralized authorship distinguished by collaboration among all four Beatles provides a satisfying conclusion in the form of a reunion, authenticating “Now and Then” as a Beatles song through the reclamation of harmony among its members.

Author Commentary / Cheryl Li

In these paragraphs, it was imperative to establish how the song’s promotion perpetuated this concept of collaboration between past and present that would influence the public’s positive perception of the song. I began by watching the short film that preceded the song’s release to gain some insight on what the surviving Beatles members hoped for their audience to take away. The short film itself was densely packed with information in terms of historical context, the production process, and subtle messages through visual storytelling. I noted details in dialogue and cinematography that I felt uniquely stood out from the rest of the footage. Scenes like the camera shot panning on empty space around a microphone stood out as a reconciliation with the past. After comparing the official audio with the demo recording, I noted how differences in instrumentation and dynamics perpetuated the theme of accentuating the past. The excerpt I selected best demonstrates how my analysis emphasizes elements of the short film and audio for “Now and Then” that contribute to the idea of a reunion between the dead and living, thereby guiding my reader through my argument with the support of my original sources.

It was during the writing process for this essay that I truly understood what my writing seminar professor meant by saying “to be a writer is to be a reader.” I undoubtedly spent the most time understanding how to link my sources and subsequent analysis into a coherent line of reasoning. Oftentimes, I felt as though I was retracing my mental footsteps to best figure out how I managed to arrive at my working thesis based on the sources I gathered, and how to best replicate this path on paper for a reader. I found it most helpful to understand components such as the motive, thesis, and analysis should contribute to crafting a convincing argument from the perspective of a reader before I could execute each component.

Editor Commentary / Nadja Markov

Adjusting to college writing may seem daunting for many reasons – from understanding how to introduce yourself in the scholarly conversation, all the way to learning how to come up with an argument that is not just a reiteration of previously read points. The R3 (or, in some cases, R2) can be especially intimidating because of its open-ended nature. I think Cheryl’s paper is a great example of just how much you can achieve and learn as a writer through writing your R3.

The first thing that struck me while reading this essay, as well as this particular excerpt, was the orienting of the reader. The first few sentences of the essay do an incredible job of painting the contextual picture of how the authentic Beatles sound was preserved, as well as introducing the accompanying visual choices. From the reader’s point of view, I felt as if I was transported to the exact scene being described. From the writer’s point of view, I was amazed by Cheryl’s efficient usage of her close reading of the short film material to orient the reader. I think this tactic of utilizing some of the compelling material you’ve noticed in your sources and painting a picture to bring the reader closer to your point of view works particularly well with creative sources.

This method of orienting provides Cheryl with a strong foundation for her analysis, which flows seamlessly from this section. Cheryl starts her analysis by reiterating her argument about the song “Now and Then” being transformed “from a lonely solo to a joyous reunion”, which provides the reader with a sense of assurance on where the conclusion is headed. This is followed by yet another brief burst of orienting the reader, now within a historical context, adding yet another layer to her paper. 

Her motive shines within the middle section of this excerpt, where she shows the reader why they should pay attention to this seemingly insignificant shift between the demo and the published version by incorporating strong analysis. Although she didn’t specifically mention her motive within the conclusion, this choice made sense, as her orienting and analysis did the work for her.

Bringing the Motive Home, Spring 2024

Bringing the Motive Home: Conclusion

Is the motive only in the beginning of the paper? What does motive have to do with the conclusion? How do we ensure that the motive gains more depth as we head towards the conclusion and bring it home? This section features three papers: one Writing Seminar paper, one Freshman Seminar paper, and one Junior Paper, in that specific order to illustrate the progression of how students learn to incorporate motive throughout each step of Princeton’s Writing Curriculum. First, we will explore Cheryl Li’s Writing Seminar paper on the posthumous publication of the Beatles song ‘Now and Then’. The final paper in this section is Lina Singh’s Junior Paper on the influence of corporate dairy on dietary guidelines in the United States. These papers model different ways not only to align with the questions raised at the beginning of the paper and throughout the evidence analysis but also to move the questions forward in a generative direction to promote new scholarly questions.

— Nadja Markov ’26 and Grace Kim ’25

Spring 2024, Unpacking the Motive

Unnatural Nature: Kellert’s Conflicting Nine Values of Nature and the Forbes Backyard

In a Tortoiseshell

This is an excerpt from my R1 for WRI 106: Seeking Nature. We were asked to “extend and refine” Stephen R. Kellert’s framework of the nine values of nature, using a place on Princeton’s campus as a case study. Kellert presents a series of nine “values” detailing the many ways in which humans interact with nature and provides the clear benefits of each, indicating that engagement with these values may result in increased desire to conserve the natural world. Among these is the “dominionsitic” value which describes a desire to control nature. I argue that Kellert neglects to consider that dominionism has the potential to erase other elements of nature, resulting in people’s partial appreciation for the natural world and hindering the very conservation efforts that Kellert’s framework aimed to support.

