Driving a Thesis

In the future, a student in Paragraph City who needs to write an essay will take the Tube to the second sub-level of Locution Towers and for 25 rubles lease a 2024 Thesis. She will get behind the wheel, stroke the biometric ignition and engage in a complex set of Q & A until she arrives at her prime assertion. Next a Garmin mind map will guide her in locating supporting evidence for her assertion before the Thesis roars off on its verbal highway toward a conclusion, jettisoning as it does any words which could possibly be seen as having racial, sexual, gender, political or spiritual overtones.

Now the only good part of this fantasy is that our student would begin with a thesis, and for some of my folk, purchasing a thesis might be the only way to get their hands on one. The main obstacles seems to be the distinction between a topic and a thesis. Locating the thesis in Staples’ “Black Men and Public Space” or Amy Tan’s “Mother Tongue” or Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language”: they can do that. Build an essay around a thesis: well, maybe not.

Here’s the essay that so many of my students want to write, and it’s a glutenous, plastic form I see over and over again, one I suspect succeeded brilliantly for many in some adolescent Eden when naming a topic was an adequate replacement for thinking about an idea:

  1. Begin with a global statement so obvious that four year olds say “duh!” “The world is filled with people, many of whom desire happiness in which to live.” Stating it awkwardly is not part of the formula, but is a frequent characteristic since the writer doesn’t care what he’s saying. He’s merely looking for a way to reach the last sentence of the first paragraph.
  2. Meander around for two or three more sentences, being careful to never touch on the true topic of the essay but showing how all things are connected. “People may look for happiness in religion, in movies, in horticulture and in a loving relationship with a significant other. Some people may search for happiness unsuccessfully for years in which they live unhappy.”
  3. Arrive at your topic in the last sentence of the introductory paragraph, a relatively brief and simple statement which, by its contrast with its context, is so blessedly clear that readers will mistake it for an actual idea. It is required to have at least one incomprehensible pronoun. “This happens to puppies when they are abused.”
  4. Finish the introduction by giving the essay a title which is a single dramatic word so vague no one can guess what the essay is about : “Devastation!” 
  5. The rest of the essay writes itself, each paragraph a description of a puppy the writer has known. The conclusion is the challenging part since the writer has to say exactly what he said in the introduction but with mostly different words. This is what makes writing so hard.

 Lately I have been abandoning the mossy “thesis” for terms that may have more meaning to students. “Main idea” is inadequate, since it is far too much like “topic” and since students already “know” by rote that thesis = main idea = topic = abused puppies are sad. “Claim” is a great word, and one which is gaining momentum in the rhetorics and handbooks I come across. However students often seem to think a claim is something false.

“Gatekeeper idea” was a phrase I used for a few semesters, thinking that the image of a concept that allowed material into the essay if it offered support but denied extraneous material admittance would communicate to my students. Mostly it didn’t.  I currently like “assertion” though it’s a bit far from student vernacular. I’m open to suggestions, though I do realize that concentrating on the label is just a way to fool myself into thinking I’m actually working on the problem when I’m actually wool gathering.

The real work has to be this: to stimulate students to think, to find or force an idea they want to say to the surface, to reject the facile observation and the stereotype and the easy excuse that they aren’t that bright, to have them seriously look at what they write, and to pay off thoughtful content with a thoughtful response.  



11 Responses to Driving a Thesis

  1. The_Myth says:

    I’ve also heard it called a “generative statement.”

    When I taught persuasive writing, I got used to calling it a “claim.” But I also used “main assertion,” much as you did.

    It was so hard because some students already knew what a thesis statement was, some students got it after my explanation, and some just never seem to get it…ever.

    I still recall several students who wrote their essays with very clear, concise thesis statements, but then never touched that idea again for the remainder of the essay. One student got mad, so he had a friend and a writing tutor read his essay; everyone agreed with me that he had veered from his chosen thesis. Oddly, he somehow thought this was my fault…which sort of made sense to me since he had trouble connecting claims with their attendant evidence.


  2. Hypatia says:

    In tutoring ESL college students in academic writing, I have found that “argument” works reasonably well. We talk about developing from a “topic” to a “question” to an “argument.” I know that not all these are arguments in the strictest sense, but it drives home the difference between a topic and a thesis.

  3. Hypatia says:

    That should be “not all theses.”

  4. Ira Socol says:

    I think that what students seem to lack in the ability to begin persuasive writing – largely, I suspect, because no one has helped them see this – is the concept that a “thesis,” in order to be something more than either a wild guess or a random claim, must be grounded in really good observation. (A chemist I know says this is the problem with all writing in social sciences, “they’ve forgotten,” he says, “that the first part of the scientific process is to climb up to the top of the hill and look around.”).

    So when you start with a thesis which is randomly acquired, guessed, or based purely in “a couple of puppies I have met,” rather than developed from observed, documented, compared data, you will have no organized structure because you have no foundation. So the “persuasive argument” is only persuasive to those who already agree with you for reasons that they cannot articulate either.

