In a Tortoiseshell: In these first three paragraphs of her essay on revolutionary action in prison abolition, Meryl Liu provides powerful and efficient orienting for her readers. She introduces relevant historical events, gives context for the scholarly discussion, and defines her own key term that acts as a framework for the remainder of the piece. By illuminating a “unique and intriguing tension” Meryl captures the reader’s interest and primes them for the thesis of her paper, which follows immediately after the excerpt published here. Continue reading
Applying to grad school this past fall was disturbing on an existential level. I couldn’t decide whether my desire to spend at least five more years studying philosophy was merely ill-advised or downright unhinged. However, the application process was also unsettling on a more mundane level: for my writing sample, I decided to revise a philosophy paper that I wrote at the end of freshman year. Revisiting old writing projects is like opening a mysterious container at the back of the fridge that’s probably been there for months, or like reluctantly glancing into the mirror after a long illness. You hope that you won’t find anything unpleasant or grotesque, but you’re not too optimistic about it.
Indeed, the first time I reread my paper, I ended up filling the margins with question marks rather than constructive comments. If a student had given me that paper during a writing center conference, I would not have known where to start. I ultimately gave up on trying to remember precisely what I had intended to argue. Instead, I highlighted all of the potential motives and theses, even ones that I hadn’t originally intended to develop. I also made a reverse outline to remind myself of the paper’s structure.
Finally, I managed to reconstruct the argument that the paper was currently making, such as it was. I was using textual analysis of sections of Plato’s Republic to explain his (questionable) claim that a philosopher lives 729 times more happily than a tyrant. It was a fine argument given the original expectations of the assignment. However, now I was no longer writing for my professor, who is specifically interested in ancient philosophy, but instead for a panel of philosophers with varying research interests. These philosophers would be looking for a scholarly or a global motive in addition to my in-text motive. I therefore had to reframe my motive and thesis to make them relevant to current scholarly debates.
I discovered that my initial draft had an implicit motivating question: is it possible to quantify happiness? I soon realized that if Plato had found a way to quantify happiness, it would be extremely relevant to philosophers today. After considering my audience, I decided that it would be best to begin with my scholarly motive (scholars disagree about whether we can quantify happiness) and then transition to my in-text motive (Plato tries to quantify happiness, but he appears to do so very badly). I was thus able to retain the basic methodology of my original paper, while making it more groundbreaking by adding an extra layer of motive. Once I figured out my motive, my thesis fell into place. I could retain my original thesis (Plato’s attempt to quantify the philosopher’s and the tyrant’s happiness is in fact partially successful, because it builds on his complex theory of pleasure) and simply add a section that responded to my new motive (philosophers today can learn x, y, and z from Plato’s attempt to quantify happiness).
In addition to improving my paper, I had to substantially shorten it. This helped me to develop a tight—and newly framed—argument. There were certain passages that were fascinating, but irrelevant to my revised motive and thesis. Other passages contained unnecessary summaries of Plato’s arguments. It was liberating to realize that I didn’t need to salvage all of these sections—I deleted entire paragraphs and pages.
In the end, I managed to shorten my paper even more than I had intended. This gave me extra space to improve my existing analysis. My advisor pointed out that my paper didn’t need more analysis per se, but that I did need to explain my analysis using examples. I incorporated a whole range of examples drawn from daily life, ranging from the relief of finishing a difficult workout to the fear inspired by horror movies.
If you ever need to edit an old piece of writing for publication (or, God forbid, apply to grad school), perhaps you can learn from my struggles with Plato’s 729 problem. First of all, consider whether your target audience has changed, and whether you should alter your framing, motive, and/or thesis accordingly. Keep in mind that you might be able to expand on your current motive and thesis rather than starting from scratch. Secondly, don’t be afraid to delete sections that aren’t working out! Few pleasures compare to that of excising a paragraph and realizing that your argument is now much clearer. Finally, try to approach your paper as a stranger would. Consider counterclaims, flag dubious analysis, and take note of any logical leaps. In other words, don’t give your past self the benefit of the doubt. Your readers (or admissions committee) won’t be that understanding.
–Frances Mangina, ’22
The central, and arguably most important, component of any essay is its thesis. There are far too many ways to discuss the construction of thesis to put in a single issue, but the pieces selected for this section showcase some of the possibilities. In her Comparative Literature essay, Paige Allen explores the relationships between various key terms — consumption, humanity, and monstrosity, to name a few — in order to construct a novel argument about what she calls “resistant monstrosity”; in her commentary on Allen’s essay, editor Tess Solomon points out how the various parts of the essay come together to lead the reader briskly and clearly to the main thesis. The excerpt of Paige Min’s her R3 on Charlie and the Chocolate Factory published here likewise provides a very good example of an an against-the-grain argument, which Ellie Shapiro explains and analyzes in her commentary on Min’s piece.