Excerpt / Fionnuala Moore

Examining the Forbes backyard demonstrates the negative impacts of pursuit of the dominionistic value, complicating Kellert’s proposal of all of his values acting equally in service of humans’ physical and spiritual survival. He suggests that “their cumulative, interactive, and synergistic impact may contribute to the possibility of a more fulfilling personal existence” (Kellert 60). However, he neglects to consider that interactions between the values may have a subtracting rather than a cumulative impact. Though he does briefly present the possibility of a single value to “possess the capacity for… exaggerated distortion and self-defeating manifestation”, any observable repercussions of such a prospect are largely ignored (Kellert 56). The Forbes backyard and Springdale Golf Course demonstrate such repercussions as they show the ecological dangers of the dominionistic value in their so-called idyllic lawns. Re:Wild Your Campus, an organization dedicated to promoting biodiversity on college campuses, explains that sites like these actually “wipe away local ecosystems and native plant life and replace it with European turf-grass” (“About Us: The Issue”). Additionally, maintenance practices such as the application of synthetic pesticides are harmful to all forms of life on a campus, from trees and other plants to insects, birds and the students living there (“About Us: The Issue”).  The fulfillment of the dominionistic value removes biodiversity and weakens ecosystems, significantly decreasing the potential for satisfying naturalistic experiences in affected locations. It is vital to consider these impacts in speaking and thinking about the categories Kellert provides – they are neither independent nor interchangeable. These contradictions present an argument against single-use natural sites designed for specific human applications and demonstrate the importance of sites being designed with many aspects of nature in mind to avoid erasing other values in an attempt to promote just one.

An understanding of the possible erasing effects of Kellert’s values can explain the origins of partial relationships with and appreciation for nature, a phenomenon which he introduces yet fails to explain. Kellert briefly explores this idea in mentioning a study of residents of the United States and Japan, two very prosperous countries. It was found that while the majority of the residents in these countries identify some connection with nature, they do not appreciate all elements of it. This phenomenon can be understood as  “‘a love of semi-nature’…respondents described it as a perspective of nature dominated by a preference for the artificial, abstract, and symbolic rather than any realistic experience of the natural world” (Kellert 65). Though Kellert does not form this connection, people’s familiarity with “semi-nature” seems to originate from interactions primarily with sites that allow for engagement with only some of his nine values, especially those created with a dominionistic purpose. These daily interactions impact people’s perception of the definition of nature. The official webpage of Forbes college advertises the terrace, patio and backyard by citing that they have “the best view on campus!”, and the sentiment is frequently repeated within the Princeton community (“Terrace, Patio and Back Yard”). People who praise this location in this way likely have limited experience with truly “natural” areas with which to compare the heavily manicured appearance of the Forbes’ backyard, showing evidence of a warped perspective of nature resulting from constant interactions with dominionsitically-motivated locations.

The consequences of partial relationships with nature go far beyond individual misconceptions, even threatening to hinder Kellert’s goal for his nine values to aid in conservation efforts. Near the end of his article, Kellert expresses a hopeful view of the impact of his nine values on conservation efforts. He proposes that if people have a greater understanding of the importance of nature in their lives, they may be more inclined to protect it, with the belief, as René Dubos suggests that “were it only for selfish reasons… we must maintain variety and harmony in nature” (Dubos qtd in Kellert 60). Despite this generally optimistic view, Kellert does consider the impacts of  partial relationships with nature on this conservation ethic. He notes that if the majority of people maintain their relationships with semi-nature, “this narrow emphasis on certain species and landscapes is clearly an insufficient basis for a fundamental shift in global consciousness” (Kellert 66). If people are only familiar with some elements of nature, they will logically only seek to conserve those types of natural spaces. Students on Princeton campus, for example, are not  aware of the full extent of human interventions in the Forbes Backyard. Students will believe that it is these kinds of spaces that must be protected rather than wild, unchanged locations with which they may be largely unfamiliar and will apply these perspectives to ecological protection efforts. In this way, people will believe themselves to be supporting sustainability efforts when, in reality, they are advocating for a continuation of ecologically damaging maintenance practices, such as pesticide use and removal of biodiversity on the Springdale Golf Course. From this perspective, if people approach conservation acting in their “best interests”, they will continue to alter the sites with which they are familiar and maintain ignorance of those that legitimately demand conservation. Incomplete understandings of natural sites as a result of the erasing effects of the dominionistic value of nature have the dangerous potential to interfere with conservation efforts of even genuinely dedicated individuals.

Works Cited

“About Us: The Issue.” Re:Wild Your Campus, Re:Wild, Accessed 15 Sept. 2023.

Kellert, Stephen R. “The Biological Basis for Human Values of Nature.” The Biophilia 

Hypothesis, edited by Stephen R. Kellert and Edward. O. Wilson, Island Press, 1993, pp. 42-69. 

