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Calling all Expos students!

The Writing Center presents…
The Second Annual Expos Town Hall
Saturday December 4 from 1-3 pm
Lamont Forum Room

Trying to come up with a thesis? Struggling with the organization of your final Expos paper? Want someone to look over your counter-argument?  Drop by the Lamont Forum Room (2nd floor of Lamont) between 1-3 p.m. this coming Saturday for an Expos/Writing Center drop-in extravaganza. Come with ideas, notes,  or drafts, and one of our tutors will sit down with you to answer your questions, discuss your paper, and help you formulate a revision plan.

The Writing Center is a place for Harvard undergraduates to get help with any aspect of their writing, from specific assignments to general writing skills. The Writing Center is staffed by trained undergraduate tutors who provide individual conferences at no charge to the student. You don’t have to be finished – or even started – to come for a conference.

Visit our website at:

Beyond Expos

by Daniel Gross

Expository Writing is a new type of class for many freshmen entering Harvard. In high school, most of us wrote standard 5-paragraph essays in English and Social Studies, but few took an intensive class dedicated solely to the practice and process of argumentative writing. Understandably, when we arrive on campus, some ask: “What do these essays that we’re supposed to write look like? Where can I find argumentative writing in the real world? When will I use this again?”

 You can’t get around expository writing. Not because it’s required, but because it comes in all kinds of disguises. If you open a newspaper (Google News, these days) you’ll find Expos staring you in the face. We can learn something about how to craft academic arguments – and why we might want to – if we take a look at the well-written editorial below.  We might even think of it as Expos-in-disguise, because it has plenty in common with academic arguments: it’s concise, it builds on itself, it guides the reader the entire way, and it offers legitimate counterarguments.

Knowing how to formulate and take apart these kinds of arguments can help you well outside of your freshman requirements. And that just might make your Expos class a blessing, in its own disguise. Here’s “Advantages for the Advantaged,” an opinion piece written for the Harvard Crimson by Adrienne Lee.

The Harvard campus today is a far cry from what it was 50 or even 20 years ago. With an increasingly diverse student body, a robust financial aid program, the withdrawal of official recognition for final clubs, and a randomized housing system, the College has taken numerous steps to stop privileging the rich and well-connected above other students.

A notable exception to the general trend is Harvard’s relative inertia with regard to giving legacy students preference during the admissions process. Providing an admissions boost to applicants who have a close relative who attended Harvard is, in effect, affirmative action for individuals who already enjoy many advantages—a practice that should be officially discontinued.

While Harvard has traditionally been reticent about the specifics that go into admissions decisions, Dean of Admissions William R. Fitzsimmons ’67 stated in a 2003 Wall Street Journal article that legacy status is used as a “tie-breaker between comparable candidates” during the admissions process.

Displaying favoritism toward students because of their lineage rather than individual accomplishments or academic achievement runs contrary to the meritocratic values that the College ought to promote. Despite the diversification of Harvard’s alumni pool in recent years, legacy preference still overwhelmingly favors white applicants from wealthy backgrounds, whose relatives have historically enjoyed an edge in admission to the College.

Proponents of legacy admissions point to the utilitarian benefits of admitting the children of alumni. It is said that legacies are more likely to matriculate if accepted, thereby augmenting a school’s yield. Alumni are also thought to be more generous in donating their money, and perhaps their time, to their alma mater if they think those contributions will increase the chances of a son or daughter getting in.

These concerns largely ignore the preponderance of other factors that lead students to choose schools and alumni to give to them. Some students choose to attend Harvard because their parents went there, but many other students choose based on the College’s unrivaled financial aid package or because the Harvard name is attractive enough by itself. Likewise, alumni donate and involve themselves with their alma mater for a wide variety of reasons—perhaps because they believe in Harvard’s mission and core values or because their time at the College was a formative experience in their lives.

Harvard’s really big donors, the ones who underwrite research funds and other initiatives at the College, will likely continue to donate for philanthropic reasons, regardless of legacy preference. Alumni of all economic backgrounds should be encouraged to give back based on the principle of supporting an institution that generally enriches the lives of many students, rather than on the principle that there will be a direct payback for their contributions.

