Tag Archives: orienting


Tortoise Tuesday: What Poetry Can Teach Us About Orienting

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

Works Cited

Dickman, Matthew. “Minimum Wage.” American Journal: Fifty Poems for Our Time, selected by Tracy K. Smith. Graywolf Press, 2017, pp. 56. 


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

Orienting, Spring 2019

Cryptocurrency: Past Fraud, Present State, Future Game Theory Model

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.

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Orienting, Orienting, Spring 2019

The Roar of a Chinthe

In a Tortoiseshell: In this comic, “The Roar of a Chinthe,” Adelle Dimitui orients the reader to Burmese culture and mythology. Her story distills the myth of the chinthe, a lion-like creature that stands guard in pairs at the entrances of many Burmese temples. Together, her visuals and text showcase traditional Burmese architecture, dress, and symbolism.

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Tortoise Tuesday: Orienting and C.S. Lewis’ Scholarly Side

Writing is an empathetic act; the good writer must always keep the interests of the reader in mind. I consider orienting one of the most overt empathies in scholarly writing. How much should I, the writer, define, describe, and elucidate? How do I find the middle ground of understanding which fall somewhere between overwhelming the reader and patronizing the reader?

C.S. Lewis is a remarkably empathetic orienter. Although he is better known today for his fictional works (The Chronicles of Narnia, of course!), he was also a prominent medievalist at Oxbridge. His medieval scholarship, like his fiction, is complex yet accessible, formal yet conversational.  I’m thinking especially of his book The Discarded Image, which, as he puts it, provides a “lead in” to an understanding of the medieval worldview for modern students (ix). He observes that scholarship can sometimes overwhelm and distract students to the extent that they lose interest in the object of study altogether. His solution, then, with The Discarded Image, is to provide a map of sorts, a general overview to the medieval worldview so that students can dive into medieval literature and the scholarship on it more confidently. The book as a whole, is a kind of extended orienting.

One of Lewis’ first orienting moves is the dispelling of a longstanding myth about the Middle Ages: that it was a savage, illiterate time. See what he does here:

“Some time between 1160 and 1207 an English priest called Laȝamon wrote a poem called the Brut. In it (ll. 15,775 sq.) he tells us that the air is inhabited by a great many things, some good and some bad, who will live there till the world ends. The content of this belief is not unlike things we might find in savagery. To people Nature, and especially the less accessible parts of her, with spirits both friendly and hostile, is characteristic of the savage response. But Laȝamon is not writing thus because he shares in any communal and spontaneous response made by the social group he lives in. The real history of the passage is quite different. He takes his account of the aerial daemons from the Norman poet Wace (c. 1155). Wace takes it from Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae (before 1139). Geoffrey takes it from the second-century De Deo Socratis of Apuleius. Apuleius is reproducing the pneumatology of Plato. Plato was modifying, in the interests of ethics and monotheism, the mythology he had received from his ancestors. If you go back through the many generations of those ancestors, then at last you may find, or at least conjecture, an age when that mythology was coming into existence in what we suppose to be the savage fashion. But the English poet knew nothing about that. It is further from him than he is from us. He believes in these daemons because he has read about them in a book; just as most of us believe in the Solar System or in the anthropologists’ accounts of early man. Savage beliefs tend to be dissipated by literacy and by contact with other cultures; these are the very things which have created Laȝamon’s belief. (2-3)”

Simply by tracing the origin of this single medieval poem, Lewis provides the reader with a more nuanced way of understanding the Middle Ages more generally. This orienting sets the stage for an argument that Lewis will develop throughout the course of the book: the Middle Ages were characterized by a curious bookishness that tends to get overlooked today. As he notes, “Though literacy was of course far rarer then than now, reading was in one way a more important ingredient of the total culture” (5).

I think in scholarly writing we tend to get impatient with orienting – we just want to get to the argument. What Lewis and the best writers show, however, is that orienting is absolutely essential to the argument. Just like in fiction, where the exposition of setting, atmosphere, and feeling primes us for the characters that occupy most of our attention, in scholarly writing, orienting primes us for the analysis and evidence. Orienting is the all-important appetizer: it teases the appetite for a delectable argument.  