“Terrace, Patio and Back Yard.” Forbes College, Trustees of Princeton University, Accessed 15 Sept. 2023.

Author Commentary / Fionnuala Moore 

This was my first paper at Princeton, and through it, I learned how to find and apply motive. Like most first-years starting Writing Seminar, I had never explicitly considered the motive behind papers I was writing, but once I had developed an understanding of what it was, I’ve seen its value in every single essay I’ve written since. Often, it’s assumed that it’s easier to find motive if you have more control over your topic, but I think it’s just as important to find a genuinely interesting motive with less control over the topic in order to make the essay-writing process smoother and more enjoyable. I always like to think of it as searching for motive rather than creating it – there is always some kind of interesting tension when comparing sources, and I simply have to find it. This feels much less overwhelming than needing to create a sense of motive from nothing.

In this essay, for example, once I had decided on a nature site, I simply sat outside and observed things that seemed strange or notable. In this case, it was the constant sound and presence of maintenance equipment. Then, I repeated the process with Kellert, identifying points where I was confused and finding an interesting gap in Kellert’s thinking: he assumed that all of his nine values of nature interacted in perfect harmony. Finally, I tried to explain one of these tensions using the other, leading to interesting conclusions and an overarching sense of motive related to the dangers of a partial appreciation of nature and its implications in conservation. By using this strategy, even though I was provided with a topic with little choice, I was able to find a motive I found legitimately compelling.

Having found an exciting motive, I was able to arrive at a thesis. By following these steps, my motive was inherently threaded throughout all parts of my essay, but I also tried to be intentional in raising the stakes (increasing the sense of motive) as the essay progressed to build up my argument logically and in a way that felt interesting and communicated the urgency of my argument. The mounting pressure of the argument peaks in the third paragraph of this excerpt (the final body paragraph of the essay), when I connect the ideas I’ve introduced to the real-world issue of conservation.

Editor Commentary / Natalia Espinosa Dice  

Moore submitted three works to Tortoise: her R1, R2 and R3. Each was excellent in its own right, collectively showcasing Moore’s tremendous growth as a writer over the semester. While selecting the R3, the culminating research assignment of the semester, might have seemed the logical choice, Moore’s R1 stood out for a particularly impressive reason. 

Writing Seminar serves as a student’s first introduction to motive, a concept rather notorious for its elusiveness. To grasp motive by the end of the semester is an accomplishment to be proud of, yet Moore achieves this after just a few weeks in class. Indeed, as the very first paper, her R1’s success speaks not only to her talent as a writer but also to her wholehearted embrace of a new challenge. Above all else, Moore’s remarkable understanding of motive led us to select her R1 for publication, with the hope that her work is not only impressive but instructive, too. 

Moore’s motive identifies and refines a subtle tension within Kellert’s argument, but she does not stop there. Instead, she dives deeper, using her refinement to reevaluate a phenomenon that Kellert himself briefly mentions but cannot fully explain. She considers how this phenomenon might threaten Kellert’s conservation goals, thus complicating his argument in a nuanced and thoughtful manner. As she zooms out in scope, her meticulous build-up culminates in a global motive, concluding that failure to recognize the potential dangers of the dominionistic value might impede even the most well-intended conservation efforts. 

Her motive thus serves as the paper’s guiding thread and central source of dynamic energy, propelling her argument forward as it builds layers of complexity with each paragraph. Ultimately, motive enables her to achieve perhaps the second most challenging task of a Writing Seminar student: developing a progressive structure. Indeed, in harnessing the full power of motive, Moore demonstrates precisely why its pursuit is worth the effort. 

What makes Moore’s use of motive so exceptional is perhaps best described in her own words, “I always like to think of it as searching for motive rather than creating it.” This mindset proves pivotal to her success. By investing considerable effort early in her writing process, Moore finds a space to authentically engage with Kellert’s work. Instead of forcing a motive that aligns with her thesis, she allows motive to guide every step of her writing process, including the formation of her thesis itself. Asserting a framework that reconsiders Kellert’s nine values as interactive rather than static, she sustains a conversation within this identified space throughout her entire paper. Ultimately, when she applies this refined framework to the partial relationship phenomenon, she redefines this space as entirely her own, thus making a truly unique contribution to ongoing scholarly conversation. Indeed, by establishing an exemplary standard for future students to follow, her work assumes an equally valuable role in this publication.

Spring 2024, Unpacking the Motive

“For Those Who’ve Come Across the Seas, We’ve Boundless Plains to Share”: Australia’s Representational Violence Against Asylum Seekers

In a Tortoiseshell

This is an excerpt from my final paper for ANT264: Violence. The prompt for this assignment was quite broad – we were simply asked to write an analytical paper exploring different theoretical and anthropological perspectives on violence that we had covered throughout the semester. I decided to write about Australia’s asylum seeker policy, or the “Pacific Solution,” a legislative framework designed to detain asylum seekers in Nauru, Christmas Island, and Papua New Guinea’s (PNG) Manus Island before they are allowed to enter Australia. Drawing on the work of historian Achille Mmebme, anthropologist Michael Taussig, sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, and sociologist Loïc Wacquant, I contend that the Australian government is employing representational violence, a violence that emerges from the manipulation of narratives and knowledge on an oppressed subject, to mask and legitimize its acts of violence against asylum seekers. 

