Teaching the Strong Thesis Statement, Part Two

After the usual end-of-semester descent into grading hell, we are back with the promised Part Two of our series on thesis statements!  One of my projects with my students this month has been to get them to write shorter introductions, so in the spirit of that exercise, let’s get to the point:

2. Ask questions designed to generate interesting answers and, by extension, strong thesis statements.

Imagine that you’re a catering chef and that you’ve been hired to plan a delicious meal for a party.  This is your first big catering gig and you want to make sure you do everything right. Before you begin work on the menu, you sit down with the host of the party and ask him what kind of food he would like for his guests.

“Anything you want,” he says with a smile.

You pause.

“Well…what kind of food do you like?” you ask.

“Oh, all kinds!  Just bring us something you like to cook,” he says, as the smile stretches wider.

Your heart beats faster.  You fish for something, any morsel of guidance that you can grab onto.  “How about a general type of food? Like…sandwiches? Stews? Heavy hors d’oeuvres?”  You can list several more categories of food, if he wants.

“Oh, something interesting,” he replies with that same smile, which is starting to freak you out a little.

“Okay.”  You decide to try something else.  “Well, how many courses are we looking for?”

“As many as you think we need,” the client beams.

As you leave, gray hairs sprouting by the dozen on your head, weighing the pros and cons of buffalo sliders versus sweet and sour eel, your client congratulates himself on how easy he was to work with and how much freedom he has given you.  He cannot wait for you to produce something delectable that his guests will rave about. How could you not, with all the freedom in the world?

Looks tasty, doesn’t it? You won’t get it unless you order it.


“Your thesis has no stakes.”  After “your sentences are missing several commas,” that’s probably the paper feedback I give most often to students coming for one-on-one assistance at my Esteemed Place of Employment.  Sometimes, the student already knows this, because she’s received feedback from her teacher that her thesis lacks “clarity” or “a ‘so what?’.”  “So do I have to rewrite the whole thing?” she sometimes asks, dread rising in her eyes. Maybe. Probably. In all likelihood, she’s going to hate writing this paper, and her teacher is going to hate reading it.  Let’s save them both the trouble, shall we?

Last week month, we discussed how to teach your students the fundamentals of what a thesis is (it’s one of several kinds of sentences that tells us what your writing is about).  This week, we’ll discuss how to teach your students to write thesis statements that are actually interesting, to you and to them

In order to hold the reader’s interest, a thesis statement must have stakes.  Maybe you call this “a ‘so what?’” or “a point” or whatever your preferred term is; mine is stakes.  Something must hinge on the author successfully making the case for his thesis. For a literary analysis, the “something” is usually “the reader’s understanding of the subject(s) of the analysis.”  Your goal, I tell my students, is to change the way I read this book. It doesn’t have to be a big change. Just a change.

This, dear teacher, is the part of the game you must play with skill.  The student has to write the paper, but you have the opportunity, before he even begins to think about it, to guide the paper.  Do not shirk this opportunity.  Do not be like the party host who tells the chef to cook anything she wants, because the truth is that you are not going to love anything your student produces.  You are going to love a few specific things, and you should do yourself and your students the favor of asking for them.

Throughout high school, college, and graduate school, I was given countless paper assignments that had an almost otherworldly vagueness to their prompts.  They invariably followed one of a few different formulas:

  1. Read this story/poem/play/article and make and defend a claim about it.
  2. Research a topic covered in this story/poem/play/article and make and defend a claim about it.
  3. “Anything you want.”

I dreaded these papers.  They sent me into a vortex of analysis paralysis from which no clear or creative thought could escape.  Artists and art teachers galore will tell you that restriction breeds creativity. I suspect the flip side is also true: lack of restriction breeds banality.

When a student comes at you in response to (1) or (2) with a boring, stakes-free thesis, you have only yourself to blame.  You did the writing equivalent of telling your student to cook “dinner,” without giving any additional instructions regarding type of cuisine or ingredients.  And if you assign (3), don’t be surprised when your students turn in piles of gobbledygook. Your students can’t figure out what you want from them by reading your mind.

So you must provide guidelines.  That’s the key.  Not straitjacket-style topics that will result in twenty of the same paper (“Analyze Lucy and Mina in Dracula as symbols of Victorian-era female sexuality”).  That’s swinging the pendulum too far in the other direction.  You want guidelines that steer your students gently towards things you would like to read about (“Analyze a character of your choice in Dracula using one of the following frameworks”).

Track what your students say during your class discussions so that you can have your finger on the pulse of the group’s interest, and let their interest guide what you ask them to do.  Point them towards controversial or enigmatic parts of the book that are likely to coax varying interpretations from them. Introduce them to lenses to get them reading critically and teach them the importance of perspective.

Above all, I believe you must give your students some opportunities to be outlandish.  Suggestions and prompts I have given my high school students, who run the gamut of ability and interest in the subject, include:

  • Argue that the protagonist of the story is actually its villain (or the antagonist actually its hero).
  • Argue that the setting, the antagonist, or the central conflict only exists in the protagonist’s mind.
  • Do some research to find the “usual” interpretation of a particular character, setting, object, or scene (e.g. Animal Farm is an allegory about Communism), and argue that this interpretation is wrong.
  • Argue that a minor character plays an essential role in the story’s development.  The more insignificant the character, the better.
  • Choose a concrete object featured very briefly in the story and interpret it in a meaningful symbolic fashion.
  • Compare a very old text to a 21st-century movie or television show they love. One of my favorite student papers I’ve ever received compared the minor character Marmeladov from Crime and Punishment to William H. Macy’s character from the TV black comedy Shameless. I honestly felt, after reading the paper, that I’d never given Marmeladov his due until then.

Do these prompts lead students to produce sophisticated, nuanced, professional literary analysis?  No.* But if we’re being honest, neither does “discuss the role of masculinity in Wuthering Heights” most of the time, or “write about any aspect of Wuthering Heights” pretty much ever.  My prompts do lead to lively and entertaining papers that use the literature in creative ways.  They lead to thesis statements with immediate clear stakes. Students learn how many different ways there are to read a good book, and they practice the difficult skill of defending an argument that even the arguer still needs to sell himself on.  Most importantly, students have fun writing them, and I have fun reading them. That’s a key tenet of our religion here at DATW: writing is a miraculous invention, and we want our students to do it well and to love doing it well.

Don’t confuse offering no choices or options with offering freedom.  At the same time, don’t arrange all your students single-file and send them all down the same assembly line.  Give them a clearly marked map of the landscape, and watch to see what paths they discover.

*Well, not usually. Sometimes they really surprise you with what they can do. After this most recent batch, I was almost ready to believe, after three students made three different cases for the proposition, that Frankenstein’s creature is just a complicated hallucination.

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