Even if Harvard stops giving legacy preference tomorrow, plenty of highly-qualified legacy applicants will continue to be admitted to the College. Being a child of a Harvard graduate already confers many advantages: The zip code one lives in, the type of school one attends, and the type of academic and college preparation enrichment that one has access to may all directly or indirectly relate to where one’s parents went to school. There is no need to confer an additional advantage to those whom the circumstances of birth have already endowed with plenty.

Leaving out our own opinions on the issue, we can still learn a lot about how to put together a convincing argument by reading this editorial.  In other words, let’s read it like it’s an Expos paper.

So what values do editorials and academic essays share?  Or, to frame the question another way: what does a bespectacled professor reading student papers have in common with a coffee-drinking commuter going through the morning paper? Both:

1. Like what’s easy.

2. Don’t believe everything they hear.

3. Care… a little.


That means two things: say it quickly, and say it simply.  Adrienne gets to her thesis early in the essay, and explicitly – there isn’t a lot of padding to obscure the argument:

Providing an admissions boost to applicants who have a close relative who attended Harvard is, in effect, affirmative action for individuals who already enjoy many advantages – a practice that should be officially discontinued.

Put even more simply: Adrienne thinks legacy admissions should stop.  Similarly, look how easily we can sum up the claim in Paragraph 3: favoritism isn’t meritocratic.  She mentions more precisely why it’s unfair later – because those who benefit from favoritism are often well-off and white – but the important thing is we never lose sight of what her argument is. 

Obvious and explicit claims allow the reader to spend effort thinking about the ideas instead of digging a buried argument out of your words.  It’s hard to lose sight of three or four words.

It costs the Crimson money if Adrienne wastes her words.  An extra word, sentence, or paragraph is space another article lost – and little chunks of time that hundreds of undergrad readers wasted.  Not only that, if you don’t like the article – if it’s imprecise, boring, or too long – you’ll just skip it.

Assume both of these are true of your essays, too.  Redundant words just aren’t worth the extra ink and paper.  And even though a professor won’t toss your paper aside, you’ll know if she wants to.  It’s written in the big fat letter on top.  So make it easy.


The only way to convince a skeptic is to play their game.  Be skeptical of yourself.  If you see a gap in your reasoning, addressing it can strengthen, rather than weaken, your argument. On the other hand, pretending it’s not there will probably undermine your argument.  Notice how much time Adrienne spends on potential objections to her argument (paragraphs 4, 5, and 6).  There are a few main counterarguments here – which (if left ignored) could undermine her argument, but instead (as written) help her.

Here are the ideas she’s disputing:

1. Legacies are more likely than non-legacies to accept admission.

2. Legacy admissions encourage alumni to donate more money.

Adrienne doesn’t buy either of these arguments, and she gives a detailed explanation of why.  First of all, she argues that admitted applicants choose a college for a variety of factors, including financial aid and prestige.  She reasons that if we take into account these factors, the first claim is weakened.  Meanwhile, she also argues that other factors lead alumni to donate, including personal values and appreciation for their educational experiences.  That, in turn, questions the second claim. Finally, she adds an ethical argument to her refutation of the second claim.  She writes: “Alumni of all economic backgrounds should be encouraged to give back based on the principle of supporting an institution that generally enriches the lives of many students, rather than on the principle that there will be a direct paycheck for their contributions.”  Not only are legacy admissions relatively ineffective – as she states above – they’re also not really right.

Adrienne ends her piece with a look at the bigger picture, with another counterargument embedded: ending legacy admissions won’t eliminate a bunch of highly qualified applicants, like some people might think.  It’ll just give advantages to the already advantaged.  This, too, is an argument of principle – and a final plea for why the policy of legacy admissions should end.

Counterarguments don’t always have to be a side-note – in this editorial, they make up just about half of the text.  That may not be typical in your discipline.  But disputing other people’s arguments is a great way to conclude, as Adrienne does – and they’re also a great way to clarify and express your own thesis.  So be skeptical of yourself.


We already know that professors and commuters don’t have a lifetime to read what’s in front of them.  Earlier I said brevity and simplicity are important.  But there’s more to it than that.  How are you going to make your paper worth reading?  

Adrienne makes her piece relevant to her audience.  The current state of Harvard (her introduction) brings her readers, who are mostly Harvard students, into the picture.  She doesn’t have to work too hard in this sense.  Naturally, the topic of admissions into elite schools will interest students who recently experienced that process (though it also forces her to be cautious not to alienate her audience).

