Tag Archives: works-in-progress


Starting an Essay: From Prompt to Outline

            Recently, a friend of mine approached me at dinner and asked if he could ask me some questions about my writing process. He explained that he had a five-page essay due in three days and had yet to start—a predicament typical of a busy Princeton student. He asked how he could streamline his writing process to make the most use of what little time he had. I took this opportunity to explain to him my routine, which I have optimized over the last several years.

            My approach to writing every essay is the same. First, I begin by reading the prompt. Second, I create an “idea map”—a brainstorming visual—and research my subject simultaneously. Third, I transition from that idea map into a traditional essay outline. Fourth, I draft my essay, relying heavily on my outline before my fifth and final step of editing.

            This is not a novel workflow process; however, I believe that I differ from the norm in my emphasis and execution of step two—creating an idea map. Many people skip this step altogether, believing that it is an unnecessary prerequisite to a traditional outline or that it is ineffective and therefor unproductive. I would argue the contrary: an idea map can be a brilliant use of time if properly executed because it can not only help you immediately transition from reading the prompt to formulating an argument, but it can also help you tremendously in the research process by providing you with specific points and concepts to explore.

            In order to show this progression effectively and clearly, I will be referencing and dissecting and essay I wrote on the Civil War. Hopefully, this essay be a resource to other students struggling to write as quickly and efficiently as this university demands, or to those simply looking for new writing tactics.

            The prompt of my history essay was incredibly simple: What caused the Civil War? As is important for any essay, breaking down the prompt and identifying and comprehending each of its elements is vital. This prompt, however, only contained one requirement: identify (and argue) the cause of the Civil War. Recognizing that this prompt was so open ended, my intention with my idea map was to find an answer that was narrow, focused, and nuanced, in the hopes of differentiating my argument from the vast scholarly discourse regarding the Civil War.

Figure 1 My idea map for my essay on the cause of the American Civil War.

            As noted by the circled “1” in Figure 1, my initial answer to the question posed by the prompt was simply “slavery.” I immediately broke down the cause of slavery into subcategories, asking myself the questions, “Why did Slavery exist in the South? And why was it so important?” Still having yet to conduct any research, I answered my questions broadly using ideas from my class, referencing economic and social factors, as well as my own idea of “guilt.”

            From this stage, I drew arrows to new places on the page in which I could further break down those sub-causes. I began by looking at the economic reasons why slavery existed in early America and in the American South (Figure 1, Number 2). I divided this economic section in half, deciding to investigate both the economic benefits and detriments of slavery. Now that I had specific categories and a narrower focus, I skimmed my course readings for the implications of slavery on the Southern economy and extracted relevant points to formulate a list on my idea map. Once completed, I observed this list and looked for any irregularities or puzzles which could be the source of my motive. What I found odd recognized was that though the Southern economy was booming from the free labor slaves provided, their dependency on slavery also caused them to miss the industrial revolution that swept through the North. That is, the South was seemingly ignorant to the fact that the very institution upon which they relied was also causing them economic harm.

            Then, I expounded on the social consequences of slavery with the intention of exposing why Southerners let themselves be dependent upon something so detrimental and globally unpopular as slavery (Figure 1, Number 3). Like before, I turned to my sources to find pertinent points about how slavery affected southern social life. The result of this research was likewise interesting; slavery had created a social hierarchy dependent upon and segmented by race rather than economic class, education level, or any typical defining factor of a societal ladder.

            Now I turned to my final subcategory of “guilt”—an idea of which I had yet to derive any true meaning (Figure 1, Number 4). Before I could explore and research this section, I had to narrow down and define this idea. As displayed in Figure 1, these questions all took the form of “what if?” because I didn’t yet know if any of these questions and ideas had any merit among scholars. After these questions, however, I had a research area—the Southern attitude regarding slavery. I found within my sources a pattern of Southern justification for slavery, most often in the form of religion, i.e. that slavery was a god ordained process, giving white men the task of ruling an inferior race. The puzzle was virtually complete.

            Under the section at the top of the page written as “Conclusion,” I tied my findings from each category together (Figure 1). I concluded that economically, slavery created a vast divide between the north and the south in trades, crafts, and exports. Likewise, I added that this divide permeated from economics into social dynamics, as Southern life was dominated by a racial hierarchy less existent in the North. Finally, from my own idea of Southern guilt, I added that to abandon slavery in the South was to admit it as a mistake and a wrong-doing, and to do so would be to yield the moral high ground to the North—a rival ‘nation’ already thought of by Southerners as arrogant and overbearing.

