Teaching the Thesis Sentence

Most writing teachers agree that the thesis occupies a very important position, both in our student papers and in our teaching. We also agree that students tend to "rush" the thesis, and that the dominance (or even the presence) of a thesis (especially a premature thesis) can get in the way of a good paper. Accordingly, most writing instructors have a repertoire of methods to help students find a thesis that will focus and guide an interesting and persuasive academic paper. We offer some of those methods here, with the observation that these instructors in fact teach the thesis in multiple ways in their classrooms.

Shelby Grantham: Thesis Writing from the Solar Plexus

Professor Grantham's advice, in a nutshell, is "Find a topic that matters to you, and then figure out why it matters to you." This may sound like an obvious place to start, but it's not. Students are generally looking not for topics that interest them, but topics that interest the teacher—not understanding that we find it exciting to discover their arguments, their points of view.

Students often have very good instincts about paper topics, but they don't know what to do with their ideas. The first thing that they are likely to do is to take their good instinct for a paper topic and try to abstract it. Before attempting any abstractions, students should first consider why this topic, in particular, interests them. Professor Grantham has her students freewrite on a topic, asking them to explore their own feelings, experiences, and ideas. Students are not to worry about grammar, nor are they asked to consider structure. Rather, they are asked to respond as honestly and as fully as they can.

The instructor will then use this freewrite as the starting point for a conference about the paper that the student really wants to write. In that conference, Professor Grantham and the student "mine" the freewriting exercise for possible paper topics—not theses, but topics.

Once a topic is selected, students must consider it carefully before proposing a thesis. Professor Grantham will eventually ask students to do the necessary textual analysis or research, but before she does she asks students to unpack their own beliefs on the topic. Professor Grantham proceeds on the assumption that our students have a vast amount of information and opinion stored within, and that they have warrant for the beliefs they carry with them. She asks them to determine where they got the evidence for their beliefs—to trace the source of the belief to family members, friends, television. Once they've found the roots of their beliefs, they are then ready to decide whether they want to hold firm or change their minds.

Finally, students are ready (tentatively) to posit a thesis.

John Donaghy: Finding Patterns, Solving Problems

Professor Donaghy's method is founded on the understanding that analysis is a complicated process that requires us to break down a text (event, object, or phenomenon) into parts, discovering patterns among the parts, and coming up with a theory for why these patterns exist. Donaghy believes that students are initially afraid of analysis, and that their initial attempts at it are either overly simple, or disjointed and disorganized. He's puzzled by this fear, as we are analyzing all the time: life presents us with data that we are continually sorting by finding patterns, creating categories, and making meaning. Analysis is requisite for something as simple as crossing the street. Students can be encouraged to see that they already possess analytical skills that can be transferred to writing papers.

Professor Donaghy suggests three steps regarding a simple analysis of the following Gary Snyder poem, "Pine tree tops:"

In the blue night 
frost haze, the sky glows 
with the moon 
pine tree tops 
bend snow-blue, fade 
into sky, frost, starlight. 
The creak of boots. Rabbit tracks, deer tracks, 
what do we know.

First, when analyzing, students need to be conscious of examining parts of a text, looking for patterns (or repeating elements). In a short poem, students can make a number of simple observations, including:

  • Number of words (34)
  • Number of syllables in words (mostly single syllable)
  • Parts of speech: mostly nouns; adjectives are scarce; surprisingly few verbs

Second, students need to try to determine how these parts and patterns are speaking to each other. Do these parts and patterns illustrate a similarity? Draw a contrast? Create an emphasis? Together form a new observation or idea? In terms of the poem:

  • Nouns: so many nouns emphasizes the "thing-ness" of the poem
  • Adjectives: very few; one (blue) is attached to a noun
  • Verbs: the verbs (glows, bend, fade) are gentle, yielding verbs

Finally, students can put forward a proposition. For instance: Snyder builds his poem on nouns to give power to the "things" in his scene. OR Snyder chooses verbs that seem to yield to the nouns in order to tell us how to behave in the presence of nature. This proposition, with some tweaking, can become a working thesis.

Karen Gocsik: Finding the Umbrella Idea

Finding the "umbrella idea" requires that students move back and forth between a text's particularities and its big ideas in order to find a suitable "fit" between the two that the students can write about. This fit is summed up in the "umbrella idea," or the big idea that all of their observations can stand under.

