In a Tortoiseshell: In her paper, Maya Chande pairs mathematical and historical analyses in order to provide a possible explanation for the higher concentrations of yellow in Vincent van Gogh’s paintings. By conducting a cross-disciplinary analysis based on van Gogh’s letters, biography, and a mathematical examination of van Gogh’s use of color, Maya concludes that the higher concentrations of yellow can be attributed to shifts in van Gogh’s personal life. This excerpt highlights the way Maya weaves together scholars from various disciplines in order to create a clear scholarly motive and then skips to Maya’s conclusions. Continue reading
In a Tortoiseshell: In the concluding section of her final project for Cognitive Psychology, Kennedy Casey adeptly discusses her research on generalization during word learning. She clearly summarizes her findings and their limitations, while also defining her contribution to the scholarly conversation and calling attention to her global motive. Continue reading
Throughout my time at Princeton, one significant change I’ve noticed in my writing is in the way I think about motive. Like many people coming into Writing Sem., I was initially confused about motive and especially about the relationship between different kinds of motive. Once I had a stronger grasp on these lexicon terms, I focused mainly on in-text and scholarly motive in my writing. Over the years, though, personal motive has taken on a more and more important role in my papers. More often that not, I choose topics for my papers because my personal interests and experiences draw me to particular elements of a text, and I want to explore these elements in my own close analysis of the text and in my engagement with the scholarly conversation surrounding it. Writing on topics in which you have a personal investment— and which may even be triggering— can certainly be challenging, but I have also found these projects to be some of the most rewarding I have undertaken at Princeton.
I am currently working on my second junior paper, where my personal, textual, and scholarly motives are very much intertwined. In fact, I was motivated to choose my topic in part because I got angry with a scholarly source! For my JP, I am writing on patriarchal violence in Euripides’ Medea and the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, and examining how the female characters of each text resist this violence through language. To give a brief summary of the myth recounted in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter: Hades abducts Persephone, and Demeter (her mother) manages to get her back from the underworld. Yet because Persephone has eaten a pomegranate seed, she must return to live with Hades for one-third of every year. One piece of evidence in the hymn that has become important to my analysis is Persephone’s account of how Hades forces her to eat the pomegranate seed. As I read it, this scene stands in for another penetrative violation that Persephone does not describe. But because Persephone’s narrative conflicts with an earlier account of the same events (focalized from Hades’ perspective), many scholars have discounted it as falsehood. For example:
In 372 (“ἔδωκε φαγεῖν”) nothing is said of the compulsion on which Persephone here insists. Plainly Hades did not use actual force or compulsion of any kind, especially as Hermes was present. Persephone only means that she had no wish to eat, and could not refuse the food. Nor would it be unnatural for her to overstate the case, from a desire to avoid blame for her thoughtlessness.Allen and Sikes n413
In my opinion, interpretations like this one are really just victim-blaming masquerading as scholarship, and the assumptions they make aren’t grounded in morality or the text.
My personal motivation for “picking a fight” with these scholars pushes me to be especially rigorous in how I engage with this passage of the hymn and these secondary sources. I have tried to reframe my strong emotional response to my sources as observations and questions that can form the basis for my textual and scholarly motives. There is clearly a tension in the text between how the pomegranate incident is described earlier in the hymn and how Persephone describes it to her mother. Is there a way to explain this tension without discrediting Persephone’s account? (Answer: yes!) How have other scholars accounted for this discrepancy? What assumptions do their interpretations make? How do these assumptions hold up to a close analysis of the text?
Obviously, I can’t treat such personal topics in all of my academic writing — and I’m sure it would be exhausting to try! But it is deeply satisfying whenever I can do scholarly work that is important to me at an emotional as well as intellectual level. Motive can be about what motivates you to write, about the unique perspectives and experiences that each of us brings to our writing, and about how your voice can change the stories we tell and how we tell them.
– Meigan Clark ’22
Homer, Thomas W Allen, and E. E Sikes. The Homeric Hymns. London: Macmillan, 1904.
It was Friday of midterms week, and I was staring at my computer screen. You might expect that, studious Princetonian that I am, I would be reviewing the last answer on my philosophy exam, or perhaps putting the finishing touches on my politics report. Instead, I was smack in the middle of Netflix’s latest reality show: Marriage or Mortgage.
The premise of Marriage or Mortgage is simple. Each episode, wedding planner Sarah Miller and real estate agent Nichole Holmes compete for the business of an engaged couple; the couple must decide whether to spend their savings on their dream wedding or their dream home. Along the way, Sarah and Nichole ply the couple with fairytale carriages and sweeping yards, discounted dresses and free appliances. The show is entertaining and, if you’re a fan of home tours, a bit addictive.
