Tag Archives: scope


Tortoise Tuesday: Steinbeck’s Structure in The Grapes of Wrath

I recently read The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck and was struck by how simple but impactful the story was. The book follows the Joad family during the Great Depression after they are forced to leave Oklahoma because of the Dust Bowls. They travel to California in search of work — dreaming of picking peaches, owning a small plot of land, and settling down with the family. 

After finishing the book, I reflected on the elements that I enjoyed the most: Steinbeck’s poetic language, his keen insight into universal emotions and desires, the moments of humor in the Joad family’s otherwise difficult lives. And at some point in my ruminations, I recognized the immense impact of the book’s structure.

Steinbeck alternates between chapters specific to the Joad’s story and chapters that zoom out to a larger American narrative. Steinbeck describes the physical environment — dust destroying crops in Oklahoma, unused farmland in California going to waste while displaced families starve — and the political and social environment — the undefined and unheard American voices, the frustration of the lower class with the industrialization of agriculture, the rapidly decreasing wages and lack of labor unions, the plague of poverty and starvation that sweeps through the population.

This is the story-line that broadens the reach of The Grapes of Wrath. It places the Joads into their historical context and demonstrates that they are only one example of a shared experience among thousands of families.

I am usually unimpressed by novels that use this technique of switching back and forth between two perspectives or two timelines. I find them somewhat cliche and often unnecessarily confusing. However, Steinbeck’s use of the alternating narratives is anything but trite. It serves a clear purpose of orienting the reader to the historical context in which we find the main characters. It does not detract from the story but enhances it. We feel the struggle of the Joads multiplied by thousands for each and every family just like them.

— Ellie Shapiro, ’21


Tortoise Tuesday: Ms. Magenta-Vest and How to Make a Good Argument in a Pinch

It takes a certain amount of panache to walk up to an airline counter and request a ticket for a flight departing in less than twenty minutes; probably more than most of us possess. The girl I saw make such a request had panache to spare, supplemented in no small part by a magnificently fluffy magenta vest and a silver and red pom-pom hat that would have made an alpaca jealous. It didn’t hurt that she used her full business voice and seemed to know exactly what she wanted. In fact, though judging by her clothes and the stickers on her roller-bag, Ms. Magenta-Vest was probably no more than nineteen, she accomplished her considerable feat by affecting the composure and unflinching politeness of a much older woman. She made her request clearly and using few words; while she was extremely specific about which flight she wanted and what she was going to do with her bags, she seemed deliberately vague about other things, for instance where she wanted to sit on the plane. 

I don’t think the man behind the counter really intended to give Ms. Magenta-Vest the ticket at first, no matter how much she was willing to pay for it. But she kept asking for nearly three minutes, rephrasing her request first one way, then another, varying its words without changing its sentiment or her clear, polite tone. I can’t imagine it must have been easy for her to remain so calm even as she watched the minutes tick by before her flight took off. Indeed, as soon as she had her ticket in hand and had seen her roller-bag safely tagged and sent away, she turned tail and ran headlong down the concourse towards the TSA checkpoint, her quilted paisley handbag bouncing along at her side. And yet, so long as she was engaged in her game of bargaining, she retained her air of unflappable calm. 

There is perhaps a lesson to be taken from how Ms. Magenta-Vest argued her case, one which can be applied to arguments of any kind, on paper as much as in person. First, remember who you are talking to and what tone will best convince them of your point. If Ms. Magenta-Vest had spoken like an average nineteen year-old, whether blustering at the airline agent or acting as anxious as she quite possibly was, the agent would probably have denied her request without a second thought. It was by assuming an air of respectability and composure that she brought the agent to her side from the very first. Likewise, when we write, we frame our argument in terms that other scholars are familiar with in order to signal to them that we are capable of engaging with them on their own terms. We thus earn their respect before we even properly begin our argument. We use the language of scholarship to buy credibility that we might never have if we wrote as informally as we speak.