— Myrial Holbrook ’19

Quotations from C.S. Lewis’ The Discarded Image taken from the Cambridge UP edition (2016).


“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: Phone Calls as an Exercise in Orienting

I don’t think I know anyone who likes making phone calls — and no, ordering takeout or calling your parents at midnight do not count. Real phone calls are nasty little beasts. Think about it: you dial the number, and then the phone rings, and rings, and rings. You don’t know when the other person is going to pick up, or if they will at all. Then suddenly, when you least expect it, they do pick up and — you panic! What are you going to say? More to the point, how are you going to avoid starting in the middle of a thought, or missing something terribly important, or trying to say everything at once and winding up saying nothing at all.

Having a conversation in person is far easier than calling on the phone. When you’re standing face to face with someone, you don’t feel as bad when you have to start over twice before you are actually coherent. You can wave your hands vaguely in the air to clarify a particularly tricky point. You can even make pained faces to impress on the other person that you really are sorry that you sound out of breath and nearly incomprehensible. Or rather, while you can do all these things when you talk on the phone, they won’t make a bit of difference. All that matters on the phone is your voice, and what you say. In fact, since the connection is likely to wash away most of your inflections and any subtleties of your tone, you are left with just your words. The only way to avoid embarrassment is to speak more precisely than usual, but of course, that takes more thought than we would like, so we all put off that awkward telephone conversation with our great-aunt until tomorrow, or next week, or maybe when the school year ends in June — because after all, that’s the next time we’ll have enough energy for this kind of exertion.

Come to think of it, that horrible scramble for words at the beginning of a phone calls is not unlike the beginning of a paper. Here again, you have nothing bare words by which to convey your meaning. You desperately want to make a good impression, but your audience has a limited attention span, and no preexisting knowledge of what you are trying to say. Again, you must be unbearably precise. This is why the introductory paragraph, which should be the easiest to understand, is often the most difficult to write.

I tend to handle phone calls and introductions the same way. First, I put them off as long as I can. This sounds frivolous, but it is not entirely so, or at least, not in the case of introductions. In order to concisely prepare your audience for your argument, you have to understand your argument first. I often wait until the very end of the writing process, when I know exactly where I am going with my piece, to actually write the opening lines. The second step — the actual “writing” part — is the same for phone calls and introductions. I shut my eyes and think about how I would explain things to someone if I met them in person. Where would they narrow their eyes and look puzzled? Where would they become bored and start to glance over my shoulder out the window? The first time around, I know I will stumble over my words, but this is okay, too. The key is just not to have that first stumble happen when I actually answer the phone — or on a final draft. Precision is rarely achieved on the first try. Like much else, it is iterative, and can be improved with practice. After the fifth or sixth time, you are very likely to stumble as much as you did at first. After ten, you will be almost entirely coherent. After sixteen, you may even work up the nerve to pick up the phone and call your great-aunt, though perhaps not. After fifty honest attempts, I myself might still fail in that.

— Isabella Khan ’21


Orienting in Roxane Gay’s Memoir Hunger

To tell you the story of my body, do I tell you how much I weighed at my heaviest? Do I tell you that number, the shameful truth of it always strangling me? At my heaviest, I weighed 577lb, or over 41st, at 6ft 3in. That is a staggering number, but at one point, that was the truth of my body. […] I began eating to change my body. I was willful in this. Some boys had destroyed me, and I barely survived it. I ate because I thought that if my body became repulsive, I could keep men away. Of all the things I wish I knew then that I know now, I wish I had known I could talk to my parents and get help, and turn to something other than food.

Today, I am a fat woman. I don’t think I am ugly. I don’t hate myself in the way society would have me hate myself, but I hate how the world all too often responds to this body. It would be easy to pretend I am just fine with my body as it is. I’m a feminist and I know that it is important to resist unreasonable standards for how my body should look. […]

My body is a cage of my own making. I have been trying to figure a way out of it for more than 20 years.


