Tag Archives: key terms


Tortoise Tuesday: Key Terms in the Lyrics of Maggie Rogers

As Princeton’s flowers begin to bloom and campus comes alive again, I cannot stop listening to Maggie Rogers’ songs. Her upbeat, folk-pop style matches the sense of reawakening and growth that comes with the spring. Rogers’ songs always make me feel hopeful and empowered — like anything is possible and I have unlimited potential. They also connect me to nature, as Rogers often expresses emotions in her songs in terms of the natural world.  

Specifically, water figures prominently in many of Roger’s songs in her 2019 album, Heard It In A Past Life. Most obviously in her song “Fallingwater,” Rogers sings, “I fought the current running just the way you would/And now I’m stuck upstream/And it’s getting harder/I’m like falling water.” Here, Rogers captures her feeling of being stuck in terms of the powerful currents of streams or creeks. In “Back in My Body,” Rogers describes her mental state: “Like the dam was breaking and my mind came rushing in.” In “Light on,” Rogers is “caught up in a wave.” In “Give a Little,” she asks, “let me be the light upon the lake,” and in “On + Off,” she feels “as light as the ocean.” Water is clearly thematic in this album but also in her songwriting more broadly. Even in songs outside of the album, Rogers is constantly referring to water. In “Dog Years,” she is “as sure as the sea,” and in “Love you for a Long Time” she sings, “if devotion is a river, then I’m floating away.”  

Each of these different references to bodies of water become important key words (defined in the Lexicon as “a paper’s main terms or concepts”) in Maggie Rogers’ lyrics. Each form of water — creek, dam, wave, lake, ocean, sea, river — serves as a touch point in her songs and informs the reader of what kind of emotion or experience Rogers is going through. With a breaking dam, Rogers expresses a sense of being immersed in her feelings; with a lake, she’s calm and settled; with a river, she’s swept away by love. These terms also create continuity between her songs and even across albums. The audience expects lyrics about nature and water as marks of Rogers’ style. 

Just as Rogers’ references to water guide her audience through her songs, key terms guide the reader through academic papers. Particularly when dealing with confusing scientific processes or a scholar’s complex ideas, strong papers will define key terms early on and consistently refer back to them as the argument develops. Key terms become reference points for the paper’s audience; every time a key word pops up in the paper, readers know to pay attention. 

                                    – Annabelle Duval ’23


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

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

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

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

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

— Doruntina Fida ’21


Key Terms in Ballet: Giselle and Leitmotifs

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

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

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

–Doruntina Fida ’21


Tortoise Tuesday: Orientation and Key Terms in Bombshell

I recently saw the movie Bombshell, a dramatization of the events surrounding the charges of sexual harassment raised by several woman against former Fox News CEO Roger Ailes. As I watched Bombshell, I was struck by how the filmmakers used techniques like orienting and key term definition to structure the film. 

The opening sequence of Bombshell, narrated by then-anchor Megyn Kelly (played by Charlize Theron), orients viewers to the world of Fox News as represented in the film. Kelly guides viewers around the building, pointing out the different studios and teams at work. Kelly uses a visual aid, a model of the skyscraper in which the studios are located; certain floors on the model light up as she explains what is located on each floor. This sequence orients the audience to the structure of Fox News, just as a good writer orients readers by forecasting the paper’s structure and laying the groundwork for the “world” (of arguments, scholars, texts, etc.) to be explored in the paper.

In addition to orienting us to Fox News through Kelly’s tour and commentary, this opening sequence defines several key terms that appear later in the movie. For example, Kelly tells viewers that “the second floor” means Ailes, as the CEO’s office is located there. This key term definition primes the audience for later scenes when employees are told “the second floor is calling” or “the second floor wants to see you.”

Importantly, orientation and key term definition in Bombshell are not limited to the first scene. Over the course of the movie, as new characters are introduced, their names and roles (such as “Fox news anchor” or “wife of Roger Ailes”) appear on the screen beneath them. This strategy of visibly identifying characters as they appear mirrors another strategy of good writing: knowing how to orient throughout a paper. Not every key term, source, or scholar needs to be defined and introduced during the first paragraph of an essay. Good writers are able to discern which concepts need to be introduced first, in the opening paragraph, and which can be introduced as the paper goes on, in the context of the larger argument.

Bombshell orients viewers and defines key terms strategically at the opening of the film and as the movie progresses. As you consider how best to orient readers to your writing, consider the following tactics:

  • Forecast the structure of the paper
  • Introduce the most important aspects of the “world” at the start of the paper
  • Use a visual aid if helpful
  • Define key terms clearly
  • Decide which orienting and defining must occur in the first paragraphs and which can occur later in the context of the paper

–Paige Allen ’21

Key Terms, Spring 2019

Improving BAHAMAS: Reducing Selection Effects Bias in Bayesian Hierarchical Supernova Cosmological Inference

In a Tortoiseshell: In this excerpt from his Junior Paper on supernova detection, T. Lukas Mäkinen uses key terms to effectively scaffold his discussion of a new technique for minimizing biases in samples of detected supernovae. By maintaining a clear focus and providing a sequence of consistent and well-defined key terms, Lukas provides the reader with a framework through which to understand the technical contents of his paper, allowing even a lay reader to finish the paper with a strong impression of Lukas’s work and its significance.

