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:

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

  1. quantumprogress August 14, 2011 / 6:14 pm

    Have you seen They Say/I Say, Moves that Matter in Academic Writing, but Gerald Graff? It's a great book that makes the argument you are advancing. Graf proposes to teach academic writing by having students first start with material that interests them, say Car and Driver. Then he gives them specific skeletons to to help digest and enter the arguments made in the magazine. “Car and Driver says that the 452 horsepower produced by the V-8 is overkill in most driving situations, however I say that when pulling towing a full size boat trailer, this power is necessary.”

    Graff came to speak at St. Andrew's when I taught there and made a number of compelling arguments and even gave me as a science teacher a number of good ideas for how to better scaffold argumentation for students.

  2. Ross Peters August 14, 2011 / 6:42 pm

    Excellent. I haven't read it, but will add it to the list. Thanks for the recommendation!

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