Death to the "Arguable" Thesis, Part 2: Before We Believe, Let It Be Up-Side Down

          In an earlier post, I called for the death of the arguable thesis (  In short, I asserted that we should teach our students to discover a belief before we allow them to worry about whether their claim is arguable.  Several of the responses to the piece echoed a similar sentiment, which was most succinctly expressed by one of my favorite colleagues of all time and certainly someone who should be in the Hall of Fame of writing teachers, Patsy Steimer, who taught generations of Providence Day School students how to collaborate and how to write well.  She wrote in part:
I also found it helpful to explain the idea of “arguable thesis” (a term which they will encounter at various points in their academic careers) as a conclusion. First, you make careful, thoughtful observations and collect promising evidence. THEN, you draw a conclusion. That is your thesis.
The idea of the thesis being a conclusion jives well with the idea of helping students discover actual beliefs instead of slipping into a cynical approach that involves “making up a thesis.”
          The relevance of this way of thinking about thesis creation is that it allows us to understand the necessity of substantial expressive writing coming before transactional writing in the drafting stages of an essay assignment.  Expressive writing is what we use to gather relevant information, to sort it out, to prioritize it, and to figure out what we believe about it.  Expressive writing has an audience of one—the writer him or herself. Expressive writing allows students the space in which to arrive at a belief, and when done at the right moment, it likely results in what look like “up-side-down” first drafts (or maybe more accurately, “pre-drafts”*)—that is, writing in which the thesis appears at the end rather than the beginning.  Only when students have arrived at this up-side-down moment are they positioned well for the move toward transactional writing, in which the audience is others.  The transition to transactional writing involves turning the essay right-side-up so that students present the belief/thesis first and proceed to demonstrating the validity of the belief/thesis in the essay that follows.  In its simplest form the idea is this: first a student writes to discover a belief/thesis and then the student, in order to teach an audience about it, states it in an introduction and then shows an audience HOW he or she reached that belief/thesis.  I believe the best essays are most often a result of separating these two very different writing tasks.

When I think about what issues trip up students most consistently in their writing, organization comes immediately to mind.  Interestingly, by expanding our commitment to expressive writing, we give students a logical path to follow in order to organize successfully.  When students believe what they are writing, they are far less likely to be stumped about what to include or where in the essay to include it because they only need to revisit the details that made the case compelling to them in the first place.  The demand is to retrace for an audience why the author has arrived at the belief/thesis he or she has reached.  Using this approach students will not have to face the ridiculous task of trying to make their audience care about and believe an argument that the author does not care about or believe.

          Every time we grade final drafts in which the true belief/thesis appears to be in the concluding paragraph, teachers of writing see the negative effects of inattention to expressive writing in our teaching of the writing process.  Additionally, if we do not give students time to write expressively and revise carefully, many of them are likely to turn in essays that never mature beyond the expressive stage or perhaps worse, that conflate the expressive and transactional tasks.  This points to the need to expand our commitment to the earliest stages in the writing process to a degree that at minimum parallels the time we give to the editing stage.  In truth, particularly with older students, the scale should tip toward spending more class-time on expressive writing and revision work.     
          With a primary focus on revision tasks, writing groups (made up of four or five students) ought to be a complement to the effort students make to complete the move from an early expressive draft to a transactional draft.  Writing groups, in order to work successfully beyond the “peer editing” role to which they are at times limited, should play a significant role at the moment students have transitioned from the expressive stage to the transactional one.  Unfortunately, as writing teachers we often collapse the time we would spend here in order to quiet the drum beat of approaching deadlines and content coverage demand.  Our students, however, pay a high price for this compromise as it allows our students to slip into a cynical approach to writing assignments.
          I have been disheartened to see many writing teachers retreat from writing groups over the last number of years.  I also feel as if many of us have fallen short in providing enough time for the expressive writing our students need.  As we engage conversations about the need to emphasize skills over content, our neglect of these key elements will betray us.  If our goal, our biggest goal, is to help students become better readers, listeners, thinkers, speakers, and writers, we will find ourselves in an indefensible position if we fail to commit our time and energy to the very teaching and learning approaches that best meet the demands of that goal.