— Isabella Khan, ’21
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 on Jesmyn Ward’s Men we Reaped, Cassy uses a clear and evocative prose style to convey her motive, using key words and well placed quotations to construct incisive analysis. Through her essay, she convinces her readers not only of the depth and texture of Ward’s original work, but also that academic writing, when done well, may possess a strong argument and thesis without wholly giving up the lyrical poignancy of a creative piece. Continue reading
In a Tortoiseshell: In her final paper for a class called Interdisciplinary Studies in the Humanities: Ancient Plots, Modern Twists, Paige Allen examines two texts, a novel and a short story, to explore the intersection between consumption, humanity, and monstrosity in the context of restrictive eating. As she orients her reader to the central ideas of her argument in this introduction, she explains the ways consumption habits have a long cultural history of being linked to “human nature.” The claim of this essay, that the texts in question present instances of something Paige calls “resistant monstrosity,” is a strong example of the lexicon term thesis. Continue reading
In a Tortoiseshell: In the following introduction and excerpted body paragraphs from her final Writing Seminar paper on Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Paige Min adopts an against-the-grain argument. She complicates the mainstream understanding of the text, namely that good children like Charlie who resist capitalistic temptations are rewarded while bad children who succumb to their desires are not. Paige frames her motive and thesis by orienting the reader to this common argument. Based on a close reading of the text, she argues that the story actually normalizes dangerous elements of capitalism and teaches children to blindly accept authority. Continue reading
I am a big fan of Socrates. He is wonderfully enigmatic, partly because Plato alters some of Socrates’s core philosophical stances from dialogue to dialogue. This does not mean that Plato is doing bad philosophy. On the contrary, the strange (and often ingenious) oppositions found in Plato’s dialogues are part of what makes them so effective. Take, for example, the so-called aporetic dialogues, which end in aporia, or “puzzlement.” One of these dialogues is the Euthyphro, in which Socrates and Euthyphro set out to determine the definition of piety, only to end up right where they started. At first glance, Plato’s approach to philosophical writing is quite foreign to the academic projects that a student might embark on today. However, I wonder whether a relative beginner at writing can learn something about what to do—and what not to do—from Plato.
I do not recommend basing the structure of your paper on the Euthyphro, because you would end up with a circular argument. However, one of the amazing things about Plato’s dialogues is that they encourage discussion—ideally, readers of the Euthyphro will be persuaded to find out for themselves what piety is. This is how we should respond to scholarly debates (or, should we say, “dialogues”) that we encounter in our own academic research. Socrates, ever-questioning, would want to determine precisely why two scholars don’t agree. Are they talking past each other? Did they begin with different premises? The fact that “published views of the matter conflict” (to quote a Writing Center handout) is a great motive, but if you don’t find the true point of conflict between the scholars, then your thesis will not fully address your motive. If I took Socrates and Euthyphro’s aporia as a motive for a paper, for example, merely offering my own definition of piety would do little to address the (possibly more interesting) question of why the dialogue ended in aporia in the first place.
In contrast to his aporetic dialogues, Plato’s later dialogues would receive high points for thesis, but slightly lower points for (scholarly) conversation and counterclaims. This version of Socrates no longer claims to know nothing: instead, he preaches a very specific—and Platonic—vision of the world. Conveniently, his interlocuteurs now have a rather high opinion of his abilities. Their main role in the discussion is to back up Socrates’s statements in no uncertain terms: “yes, by Zeus!”, “most certainly!”, and so on.
Unfortunately, a modern student whose writing was this one-sided would receive a resounding “no, by Zeus!” from his or her professor. Don’t get me wrong: Plato’s later dialogues are still works of genius. They remind us that not every motivating question has to be answered right away, and that theses can spur reflection on the part of readers even if they aren’t rigorously argued. At the same time, Plato is helpful for students who want to work within the lexicon. I would recommend learning from Plato’s visionary treatment of motive and thesis, while ensuring that all of your papers actually have both a motive and a thesis.
— 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
In a Tortoiseshell: In her politics paper, Maggie Baughman recommends a specific set of policies for the US State Department to follow in order to combat the spread of misinformation by the Chinese government within Taiwanese election cycles. Her thesis is built upon a unique and compelling methodology combining epidemiological theory with politics. By manipulating multiple forms of evidence as well as the framework of her argument, Maggie also renders her thesis both pragmatically and pedagogically manageable.