But as I kept watching, I began to feel troubled. Not just because my reality TV binge was keeping me from my midterms, although it was. And not just because the show’s mid-2020 weddings had massive superspreader potential, although they did. Or even just because it was ridiculous that anyone would pick a donut wall over a $20,000 home discount. What bothered me about the show was the way that it presented the choice—marriage or mortgage—as the couples’ only choice.
Imagine, if you will, that you’re writing a paper about what makes a relationship last. One prominent scholar (let’s call her Miller) says that weddings build strong emotional connections, so a couple seeking a stable relationship should go all in on their wedding. But another scholar (let’s call her Holmes) disagrees. Holmes posits that homeownership is an investment in the couple’s financial future, so a couple looking for stability should go all in on buying a house. As the writer, how might you intervene in this conversation? In other words, what’s your scholarly motive?
It’s true that you might choose to take sides. Perhaps you agree with Miller that a wedding sets an emotional foundation for a relationship, and your contribution is to defend her argument against Holmes’s attack. Or perhaps you’re with Holmes, and your intervention is to correct an oversight in her argument. Importantly, though, these scholarly moves are not the only ones you can make. You aren’t limited to supporting Miller to the exclusion of Holmes, or vice versa. What Marriage or Mortgage misses is that, sometimes, a nuanced solution is a better one. As an essay writer, you might agree with Miller that weddings are an emotional investment and with Holmes that buying a house is a financial investment; the key to finding your scholarly motive is just finding the right balance of each.
This kind of balance is not easy in a country where real estate prices are soaring and wedding costs (despite COVID-19) are, too. But I think that a Marriage or Mortgage that acknowledged these difficulties and nevertheless sought compromise would feel more true to our post-pandemic life. Instead of spending $30,000 on their dream wedding and then getting stuck in their parents’ homes, couples could replace the multi-hundred-guest jubilee with a more pared down affair. Or instead of buying a house at the very top of their price range and then waiting years for a wedding, couples could forgo a giant backyard and pay for a small reception. The details aren’t as important as the fact that such a balance can exist. By understanding Marriage or Mortgage as we might a scholarly conversation, we can see possibilities beyond the ones the show presents. Put simply, couples can have their wedding cake and eat it at their own kitchen table.
— Natalia Zorrilla, ’23
I am a big fan of Socrates. He is wonderfully enigmatic, partly because Plato alters some of Socrates’s core philosophical stances from dialogue to dialogue. This does not mean that Plato is doing bad philosophy. On the contrary, the strange (and often ingenious) oppositions found in Plato’s dialogues are part of what makes them so effective. Take, for example, the so-called aporetic dialogues, which end in aporia, or “puzzlement.” One of these dialogues is the Euthyphro, in which Socrates and Euthyphro set out to determine the definition of piety, only to end up right where they started. At first glance, Plato’s approach to philosophical writing is quite foreign to the academic projects that a student might embark on today. However, I wonder whether a relative beginner at writing can learn something about what to do—and what not to do—from Plato.
I do not recommend basing the structure of your paper on the Euthyphro, because you would end up with a circular argument. However, one of the amazing things about Plato’s dialogues is that they encourage discussion—ideally, readers of the Euthyphro will be persuaded to find out for themselves what piety is. This is how we should respond to scholarly debates (or, should we say, “dialogues”) that we encounter in our own academic research. Socrates, ever-questioning, would want to determine precisely why two scholars don’t agree. Are they talking past each other? Did they begin with different premises? The fact that “published views of the matter conflict” (to quote a Writing Center handout) is a great motive, but if you don’t find the true point of conflict between the scholars, then your thesis will not fully address your motive. If I took Socrates and Euthyphro’s aporia as a motive for a paper, for example, merely offering my own definition of piety would do little to address the (possibly more interesting) question of why the dialogue ended in aporia in the first place.
In contrast to his aporetic dialogues, Plato’s later dialogues would receive high points for thesis, but slightly lower points for (scholarly) conversation and counterclaims. This version of Socrates no longer claims to know nothing: instead, he preaches a very specific—and Platonic—vision of the world. Conveniently, his interlocuteurs now have a rather high opinion of his abilities. Their main role in the discussion is to back up Socrates’s statements in no uncertain terms: “yes, by Zeus!”, “most certainly!”, and so on.
