10 Feb 2010 [ Prev | Next ]

Thesis Workshop

Update:  E-mail your thesis to me today (Wednesday) if you'd like feedback before Friday. The rough draft of Essay 1 is still due Friday.
Which do you think sounds like a more promising start to an academic essay that makes a specific, non-obvious, debatable claim that arises from our readings? (Recall that Essay 1 does not ask you to work in every reading. Stringing together a bunch of mini-papers that refer to a large number of essays is a quick way to produce length, but it's hard to generate depth if you keep starting over after every few sentences.  Focus instead on a small number of readings.)

Option 1:
In his essay, "Idiot Nation," Michael Moore discusses the importance of literacy in the education of youth.  Mike Rose discusses the same topic in "I Just Wanna be Average," and Malcolm X also discusses his experiences learning to read in prison, in "Learning to Read."  The different authors all have important things to say about reading, and they offer different solutions to the problem of illiteracy among our youth.
Option 2:
If the federal government does not reverse an anti-library trend that began during the Nixon administration (Moore 141), fewer students will experience what Rose called membership in a "fledgling literati" (171) of book lovers, and more students will end up like Malcolm X, who had to land in prison before he encountered "the very first set of books that really impressed [him]" (312).
Note that Option 1 simply identifies the topic of each of the three essays. The claim "The different authors all offer different solutions" is so general that nobody could possibly disagree with it, so there is no reason to write a whole paper in support of it.

Because the snow day has canceled classes, I'm asking you to e-mail your thesis statements to me today (Feb 10).  I will offer feedback on the following criteria:

1) Is the TOPIC a specific issue that arises from the readings?
"Education" is too vague; "Bullying" is not something our set of readings addresses, so it's off-topic.  "Student Motivation" or "Teacher Expectations" or "Freedom and Order" are all something that several readings address, so they are probably good topics.

2) Does the TOPIC meaningfully engage with the assigned readings?
One way to make sure you are engaging with the readings is to mention one or two of the authors in your thesis.
  • Education is important, because it is the key to a society's future.
    (We don't need to read any of the essays in Rereading America to argue that claim.)
  • Humor is an effective way to get your point across, especially if the facts are dry.
    (Again, while you might conceivably use Moore as an example of someone who successfully uses humor, and Anyon or Tannen as examples of a person with a lot of dry facts to communicate, the assignment is to write a paper about education, not a paper about how to keep people's attention in an essay.)
3) Is the SPECIFIC CLAIM non-obvious and debatable?
  • "Education is important" or "Motivated students succeed" are both obvious claims; nobody would argue against them, and it's not necessary to read any of the essays in our textbook to hold that opinion. 
  • "Michael Moore uses humor" is not debatable, because it's a factual observation.
  • "Because Michael Moore relies so heavily upon humor, [make your debatable claim here]. YES!  That's a good example of using an observation to set up a claim, rather than delivering an observation in the place where a claim should go.
  • "I agree/disagree with Gattto" is an opinion; your job is not to prove the fact that you have an opinion, but rather to explain the reasons for your opinions.
  • "Gatto's use of educational theory and his own personal history creates a convincing argument against school" includes a hint of opinion -- you say his argument is "convincing" -- but this thesis mostly just summarizes Gatto's opinion.
    (In high school, you got points for summarizing and agreeing with the textbooks you were supposed to read; in this class, I've assigned essays whose authors disagree with each other; you can't simply summarize them all and say they're all right.) 
Below, I'll repeat here the models that were part of the Pre-writing Portfolio 1 directions.

The following bullet points represent a sample progression from a general topic, to a specific claim that takes a specific stand (your "thesis') on an issue that arises from the assigned readings.

  • Problems in the American education system.
    (Far too general.)
  • Michael Moore has a lot to say about problems in American education.
    (Better, because it mentions a specific author, but "has a lot to say" is too vague. Nobody could disagree with the factual observation that Moore is writing about education.  It's not clear that a student who makes this claim has even read the essay -- you could defend this claim based on what you heard during the class discussion.)
  • Michael Moore successfully uses humor to raise questions about the American education system.
    (Better, because it not only mentions Moore, and a specific detail about his writing strategy; it also makes a claim. There is more than one reasonable response to this statement, so it's a step in the right direction.)
  • Michael Moore is a bitter man who attacks what he sees as the failures of others, without offering any real solutions.
    (About as good as the previous one; it's a bit too hostile, phrased like a personal attack rather than an academic argument, but it does take a stand that an author might actually need to explain to someone who has a different opinion on Moore.)
  • Michael Moore's humor successfully calls attention to weaknesses in our education system, by attacking and ridiculing his opponents.  [That's good, but let's  go on.]  Yet Deborah Tannen warns,"When there is a need to make others wrong, the temptation is great to oversimplify at best, and at worst to distort or even misrepresent others' positions" (230).  If we consider Moore's essay as an example of writing that Tannen says "demonstrates originality and independence of thought without requiring true innovation" (231), we can see that Moore's method of attacking his opponents limits the range of solutions he can offer.  [And this last sentence is a better thesis statement than the first; this one makes a more specific, debatable claim.]


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