Figure 2 My outline for my essay on the cause of the American Civil War, based upon my idea map in Figure 1.

            With my argument in a nascent—but existent—state, I was now ready to transition into step three of my writing process: the traditional outline. Creating an outline, however, is a very smooth and easy process if one takes the time to create an idea map. The task of creating an outline becomes finding the best way to structure ideas, rather than having to generate them. As seen in Figure 2, my outline resembles the research and logical progression of ideas that I already had in my idea map. I still had to decide what context was necessary to orient my reader and to present the ‘puzzle’ I had explored in my idea map as a strong motive. Finally, I presented my thesis that white fear and guilt was the final push that eliminated any notion of compromise and caused the South to go to war with the North.

            The purpose of this piece is not to highlight the argument of my history essay or laud my writing process. Rather, it is to show in detail how I go about breaking down a prompt and brainstorming in the form of an idea map before drafting a traditional outline. Hopefully, I have shown how you may use this approach successfully as well. Starting an essay is often the most daunting and lengthy part of writing an essay, but having a routine and formula can make this process easier, more efficient, and less daunting, even if—like my friend—you only have a couple days to get it done.

— Alex Charles ’22


Constructing a Scholarly Narrative with Incomplete Information

It sometimes happens during the research process that I come to a point where I think I know what I should propose or argue, but I can’t see how to prove or disprove it. This happens fairly often when I’m writing papers in the humanities, but even more so when I am trying to solve a problem in mathematics. In fact, I ran into this issue while trying to prove one of the claims on my most recent math assignment. The goal was to prove the following claim:

(I include the claim for completeness, but it’s not terribly important.) My first step was to reduce the claim to a statement that seemed easier:

which I was able to do just by using the information given in the problem. After that, I was able to get nearly three-quarters of the way through the proof just using the given information.  Then I ran into something I knew should work, but wasn’t able to verify:

A screenshot of a cell phone

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Because I already knew what I was trying to prove, I was able to use the assumptions I described above to complete the problem (more or less). There was still a hole in my argument, but I was able to construct a solid “scholarly narrative” for the problem (that is, finish the proof) by carefully delineating what I understood and where my understanding went off a cliff. Writing out exactly what I thought was wrong also told me what I needed to learn the next time I worked on the topic — effectively, it told me what further research I needed to do. So, even though I wasn’t quite sure what was going on, I was still able to decide what I would need before I made a second pass over the problem.

There are, of course, several caveats to what I have said thus far. First, in this case, I knew that my overall claim was correct, so I was confident I should be able to jump over the hole in my reasoning and complete my argument. In general scholarly writing, we don’t know with certainty that our thesis is correct, so a question like the one above could throw the entire premise of the argument into doubt. The second caveat is that clearly, my argument couldn’t have been called “complete” while containing the excerpt above. Since there was a hole in my argument, I hadn’t really proved anything yet. Indeed, the kind of serious gap in understanding displayed above was only permissible because the homework assignment was the equivalent of an early draft.

But despite these two cautionary notes, annotating incomplete arguments as I do above has often proved helpful (and necessary) for me in both mathematics and the humanities. By whittling down the “unknown” part of the problem to a single nugget that we are not equipped to attack with our current tools, we mark the bounds of our own knowledge, and in doing so, lay the groundwork needed to push those bounds even further than before.

–Isabella Khan ’21

Risk-taking, Spring 2017

Volcanoes and Detectives: Writing unconventionally in academic work (and maybe doing it well)

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Throughout my four years at Princeton, I’ve written about everything from Saladin to shopping mall design, from the Black Death to (more than one) history of the Princeton geology department. Given that I’ve had to write about a small compendium of subjects, I have often tried to use unconventional entry points to situate increasingly esoteric topics. In this article, I will discuss the introductions of three off-the-wall papers I wrote while I was here, assess what I was thinking at the time, and reassess their strengths and weaknesses. It goes without saying that risk-taking has its rewards, but it also has its risks.