Finally, adding an ethical dimension helps to justify why she’s writing at all.  Legacy admissions are going on right under our noses – if it’s unfair, shouldn’t we do something to stop it?

If you’ve got your nose in a newspaper on the T to work, or if you’re a professor spending a Friday night grading papers, you’ve got plenty on your mind.  That’s why it’s crucial that readers figure out why an argument matters.  Make them care.

Daniel Gross ‘13 tutors at the Writing Center.

A Psych Major's Guide to Asking for Extensions

by Zoë Morrison

It’s midterm season. You have a paper due at 8pm on Thursday, but before that you’ve got to get through an exam, attend a meeting you can’t reschedule, and email some vaguely insightful comments on the readings to your TFs before both of your sections— wait a second, is that section presentation you signed up for this week?!

In “Oh S#@!” moments like these, don’t spend your time combing through eBay for a Time-Turner, tempting though that may be. Instead, give yourself a break and ask for an extension on that paper! Follow our handy tips after the jump, and you’ll be one step closer to sanity (and to a better, more thoughtful paper).

Have No Fear

There is nothing to be ashamed of when asking for an extension. Remember that your TFs are hard working students too; they’ve been in your shoes and know what it’s like to be bogged down with work. The worst that can happen is that your TF says no to your request, so it’s worth a try to lighten your load[1]. Whatever your situation, asking for an extension is always better than plagiarism. An extension is not a cop out; your TF will appreciate your honesty and understand that you want to do a better job on your paper than the current deadline allows. Taking an academic shortcut such as recycling an old paper is never a viable solution to a tight deadline and will result in sanctions from the Ad Board—usually a year-long required withdrawal from the College.

Consult the Syllabus

Before composing any email, check your syllabus and/or section handouts to see if they mention a policy on extensions. Most syllabi outline a late policy and will specify whether or not you need to get an extension OK’d by your professor in addition to your TF. Read course handouts thoroughly so that if you have any questions about the assignment, you can address them straight away in your request. This shouldn’t take longer than a couple minutes, and will save you from wasting valuable time later on. Then, follow whatever guidelines are laid out and contact the appropriate people—you’ll get points for following protocol.

Know Thy TF

You’ll want to tailor your request to your TF’s personality. Some TFs are casual while some are quite formal, some will be extremely flexible and others might need some buttering up. However, even if your TF is informal, always be respectful and if in doubt, err on the side of formality, especially if you are communicating directly with a professor! In any case, ask your classmates or check section handouts to remind yourself of your TF’s attitude towards extensions and of his or her e-mail checking habits, and write with your audience in mind—it might not be worth it to ask for an extension the night before if your TF has a “24 hour” rule regarding emails.

Power in Numbers: The Communal Request

Ideally, you will have noticed the impracticality of your due date a week or two in advance, in which case you will likely be able to gather the troops and ask for a course-wide extension along with some of your classmates by voicing your concern to your respective TFs or directly to your professor. In fact, it’s generally a good idea to sit down towards the beginning of the semester and go through all your syllabi, adding due dates to your calendar so that you can see in advance which weeks look particularly gruesome.

The Two-Day Rule

Unfortunately, the need for an extension is rarely discovered so far in advance. Email your TF as soon as you realize you need extra time, but at the very latest send your email two days before the deadline. This will show that you haven’t waited until the very last minute to start thinking about the assignment. This is not to say that asking for an extension the night before is entirely futile, but you will have a better chance if your TF is under the impression that you’ve given the paper more than a day’s consideration.

Honesty (and Quality) is the Best Policy

When it comes to the meat and potatoes of your request, be honest about your reasons for needing an extension. Don’t claim that you’ve suddenly fallen sick if you haven’t—you will likely be required to produce a doctor’s note, and that could lead to trouble. If you did get sick or have a family emergency, by all means say so, but do not cry wolf if it’s not true, and be prepared to back up your claims. On that note, don’t go into too much detail about your personal issues either—your TF doesn’t want to hear about your indigestion. And complete honesty is probably not the best policy if you want an extension in order to go to that awesome themed party on Thursday night. In such a case, I’d have to recommend sacrificing the party for the paper.

Do tell your TF if a lot of work snuck up on you or if you’re suffering from writer’s block[2], and do emphasize your desire to put a good faith effort into your assignment. After all, the main reason you want an extension is to get a better grade on your paper than you would if you wrote it too quickly or turned it in late. Emphasize your desire for quality—that you want your paper to properly reflect all the interesting things you’ve been learning in class—and your TF will appreciate your good intentions.