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Motive, Spring 2019

The Literariness of Political Texts

In a Tortoiseshell: In this paper about the Palestinian Declaration of Independence of 1988, Sophie Evans’ original use of key terms — “the literariness of political texts” — allows her to flip the current scholarly discourse — what Edward Said calls “the worldliness of literary texts” — on its head. In the first few paragraphs of her introduction, Sophie constructs motive by orienting readers as to how the literariness of the Declaration, written by a prominent Palestinian poet, has been overlooked. She then argues for why and how her close reading of the literariness of political texts can be brought to bear on Palestinian history and even its political situation today.

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Key Terms, Spring 2019

Form, Function, Fiction: A Rereading of Franz Kafka’s “Vor dem Gesetz”

In a Tortoiseshell: In his junior paper, Owen Ayers examines the genre of Franz Kafka’s short story “Vor dem Gesetz” (“Before the Law”).  Is it a parable, a riddle, or a joke? These genres, as defined by scholars, become Owen’s key terms as well as the basis of his structure. He explains how the story fits somewhat into all three of these genres, thus complicating their scholarly definitions. Continue reading


“What’s a kick?”: Key Term Definition in Inception

Christopher Nolan’s 2010 masterpiece, Inception, is a (literally) multi-layered science-fiction film that explores the concept of extracting and planting information from the subconscious through shared dreaming. “Inception,” as defined in the film, is the planting of an idea in a subject’s mind, in a natural way such that the subject believes the idea was originated from their own mind.  Besides the concept of “Inception,” the film is filled with seemingly technical jargon, such as “kicks,” “limbo,” “fences,” and “dreamscapes.” And yet, as a viewer, being taken through this complex maze, you consistently feel as if you are able to follow the intricate story that’s being woven. So how is Christopher Nolan able to familiarize the viewer to all of the jargon necessary to understand his world of shared dreaming, in a way that seems organic and functional to the story?

Nolan uses one key character in order to help orient us as viewers to the story: Ariadne. After the team’s previous architect betrays the team, Ariadne is brought on board as the new architect. She is the outsider, like the viewer, who knows nothing about the world of shared dreaming, and needs to be quickly brought up to speed, enabling us to get oriented to the jargon of the shared dream world. A perfect example of Ariadne’s function as the proxy for the viewer can be seen in this brief 17-second clip. As the team is planning out how to exit the different layers of the shared dream world, the technical term “kick” arises in the conversation. Arthur asks Cobb how to wake people out of a shared dream, and Cobb responds by saying that the team needs a “kick.” However, this simple response assumes that we have knowledge of what a kick is, which as viewers, we don’t. Ariadne is the proxy for the viewer here, asking, “what’s a kick?” The team then explains to Ariadne that a “kick” is the feeling of falling that jolts the dreamer awake, enabling them to exit a dream. By having the team define the key term, “kick,” to Ariadne, Nolan is also able to define the key term to us as viewers.

By using Ariadne’s character as a narrative technique for orienting the viewer to key terms, Nolan is able to construct a highly complex world of shared dreaming that doesn’t feel utterly confusing. This impressive feat results from Nolan’s incorporation of key word definition into screenwriting, and allows us as viewers to also feel like we are being challenged to solve a puzzle, invited as intellectual equals and insiders on an exciting journey.

–Catherine Wang ’19


Tortoise Tuesday: Key Terms in “In Her Words”

In the March 19 issue of “In Her Words,” a newsletter published twice-weekly by the New York Times that reports on feminism and gender (in)equality, Maya Salam reviews the book “Why Does Patriarchy Persist” by Carol Gilligan and Naomi Snider. Salam identifies the central and seemingly “obvious” question Gilligan and Snider pose — “Why and how, after decades of activism, does the patriarchy persist?” — and succinctly explains their argument: patriarchy is hard to eradicate not because, or not principally because, men are reluctant to give up their political, economic, and institutional dominance, but rather because both men and women internalize and perpetuate sexist norms. In her review, however, Salam does more than simply summarize the book’s argument. Because she is writing about a term, “patriarchy” –  with which most people are familiar, but which few people might be able to define precisely – her column is also an excellent example of the definition of key terms.