The first paper’s introduction that I’d like to look at is from a term paper called “Preparing for Ecumenopolis: Urban Sprawl’s Persistence and Avenues for its Reform.” This paper, written for an urban studies class, looked at a (too wide) variety of components of American urban sprawl and its possible solutions. The introduction is somewhat an augury for the rest of the paper’s eclectic hodge-podge of sources, indicated by an initial lengthy block quote from literature followed by a similar statement from a polemical mid-20th-century urban planner named Constantinos Doxiadis:

The 2010 science fiction novel How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe takes place in a sprawling urban agglomeration that houses 87% of the human population, a city called New Angeles/Lost Tokyo-2.

The formation of [New Angeles/Lost Tokyo-2] occurred in two steps. Step one: the cities of New York and Los Angeles, 2,462 miles apart, much to the surprise and consternation of residents and property owners and municipal officials and parking lot owners and westsiders from the eastern half and eastsiders from the western half, slowly and invisibly and irreversibly merged into each other, in the process swallowing up what was in between, leaving one metropolis that contained, within it, what had been America. Alaska and Hawaii were included as well.

The second phase began a short while later, when the sprawling city of Greater Tokyo spontaneously bifurcated along a spatio-temporal fault line. Half of this bifurcated Tokyo moved across the world and wrapped itself around the perimeter of the recently formed New York/Los Angeles chimera. This half is referred to as Lost Tokyo-2.
Surprisingly, the fantastic urban agglomerations of New York, Los Angeles and Tokyo merging into one colossal city are not so off base as to be outside the realm of urban theory and population demographics.

In 1967, the Greek architect Constantinos Doxiadis proposed the idea of ecumenopolis, a speculative city that will span the entire world. His concept is remarkably in line with Yu’s fictional “New Angeles”:

This city [ecumenopolis] is already under construction. It will absorb almost all the important cities of the present, and will gradually grow out of them through their dynamic growth, as well as through the dynamic growth of the new settlements that are going to be created. It will be composed of almost all the major cities of the past and present. This city is going to expand widely over the plains and the great valleys and rivers, since the most restrictive factor in its formation will be the presence of water.
This conception of macro-urban sprawl has its precedents… In 1961, Jean Gottmann characterized Megalopolis as a network of continuous urbanism, its chief example the North American line of cities stretching from Boston to Washington. Grounded in the reality of the American Northeast Corridor, Gottmann’s ‘Megalopolis’ observation suggests Doxiadis’ vision may not be too far from reality.

In this paper, I opened with a block-quoted section of a sci-fi novel and juxtaposed it with a block-quoted section from an urban planner’s theory, using it to motivate a question of how the real world may reflect these visions. Looking back now, perhaps a simpler–and no less effective–opening might have involved just the provocative quote from Doxiadis. After all, my discussion of sprawl that followed only needed one nightmare vision of an urban future to provide adequate framing. 99.9% of the time, one block quote is enough.

But in other papers I wrote, I tried to finesse even more layers to my introductions, in a process that was not unlike the main conceit of dream-levels from the 2010 film Inception. One of those papers was called “Not a Mountain like Others”: The Dangerous Complacency and Photographic Legacy of the Thera Eruption through Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red.” It is perhaps the weirdest paper I have ever attempted, its lens text and subject under study being extremely contrived. In it, I tried to associate tourism of the volcanically-preserved Bronze Age city of Akrotiri on the island of Santorini with the theory of photography through Anne Carson’s prose novel Autobiography of Red, which itself associates photography theory with volcanoes. That was a mouthful. For a taste, here’s an excerpt from the introduction:

On the island of Santorini, a boutique bookstore sells a pamphlet entitled “The Atlantis Dialogues.” On its cover is the image of a bust of Plato and a small, white silhouette of an aerial view of Santorini. Within its pages, the pamphlet quotes one of Plato’s most famous lines about the mythical lost island of Atlantis—“In a single day and night of misfortune… the island of Atlantis in like manner disappeared into the sea.”

The implicit association between Santorini and Atlantis, in this case inscribed on the pamphlet’s cover by an image of Santorini, reflects an aesthetic circulation of a geological event—namely, the eruption of the Thera supervolcano around 1614 B.C. that extinguished the Minoan Bronze Age civilization at Akrotiri. During the eruption, 150 billion tons of volcanic debris were ejected from the volcano, significant segments of the island’s ring collapsed and Akrotiri was buried in volcanic ash. Similar to the myth of Atlantis, the civilization disappeared with a violent natural catastrophe—freezing the Akrotiri settlement in time through a process similar to the taking of a photograph.