It is equally important to take care in defining the scope of one’s argument. If Ms. Magenta-Vest had been as specific about where she wanted to sit as she was about where she was about the flight she wanted, it is likely that the agent would have denied her request altogether, arguing (probably quite rightly) that what she was asking was impossible. But by choosing her battles with care, and being very clear from the first about what she was not asking for, she headed off most of the agent’s objections before they arose. Similarly, if we try to argue everything at once in an essay, we are sure to fail, and our argument will invariably be dismissed without further thought. But if we are willing to argue only a well-delineated point, one within the scope of our own capabilities, we are far more likely to succeed. This is not to say we cannot make piercing insights in our writing, occasionally asking the audience to accept the nearly impossible as possible, just as Ms. Magenta-Vest did to such great effect. Only, such requests had best be occasional, ideally a single part in a well-worked-out argument, introduced with suitable formality, or else it is likely they will fail to achieve the desired effect.

And of course, it helps to have a certain amount of panache. I don’t know if Ms. Magenta-Vest made her flight, but I suspect she did. If she could talk her way to a ticket with less than half an hour to spare, I have full confidence that, with her neon-and-paisley ensemble to buoy her confidence, she could talk her way to the front of a TSA line in no time. While in any argument it’s important to know who you’re talking to and know your scope, it never hurts to pack a little something extra, preferably in bright colors, just to seal the deal.

–Isabella Khan ’21

Source Use, Spring 2019

East German Perspectives: The Berlin Wall and its Evolution as Cultural Heritage

In a Tortoiseshell: In her paper examining changing perceptions of the Berlin Wall in the aftermath of the Cold War, Annabelle Mauri mines an extensive field of primary and secondary sources, including archives, statistics, and existing scholarly discussions. Annabelle skillfully weaves these sources together to build her own argument, which highlights the strategic political erasure of East German perspectives on the Wall in the process of reunification, and how that erasure contributed to the West German-led redefinition of the Berlin Wall as a symbol of unity and peace. In doing so, she boldly establishes her unique voice in a conversation about an oft-studied historical monument.

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Scope and Motive in “More Beautiful, More Terrible”: Finding Lexicon Terms in Class Readings

This semester I picked up a new technique of looking for lexicon terms in assigned readings in an attempt to make them a bit more entertaining. More importantly, this newfound habit has given me opportunity to see how lexicon terms are implemented in real scholarly writing.

To give just one example, one of the most interesting instances of motive I found from my readings for AAS235 was in More Beautiful, More Terrible, written by Princeton Professor of African American Studies, Imani Perry. Perry writes in her introductory chapter:

…the “postracial” discourse reflects both anxiety and confusion about what race means and doesn’t mean now. In order to answer these questions, we must approach the enterprise with great rigor and sophistication.

Those are tall orders. My ambition in this book is much smaller. This book seeks to pursue a very specific question, which nevertheless demands a complex body of information and analysis: how does a nation that proclaims racial equality create people who act in ways that sustain racial inequality? I suppose a second question is pursued, too: what can we do about it? (Perry, 2-3)

I particularly appreciated these two paragraphs from Perry’s introduction because they have very specific purposes in laying down the foundation for the rest of her work. In the first paragraph from the excerpt, Perry orients the reader by providing context on the goals of the broader field. In the second paragraph, Perry clearly introduces and explicitly states her motive for her research in question form.

The most critical move Perry makes in these two paragraphs is narrowing her scope. Instead of tackling the expansive question of “what race means and doesn’t mean”, a question that motivates an entire field of research, she chooses to focus in a more specific question: “how does a nation that proclaims racial equality create people who act in ways that sustain racial inequality?” Perry demonstrates that even a skilled writer, setting out to construct a text of significant length, has to think about the scope of his or her work and focus in on a specific relationship to explore. In the specific field of racial studies, Perry utilizes the same lexicon terms and techniques that we learn in Writing Seminar.

While applying Writing Seminar knowledge to your upper level classes may initially pose a challenge, the best way to overcome that challenge is to learn by example: read good writing and look for the ways in which leading scholars use lexicon terms in their own work. Conveniently, with an abundance of good writing at your disposal, assigned to you for your classes, why not start learning from more than just the content?

–Ellie Shapiro ’21

Works Cited

Perry, Imani. More Beautiful and More Terrible: the Embrace and Transcendence of Racial Inequality in the United States. New York University Press, 2011.