Tag Archives: orienting


Tortoise Tuesday: How To Conduct Your Introduction

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


Tortoise Tuesday: Orienting and First Dates

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


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)