Anne Carson explores the relationship between volcanoes and photography in her novel in verse, Autobiography of Red….[the protagonist] Geryon’s fascination with the relationship between volcanoes and photography forms an intrinsic part of the work, best expressed when the third-person narrator writes, “A volcano is not a mountain like others. Raising a camera to one’s face has effects no one can calculate in advance.” … Just as the volcanoes depicted in Autobiography of Red have far-reaching consequences on their subjected populations, so does the Thera volcano on the public perception of Santorini.

In this excerpt, you can see that I was trying to do a great many things at once. A postcard sold at a store becomes a discussion of Atlantis, followed by an explanation of a real-life Atlantis destroyed and preserved by a volcano, and then an introduction of the lens text Autobiography of Red, which traffics heavily in volcano imagery—it’s just too much! I simply become exhausted even when explaining it. Again, for a much less convoluted opening, all I needed to do was talk about Akrotiri and then Autobiography of Red (which would still be contrived, but more acceptable). Given these two misfires concerning the ecumenopolis and volcanoes, I must leave you with an example of what might be a more effective way to handle this.

One paper I wrote, “‘I was part of the nastiness now’: Death, photography, and survival in Raymond Chandler’s ‘Killer in the Rain’ and The Big Sleep,” employed a much more manageable introduction, one that introduced the themes with lens texts that were more organic and less belabored. Rather than force lens upon lens upon text, in this passage I established a situation and a means of analyzing it. No more, no less, and therefore much better.

In Raymond Chandler’s detective story “Killer in the Rain,” a curious line appears. In the midst of a struggle between a blackmailer named Marty and an unhinged woman named Carmen over pornographic photos, the narrator-detective observes that “Marty and Carmen were still facing each other like a couple of images.”

Well known for his flashy similes, mystery novelist Raymond Chandler was one of the pioneers of the hardboiled detective genre and is regarded as a major voice in American literature. He is most known for his novels featuring Philip Marlowe, a cynical but mostly honorable private detective who investigates the dark side of 1930s Los Angeles. In particular, the themes of death and survival are intrinsic to Chandler’s work, and are exhibited throughout his 1939 breakout novel, The Big Sleep. The aforementioned line from “Killer in the Rain,” however, through its photographic metaphors of “still” and “images,” suggests that photography’s exhibition of these themes is critical to understanding their depth and complexity, themes which resonate with Jacques Derrida’s philosophical work. In his book, Athens, Still Remains, Derrida discusses the intrinsic connection between death, survival, and photography, a connection that is revealed through “Killer” and further elaborated upon in The Big Sleep.

“Killer in the Rain” is a story that Chandler expanded and combined with one of his other stories, “The Curtain,” to create The Big Sleep. However, the line is absent from its analogous scene in The Big Sleep. Not only does this line demonstrate a conflict between “Killer” and The Big Sleep, it implies that Chandler’s meditation of death and survival through photography evolves over the writing of the two works. To borrow a photographic term, Chandler’s philosophical meditation on death, survival, and photography develops into a form that illustrates Derrida’s implied assertion that photography’s association with death and survival make survival more complicated because traces of past experiences haunt the archival nature of photography and life.

In this introduction, I first outlined a scene from literature, drawing attention to a line that motivates a contextualization of the work and the need for a theoretical work to address the line’s questions relating to the imagery of photography. The tension between the earlier version of the Raymond Chandler story and the final novelized version therefore motivates the application of the lens text by Derrida to learn more about the use of the photographic theme in literature.

Thus, each component is organically established and introduced, and there aren’t the same onion-like layers to get through to get to the main argument. Of all the strange and eclectic papers, this one about detectives is one that I look back upon quite fondly. My volcano paper may have been messy, and so too was the one about the “world-city”—but I guess even these imperfect works are motives for greater ones. For full disclosure, I must admit I ended up writing my senior thesis on Doxiadis’s ecumenopolis.

To conclude, a writer’s work is never finished. It can just grow to expand the whole world. The trick is making that expansion organic through the use of “form-fitting” lenses and texts and sources that are complementary rather than distracting.



Works Cited

Carson, Anne, Autobiography of Red: A Novel in Verse, vintage contemporaries ed. (New York:

Alfred A. Knopf, 1998; New York: Vintage Contemporaries, 1999).

Cartwright, Mark, “Thera,” in Ancient History Encyclopedia (Ancient History Encyclopedia, 2012), accessed July 22, 2014, http://www.ancient.eu.com/thera/.

