In a Tortoiseshell: In his essay, Jayaditya “Jojo” Deep analyzes conflicting research about the psychology of conspiracy theorists. In his introduction, Jojo details a hypothetical scenario that immediately captivates a reader’s attention and creates an understanding of how conspiracy theories propagate. Continuing, Jojo uses this hypothetical scenario to lay the context of his main conspiracy of study—Ong’s Hat—before explaining how this case sheds light on the related psychological literature. Continue reading
As a PTL project, I’ve finally started properly studying German, and by that I mean watching Babylon Berlin. I’m a diligent student, so I’ve already made it through most of the third and final season. The show, which follows detectives investigating political conspiracies and crimes in late 1920s Germany, gives a fascinating (and, as far as I can tell, fairly accurate) view of the Weimar Republic, but it’s also an excellent example of orienting evidence—in this case, physical evidence in the detectives’ investigations.
Just like in a good paper, pieces of evidence that will be important later in the show are introduced early on, left alone until a point in the structure where they become relevant, and then fully analyzed to demonstrate their relationship to the overarching thesis (or plot). Early in season three, for example, I knew there had to be a reason for the huge bottle of insulin a diabetic character keeps on hand. Sure enough, in the climactic episode, the main characters narrowly escape a hypoglycemic coma after the villain injects them both with a lethal dose of insulin. (The fact that this is one of the series’ more realistic plot twists says a lot about the show.) That the bottle was introduced—oriented—and defined in an early episode makes it easy for the viewer to understand its role when it reappears later. It also avoids the necessity of orienting and defining at the same time that the piece of evidence is actually being used (analyzed, in a writing context), which could come across as clumsy and poorly planned. Instead, the bottle is already in the back of the viewer’s mind, and when its purpose in the show becomes clear, everything falls neatly into place.
When I’m reading other students’ essays at the Writing Center, people sometimes say they’re concerned that orienting a source but not fully unpacking it until later in the paper might lead their reader to think they’re just doing a bad job of analyzing the material. Actually, I find it very helpful as a reader when sources are briefly introduced and key terms are succinctly defined at the start of a paper, so I have some idea of the analysis that’s coming. It would have seemed (even more?) ridiculous if the bad guy in Babylon Berlin had whipped out a bottle of insulin with no previous orienting, as if the show’s writers had thought of this plot development while they were writing but then hadn’t bothered to go back to earlier episodes and adequately set up their plot (thesis). Just setting up the sources that you’re planning to use and trusting your reader to understand that you’ll come back to them later is orienting enough, and it usually won’t kill you.
— Ro van Wingerden, ’21
In a Tortoiseshell: In her essay, Julia Zhou uses an unconventional primary source to argue that while male-led Chinese TikTok dances engage in gender subversion, they do so by operating within an artistic framework that welcomes innovation. To help readers engage with her analysis, Julia carefully describes key choreographic techniques, then orients readers to the significance of each technique. Having made the dances legible to her readers, she then engages in a rewarding close reading of their choreography.
In a Tortoiseshell: In a paper for the Humanities Sequence, Noori Zubieta strikes a balance between carefully working through her evidence, orienting her reader, and building to a nuanced thesis in a close reading of a passage in Ovid’s Metamorphoses.
In a Tortoiseshell: In her essay, Ariadni Kertsikof weaves together evidence from several ethnographic works to argue that ethnography allows us to discover truths about the world through attending to relationships. The following excerpt focuses on the importance of relationships in Savannah Shange’s ethnography Progressive Dystopia. Through exceptional source orientation, Ariadni contextualizes her evidence in light of Shange’s argument. She then selects and summarizes a specific example from Shange’s work, effectively illustrating not only the author’s point but her own.
I recently turned in a midterm exam for my Choral Conducting course. It was not quite like any exam I had taken before. The first question asked me to imagine that I was standing on the podium, about to conduct some piece of my choosing, and to describe what I would do in the seconds before the opening measures of the piece. What signals would I give with my face, hands, and body to show the choir what sound quality I was aiming for?
Due to social distancing measures, I have yet to stand on the podium in front of a physical choir. However, I imagine that the intimidating silence right before a piece began would be akin to the rather hollow feeling that accompanies writing introductions for my academic papers. I find introductions difficult partly because they precede the main argument of a paper. Just as it is tricky to conduct the beginning of a piece, when there is no sound for you to respond to, in an introduction you have very little evidence, quotations, or analysis to work with. Even so, the first few moments of a piece are crucial in engaging your singers (or readers) and preparing them for what is to come.
My conducting class has taught me that when you’re standing on the podium, you should never actually approach a piece from square one. Your choir may be singing the piece for the first time, but it is crucial that you have thoroughly analyzed the entire score beforehand. The type of cue you give your singers will depend on the piece’s style and on its structure as a whole, right down to the final measure. This is why I recommend that you do some analysis of your academic sources—or even write your body paragraphs and conclusion—before beginning your introduction. That way, your opening sentences will align perfectly with the rest of your argument.
Last week while conducting by Zoom, I made a mistake that I often see in even the best students’ introductions: forgetting to provide orienting information. I was so nervous about the piece we were workshopping that I began conducting almost immediately after I was called on—it took me a few measures to notice that the student who was supposed to be singing had been caught off guard, and hadn’t even come in. My “preparatory gesture,” which is supposed to act as a cue, had been too sudden and unexpected.