Follow Through

Make sure to agree upon a new deadline, and to respect it. If your TF seems the generous type, leaving it up to him or her to set a new deadline could be fruitful. If, however, you think you can reasonably get it done by a certain date, go ahead and suggest it in your original email—your TF will see that you are thinking rationally about it. If you really need as much time as you can get and are feeling bold, try the “door in the face” technique, one of psychologist Robert Cialdini’s[3] famous methods of persuasion: ask for a longer extension than you actually expect to get, and then negotiate it down. Chances are that your TF will be willing to grant you an extension that is sizable enough to meet your needs, but that he or she perceives as much smaller and more reasonable compared to your initial request (use this technique only if you’re on good terms with your TF). Once you’re clear on the new deadline, use your newly granted time as best you can, and hand in the paper on time.

[1] If these tips somehow fail to produce an extension, check out our article on the Nuclear Option for tips on writing a paper under a time-crunch.

[2] If writer’s block is your problem, sign up for a conference or come to drop-in hours at the Writing Center and we’ll do our best to help you get the ideas flowing again.

[3] Cialdini, Robert. Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion. New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1984.

Zoë Morrison ‘11 tutors at the Writing Center and concentrates in Psychology.

Wacky Word Wednesdays – Fear

by Xanthia Tucker

One of my favorite emotions is fear! Thus, this week’s pioneering post will investigate the origins of words for this hair-raising sentiment that all but the bald have felt. First, fear itself. We have nothing to fear but it. As a noun, “fear” stems from the Old English faer, a calamity or sudden danger. As a verb, however, the Old English faeran means “to terrify or frighten.” “But wait,” you exclaim in terror (Latin terreo, terrere, to fill with fear), “I thought faeran was intransitive! I thought it meant ‘to feel fear’!” Well, sure, that’s a fine perspective if you can sleep at night knowing you’ve dismissed the eons that preceded the 14th century. Some of us can’t.

Speaking of time, you know what has been around forever? Rocks. For the sake of argument, let’s say you had a really bad nightmare one night in which you were being chased down a granite mountainside by boulders the size of steroid-pumping Hummers. You would be horrified (Latin horreo, horrere, to tremble or shudder), right? Maybe even… petrified? Would you say that you might even be so frightened that you would transform into a stony concretion, or rock, or petra, if you were having this dream in ancient Rome? I thought so.

So, so far this post has been a little strange. (Brain) feathers feeling a bit ruffled? Well, let me leave you with this: you’re not the only one. In fact, when Americans first started using the expression “scare up” in 1846 to mean “to procure or obtain,” they were actually referring to the way they, as huntsmen, roused game from cover. Which begs the question, of course, of scarecrows. What needs to be “scared up” in a field of juicy corn? And who is feeling scared: the birds or the little children staring at their neighbor’s old track suit, skewered and stuffed with rotting straw? I guess the safest thing to say in this situation is this: Friends of a feather have nothing to fear but… becoming fearless, but literally bald, eagles.

Xanthia Tucker ‘13 tutors at the Writing Center.

Attention freshmen fiction writers!

The Ecker Short Story Prize
for first-year students

Fall Term Deadline:

Monday, January 24, 2011 by 4:00 p.m.

The Ecker Short Story Prize honors a short story written by a Harvard freshman.  First-year students are eligible to submit stories for the Ecker Prize at either the fall or spring deadline (the spring deadline will be in May).  If a student submits a story in January and wants to submit an additional story in May, the submissions cannot total more than 25 pages.

Submissions will be accepted by email.  To enter, submit an original short story (or several stories) totaling no more than 25 pages to

Subject heading: Ecker Short Story Contest

Entry requirements:

~All submissions must be double-spaced

~All submissions must be submitted in Microsoft Word or a compatible program

~All submissions must be written in English

~Include a cover page on which your name, e-mail, Harvard address and phone number and expected summer phone number and summer address are clearly printed

~Don’t include your name anywhere else on the manuscript

 The winner will receive a generous award, with the possibility of online publication.