Chandler, Raymond. The Big Sleep. Aerius, 2004. First published 1939 by Knopf. Accessed July 7, 2014. http://ae-lib.org.ua/textsc/chandler__the_big_sleep__en.htm.

Chandler, Raymond, Killer in the Rain (Black Mask, 1935; London: Penguin, 2011).

Derrida, Jacques, Athens, Still Remains: The Photographs of Jean-Francois Bonhomme, trans.

Pascale-Anne Brault and Michael Naas, english ed. (New York: Fordham University Press, 2010), 2, originally published as Demeure, Athens (n.p.: Editions Galilee, 2009).

Doxiadis, Constantinos A., 2005. “Ecumenopolis : The Coming World-City.” Ekistics 72.

Friedrich, Walter L., Marit-Solveig Seidenkrantz, and Ole Bjorslev, “Santorini (Greece) before the

Minoan Eruption: A Reconstruction of the Ring-island, Natural Resources and Clay Deposits from the Akrotiri Excavation,” Geological Society 171 (2000): 71, accessed July 23, 2014, http://sp.lyellcollection.org.ezproxy.princeton.edu/

Gottmann, Jean, 1990. Since Megalopolis: The Urban Writings of Jean Gottmann. Edited by Jean

Gottmann and Robert A. Harper. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

King, Stephen, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft (Scribner, 2000; New York: Pocket Books,

2000), 137, accessed July 8, 2014, http://books.google.gr/books

McCoy, Floyd W., and Haiken, Grant, “Anatomy of an Eruption,” Archaeological Institute of

America 43, no. 3 (May/June 1990): 48, accessed July 23, 2014, http://www.jstor.org/stable/41765836.

Moss, Robert F., “An Introduction to The Big Sleep,” Criticism and Scholarship: The Raymond

Chandler Website, last modified 1997, accessed July 9, 2014, http://home.comcast.net/~mossrobert/html/criticism/bigsleep.htm.

Plato, The Atlantis Dialogues, trans. Benjamin Jowett (London: Paravion Press, 2014).

Vougioukalakis, George E., The Minoan Eruption of the Thera Volcano and the Aegean World, trans. Alexander Doumas (Athens: Society for the Promotion of Studies on Prehistoric Thera, 2006).

Yu, Charles. 2010. How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe. New York: Knopf.

Analyzing a medium, Spring 2017

Math in the Humanities? Writing about a Non-Traditional Topic for a Traditional Audience

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Let’s face it: there is a divide between the humanities and STEM fields. As an undergraduate at Johns Hopkins, I felt like I was on the losing side of a battle. I was a triple major in some very different fields: mathematics, creative writing, and French literature. However, this combination was not always well received by professors, and much less by administration. I still recall how the registrar’s office spent an hour telling me how it was not possible to complete a degree with three majors, even though I had finished almost all the coursework and had the appropriate signatures!

As a doctoral candidate, I have been able to combine these interests into a doctoral dissertation about the mathematical methods of an experimental group of French writers, the Oulipo. While it’s been a joy for me to investigate the subtle channels that lead from mathematics to literature and back again, for some hardcore literature scholars, using the word “mathematics” evokes fear and anxiety, which brings me to a big question: how do you write about one discipline to people who have been trained almost exclusively in another? More specifically, how was I to write about mathematics for people who took their last mathematics class in high school?

Below are some of the strategies I’ve found that help me deal with these challenges. Hopefully my experience can be beneficial to others who intend to fly in the face of disciplinary boundaries at some point in their studies.


In my project, I have found that defining a clear thesis early on was key, and that the thesis had to be motivated not just by the interdisciplinary nature of the project but grounded in my own discipline. To use the magic thesis statement (MTS):

By looking at the mathematical methods of the Oulipo, we can see

  1. The historical reasons behind these choices and how the Oulipo situates itself within a literary tradition that precedes it as well as within the larger history of mathematics,
  2. The way the mathematics changes the compositional methods of these authors, and
  3. How this changes the reading experience, which most people don’t see.

This is important because it helps us understand:

  1. The Oulipo’s singularity among other 20th century French experimental groups,
  2. The Oulipo’s influence on mathematics and computer science, and
  3. How mathematics and literature are complementary, and how one can influence the other.

