Sprouting Acorns

On my rather long drive in today, the first day of classes, I noticed  that the leaves have conspired to announce the academic year as they transform from a deep summer green to the yellows and oranges and reds soon to become the mosaics beneath our feet.

Landscape with Trees, Piet Mondrian, 1933
Piet Mondrian, Landscape with Trees, 1933

The University, whose former logo had an oak leaf bearing acorns, welcomes what it conceives of as student seedlings transplanted for our–the faculty’s–cultivation.  It may be supposed that we are in the business of ensuring that “an ook cometh of a litel spyr” (thanks be to Chaucer). What does the University expect of these students?  That’s what every entering student wonders when settling into the first classroom on the first day.  What fruits will I bear–and how many pages does that mean I will write?  When they enter your classroom, they may well believe. . . Continue reading

“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

The Anti-Thesis Thesis; or, Why I Don’t Use the Word “Thesis” [Very Often] in Class

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: Continue reading