Roxane Gay’s 2017 autobiography Hunger is appropriately subtitled A Memoir of (My) Body. Gay’s body, which, by her own description, is morbidly obese, is a memoir in itself: a record of the trauma she experienced when she was gang-raped at the age of twelve. After the assault, Gay deliberately ate in an attempt to make herself “repulsive” to men, turning her body into a protective fortress.

In this short excerpt from her introduction, Gay both orients the reader to what appears to be the defining theme of her memoir – her weight – and makes clear that her motive is not what it appears to be. Her obesity will not be the focus of this book. Although much of the memoir is concerned with the effects on Gay’s weight on her life – strangers taking food out of her shopping cart; the humiliation and discomfort of struggling to fit into airplane seats; a boyfriend encouraging her later development of bulimia nervosa because she is at least “working on her problem” – her weight is always secondary. It is a result of one trauma and the cause of another.

Gay makes this distinction in the first pages of her memoir. By posing what appears to be a rhetorical question (“Do I tell you that number?”) but then defiantly answering it (“that was the truth of my body”), she subverts the reader’s expectations. Although the truth of her highest weight may be “shameful” to her, she refuses to hide it, simply because the number itself is not central to her story. Gay initially seems to make her weight the focus of her introduction, but by sharing, not withholding, this “shameful,” “strangling,” “staggering” information, she strips it of its importance. Most memoirs like hers present a glamorous image of “overcoming” obesity; as Gay demonstrates in this introduction, this is not her motive. Her weight itself has never been the problem.

— Rosamond van Wingerden ’20


Source: Adapted excerpt from Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body, by Roxane Gay (Harper: 2017)


Tortoise Tuesday: Orientation and Motive in “The Aptness of Anger”

In one of my courses this semester, “Philosophy and Psychopathology,” we spent some time trying to understand anger. The concept, we learned, has been the subject of philosophical debate for a long time, but the importance of anger is only starting to be understood as it pertains to particular avenues of expressing emotions. One optional reading was Amia Srinivasan’s article, “The Aptness of Anger,” which discusses anger in the context of political philosophy.

Srinivasan begins her article with a historical incident that illustrates two sides of a debate about politics and anger: In 1964, James Baldwin argued that “the American dream has been achieved at the expense of the American Negro,” and William F. Buckley responded with a “pragmatic challenge”: “What in fact shall we do about it?” Buckley’s argument, Srinivasan explains, is part of a long tradition that finds anger wrong because it is counterproductive. Beginning with the Stoics and moving up through history to modern philosophers, she gives a historical overview of the “counterproductivity critique.” Then, in contrast, she cites the opposing view in political philosophy, the one Baldwin demonstrates with the quoted argument: Anger actually is productive as an aid to clarifying a problem and as an impetus to social change. This view, she writes, is often held in Black and feminist thought.

At the end of her first section, Srinivasan steps back from the established debate she has presented and writes that the debate “tends to obscure something specific about anger.” She wants to take the question of anger in another direction. She does not want to consider anger from the perspective of whether it is effective in bringing about change or in achieving goals, which has been long-debated. She wants to ask the philosophical question about the emotion or reaction itself: is it ever, even if not effective, apt in a normative sense?

Srinivasan is successful at orienting the reader into the scholarly conversation that considers anger, and she uses that orientation directly to motivate her own argument, claiming that both sides miss an important point in the conversation. She does this orienting and motivating in an engaging way, with her example right at the beginning and several others as she explicates the standing positions. That overlap between the orientation and the motive is ideal in writing: the two should always be directly linked and lead logically from one to the other.

“[T]his debate between critics and defenders of anger’s productivity tends to obscure something significant about anger. There is more to anger, normatively speaking, than its effects. For any instance of counterproductive anger we might still ask: is it the fitting response to the way the world is? Is the anger, however unproductive, nonetheless apt?”

–Tess Solomon ’21


Srinivasan, Amia. “The Aptness of Anger.” The Journal of Political Philosophy, Vol. 26, No. 2, 2018.


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.