As you can see from how I divided my MTS, I found it necessary to break down my argument and motive into their constituent parts, not only because a doctoral dissertation is extremely long and therefore requires a more complex thesis, but to facilitate the reading experience for my audience. To that end, I have three main parts of the thesis:

  1. History (both literary history and history of science/mathematics)
  2. Compositional methods (rhetorical analysis, the heart and soul of literary scholarship)
  3. And finally the reader (situating the Oulipo within a theoretical context)

In the last part of my MTS, I broke the motive down into three parts, again for my intended audience, which bridges disciplinary boundaries:

  1. Why this matters for literary scholarship of 20th-century France (or Europe in general)
  2. Why this matters for historians of mathematics or science
  3. Why this matters for larger disciplinary questions

This brings me to orienting. The primary reader of my dissertation is my advisor, who is unlike any other literary scholar in that he is not afraid of mathematics! As a translator, he had to learn a great deal about mathematics and the Oulipo to translate the works of Georges Perec, and he has continued to do a great deal of work on the group and mathematics. That said, my other readers are not well acquainted with mathematics, so I felt that I needed to assume a novice reader. Now the question was, how can I orient such a reader without talking down to him or her? Paradoxically, I came to the answer in preparation for my prospectus defense, during which I had to give a brief presentation about my work and answer questions from the French Department faculty. To get them thinking mathematically, I realized, they needed to do mathematics!

So I walked them through a proof, a simple one to say the least. Beginning with a mathematical anecdote to hook them in, I explained the mathematical reasoning that Gauss used as a child and how to abstract that into a theorem about sums of positive, consecutive integers. Then, I linked these notions of formal language and axioms to literature through the Oulipo and a few key texts. Mathematics is the study of abstract patterns, and literary sensibility as well depends upon a human capacity for pattern recognition. In that sense, the reader of my dissertation—regardless of his or her mathematical background—already possesses all the tools needed to decipher the Oulipo’s use of mathematics! It just requires a different kind of reading and—as I have learned—writing.

Risk-taking, Spring 2017

Dead end or Dividend: Falling (Face-First) into the Intentional Fallacy

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In a male-oriented, male-documented society like ancient Rome, how can we reconstruct women as they really were? This was the task I set myself to in the crafting of my essay “Medeas of the Palatine,” in which I examined and made a case for the changed status of late Republican women in Rome. I started with a case study of an elite woman of the late Republic: the notorious Clodia, a wealthy widow who, according to Cicero, behaved “riotously” like “a common harlot” and was involved in all manner of intrigue—financial, sexual, even criminal. I drew on her case study as a microcosm of the broader status of women at the time.

Due to the scantiness of female-authored primary source material, I resolved to distort the already-distorted male-written history and hopefully arrive at something less distorted. No easy task, to be sure—plunging into an intentional fallacy head-on is a messy and confusing business. I was working from Cicero’s speech, a decidedly male-centric opinion in a decidedly male-dominated institution in a decidedly male-governed society.

Nevertheless, I took the plunge, cataloguing Cicero’s known biases against Clodia as well as more general perceptions of women in Roman society at the time that might be coloring his speech. Here’s an excerpt of that passage:

Cicero was an orator; his aim was to win the case, so he molds the story and his argument to the benefit of his client, Caelius, and to the audience of an élite all-male assembly. It should also be noted that, besides the professional motivation, he also had several personal scores to settle with Clodia and her family. Clodius, Clodia’s younger brother, was Cicero’s greatest enemy (for Clodius, the feeling was mutual). Moreover, as Cicero himself mentions in the speech, Clodia had perpetrated violent actions against him and his family, such as burning down his house while he was exiled. There is also an indication that Cicero might have been romantically involved with Clodia himself at one point; Plutarch mentions that Terentia, Cicero’s wife, “suspected Clodia of wanting to marry Cicero” (Plut. Life of Cicero 29). Although Cicero claims he is “brushing aside the memory of what I suffered” in the case, there is no doubt that his personal dealings with Clodia and Clodius shade his arguments (Cicero, Pro Caelio 50).

As regards the limitations of the case itself, one has to wonder how representative Clodia is of the status of a typical Roman woman in the late Republic and thus what quality and quantity of insights can be gleaned from the case. She was a noblewoman, widowed, wealthy, and propertied. She had not remarried, her father had been dead some years already, and her brother, Clodius, was in no place to supervise or criticize her behavior with his own record of scandal (including, but not limited to, persistent rumors of incest with his sisters, as well as his infiltration in 62 B.C. of the women’s festival of Bona Dea to schmooze around with Pompeia, the wife of Caesar), so Clodia was in a position of relative freedom to do as she pleased—up to a point.