Excerpt / Laura Zhang

Representational Violence

Since 2001, Australia has implemented a policy of processing and resettling asylum seekers in offshore facilities. Despite these policies drawing international condemnation from bodies like the United Nations Committee against Torture, there is little domestic backlash on Australia’s continuous mistreatment of asylum seekers. Australia’s ability to generate indifference in its general public to irrefutable human rights violations is what I call representational violence, an analytical framework at the intersection of the concepts of necropolitics, epistemic murk, and symbolic violence. Necropolitics, as conceptualized by historian Achille Mbembe, is inspired by French philosopher Michael Foucault’s idea of biopower, the capacity for sovereign powers to exercise a legitimate “right to kill, or [refrain] from killing” its own citizens (Foucault, 2004, p. 79). Mbembe builds upon Foucault by highlighting how biopower depends on excluding certain groups within society and is thereby fundamentally tied to the idea of “race (or for that matter racism)” (Mbembe, 2003, p. 17). In sovereign states creating the concept of the Other, they lay claim to a right to kill racial groups that represent a “mortal threat or absolute danger” within society (18). 

By putting necropolitics in dialogue with anthropologist Michael Taussig’s idea of epistemic murk, I can develop an explanation of how Othering can be accomplished. Taussig highlights how, in the context of the Putumayo Rubber Boom, rubber station managers, concerned with ideas of Native American savagery, created “an uncertain reality out of fiction, a nightmarish reality in which the unstable interplay of truth and illusion becomes a social force of horrendous and phantasmic dimensions” (Taussig, 1984, p. 492). That is, the colonizers used techniques of storytelling, fictionalization, and narrative-making to create epistemic murk and construct the colonized in a false, illusory image of savagery and Otherness to justify their torture and abuse of Native Americans. 

By including sociologist Pierre Bourdieu and sociologist Loïc Wacquant’s symbolic violence in the conversation, I am further able to understand how social agents within society can internalize these narratives surrounding necropolitics. Symbolic violence is “the violence which is exercised upon a social agent with his or her complicity” (Bourdieu and Wacquant, 2004, p. 272). Whilst Bourdieu and Wacquant specifically tie the concept to women in France internalizing patriarchal values to explain symbolic violence, symbolic violence can also be broadly applied to groups within society viewing systems of violence in the status quo as natural, and state violence as legitimate. In tandem with Mbembe and Taussig, symbolic violence allows me to define representational violence as the violence arising from sovereign powers controlling processes of storytelling and the public imaginings of a group resulting in its citizens internalizing and accepting its policies causing violence, exclusion, or death for that particular group. Processes of representational violence, in the context of Australia’s asylum seeker policy, can be divided into three main methods:

(1) Control of visibility 

By placing asylum seekers in offshore detention centers, the Australian government uses geographical distance to render them invisible in the public eye. In a 2012 speech, Senator Christine Milne pointed out that the Australian government has denied the idea of “out of sight, out of mind” about processing asylum seekers offshore (Milne, 2012). However, this is contradicted by the Australian government’s past actions, such as excising Christmas Island from Australia’s migration zone (Coombs, 2003)– manipulating physical borders to metaphorically emphasize how asylum seekers do not belong within Australian shores. The control over borders is a form of “constructive blurring,” which, as architect Eyal Weizman articulates, is the manipulation of borders to “naturalize facts of domination” (Weizman, 2012, p. 8). This action also links to environmentalist Rob Nixon’s idea of slow violence, the violence that “occurs gradually and out of sight” (Nixon, 2011, p. 2), in highlighting how keeping asylum seekers in historically perceived “isolated, remote, and primitive” (Salyer et al., 2020) locations relegates asylum seekers into the peripheries of the general public’s collective visions and attention. 

