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:
- 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.
- 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.”
- 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.”
- 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!”
- 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.