* Because I believe the term is inadequate to capture the writing task necessary in the early stages of the writing process, I avoided using the term “pre-writing,” which has long been in use to describe writing that students do at the beginning of the essay writing process.  Too often students have used pre-writing to capture the information that supports a thesis they have already chosen.  In this way pre-writing as it has been used by teachers can inadvertently subvert discovery of belief, and it becomes a sort of essay writing back-fill, as if a builder can build the house and provide the foundation later.  My problem therefore is not the term, pre-writing, but rather the baggage it brings with it.  

Just in case someone finds it useful, I have included some examples of the advice I handout to writing groups as they approach their work together:
1.     Read papers out loud slowly and clearly.
2.     Plan your time so that each paper gets equal time.
3.     Listen carefully.  The key to successful writing groups is taking an interest in the success of others.  In order to get a lot, you have to give a lot.
4.     Focus on revision first rather than editing.  When you are reading someone else’s paper ask yourself questions such as: Is the writing clear?  Is the author catching your interest?  Is everything the author included necessary?  Is there unnecessary information included?  What are the specific strengths of the paper? What are the specific weaknesses? Please write down your responses to the paper and be as specific as you can.
5.     If you are not getting feedback from your group, ask questions to elicit responses.
6.     Focus attention first on opening paragraphs—
a)    Is there an well-articulated thesis?
b)    Does the introduction lead/funnel to the thesis?
c)  Is it engaging?
7.     Next look at the body paragraphs of the essay—
a)    Do they clearly support the thesis?
b)   Does the author provide support for his/her important assertions?
c)    Where could the author be more specific?  More clear?  More organized?
d)   What is the strongest aspect of the paper?  What is most in need of revision?
8.     When in doubt about how to proceed, try different ways of focusing.  For example, ask yourself or other members of the group—“if you had to add 100 words (or a new paragraph) to your paper, what would you add and why?” OR “If you had to take out 100 words what would you take out and why?”  If you have time you can even write out your answer to the first question.
9.     Another way of focusing on revision is to look at an entire paragraph or section of your paper and choose the sentence that, while it may be O.K., could be better.  Write out two possible revisions for that sentence.  Use your writing group to help you choose the sentences that are the best candidates for this type of revision.  Remember: the first way we express our ideas is not always the most concise, the most accurate, or the most articulate way.
10.When you are working with the papers in your group, make sure the authors are varying their sentences.
11.Look for examples of authors telling something that they could better show through the use of detail/textual evidence.
12.Do a good job of listening to what your group tells you and thinking about how to make positive use of their comments.  For example, sometimes someone will say, “I don’t know why you have included this sentence, paragraph or section.”  The author’s first reaction might be to explain to this misguided writing group member (sorry miscreant that he or she is!) how the part in question is important, in fact vital, to the essay.  What the author should be doing, however, is asking him or herself if he or she has made it clear in the course of the paper how the part in question is important.  Remember: you will not be reading over your audiences’ shoulder when they are evaluating your paper—the writing must stand on its own.