Making asylum seekers invisible serves to mask the ecological and structural violence that Australia has enacted on asylum seekers and the Pacific Islands, thereby dismissing Australia’s responsibility in this issue. The Department Secretary Michael Pezzullo, during a 2015 Senate Inquiry, stated that “[t]he government of Nauru is ultimately responsible in the exercise of its jurisdiction,” representing Australia’s belief that they are not responsible for the conditions and treatment of asylum seekers in offshore detention (The Senate, 2015). Shifting the accountability from the Australian government to foreign governments and detention centers makes it so that the narrative surrounding asylum seeker policies is aligned with “prevention through deterrence,” weaponizing the environment of detention centers and framing refugee death as an “unintended consequence” that Australia bares no responsibility for (León, 2015, p. 34-36). An example of this is the death of Hamid Khazaei, who died of medical neglect after presenting to Manus Island medical center with flu symptoms and a lesion on his leg. In this case study, Australia’s rhetoric veils the fact that Nauru’s harsh environment of extreme heat, drought, and poor health conditions– which resulted in Khazaei’s death– are all products of long legacies of colonial phosphate extraction and mining in the 1900s, forced occupation during both World Wars and impact by climate change–processes which Australia has been directly accountable for (Kanngieser, 2020). Hence, not only is Australia responsible for direct acts of violence perpetrated against individuals, it is also responsible for placing asylum seekers in hostile landscapes that it has shaped through decades of exploitation and ecocide. Australia’s representational violence, through narratives of invisibility and skewing migrant deaths as “acts of nature,” thereby obfuscates and masks Australian necropolitics. This leads to indifference in the general public on the asylum seeker issue, and ensures that the general public solely internalizes the hegemonic narrative that justifies the death, eradication, and abuse of asylum seekers. 

Author Commentary / Laura Zhang 

When I started brainstorming what my motive was for this assignment, I decided to research reactions to Australia’s asylum seeker policy. I found a large number of articles from international human rights organizations condemning this policy. However, I struggled to find critical reports from domestic organizations or Australian media sources. Such a discrepancy suggested a tension between international and domestic perspectives on offshore processing. This allowed me to figure out that my motive was to investigate why there was so little domestic backlash on Australia’s continuous mistreatment of asylum seekers. After deciding this, I needed to figure out my thesis. I had vague ideas about the link between asylum seekers and ideas about internal and external sovereignty, myths of terror, and the normalization of state violence. However, addressing all these concepts in one essay seemed quite messy. 

Upon going through the entire syllabus and highlighting relevant theoretical concepts, I then knew I needed to engage the authors into a scholarly conversation so that I could combine these concepts together. Drawing on what I learned from my R2 in my freshman writing seminar, I sketched out the ways in which the authors interacted. I eventually came to the realization that I could synthesize all these authors’ perspectives into a new form of violence, which I called ‘representational violence.’ I was afraid of the challenges of defining this new concept, and applying this concept to Australia’s asylum seeker policies. However, when writing my essay, I found that it was quite a natural process – I simply kept on adding the contributions of authors on top of others’ to create my definition of representational violence. 

In terms of my evidence and analysis, I found it difficult to talk about the specific details of the policies. Instead, I found myself reading and listening to transcripts of Australian politicians’ speeches regarding the asylum seeker policies. Although a form of evidence that I had not yet interacted with at Princeton, analyzing rhetoric was a crucial part of explaining representational violence. I also read anthropological articles that connected Australia’s asylum seeker policy to other theories of violence. Doing this was a helpful way to understand how I could use representational violence as a theoretical framework to analyze these policies. Whilst creating my own concept was difficult and novel, it was also incredibly rewarding. Challenging myself to defend my argument with my own theoretical perspective was such an interesting method to approach an essay – and I hope to have the opportunity to do so again in the future!

Editor Commentary / Natalia Espinosa Dice  

When students graduate from Writing Seminar, they likely wonder if they will ever need to use motive again. How could such a Writing Seminar-specific lexicon term possibly translate beyond the structured prompts of the R1, R2 and R3? Zhang’s exceptional excerpt demonstrates not only why we need to use motive, but also why we may even want to. 

Zhang situates three distinct scholarly conversations in context with each other. In doing so, she not only actively engages with four scholars at once – a feat in itself – but also traverses three disciplines: anthropology, philosophy and sociology. By finding the space between and intersections of these three scholarly conversations, she lays the groundwork for her own concept of representational violence. 

What I love most about Zhang’s writing is that she is explicit about why she includes each scholar along the way, making her framework accessible to unfamiliar readers even despite its complexity. However, Zhang does not stop thinking about motive once she establishes her framework. Instead, she deftly weaves motive into her evidence and analysis. Throughout our revision process, I encouraged Zhang to push this even further, simply because after all her work in developing an excellent motive, I wanted her to continue to make it explicit throughout her paper. Her revised excerpt delivers exceptionally in this regard, as Zhang meticulously defines her position in relation to other scholars throughout her section entitled “Control of Visibility.” 

Zhang’s approach to evidence is equally remarkable. In her reflection, she elaborates on her writing process, which notably begins with finding her motive: to investigate the tension between Australia’s actual mistreatment of asylum seekers and the lack of domestic backlash. When she begins gathering evidence, her decision to focus on transcripts of speeches and anthropological articles reflects this same tension, as she utilizes rhetorical analysis in conjunction with an anthropological approach that examines behavior within the context of culture and broader systems. Methodology is often an ambiguous concept for Writing Seminar students. In Zhang’s case, beginning with motive enables her to develop a methodology that helps resolve precisely the tension she identifies. Furthermore, combining a theoretical framework with anthropological evidence and rhetorical analysis makes her essay well-balanced. By anchoring every theoretical concept of her framework in tangible evidence and contextualizing every empirical claim within her theoretical framework, she convinces us that her argument is both credible and complete.  