Questions? Contact Karen L. Heath at

Grammar: Actions (Part 1)

by Alex McLeese

“Suit the action to the word, the word to the action.” — William Shakespeare, Hamlet, 3.2

“Action is eloquence.” — William Shakespeare, Coriolanus, 3.21


During the writing of this post, mistakes were made. At times, the words were chosen poorly. Activity was eschewed in favor of a creeping passivity. And when this post was finally published, even interested readers were made to doze off at their desks. We can only hope that, by the end of the post, they will have been taught a valuable lesson.

Now, wake up! What were those mistakes, and, most importantly, who made them? Look again at the previous paragraph. Can you find even one mention of a subject that is doing something? No! Who made the mistakes? Who chose the words poorly? Who eschewed activity? Who made readers doze off? Who might teach them a lesson? Well, I did, of course! Like a politician who might likewise admit only that “mistakes were made”—the kind of thing George Orwell hated about political language—I was trying to avoid being held accountable for my errors by omitting any mention of myself.


You might have heard of the active and passive voices from one of those teachers (praise them) who still cover grammar thoroughly. But the issue is less about a fine point of grammar than about effective style. If you write in the active voice more often, your readers will benefit immensely.

William Zinsser is the author of the best-selling book On Writing Well, now in its seventh edition. E. B. White turned his professor William Strunk’s book The Elements of Style into the single most famous American book on writing prose. If you don’t believe me, trust them:

“Use active verbs unless there is no comfortable way to get around using a passive verb. The difference between an active-verb style and a passive-verb style—in clarity and vigor—is the difference between life and death for a writer.”2

 “Use the active voice. The active voice is usually more direct and vigorous than the passive…The habitual use of the active voice…makes for forcible writing. This is true not only in narrative concerned principally with action but in writing of any kind. Many a tame sentence of description or exposition can be made lively and emphatic by substituting a transitive in the active voice.3


So just what is this active voice? The following explanation, with a sample sentence adapted for this blog, comes from Joseph Williams’ excellent book Style.

“When you write in the active voice, you typically put:

  1. A character in the subject as the agent of an action.
  2. The goal or receiver of an action in a direct object.

Subject/character/agent         verb/action                 object/goal

                  I                               wrote                      the Expos paper.

Passive voice differs in three ways:

  1. The subject names the goal of the action.
  2. A form of be precedes a verb in its past participle form.
  3. The agent of the action is in a by-phrase or dropped.

Subject/goal                be        +         verb/action     prepositional phrase/character/agent

The Expos paper         was                  written              [by me].”4

 While writing in the active voice is usually best, there are some exceptions. Williams encourages writers to use the passive voice when the agent of an action is self-evident, when it creates a shorter subject, and when it makes a sequence of subjects more coherent.5

 Now that you know what the active voice is, go ahead and correct the first paragraph of this post, and make use of it in your papers!

1Joseph M. Williams, Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace, 7th ed. (New York: Longman, 2003), 33.

2William Zinsser, On Writing Well, 7th ed. (New York: HarperCollins, 2006), 67.

3William Strunk, Jr., and E. B. White, The Elements of Style, 3rd ed. (New York: Macmillan, 1979), 18.

4Williams, 61.

5Ibid., 75.

Alex McLeese ‘11 tutors at the Writing Center and concentrates in History.

Wacky Word Wednesdays – "Holding a Mirror up to the Computer Screen"

by Xanthia Tucker

As I embarked on this week’s wordly adventure, I decided it was time to indulge in a little self-reflection and take a stab at the linguistic roots of the Writing Center’s budding blog. Blog. “Blog.” Whence springs this bizarre four-letter word?

Well, according to Douglas Harper’s Online Etymological Dictionary, the word “blog” is actually an abbreviation of “weblog,” a combination of the words “web” and “log” that first hit the net in 1994. Simple enough, right? Think again! Shortening “weblog” to “blog” actually lends it much of the meaning we understand it to hold today — because, as Harper reveals, the British equivalent of the average and hypothetical “Joe Blow” is “Joe Bloggs.” Just your average stay-at-home dude sharing his ruminations with a handful of lucky web-surfers! But wait! The pudding gets thicker. Apparently, in the 1800s, calling someone a “blog” meant referring to them as a servant boy — and schoolboys could “blog” each other when they defeated their playground adversaries, thus reducing their victims to the status of servants. This makes me question my own role as a newly initiated blogger of the 21st century. Am I just another anonymous Jane Doe, typing away at her laptop, thinking someone cares? And, more importantly, who are my enemies in the online sandbox? Does blogging have to involve stealing all of someone’s marbles?