Perhaps this is a package deal; a woman can have her fun, but only if she masks it well and plays out her social role of devoted wife and mother. When Pompey, for example, was away on campaign for many months and caught wind of his wife Mucia’s increasingly “loose life,” he was at first unperturbed (Plut. Life of Pompey 42). As he began the return trip to Italy, however, he decided to divorce her (Plut. Life of Pompey 42). As Cicero said of Clodia, “she no longer even bothers to seek privacy and darkness and the usual veil of discretion to cover her lusts” (Cicero, Pro Caelio 43). It is difficult to tell here if “usual” means “usual” for Clodia or “usual” in the lusty pursuits of the elite. However, in the context of some of Cicero’s other statements, it seems to be the latter. He lumps Clodia into “a household of that sort under a woman who behaves like a prostitute,” a situation in which “it is perfectly obvious and universally known” to what extent Clodia pursued “lusts and excesses” (Cicero, Pro Caelio 56). Her particular case might have a few “unheard-of perversions,” but the case of Clodia and her “associates” nonetheless seems to fit a well-known societal mold, whether fitted by Cicero for argumentative purposes or by the ready-made cache of circulating rumors.

I’m still not sure how I worked myself into that “ready-made cache of circulating rumors” (what a mouthful!). Phraseology aside, however, I had set myself up well—I was going to scientifically dissect this case study for biases and account for them in my analysis. But what I failed to do is realize the improbability of my construction. I was trying to be precise, setting up the biases and limitations of my case, then using that same case to prove something bigger. In a case study alone, such dissection might be workable (though still delicate and difficult). But the task of my paper was to make an argument for an entire period of history, not just one woman in a brief moment in that history.

Constrained by a ten-page limit, I was forced to compromise my rigor. By the end of my paper, I had left things rather open-ended, juxtaposing two more male-authored primary sources to hint at a noteworthy sense of male vulnerability in response to spurts of female agency in the 2nd and 1st centuries B.C. In many ways, I had backtracked—my claims were no longer as nuanced nor as persuasive as they had been in the case study format. I should have been prepared for the same level of rigor in my broader arguments. On the small-scale case study level, the intentional fallacy seemed to pay off, but when I tried to extrapolate, I found myself hovering in a realm of ambiguity and uncertainty. Lesson learned: always look (long and hard) before you leap.

Works Cited

Appian. Roman History, Volume IV: The Civil Wars, Books 3.27-5. Translated by Horace White. Loeb Classical Library 5. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1913.

Cicero, Marcus Tullius. “In Defense of Marcus Caelius Rufus.” Selected Political Speeches of Cicero, translated by Michael Grant, London, Penguin, 1969.

Culham, Phyllis. “Women in the Roman Republic.” The Cambridge Companion to the Roman Republic, compiled by Harriet I. Flower, 2nd ed., New York, Cambridge UP, 2014.

Evans, John K. War, Women, and Children in Ancient Rome. London, Routledge, 1991.

Livy. “The History of Rome.” Perseus Digital Library. Tufts University. Accessed 16 Jan. 2017.

Plutarch. Fall of the Roman Republic. Translated by Rex Warner and Robin Seager, Rev. and expanded ed., London, Penguin Books, 2005.

Plutarch. Makers of Rome, Nine Lives: Coriolanus, Fabius Maximus, Macellus, Cato the Elder, Tiberius Gracchus, Gaius Gracchus, Sertorius, Brutus, Mark Antony. Translated by Ian Scott-Kilvert, London, Penguin Books, 1965.

Richlin, Amy. Arguments with Silence: Writing the History of Roman Women. U of Michigan P,

Spring 2016, Thesis

Thesis: Works in Progress

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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.[5] 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.


Works Cited

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.


Evidence & Analysis

Evidence and Analysis: Works in Progress


…When we study this battle [between Grendel’s mother and Beowulf] separately, we can see that Beowulf is not at a disadvantage, for both he and Grendel’s mother act like human-monster hybrids, making this a battle between equals. Ultimately, this gives Beowulf more control over his fate than Tolkien suggests, making Beowulf more accountable for the hypocritical actions he could otherwise blame on his desperation. […]

The author provides evidence for Beowulf’s monstrosity in the first battle, when Beowulf states: “it won’t be a cutting edge I wield / to mow [Grendel] down… since [Grendel] has no idea of the arts of war” (Beowulf 681-683). While this seems noble, it forces us to wonder how Beowulf is able to tear Grendel’s arm off without weapons. He must possess some monstrous strength to do so, placing him at the same level as Grendel’s mother.