Perhaps Zhang did not have to construct such a complex motive. Indeed, as Zhang puts it, “…addressing all these concepts in one essay seemed quite messy.” Yet, by dedicating time to finding an intriguing tension, engaging with existing scholarly conversation and crafting a coherent framework that synthesizes all these complex concepts, Zhang accomplishes precisely what she set out to do, and perhaps even more. Her use of motive, along with her writing process itself, sets an example not just for Writing Seminar students but for all of us. 

Spring 2024, Unpacking the Motive

Unpacking the Motive: Evidence-Analysis, Motivating Moves

We often think of motive as something established in the introduction of a paper. But what happens to it after? This section illustrates how motive can serve as a powerful tool to both frame the structure of an argument and generate compelling analysis of evidence. From Laura Zhang’s rigorous engagement with scholars in her Anthropology paper to the dynamic structure of Fionnuala Moore’s Writing Seminar paper, the excerpts in this section showcase ways in which writers can sustain their motivating momentum well into their body paragraphs.

— Grace Wang ’26

Setting Up the Motive, Spring 2024

Characterizing the Spatiotemporal Dynamics of Dopamine and Noradrenaline During Flexible Associative Learning in Mouse Dorsal Cortex

In a Tortoiseshell

An abstract and brief introduction precede this excerpt. In these sections, I walk through some prior literature on the roles of dopamine and norepinephrine, two neurotransmitters, in the brain. I show that there is a notable absence of research looking into the functions of these molecules in the outermost layers of the brain called cortex. There are further conflicting theories about whether these molecules have global, unified functions across the whole brain, or if their effects are specific to local regions. I also cover the basics of a model of associative learning in which a certain sensory cue is paired with a rewarding or punishing event, referred to below as stimulus-outcome relationships. 

Excerpt / Tristan Szapary

Specific Aims

Neuromodulators regulate circuit dynamics across the entire brain, though their role in cortex during learning remains poorly understood. This proposed study will characterize the spatiotemporal dynamics of dopamine and noradrenaline during visual and auditory associative learning in the mouse dorsal cortex. We hypothesize that both learning and the reversal will depend on dopamine to learn reward associations while noradrenaline will enable the mouse to update the new stimulus-outcome relationships during reversals for both reward and punishment. Additionally, we predict targeted release of dopamine and noradrenaline in auditory or visual sensory processing regions respective to the stimulus modality, exhibiting spatial heterogeneity.

Aim 1: Assess Learning in a Two-Modality Associative Learning Paradigm with Reversals. Mice will conduct a task in which visual or auditory stimuli are paired with a reward of water or a punishment of an air puff to their eye. The outcome associated with the rewarded and punished stimuli will then be reversed. This aim seeks to develop metrics based on behavioral responses like anticipatory lick rate and eyelid closure to quantify learning.

Aim 2: Comparing Spatiotemporal Dynamics of Dopamine During Visual and Auditory Associative Learning. Mice will be virally induced to express sensors of dopamine and conduct the learning and reversal trials in Aim 1 with cortex-wide mesoscopic imaging. In this aim, we will observe changes in dopamine (DA) activity as they correlate with learning and localize them to specific regions in the dorsal cortex to determine whether DA is heterogeneously released across modality and confirm that DA encodes reward prediction error, as hypothesized by numerous theories.

Aim 3: Comparing Spatiotemporal Dynamics of Noradrenaline During Visual and Auditory Associative Learning. In this aim, we will conduct a similar experiment as Aim 2 but in mice with induced sensors for noradrenaline, again looking for heterogeneous release patterns and testing the hypothesis that NA is involved in encoding novelty and uncertainty.

Author Commentary / Tristan Szapary

This excerpt is the entirety of the “Specific Aims” section of my Spring Junior Paper (JP) in the Neuroscience Department. Our spring JP is expected to take the form of a prospectus, in which we propose a potential experiment that we may conduct in the future, commonly as our thesis. The motivation for this structure is to introduce us to the process of pitching scientific ideas to a critical audience and convince them that it is worthwhile, which is a common occurrence when working in STEM academia as seen with grant proposals. A prospectus contains various sections that I was already familiar with like an abstract, introduction, and methods. Yet I had never heard of Specific Aims before, and after some research learned that the section is meant to convey the problem your research aims to solve, the motive of why such a problem matters, and the concrete objectives your research plans to achieve, all in no more than a page!

