I may well be setting myself up for some charges of “composition” heresy: I try to avoid using the word “thesis” when I’m teaching Freshman English. Although I’ve practiced this erasure for a while, I recently made a public statement about it at our August Orientation and was interested in reactions from several who heard me. I admit I haven’t explored what’s behind some of the reactions I’ve received so far, but I invite those who have something to say about using the word “thesis” to contribute to the conversation in this blog.
In short, these are the reasons I don’t use the word “thesis” in class:
- Students are used to writing a particular kind of thesis statement, and I want to reframe the discussion so that they have to reimagine how to develop a project and convey themselves in writing.
- Students’ understanding of the reasons for and function of a thesis statement seem to have become naturalized, and their “go-to” forms of thesis statements can lead to predictable, simplistic, and polemic statements of intent at the end of the first paragraph.
- I want to guide students away from these sorts of arguments because they tend to miss the chance to “sort through the possibilities” or ponder the conflicts and nuances inherent in writing projects (Harris 24).
- I want to reimagine writing not as a set of skills to be mastered but as a way of seeing and doing in writing.
Among my reasons, I’ve identified some of the kinds of thesis statements I’ve often seen in essays, and I will particularly linger on “the predictable” and “the polemic” as I examine the kinds of arguments I’ve seen develop out of the ingrained practices of writing. (I’m mindful of the artificiality of these easy labels and aware that in practice, these discrete categories are for the convenience of this discussion.) In this particular blog entry, I’ll just begin to articulate why I don’t use the word “thesis,” but my thoughts on the question of why I don’t use that word have been so wide ranging of late that this discussion will—like a Dickens novel (regrettably sans Thomas Gradgrind and Bradley Headstone)–will be posted serially.
If I’m not talking about thesis statements (or topic sentences, among other of the many parts we identify with “essay”), what am I doing? In the classroom, I don’t have any “thesis statement workshops”—that is, no writing, reading, reviewing, discussing, and revising time devoted solely to crafting a sentence that students believe encapsulates their paper and is plugged into the end of the first paragraph. We do put a lot of work into discussing (and then revising) “where this writer is going” and “what this writer hopes to accomplish,” on the other hand. We also evaluate how well a writer has articulated his or her aims, methods, and materials (see Harris 19). Overall, I’m trying to defamiliarize all-too-familiar ways of talking about how to write an effective essay. Sure, I’ve adopted some shorthand ways of talking about how students focus their writing and how they help a reader understand the journey they are about to go on. After I throw around “central concern” and “primary focus” and “stake-making,” I’m fairly certain students figure out pretty early that “what I’m really talking about” is a “thesis.” And that’s OK. The relationship between the known and the unspoken should be visible. I hope my semantic sleight-of-hand encourages some reflection (guided, to be sure): “if I’m not writing a thesis statement, what is it?” Indeed, what is a thesis? What does it look like? Why? What is its function? Where does it go? Why there? In addition to the enormously satisfying opportunity to pose a long string of questions to students, I find that the reflection required to ponder those questions has the added benefit of inciting productive struggle and confused resistance in students (What am I supposed to put at the end of the first paragraph?!). What they may at first attribute to idiosyncratic “avoidance issues” seems to make them more aware of what they are doing (and what they think they are supposed to be doing) in their written work. Despite their initial bewilderment, they don’t seem to grow resentful, they seem willing enough to walk into what one student called “the vacuum” to reconsider their writing.
What do they reconsider? Their usual forms of thesis, which include the thesis as list and the polemic statement (often enough the two go together). I’m talking about theses that look like these:
Online grocery shopping benefits American families because it saves money, saves time, and lowers exposure to marketing gimmicks. [Three reasons you might want to shop online.]
Guns should be subject to stricter licensing laws because guns destroy people, animals, and objects.
[Guns should be controlled because they shoot bullets.]
I reviewed fifteen writing handbooks (all available in the FE Office) and the Bedford/St. Martin’s companion website. From these sources, I noted that one of the usual measures of a thesis statement’s effectiveness is its arguablility. (That measure has become so transparent to me that it really goes without saying, but I wanted to document the available instructional materials.) In the first thesis above, the main arguable piece is whether the writer can marshal the evidence to demonstrate that Peapod is better than Stop ‘n’ Shop. In the second, the thesis is nearly a truism. I can’t argue against the observed fact that projectiles do indeed emerge from a gun at a very high speed and cause damage or bodily harm. Let’s say these are acceptable—even laudable—theses. This is a generalization that I’m basing on the public nature of both these theses. These are not student theses—one comes from an online companion to A Pocket Style Manual and the other from an Amazon Customer Review of The Politics of Gun Control. I chose two “public” theses to suggest that the way we talk about writing “goes without saying” and that the lessons learned about writing really do make it out of our classrooms. How interesting are those theses? How nuanced will the rest of the discussion be? What will a reader learn? These aren’t meant to be rhetorical questions, I’m truly interested in what readers of this blog think about the work a sentence at the end of the first paragraph does.
I will be so bold as to suggest that isolating the “thesis” from the work of the essay misrepresents the work of writing. In my experience, we’ve gotten into the habit of atomizing the form of the essay, breaking into discrete parts that can then be individually mastered. Such practices assume an essay “has a point” which leaves less room for “making a point” (see Slevin, “Letter to Maggie”). Teaching the atomized parts makes writing look like a neat and linear process, a series of boxes to be ticked off. To my mind, writing is messy business.
Coming in my next post: Thesis generators, thesis-as-musical, and extreme banality.
Harris, Joseph. Rewriting: How to Do Things with Texts. Logan, UT: Utah State UP, 2006.
Slevin, James. “Thoughts From the Center: A Letter to Maggie.” n.d. <http://stuffithinkisimportant.blogspot.com/2010/08/letter-to-maggie-by-james-slevin.html>.