Finding Folk Art: A Communion of Meaning

The ghosts of folk art cast a long shadow at “Folk Fest” ( ) made longer by the lack of a deep bench of compelling new work.  The artists with the most distinctive newer works, Missionary Mary Proctor and Cornbread, have works around virtually every corner, and like them as I do (I own nice examples from each), there are only so many powerful, strong-willed women leaning back or foxes with giant eyes for which one can find room. I wanted to find something new—at least to go home with a couple of names to watch, but instead the things that drew most of my attention were already familiar.  The big names of folk/visionary art, long ago now passed, were the strongest presence at Folk Fest at the North Atlanta Trade Center in Norcross this weekend.  I arrived ready to spend hours, yet I was headed back home much sooner.
Missionary Mary Proctor
          People wanting to find kitschy pieces—with pithy quotations written in tight script—fared better than I did.  There was indeed much to look at, much of it well-executed craft work—the man who makes realistic looking clothes out of old pieces of tin roof is impressive, and much of the work was cute—so many bird and dog and cat paintings, so little time!  There was another category of art that seemed very professional as if these particular artists’ work was better suited for more standard art galleries.  I liked some of these pieces a great deal, and had I had an extra couple of thousand dollars, I might have sprung for something.  In the end, though, I found myself noticing how many things would look nice on my daughter’s bathroom wall.  I walked away empty handed except for a nice t-shirt handed out with the price of admission.
          I have never seen a definition of folk art/visionary art/outsider art that has helped me understand exactly what it is and isn’t. While this lack of a cohesive definition does not bother me, I found myself more and more searching in vein for a distinctive voice in and amongst the cacophony of booths full of primary colors and muted pastels. On the way home I thought about how one is not likely to find such a distinctive voice where the environment is so clearly artificial, and even if that voice is there, I am not sure I would be in the frame of mind to see it in that setting.
          So where does one find folk art, if not at an event called “Folk Fest”?  As in so many other things I believe the answer lies in developing relationships with people and places from which we create our own definitions and our own way of seeing(I wrote another blog recently about photography as a way of seeing the world ).  I can trace my fascination with folk art, specifically outsider folk art, to the poet and essayist Jonathan Williams ( .  I met Williams only two or three times; however, a visit to his home near Highlands, NC one spring around ten years ago sparked my interest.  Williams, who had a life-long devotion to things strange and off the beaten path, had an extraordinary and eclectic collection of vintage photographs, Chinese porcelain, rare books, and most salient here, outsider folk art and Georgia folk pottery.  Lanier Meaders face vessels sat side by side by side under tables, while Howard Finster master works lined the walls, along with numerous works by Mose Toliver, James Harold Jennings, R.A. Miller, and Richard Burnside.  Jonathan had written a book about an Outsider Artist, St. EOM ( ), which we discussed over a scotch, and after getting a copy of it from him, to my lasting regret I neglected to ask him to sign it.  When reflecting on the chance to meet such a rare thinker, scholar, and collector as Jonathan Williams, I find that what sticks with me is that he ruggedly and attentively sought out the unique voices that challenged and expanded his own and that matched his sense of independence.  This strikes me as a very American way of approaching collecting.  I also noted that the value he placed in the work was a direct result of knowing, respecting, and caring about the people who created it.
Jonathan Williams (circa 1985)
Lanier Meaders Face Jug
          Meeting someone who had earnestly and assertively built a collection that represented the world he chose to live in was a revelatory for me.  I left his house intrigued in particular, however, by the face pottery.  It was ugly and disquieting stuff, and it was equally compelling.  These Meaders pieces seemed to come out of the same “dark wood” that Cormac McCarthy evoked to such sustained and horrifying effect in his early works set in the Southern Appalachian chain.  My interest in folk pottery began that day and led to my passion for the Catawba Valley pottery of North Carolina.
Burlon Craig
Burlon Craig Face Jug


          Burlon Craig of Vale, NC was inspiration for a number of the Catawba Valley potters who are still at work using traditional methods, including using large wood-burning ground hog kilns.  There are four potters in particular that caught my attention and have sustained it in the years since I first went to a kiln opening: Charles Lisk, Steve Abee, Joe Rhinehardt, and Kim Ellington.  Much has been written about this group of potters ( ) though I would argue they are still underappreciated.  Beyond the vessels themselves, what draws me is that everything about the way one gets a piece represents a closer intimacy between the potter and the buyer than is possible in a shop or event such as “Folk Fest” (even though many artists were present on Friday night).  These potters each have kiln openings three to five times a year at their homes.  Describing a kiln opening in full warrants another blog entry; however, what is relevant here is that these events, feel like a reunions.  They are dependent on relationships, and, rife with ritual and welcoming to newcomers, something about them is inherently atavistic.
          Next year at this time, I will head back out to “Folk Fest”—I maintain hope that one day I will see something there that makes the trip through Atlanta traffic on Friday evening more than worth it.  I will  go to the Slotin Folk Art Auction as well; the next one is in November… . However, I will also go forward with a renewed sense that there are not short cuts in finding the sort of pieces that have come to mean a great deal to me.  What I see in the art is immersed in where it is to be found, in the research I have done to learn more, in the journey to get it, in the people I traveled with to get there, and in the conversation I might be lucky enough to have with the person who creates it.  In my teaching of poetry I often talk about how poetry is about partnership between poet and reader—that what we as readers bring to the table and what the poet brings creates a communion of meaning.  I have been a bit slow to recognize that the same general truth applies to the relationship of artist and viewer.