At first, this felt like a daunting task. The expectations of Specific Aims seemed to match that of the entire paper, asking me to combine my abstract, introduction, and methods and distill them into a fraction of their length. I decided it was best to focus on writing the other sections first, so I could solidify my understanding of what I wanted to study, why I wanted to study it, and how I planned on doing so, before tackling its summation. Breaking down my methods into section headers based on each of my experimental goals seamlessly turned into the organization of my three listed aims. Further, when I began writing this excerpt, I forced myself to be as concise as possible with my language and then went back to cut down even more extraneous words when I proofread. This added constraint was the only way to reach the one-page limit, but it also pushed me to sharpen my language so that each word was both necessary and sufficient to get my point across. I tried to limit the technical jargon in this excerpt to broaden its scope, but there were occasional moments where I relied on concepts that were touched on in the introduction. Nevertheless, I wrote the last sentences of Aims 2 and 3 to give some theoretical background on dopamine and norepinephrine so that any reader could infer that the former is related to reward and the latter to novelty. I also included a broad overview of my proposed experimental protocol in Aim 1. This way, a reader unaware of the methodological details could read these Specific Aims and still grasp the larger framework of my experiments and the most important objectives they seek to accomplish.

The process of crafting my Specific Aims sections was in itself a writing exercise of efficient orientation. It asks you to boil down many pages of research into its bare bones and strike a careful balance between the specificity of your experimental objective with the broad scope of your problem in question. 

Editor Commentary / Molly Taylor

In independent work, Princeton undergraduates are asked to produce original research that contributes to scholarship in their discipline. Beyond generating a well-motivated research question, we must also determine how to answer it. In the “specific aims” section of his thesis research proposal, submitted as junior independent work for the neuroscience department, Tristan explicitly connects his motive to his methodology. 

The specific aims section begins with a succinct restatement of Tristan’s motive: to characterize the spatiotemporal dynamics of dopamine and noradrenaline during learning, which researchers do not understand well. This restatement is important in framing the study’s three specific aims, as it reminds the reader of what Tristan hopes to achieve before he explains how he will do it. Further, the hypothesis that follows the motivating question follows from the research presented in the preceding background section, allowing the reader to see how Tristan’s work builds on existing knowledge on dopamine and noradrenaline in the cortex—and how his proposed research will confirm or challenge it. 

Then, Tristan presents the three “specific aims” of his research with impressive concision. This section connects each element of his experimental design to its implication for the research question. While the full twenty-page proposal discusses the technical background and methodology in detail, this section succeeds in distilling the why and how of his research into fewer than 300 words. In a research proposal—with the goal of convincing an advisor of the merits of a project—this succinct overview is both persuasive and helpful, in the sense that it frames, at a high level, the more in-depth sections of the paper.  

Relatively few writing assignments at Princeton require a research proposal, and not all disciplines require a methodology as explicit as neuroscience. Still, Tristan’s work is a reminder that, regardless of the subject, it is important to be able to articulate the motivation behind the methodology, whether that methodology is a lab procedure or a close reading.

Setting Up the Motive, Spring 2024

Decoding the Evolutionary Pathways of Transmissible Cancers in Tasmanian Devils

Excerpt / Peyton Smith

Cancer is a ubiquitous disease among multicellular eukaryotic organisms. However, the uncontrolled growth of cancerous cell lines is usually constrained within an individual organism. On rare occasions, cancerous cells can acquire the ability to transmit between individual organisms. Such is the case with Devil Facial Tumor (DFT). DFT is a transmissible cancer nearly 100% fatal for Tasmanian Devils (Sarcophilus harrisii) and has contributed to an overall 80% decline in the Tasmanian Devil population over the past 20 years.1 Though the emergence of transmissible cancer was thought to be rare, scientists discovered a second lineage of DFT in 2015.2 A new paper by Stammnitz et al. in Science explores the evolutionary histories of these two tumor lineages that threaten the Tasmanian Devil with extinction.3

Transmissible cancer has been documented a mere handful of times in nature. The most well-studied form, Canine Transmissible Venereal Tumor (CTVT), is sexually transmitted in domesticated dogs (Canis lupus familiaris). CTVT has been documented for over 200 years, can be found all over the world and originated thousands of years ago from a single founder.4 Transmissible cancer has also been observed in invertebrates. A disseminated leukemia-like neoplasia was first observed in soft-shelled clams (Mya arenaria), a marine bivalve, in the 1970s and was found to be a transmissible tumor in 2015.5 

Unlike these other tumors, Devil Face tumor has been thought to have emerged relatively recently. The first strain of DFT was first observed in 1996, discovered in 2006 to be a transmissible cell line and has since rapidly spread through Tasmania.2,6 The swiftness of DFT’s emergence compared to the other well-studied transmissible cancer CTVT puzzled scientists and plagued conservationists. The Tasmanian Devil’s face-biting behavior (while mating and feeding) and vagile nature partly explained DFT’s massive spread.4 Yet, scientists’ intrigue intensified with the discovery of a second strain of DFT (DFT2), visually indistinctive from the first, in 2015. Unlike the original strain (DFT1) that lacks sex chromosomes, DFT2 bears a Y chromosome providing strong evidence for an independent emergence.2 Transmissible cancer, the ultimate “Perfect Storm” thought to have only evolved in a select few organisms, somehow emerged twice in a single host. This discovery led scientists to hypothesize that transmissible cancer could occur more frequently in nature than previously expected and/or that Tasmanian Devils are particularly susceptible to developing transmissible cancers. 

