In a Tortoiseshell: This is not only an exemplary R3, but also a phenomenal research paper in general. The piece is expertly structured, argued coherently, and uses an unorthodox (yet well-explained) method to analyze specific cultural artifacts. The overarching question is identity formation through artistic creation in French Polynesia, a provocative topic that is — as the author claims at the end — not exclusive to this part of the world.
In a Tortoiseshell: In her paper about female curiosity and agency in Lewis Caroll’s Alice in Wonderland excerpted below, Julia Schorn adopts an against-the-grain approach to mainstream feminist readings of the beloved children’s story, arguing instead that female agency and curiosity is actually discouraged in Wonderland. By both orienting us to these mainstream readings and close reading the text to differentiate herself from them, Schorn’s particularly strong motive calls the entire establishment of Alice scholarship into question.
Frequently within the Writing Seminars and introductory college courses, students are asked to do the seemingly impossible: to make compelling, original arguments about classic texts, ideas, and phenomena that have been written on extensively for decades or even thousands of years, from Homer’s Odyssey to Judith Butler’s theory of gender performativity.
More specifically, these students must attempt to articulate (and then answer!) questions that could be considered equally puzzling, interesting, and urgent to expert scholars in the field, often with only partial or vague knowledge of the secondary literature these experts have produced and proliferated. These questions are the beginning of what the Princeton Writing Lexicon more concisely calls “motive”—that is, the paper’s purpose, which can also be defined as the intrinsic why necessitating both the student’s thesis argument and the reason(s) that such an argument must be made in the first place.
This is no small order, especially when the scholarship surrounding what a student is writing on might be vast enough to fill a thesis or doctoral dissertation. However, some of the best student writing often results when a student placed in this situation ultimately uses to her advantage 1) her limited tools and 2) the intimidating establishment of scholarship around the paper’s topic.
Instead of claiming authority on the big picture of a text or theory, the student has several options: for example, she can disagree with or qualify the dominant approach used by existing scholarship to explore that text of theory, substituting instead her own ideas and/or the approaches of a discipline with which she is more familiar.
These are exactly the kind of against-the-grain arguments we are featuring and celebrating in this issue of Tortoise, although each argument and author accomplishes such an approach in their own way.
The first excerpt, by Julia Schorn, similarly presents a new take on an old, much-beloved work, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Unlike Carolyn’s argument, which succeeds in suggesting an alternative approach to complement existing scholarship, Julia directly attacks the establishment surrounding Alice to argue that feminist praise for the titular heroine’s curiosity and agency in Wonderland is actually unsupported by several details in the text, details which she addresses in her paper in order to argue that Wonderland is perhaps more static and less wonderful than we may have thought it to be.
The second excerpt, by Carolyn Kelly, demonstrates the value of approaching a classic work such as Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse by studying not the most obvious symbolism and imagery in the novel—the sea, for example—but instead the recurring instances of a smaller body of water, pools, in order to show through close-reading how, taken together, the seemingly insignificant cumulatively speaks to the larger introspection of Woolf’s work. Carolyn successfully showcases how an in-text motive and roadmap thesis can be developed by first rejecting (or, rather, innovating upon) traditional approaches to how literature is typically analyzed.
Finally, my “works in progress” excerpt ending the section showcases how motive can come from an interdisciplinary place: in this case, the application of literary close-reading techniques to the postwar writings of John Maynard Keynes, an economist. Even with its flaws, this excerpt—much like Julia’s and Carolyn’s work—attempts to approach a work that seems untouchable and over-studied in an entirely new light, demonstrating that sometimes the most interesting arguments begin as radical, risky ideas, counter to the consensus and seen out thoroughly to their ends.
The eternal refrain goes like this: “What’s the thesis?” It’s as ubiquitous as “Where’s the beef?” But a thesis is not a call to action for a mundane fast-food restaurant. It’s much more important than that. It’s the argument. Or more eloquently, the Writing Lexicon defines the thesis as “an arguable claim—i.e., an assertion someone could reasonably argue against; as such, it provides unexpected insight, goes beyond superficial interpretations, or challenges, corrects, or extends other arguments.”
There’s a reason why a great deal of high school English teachers place an emphasis on the thesis. It functions as the raison d’etre. It lays out the terms of the argument—what the essay is analyzing, with what it is analyzing, and what it all means. Strong theses go above and beyond this, however, by explaining why all of that stuff is important.
The essay excerpts in this section were chosen for their strong theses, though they accomplish these arguments in different ways.
The first excerpt shows how to write a different kind of thesis. In Hannah Tandy’s “The Zodiac of the Beth Alpha Synagogue,” the thesis develops with the introduction of evidence—a thesis variant known as the delta thesis. A delta thesis is an argument that develops throughout the paper, its trajectory informed by examining the evidence. Difficult to attempt, and tricky to master, Hannah shows a worthy example of how to do it—through the introduction of complicating evidence.