Death to the “Arguable” Thesis: Before We Argue, Let’s Believe

             “Have you come up with a thesis yet?”
            “No, I haven’t even started.  I’ll get to it tonight or early tomorrow morning.”
            “Yeah, I am great under the gun. I write so much better when the pressure is on!”
            “I can make up something in time.”
          I assume many of the teachers of essay writing out there have overheard a variation on this conversation between students with a draft due (I have extracted the colorful language and eye-rolling that accompanies such exchanges!)
            In our teaching of writing we have with all the best intent often created the impression that writing an essay is the result of a cynical process to “come up with” a thesis or to “find” a thesis rather than a process that at its heart should be about discovering a specific, hard-won belief about something one has read and engaged deeply, and then striving to find the best way to communicate that belief to an audience.  This is a strange nook of teaching writing because working with students to discover actual belief should be less abstract than explaining to someone what it means to create an arguable position, and interestingly, if we push students to find belief, the results will almost invariably meet the demands we have for any standard for what is arguable.
          When students think first about what is arguable, they are thinking about what someone else will think before they have a clear understanding of what they themselves believe, and even worse, that someone else they perceive is a caricature of the actual audience that spends nights and weekends reading their work.  This is inherently a flawed approach.  The best expository academic writing is personal first—what do you believe? Why do you believe it?  How do you know?  Worry about audience, but worry about it later.  Students demand relevance and authenticity (and thank goodness they do!).  As a result, while they will write the papers we assign, the work will not be meaningful to them unless we eliminate the idea that their goal is to divine what they think might impress others or what would make an appropriately arguable claim.  Instead we want their writing to be an honest and thorough response to an aspect of what they have read or engaged as source material for the essay.  
          I have heard many teachers (myself included) lament the loss of dedicated readers from our classrooms, yet we can slip into teaching students a writing process that inadvertently diminishes the role of careful, attentive and passionate reading.  The whole idea of “coming up with” a thesis undermines the relevance of personal reading, as “coming up with” a thesis doesn’t necessitate close reading and personal reflection.  It is as if we are asking them to read carefully, and we then allow them to believe that their reading process is separate from their writing one.  We put them in a position to conjure up a thesis at the cost of leaving the truth of their reading behind.  What we want is writing that is a reflection of the actual thought process that has accompanied the reading.  It should be a distillation of the best thinking they have done. These are the essays that impress me.
          I want to read essays from people whose greatest interest in and perhaps greatest difficulty with what they have read is reflected in their writing about it.  When students are only in the mode of creating an arguable thesis, they naturally stay way from the topics that ironically have the best chance of succeeding at the highest level with their audience.  If we head astray here we teach them to be too careful, and I hate reading a stack of too-careful essays (yawn, snore, sleep!).  I want essays from people who move toward what is difficult.  Thus, it is vital that I create time for students to struggle with the discovery of belief, and that I find ways to reward risk-taking and revising.
          Our students are reading all the time, and they have access to endless streams of information at any given moment.  They just might not be reading what we assign with the attachment we wish.  This exerts two central pressures on teachers.  First, it pushes us to move toward their interests and continually update the ways we access their learning, including the ways we deploy digital tools to help us.  Second, it requires us to make a more and more compelling case for the value of what we are teaching.  Our students demand more of us in this moment because they can and they should.  They have alternatives, many of which didn’t exist before, so our ability to demonstrate the flexibility of mind we ask of them is a pressing imperative.  Interestingly, when we demonstrate that desire and ability to push our own learning and place ourselves in the slightly uncomfortable position of reinvention, they are far more likely to come follow us toward what we feel is most valuable.
          In our effort to move toward our students we should not lose sight of areas where students must move toward us.  Our dedication to making the writing process a valuable extension of their reading process is inextricably linked with creating enough time for our students to reflect on ideas and to exchange those ideas with others.  A colleague of mine at Westminster put this into language I like when he said in a faculty meeting Friday that he saw it as part of his work and responsibility to get his students to “slow down.”  By re-centering my focus on driving students to create a belief, I am asking them to slow down.  There are no short cuts to finding a belief about something we have read and discussed in a dynamic class.  Searching for, naming, articulating, and defending a belief is never cynical.  It is engaging, relevant, and authentic. 