Some students begin with a very specific observation about a text—for instance, that on page 264 of Milan Kundera'sImmortality, the heroine of his novel declares that her father was her only love. This observation can't yield a paper. So what does the student do? She generalizes the issue. In other words, she looks not at the individual father-daughter relationship but considers other father-daughter relationships in the novel. But this observation won't yield a paper, either. The student must think in particulars once again, comparing the relationships to find interesting patterns. What she comes up with is that in one relationship, the daughter looks to the father for guidance; in the other she sees that it's quite the opposite: the father believes that his daughter has wisdom and seeks her counsel. Again, still not much going on. It's time to generalize to the novel's big ideas—which include an attack on modernism and a nostalgia for the traditions of Europe. Interestingly, the father daughter relationships can be linked, via textual evidence, to these ideas. The student has discovered a "fit" between the big ideas and her particular observations that can yield a paper.

The key to success in this method rests in four processes:

  1. Students must move fluidly back and forth between the text and their abstractions/generalizations, ready to adjust their ideas to the new evidence and new abstractions that they encounter.
  2. Students must sketch their ideas. Drawing their ideas helps students pull their thinking out of linear, two-dimensional modes, enabling them to see multiple possibilities for their essays.
  3. Students must seek an umbrella idea, under which their ideas can stand. To get to this umbrella idea, they need not only to analyze but to synthesize: they need to bring disparate ideas together, to see if they fit.
  4. They further need to create this synthesis by playing with language, creating an umbrella sentence that can embrace their ideas. This requires that students write and revise their thesis sentence several times as they write their paper. It also requires that students have a basic understanding of the principles of style, so that they can understand how to place their ideas in appropriate clauses, create the proper emphasis, and so on.

Sara Biggs Chaney: Evolving the Thesis by Unpacking the Assumptions & Making Counter-Claims

Professor Chaney's method asks students to arrive at a thesis by examining their assumptions. She begins her instruction by introducing the student to the enthymeme. Like the syllogism (All men are mortal; Socrates is a man; therefore, Socrates is mortal), the enthymeme has three parts: the major premise, the minor premise, and the conclusion. The difference is that in the case of the syllogism the major premise is based on fact (All men are mortal), while in the enthymeme it's based on a commonly held belief (cheating is unethical, smoking around children is a danger to their health, etc.). As Professor Chaney notes, in many cases the enthymeme is presented with the major premise left unstated: She smokes around her daughter; she endangers her daughter's health. Professor Chaney illustrates the importance in finding the "missing" major premise, arguing that unpacking an argument's unstated assumptions can help students to better analyze the texts they're writing about, and to create better texts of their own.

The key question to ask is: What must be true about the world in order for this statement to be true? Students are asked to put forth all hidden assumptions, large and small. This forces the students to dig beneath the surface of the text, to explore the structure and the nuance of the argument. In the process, ideas for a thesis will present themselves.

Once the students have drafted a thesis, Professor Chaney has a strategy (borrowed from David Rossenwasser and Jill Stephen's Writing Analytically) for evolving the thesis by putting forward counter-claims. She has found Rossenwasser and Stephen's types of weak thesis statements—"Procrustes' Bed" and "The Laundry List"—useful in diagnosing logic problems in student writing. Students tend either to force a diversity of evidence to fit an overly rigid claim, or to present their claim in the form of a list, with few connections between the points. To evolve the thesis, Professor Chaney requires students to begin with their basic claim and then to methodically increase the complexity of that claim through the introduction of complicating evidence. This new evidence forces students to redefine their initial claims and to determine how the counter-claim might or might not be accommodated by their thesis.

For instance, a student may have written the following thesis: "Reported cases of autism in children have increased by almost 200% in the last twenty years because autism has been redefined to include less severe forms of the disorder." Professor Chaney presents them with this complicating evidence: "Some research also suggests that autism may be linked to mercury exposure in childhood vaccines." Students may weigh the evidence to see which has more merit; they might expand their thesis to point to two reasons for rising autism; they might acknowledge the truth in both statements but want to subordinate one argument to the other; they might point out a causal relationship between the two sentences (i.e., has the frequent levels of mercury exposures led to a new definition of autism in the DSM-IV, which in turn has increased the numbers of reported cases of autism?). Using any of these methods, students will have improved their thesis sentences.