In any case, I’m obviously losing mine. This whole thing is getting very meta-. But wait — what’s more meta than blogging about blogging? Blogging about “meta-”! Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary defines this prefix first as “occurring later than or in succession to, after.” But my usage here points to its secondary and tertiary definitions of “situated behind or beyond” and “later or more highly organized or specialized form of” (Merriam-Webster). Harper’s Dictionary tells us that “meta-” stems from the Greek word of the same spelling, as a preposition meaning “in the midst of, in common with, by means of, in pursuit or quest of,” but as a prefix indicating a “change of place, order, or nature.” Such an understanding confirms the related Latin word “meta,” which in ancient times denoted a goal or boundary. A boundary like a rounding post, you ask? Yes! Just like a rounding post. Maybe even like the ones in the Circus Maximus that kept track of the laps of charioteers braving the peril of the races to break the chains of their mortal anonymity by seeking immortality. What? Too soon.

Xanthia Tucker ‘13 tutors at the Writing Center.

In Defense of Close Reading

by Peter Bernard

Most of us have been there before: it’s midterm season, problem sets and take-homes lurk on the horizon, and you’ve got a paper due in a few days. What’s worse, you haven’t even touched the readings yet.

 You might think, I can’t do this. Given that the time frame is a couple of days and not a couple of hours, chances are you can. Or you might think, I don’t have time to do the readings—I’ll just skim them and start writing as soon as possible.

 What I want to emphasize here is this: Don’t do it!

You will be much better off if you devote your time to a slow, close reading of what you can get through and then save a little bit of time at the end for a very quick skim of whatever’s left. A lukewarm skim of everything will not get you far in generating original ideas that you can massage into a thesis.

And this advice doesn’t just apply to when you have a time crunch on your hands. As a general rule, I urge you to devote your time for readings, as much as possible, to a close reading, and avoid skimming whenever you can—even if it means that you aren’t able to get through as much of the material.

Of course, this depends to an extent on the discipline: skimming will probably prove more fruitful for secondary theoretical texts or historical documents, and for evaluating potential sources for a research paper it can be downright helpful (For good advice in this regard, see our  post about evaluating sources: “Should I Go All the Way? The Ten-Minute Drill”). Some students also feel like they have no choice but to skim, given that many courses assign far more reading than is possible to engage with thoroughly. Don’t worry about that—it is a problem all the students in the class are struggling with. Use our Ten-Minute Drill to determine what you want to focus in on, and then sit down to do some heavy-duty close reading. Above all, if what you’re working on is a “primary source”—that is, a source where it’s important to pay attention to form (prosody, style, word choice, imagery, argumentative steps) as well as content—then skimming will get you next to nowhere, whereas close reading will take you far indeed.

Well then, what exactly do I mean by a “close reading”? What are good approaches for reading closely? Here are a few pointers:

1.      Close reading, above all, means that you engage with the text on a personal level. Forget that the text is “assigned,” and try, as much as possible, to trick yourself into the mindset that you are reading it for fun or leisure. I know this can be hard. We’ve all been assigned texts that we don’t want to read or that we find boring. But that’s all right, too—channel your rage and ask yourself, Why is this text boring? Can I find specific reasons why I can’t engage with it as I would with other texts? Can I point to some specific faults that this text might have? Keeping focused and probing why you connect–or don’t connect–with a text is the first step toward coming up with paper-worthy points.

2.      Take notes. Different people do this in different ways. Many people like to highlight the text or write notes in the margins; I like to write out notes in a separate notebook. That way, I can keep the text’s slate clean so that I won’t be influenced by old thoughts on rereadings, and I can organize my points in a notebook in such a way that they work off each other. For example, let’s say an ambiguity has piqued your interest and you make note of it. It’s likely that the next point in the text that stands out to you will be in dialogue with the previous point, maybe clarifying it or complicating it further, and you can log this linkage in your notes, too. This is something you wouldn’t be able to do as easily if you were annotating the texts themselves, because the points are likely pages apart. I find that by taking notes in a separate place this way, outlines for papers often build themselves—you’ll find that your points start to connect in surprising ways, and, if you stay focused, next thing you know you’ve come up with a thesis with plenty of text-specific evidence.

