Tag Archives: key terms

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)


Tortoise Tuesday: Writing About Music

On recent Tortoise Tuesdays, Isabella, Ellie, and Paige have all analyzed music or musical theater in terms of the writing lexicon. Writing about music is, of course, a discipline in its own right – and often one that requires special attention to orienting, key terms, and other lexicon items to ensure that the writing is clear to readers who may not have extensive prior knowledge. Zachary Woolfe’s recent New York Times article on the opera singer Anita Rachvelishvili masterfully combines technical insights with explanations and examples, demonstrating how good writing can make any topic accessible to a non-expert audience.

Woolfe starts with a specific example: a recent rehearsal of the opera Adriana Lecouvreur. He gives the background information necessary for any reader to make sense of his description and then transitions smoothly to the real focus of the article: Rachvelishvili herself.

“Late in the third act of “Adriana Lecouvreur,” Francesco Cilea’s irresistible potboiler of an opera, the vicious Princesse de Bouillon and Adriana, an actress, square off at a party, rivals for the love of the dashing Maurizio.

In the tumult, Maurizio makes a move toward Adriana, but the princess stops him. “Restate,” she commands, ordering him to stay by her.

On a recent morning deep within the Metropolitan Opera, where a new production of “Adriana” starring Anna Netrebko and Piotr Beczala opens on New Year’s Eve, the Georgian mezzo-soprano Anita Rachvelishvili made the three syllables of “restate” a paradox: a gorgeous snarl.

Diving into her chest voice, but not milking it or pushing too hard, her tone stayed round, warm and not all that loud, an iron fist in a cashmere glove. Listening, you felt like Maurizio, pinned to your seat by her sound and authority.”

Throughout the article, Woolfe continues to provide the information necessary to make it comprehensible, defining key terms as they come up. He avoids doing so in a cumbersome, didactic way, instead providing explanations as necessary. For example, in the introduction, Woolfe chooses not to give a direct translation of Rachvelishvili’s line “Restate” (“stay”), instead describing what her character is doing with that command.

When writing in a specialized discipline, especially one that, like opera, already is perceived as unwelcoming to casual participants, it can be hard to find a balance between providing not enough information or too much. Students are sometimes unsure whether to include a dedicated “key words” section at the beginning of a paper, at the risk of overwhelming the reader or causing confusion if some terms don’t reappear until much later in the paper, or to explain each term as it becomes necessary. Woolfe’s article demonstrates an exemplary approach to the issue.

–Rosamond van Wingerden ’20

Zachary Woolfe: “A Young Singer Takes the Opera World by Storm.” The New York Times. 28 December, 2018.


Tortoise Tuesday: Orienting in Hadestown

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

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

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

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

— Paige Allen ’21

Key Terms, Spring 2018

Key Terms

Amid a complicated tangle of lexicon terms — structure, motive, thesis and so on — key terms often get left in the dust. They are overlooked as merely the necessary means to convey information; however, key terms are much more than a linguistic convenience.

Most importantly, key terms signal the subject matter of an argument and the discipline(s) within which it is operating. They represent a microcosm of the relevant scholarly conversation, where an individual term can allude to an entire body of scholarship. When strategically placed throughout the structures of the essay, key terms keep the argument on track and help guide the reader through new points. Motive can rely on key terms in some cases: Why is a certain term important for understanding a particular concept or theory? In what ways do scholars define a term? Is there tension between the definitions of a term or in the arguments revolving around it? One can even think of key terms as algebraic variables: If they are well-defined, then they can be cleverly and clearly manipulated in the thesis like x and y in an equation.

We often conceive of our essays in terms of our theses, but this is just as possible to do so with our key terms. Indeed, paying closer attention to key terms can sometimes lead to innovative arguments or new fields of inquiry altogether. In this “anti-thetical” fashion, the following examples represent the benefits of prioritizing key terms.

Key Terms, Spring 2018

The Language of Monstrosity

In a Tortoiseshell: Madelyn Broome’s “The Language of Monstrosity” argues that in film adaptations of Mary Shelley’s classic Frankenstein, the creature’s lack of language leads to a lack of depth in audiences’ emotional responses to the creature’s misfortunes.  This excerpt highlights the author’s use of her key term “human” not just as a familiar tool with which to support her argument, but as a mechanism for creating motive.

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Key Terms, Spring 2018

Rethinking Moral Luck: What Conditions are Necessary for Moral Responsibility?

In a Tortoiseshell: While the entirety of Katie’s “Rethinking Moral Luck: What Conditions are Necessary for Moral Responsibility?” is an excellent showcase of how to navigate key terms, this section is particularly special. Here, not only does Katie introduce her own key term (which skillfully arises from the specific problems she identifies with the key terms that already exist in the scholarly conversation) but she also goes on to give a carefully crafted analysis of the key terms that appear within that overarching key term she proposes!  This section not only allows Katie’s readers to fully understand what her term means but more importantly allows us to really see how her “Revised Control Condition” is in direct conversation with the concerns she addresses in Nagel’s “Strong Control Condition” and Rosen’s “Moderate Control Condition.”

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