Since Beowulf and Grendel’s mother are equally matched because of his monstrous strength and her human nature, we cannot merely excuse Beowulf as Tolkien does, for Beowulf is not helpless. He is therefore obligated to live up to the standards of honor he creates when he sheds his weapons in the first battle.


In this revised version of my first essay for writing seminar, my goal was to undermine Tolkien’s argument about Beowulf’s disadvantages in battle by arguing that Beowulf and Grendel’s mother, who fights Beowulf in the second battle of the story, are equally matched because both are portrayed as human-monster hybrids. While I initially had only focused on the humanity of Grendel’s mother, arguing that her portrayal as a mother established her humanity, I realized I could not ignore the fact that she was seen as a monster, that she was not completely human, which led me to the idea of the human-monster hybrid.

I became committed to the idea of the human-monster hybrid before finding evidence to suggest that Beowulf could be described by this label. Thus, when I ended up finding limited evidence actually suggesting Beowulf’s hybrid nature, I glossed over it. For example, in the passage above, I argue that Beowulf’s brute strength proves his monstrosity, providing only one small piece of evidence of this–that Beowulf can tear off Grendel’s arm. This insufficient evidence, compared to my detailed analysis of Grendel’s mother, forces the reader to accept the largely unsupported claim of Beowulf’s monstrousness to understand my remaining arguments.

To revise this treatment of evidence, I would have started by searching for more evidence to support my claim about Beowulf’s hybrid nature. This would have allowed me to avoid making an unsupported, ad hominem attack against Beowulf and ultimately more convincingly communicate my point that the author may have intended us to hold Beowulf accountable for his brutality. I would have also grounded my thesis in the evidence I found showing that we are not meant to admire Beowulf unconditionally, rather than making such an absolute and simplistic claim that Beowulf and Grendel’s mother are both human-monster hybrids, which detracted from my intended point.


Structure: Works in Progress


Thus, large portions of Lévi-Strauss’s work can be read as attempts to establish the group as capable of almost unilaterally perpetuating a magical system’s validity. This conception seems particularly inconsistent, however, in light of an anecdote the reading provides about a boy on trial for witchcraft after his touch appeared to send a young girl into a seizure. Although the boy initially claimed his innocence of sorcery, he soon realized that providing a rich and detailed account of his supposed supernatural powers would prove a much more persuasive defense.  This approach is so successful because, in fact, the group is not capable of maintaining the validity of their magical system alone. The boy offers them complex detail and physical proof–a plume which he claims is the source of his power–and, in the process, transforms and solidifies the group’s magical beliefs which had previously constituted “a diffuse complex of poorly formulated sentiments and representations” (Lévi-Strauss 174). As Lévi-Strauss concludes, the group is desperate for the boy to confirm its system and ‘become the guardian of its spiritual coherence,’ meaning that the group is reliant on the supposed witch to validate its system (Lévi-Strauss 174). Therefore, when the boy is able to cure his ‘victim’ using a root it is at least less likely that he would have been successful had he not corroborated the system and even begun to ‘become the dupe of his own impersonation’ (Lévi-Strauss 174).


This excerpt comes from the draft of my first Writing Seminar paper. My professor provided my class with a text on magical beliefs by anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss and asked us to identify and respond to an inconsistency in his theories.  I argued that, based on Lévi-Strauss’s own evidence, he overemphasized the role of group-consensus in the perpetuation of magical beliefs and downplayed the key role played by witches and other magical practitioners. In taking a fresh look at my draft, I found it difficult to determine the function of the paragraph above and its relation to my thesis. A few revisions to the paragraph’s structure could make it much easier for the reader to follow my train of the thought. One easy tweak would be to move the current topic sentence to the next paragraph. That way, the new topic sentence would capture the main claim of the paragraph. The last sentences of the paragraph could also be revised. Right now, the paragraph ends with a quote. This means that the reader is left to interpret the significance of the quote herself. Adding a few sentences to analyze the quote and link the paragraph’s main claim back to my thesis would frame my ideas more clearly. In revising my drafts, I’ve found that minor revisions to paragraph structure can have a huge impact on the logical “flow” of a paper.