The second excerpt demonstrates how one can write a sophisticated thesis from a more simple argumentative framework. In Eliza Mott’s “The Shade of the Body: Notions of Materiality in Rauschenberg’s Dante Series,” the thesis is an example of an advanced lens essay. Lens essays use a particular theoretical framework to analyze a source text. Though lens essays are commonly assigned as part of the freshman writing seminar, Eliza’s example paves the way for revealing how to compose a sophisticated one.
Lastly, our “Works in Progress” section demonstrates a problematic thesis, written by Harrison Blackman. In the excerpt, Harrison ended up writing a paper with two distinct theses—the thing a delta thesis paper should never become.
The thesis is tough. There are different kinds—some are tricky, and some are examples of how to make a simple framework sing. And don’t write more than one thesis in an eight-page paper. Read on, true believer—“What’s the thesis?”
For more details, refer to the Thesis Preface from our 2014 issue, available here.
In a Tortoiseshell: In the paper excerpted below, the author builds a graduated version of the lens thesis: She analyzes Robert Rauschenberg’s 34 Drawings for Dante’s Inferno in the context of Dante’s Inferno itself, using close reading as well as scholarly texts to make a subtle argument about both texts.
In a Tortoiseshell: This excerpt of Hannah Tandy’s “The Zodiac of the Beth Alpha Synaogue” showcases a strong delta thesis–an argument that develops over the course of the paper through the analysis of evidence. The paper analyzes an ancient mosaic in the Beth Alpha synagogue and argues that its design, which includes a pagan zodiac, was a conscious design decision meant to reinforce its purpose as calling for obedience to God, using the precedent of other synagogue mosaics examined in the paper. The development of this argument from the paper’s start to finish is highlighted to emphasize the delta thesis’s potential. With a delta thesis, one can see that as the argument builds, the paper’s finale has the ability to lead to a conclusion that fills in all the gaps.
Crafting a cohesive argument is hard. Doing so with an argument that grows more complicated with additional evidence is even more difficult. This phenomenon, known as the “delta thesis,” is one of the trickiest academic writing techniques to pin down. The risk is that if the delta thesis is not successful, it can become more of a double thesis. That is, your paper might become two papers, with two tangentially related arguments, weakly linked and hindering the success of both. It can even sidetrack your paper with a digression on the historic range of the American bison (buffalo).
This happened to me once. My second research paper for my writing seminar, “Cultural Landscapes,” was hampered by its dual and somewhat contradictory aims.
What exactly was I trying to say? A little background: in cultural landscape theory (let’s run with this, please), there’s this idea of fossil landscapes, which are landscapes modified by cultures that have since disappeared. This idea came into conflict with the ideas of the famous geographer Carl Sauer, who thought that landscapes were modified by humans, but more critically, landscapes evolved on their own without human influence. Because no landscape can remain “unchanged” after human de-settlement, the UN’s World Heritage Committee was wrong to have a category called fossil landscapes, because it confirmed human-centric biases in landscape ecology. Sounds great, right? Or at least ultra-specific. Take a look at my introduction and thesis paragraphs:
The World Heritage Committee (WHC) defines cultural landscapes as the “combined works of nature and humankind,” and explains that certain cultural landscapes, termed ‘organically evolved landscapes,’ evolve based on the interactions of humans and the landscapes they inhabit over time. Of organically evolved landscapes, the WHC makes a distinction between ‘fossil landscapes’ and ‘continuing landscapes,’ the former consisting of landscapes that have stopped developing because the inhabiting culture has disappeared, and the latter, where the roles of culture and landscape continue to develop in contemporary societies.
The WHC definitions come into conflict, however, with the theories of the geographer Carl Sauer, who believed in an anthropocentric view of landscape succession and landscape evolution based on perpetual variation and divergence. Applying Sauer’s theories to the WHC’s definition of fossil landscapes reveals a startling paradox—it is impossible for fossil landscapes to exist, since landscapes will always evolve through continuous variance, regardless of human agency.
The contradictions inherent in the definition of fossil landscapes reveal the anthropocentric worldview prevalent in landscape studies, a perspective that does not recognize the natural agencies that also exert influence on the land, and in turn, develop the cultural landscape in question.
I hit a lot of the right beats here. Defined key terms (fossil landscapes, continuing landscapes) motivate a conflict by contradicting each other (nature continuously modifies landscapes, not just human activity). The conflict tees up the thesis, which leads to an explanation of why the argument is important (the anthropocentric worldview is problematic for conservation). Great. Well, guess what happens two-thirds of the way through the paper:
Though natural agency’s divergence and variation is continually present, it is more readily apparent when the obscuring human influence is taken out of the picture. The depopulation of native North Americans following Columbus’s arrival in the New World provides a telling example of the limitations of the WHC’s definitions through its anthropocentric perspectives and highlights the influence of natural agency in landscape evolution. In particular, an examination of the landscape evolution of the North American Great Plains and its bison population can demonstrate the limitations of anthropocentricity in landscape studies firsthand.
