“Thesis” Goes Viral

In my previous “Anti-Thesis Thesis” post, I offered some reasons why I have moved away from focusing on “thesis” in my classes.  This week, I look at what happens when instructors (broadly conceived) focus on that one-sentence-at-the-end-of-the-first-paragraph-that-crystalizes-the-argument.

The form of the forensic argument is often reduced synecdochally  to its “thesis statement.” As such, the thesis statement becomes a unit of measurement that indicates how well the rest of the argument will go. “Thesis” is a feature of every college writing rubric I’ve seen; “thesis” is always a separate entry, sometimes with a significant number of points attached to it on a grid. We know where that sort of thesis is typically placed—at the end of an introductory paragraph. And sometimes, when reading quickly, we probably pay much more attention to it (and the topic sentences of the subsequent paragraphs) than we’d like to admit. By assigning a thesis to the rubric, or relying on it as a sign of the quality of what’s to come, we fetishize that sentence. Giving the thesis a place of honor—and other “features” of “good writing”—means that most instructors also want to devote lessons, workshops, and handouts to instruct students on the mysteries of the effective thesis statement. To teach writing, we often break down an essay into constitutive parts and as such the thesis becomes the “quid” of a quid pro quo bid for a good grade.  Or, as a character in one video puts it, “Once you have a thesis. . .you’re well on your way to a good paper” (Ergo 2010).  In this way, the “thesis statement” plays into teaching-as-transaction, in which we give them the tool, and they expect a payment in return for the labor they performed with the tools. Continue reading