Conducting provides a useful analogy for how to go about orienting your reader. A preparatory gesture should not only help singers enter on time, but also communicate the tone, dynamics, and tempo of the opening measures. Telling your reader what topics you will be cover is not enough: you should also tell them how you will be covering them. What is your “tone”—are you arguing with or against the grain? Are your claims bold and new (forte) or are you subtly adding nuance to another scholar’s argument (piano)? Will you be speeding through a plethora of sources, or slowly analyzing one text? With such questions in mind, writing an introduction does not have to be an ordeal. Your introduction can be short—a mere flick of the hands—and yet seamlessly guide your reader into the body paragraphs.
– Frances Mangina ’22
Unexpectedly, this month has kindled more first dates (socially distanced, of course!) for me than the rest of my entire year combined. Against a backdrop of giddiness at finally being back on campus, the presence of addictive dating apps and algorithms like Datamatch and Marriage Pact has incited a flurry of fun and flirty conversations, fitting for the ultimate month for romance.
Despite having ample opportunities to practice, the art of mastering the first date is a skill that continues to elude me. How long do I hold eye contact before the vibe shifts from ‘intense’ to ‘creepy’? Is coffee or food a preferable first date setting? At times, the number of variables to consider is overwhelming. However, I’m certain that, above all, the conversation is the most important factor. From dropping little tidbits of information that beg to be teased out, to eliciting little tendrils of shared connections, first date conversations are a delicate dance in presenting initial information.
Strikingly, the first date conversation closely parallels the orienting of a paper. Both draw in an individual with relevant information and build up towards intense interest and persuasion. Just as with first dates, there is no repeatable ‘formula’ for orienting: some papers may require a single chunk of orienting solidly after the thesis, while others may sprinkle little orienting bits throughout the entirety of the work. However, in all cases, the author must remain cognizant and perceptive to the background and perspective of the reader, requiring a certain delicacy that also presents itself as being invaluable for dating.
Vulnerability, creativity, and candor are key to propelling a first date conversation beyond dreaded surface-level conversations that never go beyond “What classes are you taking?”. However, lingering too long on talking about yourself holds its own perils. From describing a messy breakup to retelling an off-putting drinking story better saved for a later date, saying too much can be overbearing. Similarly, spending too much time on orienting may distract the reader away from the core focus: the thesis. A piece of writing is always limited by the attention span of the reader, and can be further constrained by the number of words or pages. Just as the time you have on a first date is limited, the amount of time spent orienting requires careful consideration.
Whether placed before or after motive and thesis, sprinkled throughout or consolidated, spanning sentences or paragraphs: orienting is a skill as delicate as navigating exhilaratingly uncertain romantic situations.
— Diane Yang ‘23
I’ve been reading a lot of poetry lately. It feels somehow that poetry is the perfect antidote to this bananas time: brief yet emotionally satisfying. For just one moment I get to slip into someone else’s experience, be it a queen or a wild iris, and feel those feelings alongside my own unruly ones. When I try to explain my deep love for poetry, I’m often met with blank stares. Poetry can seem daunting and overwhelming, and sometimes it is truly obscure. But a good poem is one that is able to orient a reader to its subject, emotional urgency, and argument without sacrificing beautiful language. The same qualities that are necessary in a good paper.
One of my favorite poems right now is “Minimum Wage” by Matthew Dickman. It begins:
My mother and I are on the front porch lighting each other’s
as if we were on a ten-minute break from our jobs
at being a mother and son, just ten minutes
In these four lines, I, as a reader, already know so much both about the physical reality of this poem and the emotional landscape Dickman has created. With very few words, I can already imagine what this mother and son look like. I know that they are standing on a porch smoking cigarettes. I know that they are both adults, both old enough to be working and smoking. I know that the relationship between the mother and son feels the way working a minimum wage job feels: transactional, exhausting, unrewarding. This poem gives me just enough information to feel the full emotional reality of this relationship. There is nothing extraneous here, no rogue details about other family members or the shape of the cigarette smoke. The poem is about the fraught relationship between this mother and son, and Dickman communicates this in the first four words of the poem by narrowing the focus of the poem to these two characters. When writing a paper, it’s helpful to keep this in mind, to share enough information for the reader to understand why the argument you are making is important without oversharing.
Often in writing center conferences, students tell me that they just don’t have enough space within their page limit to do the kind of orienting work that I feel their paper needs. Truthfully, in my own work I sometimes share this worry: wouldn’t it be better to use my space to make my argument rather than wasting it on background information? But it doesn’t take much space, or many words, to provide a reader with enough information to make sense of your argument. It’s always worth the extra sentence or two to orient a reader to the relevant information that makes your paper relevant and worth reading. Without the first line of “Minimum Wage,” I wouldn’t grasp the emotional reality of this kind of transactional relationship between a mother and son — I wouldn’t be able to imagine these characters as they smoke on their front porch — and without that understanding, this poem wouldn’t make me cry every time I read it.
— Malka Himelhoch, ’21
Dickman, Matthew. “Minimum Wage.” American Journal: Fifty Poems for Our Time, selected by Tracy K. Smith. Graywolf Press, 2017, pp. 56.
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
In a Tortoiseshell: In the introduction to his interdisciplinary senior thesis merging Game Theory and Latin American Studies, José L. Pabón effectively orients his readers to the structure and motive of his paper. By first providing a succinct outline, which he expands on in the following paragraphs, he prepares the reader for the content of his thesis. Then, he pivots smoothly into a discussion of his underlying motive in writing this thesis, introducing the reader to the perspective he will adopt in his argument, and deftly presenting the material in such a way as to capture the reader’s attention and make him or her immediately sympathetic to the arguments and analysis presented in the rest of the essay.