The North America that European colonists settled was completely different from the Pre-Columbian North America, causing the settlers to misinterpret the landscapes’ previous level of development. According to historian Charles C. Mann, “the Americas seen by the first colonists were teeming with game,” and according to Mann’s quotation of early 20th century naturalist Ernest Thompson Seton, following the Columbian Exchange, the Great Plains region was home to over sixty million buffalo. Despite the perception during the colonial era of the Great Plains as naturally abundant with game, when we follow Sauer’s suggestion to assess a landscape at its first time of human occupation, we discover that the landscape of the Great Plains at the time of European settlement was the direct result of a ‘fossil landscape’ transformed by the divergence of natural agency, agency that was inversely correlated with the decline of Native American agency. The dramatic change in perspective from the traditional interpretation of North America’s abundance of ‘wilderness’ demonstrates the inaccuracies afforded by a purely humanistic history of landscape evolution.
What do you know? The paper starts talking about buffalo!
The first paragraph here is strikingly similar to an introduction. A conflict is set up as more easily resolved when a change is made (human influence is removed from the picture). The transition phrase, “in particular,” begins to set up a new example, one that is quite tangential from the discussion of cultural landscapes (buffalo populations before and after colonization). Even though the example eventually leads us back to the main idea of the problematic aspects of a “humanistic history of landscape evolution,” it does so by tapping into another academic dimension altogether—pre-Columbian ecological history—which is far out of the scope of an eight-page midterm paper. The effort to complicate the argument with a cross-pollinating example fails to bolster the argument and instead directs the paper’s energies into two slightly-related, mostly-distinct areas.
If I wanted to rewrite this paper now, how would I do so? How could I avoid the problems of a dual thesis?
For one, the buffalo case study could have been the primary point of focus for the paper. Or it could have been absent from the paper completely. Since this paper was mostly engaged with theory, a paper entirely devoted to theory might not have been a bad choice. A complex meditation on landscape theory (which is where I started off) followed by a case study on pre-Columbian buffalo populations (where I ended up) are so different, and they’re much more difficult to set up together than they would be as separate entities. There’s a rule in creative writing that William Faulkner propounded: you have to “kill your darlings.” Sometimes phrases, scenes, and entire characters have to go, even though you like them.
The same is true for academic writing. Kill your darlings. Craft a singular thesis—unless you know you can handle the intricacies of a delta one. Don’t kill the buffalo—they are considered a “near-threatened” species—but by all means kill the section about them, if it’s taking over your argument.
Mann, Charles C. 1491: New Revelations of the World before Columbus. 2nd ed. New York: Vintage, 2011.
Sauer, Carl Ortwin. “Historical Geography and the Western Frontier.” In Land and Life: A Selection from the Writings of Carl Ortwin Sauer, edited by John Leighly. Berkeley: University of California, 1965.
———. “Man-Ecologic Dominant,” in Agricultural Origins and Dispersals, Bowman Memorial Lectures 2 (New York: American Geographical Society, 1952).
———. “The Morphology of Landscape.” In Land and Life: A Selection from the Writings of Carl Ortwin Sauer, edited by John Leighly, 315-50. Berkeley: University of California, 1965.
UNESCO, and World Heritage Centre. “Cultural Landscape.” UNESCO World Heritage Centre. Last modified 2014. Accessed March 4, 2014. http://whc.unesco.org/en/culturallandscape/#2.
In a Tortoiseshell: Integrating motive, thesis, and orienting into one straightforward paragraph is no simple task. But Adrian Tasistro-Hart manages to do precisely that in the below abstract of his paper about deforestation in South America. Continue reading
In a Tortoiseshell: This essay analyses the character of Meursault in Albert Camus’ L’Etranger (The Stranger), contextualizing him in the space of the novel as well as in a larger scholarly conversation. The author analyses a set of critical reviews, and motivates his argument by suggesting that there is something the critics are missing — a clear understanding of Sartre’s existentialism. The author posits the term “post-reflective” consciousness, and develops a thesis with this term to refine the scholarly criticism and propose his own interpretation of Meursault.
The thesis (and paper as a whole) involves complicated and philosophical literary criticism, and succeeds in clearly orienting the reader to the text, scholarship, and a very sophisticated argument. What is excerpted here are the first three pages of a twenty-page paper. Continue reading
In a Tortoiseshell: In this series of excerpts, the author’s process of developing a thesis is foregrounded. Excerpts 1 and 2 are taken from the introduction and conclusion of the original essay submitted to us, and Excerpt 3 is a revised introduction. Each excerpt includes the essay’s thesis, and as the author reiterates it his argument becomes more and more refined, improving significantly over the course of writing and revision. Continue reading