Further research into marine bivalves in 2016 found neoplasia in three additional species, similar to the discovery of DFT2, attributable to multiple independent transmissible lineages.7 This insight increased support for the notion that transmissible cancer could arise more regularly than previously expected and that certain species may be predisposed to developing transmissible cancer. Still, the genetic and mutational pathways that these cancers shared to become transmissible remained unclear. 

Author Commentary / Peyton Smith 

I wrote this piece for my fall JP in the department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. Our Junior Independent work task is uniquely short in comparison to other Princeton Junior Papers; Instead of emphasizing experimental design and analysis, our assignment instead focuses on conducting background research and refining our scientific writing. Consequently, we were instructed to write a short review of a recent paper for a larger audience that contextualizes the paper.

I found this paper on Transmissible Tasmanian Devil Cancer while browsing through the archives of Science and became instantly curious about the system after reading the abstract. I began informally looking up information about transmissible cancers, Tasmanian Devils, and the researchers behind the project. After seeing the rich background and context behind this 2023 paper, I knew that I had to cover it in my fall JP.

Yet with this glut of information (all of which I found very interesting), how was I supposed to approach actually presenting the paper? I could have approached the research from a conservationist perspective, highlighting the threat to Tasmanian Devil’s survival as a species posed by these cancer lineages. I could have also come from an epidemiological standpoint and explicated the difficulty in predicting and preventing the spread of this novel disease. Ultimately, I chose the angle that most aligned with the central question in the back of my mind: How can cancers even become transmissible? I then focused on the hypotheses and research surrounding this central question. That meant I didn’t limit myself to Tasmanian devils as a part of my literature review but delved into transmissible cancers in other species.

Still, these other angles naturally emerge throughout my paper as necessary to fully orient the reader to this system. When I first presented my topic to my EEB junior tutorial with my fellow students and advisor, my peers and professor were similarly curious about the system and asked many questions. At the time, I didn’t have answers to some of these questions, as I hadn’t yet finished my background research; once I began drafting my JP, however, I tried my best to integrate answers to their questions and curiosity into my writing to orient those who may be first encountering Tasmanian Devil transmissible cancer.

Scientific papers generally orient to a small audience, which can reduce the amount of people who are able to appreciate the interesting and consequential scientific work conducted in paper. Hence, I appreciate the purpose of this task which deemphasized methods in favor of exploring the paper’s implications. In science writing, it can feel as if there is a continuous trade-off between accessibility and detail, yet a coherent background motivated by a concise question can be appreciated and understood by anyone.

Editor Commentary / Molly Taylor

Finding a topic for junior independent work, or any open-ended writing assignment, is a daunting task. Peyton’s process is particularly instructive: after reading widely, she decided to analyze the study that stuck with her. In her scientific review, the junior paper of the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Peyton establishes the significance of her chosen study in the context of transmissible cancer research. Her work illustrates how a strong scholarly motive—and an intriguing paper topic—follow from personal motive. 

Written for a public audience, the review first orients the reader with a concise introduction to transmissible cancer and Devil Facial Tumor (DFT). Rather than providing a highly technical definition, Peyton presents DFT to non-specialist readers by explaining why it matters. The first paragraph references its global impact (“DFT… has contributed to an overall 80% decline in the Tasmanian Devil population), as well as the surprise it poses to scientists (“Though the emergence of transmissible cancer was thought to be rare, scientists discovered a second lineage of DFT in 2015”). By infusing orientation with motive, the first paragraph conveys to readers why understanding research on DFT is important. 

The following paragraphs present a chronological account of research on transmissible cancer, covering the tumors before DFT, the puzzle of DFT’s swift emergence, and theories on DFT.  This section succinctly establishes the scholarly motive of Steinmetz et. al, who look to identify the mechanisms of DFT emergence. It is also accessible and compelling to readers. Peyton only uses technical terms when necessary and, after doing so, explains their significance in plain language. For example, after discussing the difference in chromosomes between the two DFT strains, Peyton ensures readers understand its implication: “Transmissible cancer, the ultimate ‘Perfect Storm’ thought to have only evolved in a select few organisms, somehow emerged twice in a single host.” Further, by including details such as DFT “puzzled scientists and plagued researchers”, and that “scientists’ intrigue intensified” upon the discovery of a second strain, Peyton invites readers to embrace the mystery of DFT. 

Reviewing a scientific study for a general audience is not easy, but the success of Peyton’s piece can be attributed to her thorough research, clarity in orienting, and enthusiasm for the topic. Just as Peyton was curious about transmissible cancer, it turns out, other researchers were too—allowing for not only a rich scholarly motive but also a global motive that leaves readers finding themselves just as fascinated by DFT.