Unfortunately, a modern student whose writing was this one-sided would receive a resounding “no, by Zeus!” from his or her professor. Don’t get me wrong: Plato’s later dialogues are still works of genius. They remind us that not every motivating question has to be answered right away, and that theses can spur reflection on the part of readers even if they aren’t rigorously argued. At the same time, Plato is helpful for students who want to work within the lexicon. I would recommend learning from Plato’s visionary treatment of motive and thesis, while ensuring that all of your papers actually have both a motive and a thesis.
— Frances Mangina, ’22
One of the most popular video games of quarantine so far is Nintendo’s latest installment of the Animal Crossing franchise, titled Animal Crossing: New Horizons (ACNH). Like its predecessors, ACNH is a slow-paced simulation game where players are moved into a new community and tasked with developing it by cultivating relationships with other residents, stimulating the local economy, and enriching cultural institutions. Unlike previous games, ACNG is set on a deserted island in order for the player to “create [their] own paradise” and “escape” the real world, according to the Nintendo official website.
At the beginning of the game, players must take a plane to their island, during which the player is subject to in-flight entertainment courtesy of Nook Inc. This movie consists of scenic videos and snapshots of other players enjoying their own idealized, fully developed islands, as in Image 1 below. These scenes prepare the player to land in an immaculate, tropical landscape.
However, when the player starts the game, the island they arrive at is far from paradise. It is overrun with weeds, and the town consists of only a handful of small tents, illustrated in Image 2 below. As it turns out, the player is expected to deplete the island’s natural resources in order to literally build their town from the ground up, all while facing debt at the hands of a Nook Inc. executive, Tom Nook. So much for escaping the real world…
The tension between the game’s presentation of an idyllic island in the airplane movie and the reality of the undeveloped island is meant to inspire players to complete the game’s tasks. The game promises that if players follow the orders of Tom Nook, then their islands will be just as beautiful as the photos they viewed prior to landing. By presenting this drastic visual tension at the point when the player’s island is at its least appealing (and thus potentially the point when players might feel discouraged at the prospect of having to clean it up), the game motivates its own playthrough.
Motive in academic writing operates similarly, since it can manifest itself as a tension beckoning the reader to follow along in the author’s reasoning. Like in academic writing, ACNH uses this tension to support its premise or thesis of escapism, since the promise of what could be is ultimately what drives the player to escape to the game again and again (that is, if they ever put it down at all).
If you are struggling to motivate your own writing, consider whether there are any tensions, puzzles, or surprises in your sources which might compel your readers to follow your argument. Think to yourself, “What would Tom Nook do?”
— Leina Thurn ’20
Nintendo. “Animal Crossing™: New Horizons.” Nintendo.com. Accessed May 9, 2020. https://www.nintendo.com/games/detail/animal-crossing-new-horizons-switch/.
In a Tortoiseshell: In this excerpt of her essay on genetic enhancement and therapy, Asher Joy exemplifies how to create a motivated thesis by engaging in a complex, scientific debate. Drawing on interdisciplinary sources, Asher adds her own contribution to the debate at hand by pointing out a particular issue with the discourse surrounding genetic modifications and discusses the implications of such an error. Continue reading
In a Tortoiseshell: In the introduction to his junior paper in mathematics, Dylan Galt presents the motivating questions underlying his exposition of Stiefel-Whitney classes and cobordism, preparing the reader to appreciate the significance of the rich mathematics which will follow. Continue reading
In a Tortoiseshell: In his paper that investigates the role of faith based organizations in American anti- trafficking efforts, [redacted] takes on the existing scholarly establishment through the use of an eloquent and compelling motive. By illustrating that the existing scholarly conversation, which focuses on whether faith-based organizations are effective in their work, overlooks the important fundamental question of why faith-based organizations are involved in anti-trafficking efforts to begin with, [redacted] produces a meaningful and needed reframing of the conversation surrounding the role of faith-based organizations in anti-trafficking efforts.
Motive begins with a question or a problem. This can be in the form of a gap in the evidence, a puzzling passage, or a new phenomenon. Thus, motive is the driving force behind an essay’s line of inquiry or argument. It is the question to which the author hopes to provide an answer.
Without a strong motive, it is difficult for readers to grasp the reason for a certain paper’s existence. Even the most brilliant points can seem meaningless without an understanding of the posed question. Even then, motive must extend beyond just this initial question. The motive of a paper has to be compelling enough to imbue readers with a sense of that paper’s significance. It ultimately helps answer the question, “Why does it all matter?” It helps readers understand not only why a paper was written but also why they should care that the paper was written at all.