Saturday, November 21, 2009

Against the "thesis"

Imagine you'd told a bunch of students that their papers must be structured and controlled by a one-sentence statement called a "thesis."

Could they be forgiven for thinking that they are being asked to make up some trite garbage before they've even read the text carefully and hang onto it for dear life whether or not it is borne out by evidence? I think they could.

The thesis is your argument. The thesis is the thing you stand behind. Everything in the paper is supposed to lead back to the thesis. We tell students that writing is a process, but the concept of a "thesis," in my experience, encourages intellectually untenable linear, top-down writing strategies and discourages revision.

I tell my students to come up with a hypothesis, not a thesis. A hypothesis is what you think is going on, what you think you're arguing, for now. Then you look at passages that you think are relevant. You analyze them, unbiased. You're checking your hypothesis, not desperately cherry-picking support for it. And if your hypothesis doesn't receive much support from the text, then you change it.

This is completely counterintuitive to a lot of students. Change your thesis?

Yes, because it's not a thesis yet; it's a hypothesis. The point of an essay is not, actually, to defend an argument no matter what the argument is. It's to develop an argument worth defending. That's harder than coming up with a "thesis."


Buster said...

I know whence you come. A recent comment I had to make in class on a day of peer-editing (which is basically dedicated to complicating one's arguments):

"It's a thesis, not a suicide pact."

My only worry with the hypothesis strategy is that many of my students are already very reticent when it comes to committing to an interpretation. (My marginalia often features comments like: "Where do you stand?" or "What's your take?" or "Fascinating discussion--where do you land at the end of it?") In other words, don't you--whether you approach from the hypothesis or the thesis--ultimately have to push the students to understand writing as a process of re-thinking and revising?

Natalia said...

"It's a thesis, not a suicide pact."

Ha! Very apt.

I agree that it's hard to get students to take a stand/make a point. But I actually think it helps to frame the point as something you arrive at through reasoning, with room for error, rather than something that springs from your head fully formed.

SEB said...

It's also something you develop by writing, not before you begin writing. I try to train my students to mine their own first drafts for a thesis. I just sent you a handout I use to talk about this - don't know if it will be useful.

Natalia said...

Exactly, K, you *find out* what you're arguing. I got your handout and adore it; thanks!

dare2believe said...

Interesting. I never thought about that. I'm absolutely telling my teacher.