3.      And of course, as I just mentioned—stay focused. Some people can read in noisy, bustling environments; more power to them. I can’t, so I don’t even attempt to tackle my readings unless I know I have a chunk of time on my hands in which I won’t be interrupted and bothered. That way, I can enter into the world of the text and let my ideas flow in tandem with its movements, instead of having start-and-stop, staccato ideas that don’t connect with one another. I know it can be a difficult thing to do nowadays, but close the computer, turn the phone off, and give yourself to the text. Chances are, you’ll find things are much easier when it comes to write the next paper.

Peter Bernard ‘11 tutors at the Writing Center and concentrates in East Asian Studies.

The Quote Sandwich

by Charlotte Lieberman

I can still remember one of the most disappointing experiences of my life: I am sitting at a coffee shop ready to unfold the layers of greasy wax-paper enveloping my mozzarella and tomato sandwich.  According to the menu, this creation is adorned with a layer of pesto.  As I open each fold, my excitement grows. After about half a minute of unfolding, I finally reach the sandwich itself – and I take a bite.  And so here we are, at one of the most disappointing experiences of my life: first, the bread was thin and dry, failing to provide the mozzarella and tomato with any structure; second, there was hardly any mozzarella or tomato on the sandwich – it did not succeed in making any sort of statement to my palate; finally – and perhaps most disappointingly– the sandwich-maker forgot the pesto, such that the sandwich lacked any sort of binding agent to permit the flavors to marry and complement each other.  Overall, my sandwich was disjointed, boring, and left me with no feeling or thoughts other than an incessantly disappointing question: “Why?!”

The only thing more disappointing than a poorly constructed mozzarella and tomato sandwich is a poorly constructed quote sandwich.  “A quote sandwich?” you may be asking yourself – and thus I will reply, “Indeed! A quote sandwich!”  When embarking on the journey of making a quote sandwich, the first step is to determine the filling – that is, the quote itself.  Sure, the quote should be zesty like a pesto-drenched piece of mozzarella cheese, but more importantly, how does this quote serve as evidence for your thesis? In cases where quotes are necessary for your paper (it is important to note that they are not in certain fields – social sciences or psychology, for example), they should likewise not be injected or shoved into your paper as filler.  Quotes give you authority – so before selecting a quote, examine why you are choosing this quote —what is its significance to your argument?

In order to make sense of the various components in a quote sandwich, I will provide an example from an essay by Harvard College Writing Center tutor Madeline Magnuson (’13).  In her essay, which was published in this year’s Exposé, Madeline tackles the thematic thread of marriage in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre and analyzes how the engagement of Jane and Rocheseter, the novel’s central figures, causes anxiety and tension amidst the societal demands within the narrative’s landscape. 

The top layer of a quote sandwich should not be analogous to the dry piece of bread that failed to provide structure for my coffee shop sandwich.  Instead, the top layer should be fresh and read well even without the quote.  Think of my disappointing sandwich as a counterfactual: in an idea world, the bread would have been fresh and fluffy enough to give structure to the sandwich, and the pesto adornment would have made the flavors more interesting. Together, the bread and pesto would have made the whole sandwich experience more cohesive and enjoyable. In the same way, the sentence before a quotation should create a fluid transition between the ideas preceding the quotation and the quotation itself.  Like the bread of a good sandwich, the sentence should provide the topic and context for the quotation.

Madeline begins her first body paragraph by situating the reader within the narrative context of Jane Eyre, while also allowing the reader to track her train of thought in her paper’s own arc. Madeline writes, “On the eve of their engagement, Jane and Rochester regard each other as equals because their relationship is conducted in social isolation. Brontë draws clear parallels between the garden in the proposal scene and the Garden of Eden. She explicitly describes the garden as ‘Eden-like’ (286), but also includes more subtle imagery.” Here, we see a perfect top layer of a quote sandwich.  In her topic sentence, Madeline provides narrative context by telling the reader that she will be analyzing a scene from the novel “on the eve of their [Jane and Rochester’s] engagement.”  Further, she makes a clear argument by stating that Jane and Rochester “regard each other as equals because their relationship is conducted in social isolation.” Before introducing the quote, Madeline provides the reader with a clear, confident statement that adequately sets the stage for the material she is analyzing as she asserts the presence of her argumentative lens. 