Tom Cormen: Debunking (and Re-Debunking) the Thesis

Professor Cormen also recognizes that students are quick to "rush to thesis," and so he created an exercise to show students how additional information (research) can flesh out a thesis sentence. Professor Cormen presents students with a short poem, "Baseball's Sad Lexicon," written in 1908 by Franklin P. Adams, for the New York Globe. The poem laments how often it seemed that the Chicago Cubs' infield, with Joe Tinker, Johnny Evers, and Frank Chance, turned double plays to stifle potential rallies by the New York Giants:

These are the saddest of possible words, 
Tinker-to-Evers-to-Chance. 
Trio of Bear Cubs, fleeter than birds, 
Tinker-to-Evers-to-Chance. 
Ruthlessly pricking our gonfalon bubble, 
Making a Giant hit into a double, 
Words that are weighty with nothing but trouble, 
Tinker-to-Evers-to-Chance.

Professor Cormen points out to his students that Tinker, Evers, and Chance are all in the Baseball Hall of Fame. They must have formed one of the greatest double-play combinations ever. Or did they? To debunk the myth of Tinker-to-Evers-to-Chance, Professor Cormen gives his students another essay, written in 1954 by Warren Brown, called "Don't Believe Everything You Read." This essay challenges the Tinker-to-Evers-to-Chance mystique by doing a bit of investigating uncovering that, at the height of their careers (1906 - 1909), the Tinker-to-Evers-to-Chance combination turned only 29 double plays. By comparison, a second baseman with the Detroit Tigers participated in 150 double plays in 1950 alone, and a shortstop with the Cleveland Indians figured in 134 double plays in 1944. By demonstrating that players a few decades later were turning many times the double plays in one season that Tinker, Evers, and Chance were turning in four seasons, clearly the writer of this essay has debunked the legend of Tinker-to-Evers-to-Chance.

Or has he? Professor Cormen asks students to consider the differences between baseball in 1908 and 1950. First, he asks them to consider the conditions of baseball fields in 1908: the fields were pocked and rocky, far from the groomed surfaces that we see today or were the norm by 1950. Second, he asks them to consider the gloves: not the cestas we see on players' hands today, or even the webbed gloves that players wore by the 1940s, but more like the winter gloves that we wear today, without the insulation. Finally, he asks students to consider the ball: it was neither perfectly round (balls were not as hard before the 1920s, and when a batted ball went into the stands, it was thrown back onto the field and continued to be used) nor perfectly white (before the spitball was outlawed in 1920, balls were stained brown with tobacco juice, making them hard to see). Tinker, Evers and Chance were playing on a field like a parking lot, with gloves like a motorman's mitt, and with a ball that more resembled a mini-football than what we think of as today's baseballs. How could anyone expect them to turn 150 double plays per year? Clearly, with this additional evidence, students are moved to compose a more complex thesis.

The moral of the story: as students engage in research, they will encounter evidence that will debunk (or at least challenge) their ideas. Encourage this research, and support students as they work toward better thesis sentences.

Tips for Helping Your Students to Write Better Theses

Here, then, are some things to try as you get students to write better theses:

  1. Respect their opinions (even if you don't agree with them), and show them how to harvest these opinions for academic purposes.
  2. Ask students to look for parts and patterns in a text and to develop their analysis from these patterns.
  3. Move your students back and forth, from the particular to the general, until they find the right "fit" between their particular observations and the Big Idea of the text.
  4. Ask them to develop an "umbrella idea" that synthesizes seemingly disparate observations.
  5. Instruct your students to look for hidden assumptions, both in the texts they're writing about and in their own work. Present the question: What needs to be true about the world for this claim to be true?
  6. Help your students expand their thesis sentences by introducing a counter-claim or complicating evidence. Then work with them to consider how to balance these claims in their paper/thesis.
  7. Debunk the thesis—and then debunk the debunking. Encourage students to keep looking for evidence that challenges their thesis (and not just evidence that supports it).
  8. Ask students to draw their papers. This frees them from thinking linearly and helps them to consider possibilities that might not have appeared to them otherwise.
  9. Warn students against common thesis problems, including the One-Size-Fits-All Thesis and the Laundry List Thesis. Encourage them to integrate their ideas rather than list them.
  10. Finally, remind students that there is no formula for a good thesis: form is dictated by idea, and not vice versa. Understanding the principles of style will help you and your students to create a sentence whose structure reflects the structure of the argument.