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.