    Perhaps then, the first step in this writing process is to drag the student completely out of their zone of assumed knowledge. To someplace which requires that they observe first: Write an essay persuading us that the best possible way to get from Banzart to Gafsa involves (a) going throughSfax, (b) going through Kairouan, or (c) going through Beja. Now they will know no puppies, they will not know that people look for happiness. They will not even be able to develop a dramatic title. And maybe they will be forced to discover, and assemble information, to develop an actual thesis, and then to begin to persuade.

  5. Thank you for contributions, and I’m reminded by Hypatia that question & argument are a useful combination, particularly in establishing that all writing is to some degree persuasive.
    I’ve also been where The_Myth has been, seeing students with great central premises that go nowhere. Often in these essays their real topic emerges in the second or third paragraph when they discover what they really have to say. Their problem then becomes that they have turned in a discovery draft as their final, instead of using the discovery draft to get to their final.
    I’m interested, too in what Ira says about taking students to a new topic they have to observe fresh, and begin there. It runs counter to that old maxim of having students write about what they know about already, but perhaps that actually makes the task more difficult, since many may be assuming they are experts about things they haven’t thought about – or observed – that deeply.

  6. Dance says:

    I use “argument”, most frequently. Teaching history, my steps for research papers go “topic, question(s), sources, evidence, argument.” For short essays, I tend to emphasize (and give student examples) the difference between “stating a topic” and “making an argument”. I point out that even for short essays, the argument can show up in the middle of making an outline—that is, stymied students can assemble some evidence on things they think are interesting, and then look for an argument in that evidence. I’m not sure they believe me when I tell them this works.

    I also emphasize the difference between a descriptive thesis (“medieval society was violent”) and an analytical thesis (“medieval violence was caused by X; medieval violence took forms of Y and Z; etc)

    A student once told me that they were trained, for the essay SAT, to begin with an attention-getter. I promptly started un-training them, as most of them do it wrong. I think those grand big claims at the beginning come from that.

    The other thing I run into is that they know paragraphs should have a topic statement, and that the topic statement should state the main idea of the paragraph, but apparently no one ever mentioned that the topic statement should also help the reader understand how that main idea connects to the thesis, or that the main idea needs to support the thesis. So that a background paragraph on puppies—“a puppy is a young dog [<–topic statement]. Puppies are considered puppies until the age of X. Puppies have special requirements such as A, B, and C.”—becomes somehow essential to an essay declaring abused puppies are unhappy.

  7. Dance says:

    Argh. Random smiley ought to be close parens ) Next parens missing some quotation marks, also.

  8. Dale says:

    Oh yes, Dance, I live in SAT country, too. It seems some high schools have thrown out everything they know about writing and replaced it with training students to write for the SAT. It seems to work on getting people into college better than it works once they get there.

  9. Carl says:

    Very helpful. I second the injunction to get them out of their comfort zones so that “their brains don’t count as evidence,” as a student brilliantly summed it up for me this semester.

    I diagram and workshop intro paragraphs just as Dance does, and talk to them a lot about ‘authority’ (Foucault spins in his grave). It helps to couple this with training in reading techniques. What would they like to see in something they read? Well first, they want to know what it’s about (topic). Then, they want to know why they should care (question, issue, problem). At this point they’re hooked but they’d like assurance that the author knows what she’s talking about (evidence, support, credibility – the ESC statement). Finally, they’d like there to be a point.

    So, to answer the original question, I suggest “point.” As in, “What’s your point?”

  10. Dale says:

    Thanks, Carl. I do like this reading connection and the topic-issue-evidence layout. And I had forgotten I went on a “What’s Your Point” mantra nonstop for nearly three semester. That seems to be a phrase that communicates. For years I used “food for thought” too, until students on campus who hadn’t even taken my classes associated the phrase with me. That was less helpful than “Point” I think.
    The diagram idea intrigues me, and I try boxes and arrows some, though I don’t really have the knack of it yet.

  11. Carl says:

    Been thinking about this more. I remember some years ago a tough young barrio kid from the East Bay (he ended up in the ethnic studies grad program at Berkeley, what a stud) running into my office waving a paper he had been working on. It had suddenly occurred to him that 1.) he could say something, and 2.) he could say it in different ways by rearranging the words and sentences. So exciting! This was a very smart guy, though raw, and he’d been ‘writing’ college papers for a couple of years by that point.

    So this idea of writing as a manipulable way of saying something (the rhetorical pragmatics of writing) may seem obvious to many of us, but it’s actually quite foreign to many of our students. Their purpose in writing seems to be not so much to communicate as to produce the correct incantation to propitiate us as mysterious demons that plague their homes and crops.

    I’m trying to figure out a way to get that other student’s aha to happen for more of mine now. I’m thinking that what he was doing was shuffling sentences around for some reason and it hit him. (Before computers I had a professor who would actually cut up students’ papers into sentence strips and have them sit there and experiment with different orders.) So I think this semester for the first paper I’m going to do the layout and diagram I described for the first paper, then for the second one have them workshop alternate layouts of the same elements (and brainstorm alternate elements) to see what happens. This could all be done with samples on the board.

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