Whenever authors write for a non-expert audience, they must take into account their readers’ lack of familiarity with the terms they use. Even when key terms could be assumed to be universally understood — most, if not all, of Salam’s readers will have at least heard of “the patriarchy” — the specific definition used in a paper can be crucial to its argument. To support their argument, Gilligan and Snider must define “patriarchy” broadly: not only as a system of constraints that limit women’s opportunities but as a mindset, expressions of which range from the unfair distribution of “emotional labor” to differing, gendered expectations in heterosexual relationships. Salam writes:

As adults, [patriarchy] manifests in other ways. In how women shoulder their family’s emotional labor, meaning the invisible mental work of holding a household and relationship together. If a woman registers that this is unfair and complains, she’s often told that she’s “selfish, a drama queen, hysterical,” Snider said. Eventually, “she believes it.” That’s patriarchy.

Snider also cited the cliché of a woman who doesn’t tell a man she is dating that she wants a committed relationship for fear of scaring him off and being rejected. That too is patriarchy, Snider said.

In essence, Gillian and Snider write, patriarchy harms both men and women by forcing men to act like they don’t need relationships and women to act like they don’t need a sense of self. The crux, though, is that we are “not supposed to see or to say this,” they write.

Only by defining their key term in a way that serves their argument can Gilligan and Snider make their case, and only by defining it clearly for her readers can Salam offer a solution. To end a patriarchy that is “hard-wired into our minds,” she argues, a “drastic self-reckoning” will be necessary.

— Rosamond van Wingerden ’20

Source: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/19/us/what-is-patriarchy.html?emc=edit_gn_20190319&nl=gender-letter&nlid=8615940520190319&te=1


Tortoise Tuesday: Argument-making in President Macron’s Speech, 1/13/19

In response to the ongoing gilets jaunes protests in France, French President Emmanuel Macron addressed an open letter to the French people on January 13th, 2019. Macron’s letter is not only an indication of the severity of the situation but also exemplifies persuasive and effective writing.

Macron writes:

Dear Françaises, dear Français, my dear compatriots,

In a period of questionings and of uncertainties like the one we are experiencing, we must remember who we are.

France is not a country like others.

The sense of injustice is keener than elsewhere. The insistence on mutual aid and solidarity is stronger.

Chez nous, those who work finance retirement pensions. Chez nous, a large number of citizens pays a tax on their income, sometimes a heavy one, which reduces inequality. Chez nous, education, healthcare, security, justice are accessible to all independently of situation and fortune. The hazards of life, like unemployment, can be overcome, thanks to an effort shared by all.

This is why France is, of all the nations, one of the most fraternal and most equal. […]


In this opening passage, Macron alludes to the situation (“a period of questionings and uncertainties”), but before addressing the issue, he attempts to win over his audience and to define what could be called key terms. “France” itself is the most important definition Macron offers. By defining his country at the outset—and in his own terms—Macron creates an image that he will urge his addressees to live up to in the rest of the letter.

Macron’s stylistic choices add to the effectiveness of his writing. The repetition of “chez nous,” here meaning “in France” but often meaning simply “at home,” “at our house,” emphasizes the unity he tries to affirm still exists in France. The mention of brotherhood and equality hearkens back to the ideals of the French Revolution, an attempt to inspire national pride and recall previous political progress.

Macron continues later in the letter:

I know, certainly, that some among us today are unsatisfied or angry. Because, for them, taxes have been raised too much, public services are too distant, because salaries are too low for some to live with dignity on the fruit of their labor, because our country does not offer the same chances to succeed depending on the place or the family one is from. All would like a more prosperous county and a more just society.

This impatience—I share it. […] For me, there are no forbidden questions. We will not agree on everything; that is normal, that is democracy. But let us at least show that we are a people unafraid of speaking, of exchanging, of debating. And maybe we will discover that we can find agreement, by a majority, beyond our preferences, more often than we believe.


Now acknowledging the grievances of the protesters, reaching the motive of the text, Macron is careful to use the first-person plural throughout, referring to “some among us” and “we” to avoid alienating any readers. In his sudden transition to the singular (“I share it”), following “all” in the previous sentence, he places himself among the people before drawing all addressees together in the plural “let us show.” Framing the issue as one of fear or bravery (“unafraid of speaking”) and especially as one of national honor in the eyes of other countries (“let us show”), Macron appeals not only to the reason but also to the personal and national pride of the addressees.

Macron goes on to outline several policy issues on which he requests citizens’ opinions and participation in debate and to reiterate the importance of dialogue and mutual respect. He concludes with a recapitulation of his argument, a renewed appeal to national feeling, and finally an expression of vulnerability as he expresses hope for the future.


This is how I intend, with you, to transform anger into solutions. […] Françaises, Français, I hope that many of you will be able to participate in this great debate to do useful work for the future of our country.

In trust,

Emmanuel Macron

— Rosamond van Wingerden ’20


“Quatre grands themes et une trentaine de questions: la letter d’Emmanuel Macron aux Français,” https://www.lemonde.fr/politique/article/2019/01/13/document-la-lettre-d-emmanuel-macron-aux-francais_5408564_823448.html

(my translation)