For an extension of the topic got to:

Ecce Quam Bonum: Happy New School Year

(What follows is a devotion I gave this morning at the beginning of Faculty Forum at The Westminster Schools)

Behold, how good and how pleasant it is
For God’s people to dwell together in unity!  (Psalm 133)
          I have been studiously avoiding the news recently.  Adjusting to a new job has helped give me a decent cover story for neglecting the newspaper, the news websites, and the TV news—I’ve been just too busy.  “It been crazy around here,” I’d say, “…so much to do and so little time.”  I might even swear to the impossibility of paying attention to anything outside Westminster’s zip code.  “I have to get ready, you see, the beginning of the school year will be here in a second and I don’t have a second to spare.”
          This approach would not stand up to scrutiny, however, so today’s devotion is as much of a confession as thought for the day.  The truth is that making the move to a new school over the summer provided a tremendous amount of time to reflect on, or pay attention to anything I wanted.  I could have become a current event expert.  Staying at the Homewood Suites until the house was ready and while my wife and daughter wiled away the summer at her parent’s lake place in Tennessee, I had plenty of time.  I did make use of it.  I read a lot…and I rarely missed Sports Center.
           Here is the truth, I didn’t have the stomach for much of the news this summer, so I let myself off the hook and just avoided it.  In the world we live in, however, avoiding the news is an almost impossible task.  Some hotel elf in the middle of the night would put a USA Today outside my door, and even though that paper has less information in it than an average post-it note can hold, it still pointed toward a world with its seams apparently pulling.  On XM radio on my way down the dial to the “Outlaw Country” station or “The Loft” or “Deep Cuts,” I would delay a bit too long on the CNN channel.
          …And even this week, without knowing exactly how it slipped into my consciousness (because I am really busy now!) I have been hearing about the stock market, Syria, Somalia, and London.  Even the small doses of these stories make my legs feel heavy and make gravity seem like an oppressive force, one that is somehow gaining in its strength as humans pull from each other in stunning and remarkable ways.
          As I think about the troubling momentum of our recent headlines, the work of the psalmist came to mind for me, and in Psalm 133, I stumbled back upon a thought is certainly relevant and might perhaps be helpful.  It at least might help me keep my priorities more straight as we make the run into the school year.
 1 Behold, how good and how pleasant it is
For God’s people to dwell together in unity!2 It is like the precious oil upon the head,
Running down on the beard,
The beard of Aaron,
Running down on the edge of his garments.
3 It is like the dew of Hermon,
Descending upon the mountains of Zion;
For there the LORD commanded the blessing—
Life forevermore.
          I was familiar with the first line—”Behold how good and pleasant it is/for God’s people to dwell together in unity”—as its first three words, Ecce Quam Bonum, provide the Latin motto of my undergraduate school, and it has become a habit of some of my Sewanee friends to sign emails to other graduates with the letters EQB.  What interested me when I spotted it earlier this week is the rest of the psalm, however, in which we find the idea that God’s people dwelling in unity is “like” an ordination.  Dwelling in unity is like the oil running down Aaron’s beard, and such oil was used in ordination ceremonies and marked the newly ordained as closer to God.  In other words when we dwell together in unity we are closer to God, we are closer to the eternal.
          In the next verse, the psalmist amplifies the point.  Here the dwelling together in unity is like the “dew” that “descends” from the highest mountain to the lesser peaks, connecting them upward toward God.  I find this fascinating as it points out that coming together and working to find connection is a gift from God.
           Placed in relief by the frightening events from which I have recently averted my eyes, Psalm 133 reveals that we have a rare opportunity in this place and in this school, and rather than warn you against the dangers of squandering the opportunity, I would like for us to think about how we might strengthen the ties that bind us, and use that strength to serve and to lead students so that they might serve and lead beyond Adam’s Gate.  I do not know the future, but I think I do know that, whatever way it tilts and spins in the days, months and years ahead, the world will need such people as this place strives to graduate.  It will need them not only to meet the world’s gaze but also to engage it with empathy, determination, and integrity.
          So… this morning I offer a happy new school year toast… “Behold how good and pleasant it is for God’s people to dwell together in unity.”  Ecce Quam Bonum.