With this well-baked slice of bread, Madeline has prepared us for the tasty filler of the quote sandwich.  Put most simply, after the introduction to the quote comes the quote itself. In Madeline’s essay, she immediately introduces her central quote, what she calls “subtle imagery,” after first referring to the snippet from the novel that describes the garden as “Eden-like.” She begins, “Rochester tells Jane: “[I]t is as if I had a string somewhere under my left ribs, tightly and inextricably knotted to a similar string situated in the corresponding quarter of your little frame” (291).”  Madeline’s quote sandwich filling is indeed tasty, and successfully placed in the structure of her paper. 

As we saw in the “bread” or first layer of her quote sandwich, Madeline asserted her argument – telling the reader that she will analyze how equality functions between Jane and Rochester in relation to society – and then tells the reader how she will analyze a scene from the novel in which Brontë compares the garden in the narrative to the Garden of Eden.  Before we see analysis of the quote, it is clear why it is relevant to Madeline’s essay.  On a concrete level, she chose a quote that alluded to “left ribs,” an image that immediately calls to mind the Garden of Eden.  On a more subtle level, Madeline’s quote is strong because it is nuanced.  The text Madeline chose is uttered from the mouth of a character, giving the words a complex layer of subjectivity. Additionally, the character speaking uses the conditional tense (“It is as if…”), raising the question of the character’s inner desires and hopes.  In this way, Madeline’s quote is related to her thesis in a way that is clear and uncomplicated, but also invites the reader to continue reading the paper; with its Biblical imagery and grammatical nuances, this excerpt from the novel is undoubtedly a piece of text that requires sensitive analysis. 

With the filling successfully placed on the bread, we can now look at the next and final structural layer of the quote sandwich.  This layer is complicated to explore, as it is analogous both to the pesto layer and the final layer of bread in the real” sandwich I initially described.  This final layer of the sandwich should explain to the reader why you chose this quote. Explain how it relates to your thesis, and more specifically, what its function is in the scope of your paragraph’s main point.   In other words, the final layer of a quote sandwich should function similarly to the first layer of “bread” in the quote sandwich – it should concisely tell the reader why it is there in the paper such that the essay moves smoothly from one paragraph to another.  But in addition to explaining how the quote relates to the thesis, this final structural layer should also delicately explore the details at work in the quote that make it worth looking at more closely.  This is the pesto layer on the bread.

In order to see the pesto at work, let us look at Madeline’s quote sandwich’s final layer. Madeline writes,

This echoes the Biblical story in which Eve is created from Adam’s left rib, forming a bond of kinship and likeness. The allusions to Eden are significant not only because of the hidden temptation that occurs that night in the form of Rochester’s proposal, but also because of the nature of the Garden of Eden: it is pre-social. Only two humans exist, and they behave as equals. Only after Eve eats from the Apple does God decree that Adam shall rule over her as they leave the Garden and enter the world of men. Inside the garden, Jane and Rochester are alone.

Here, we see the complexities of the final layer of an ideal quote sandwich.  First, Madeline reiterates how Brontë’s prose “echoes the Biblical story in which Eve is create from Adam’s left rib.”  Following this statement, Madeline first claims that the references to the Garden of Eden conjure notions of “hidden temptation” surrounding Rochester’s proposal to Jane. Second, she remarks that, in a more general way, the garden’s similarity to the Garden of Eden evokes a world that is “pre-social,” a poignant observation that is wholly connected to Madeline’s thesis.  Then, Madeline explains what she means by this term “pre-social” in order for the reader to better understand why she is using this quote as evidence for her paper.  She explains, “Only two humans exist” and thus “…they behave as equals.”  In order to fully hammer in the comparison between the Garden of Eden and the world of the novel, Madeline provides the reader with a clear parallelism between the Biblical narrative and the relationship between Eve and Adam, and the world of the novel, “Inside the garden,” specifically where “Jane and Rochester are alone.”

By exploring the quote on so many levels, Madeline offered the reader “pesto” – that is, she demonstrated her aesthetic flourish and enjoyment in the writing process by dissecting the quotes so profoundly and thoroughly.  Finally, by closing her thought, she provided the second slice of bread for her sandwich.

In the world of quote sandwiches, an open face sandwich is not possible, so do not forget to provide context for your quote. In the world of any kind of sandwiches, a bottomless sandwich is never possible – so do not forget your analysis, and make sure to include the pesto.

Charlotte Lieberman ‘13 tutors at the Writing Center.