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Hester Blum On Thesis Statements

Thesis Statements


Hester Blum

I begin by giving my students a standard definition of a thesis statement: a sentence that alerts the reader to the paper's general topic, and then makes a specific argument about that topic (ideally answering the "why" and "how" and "so what" questions). If a student has a vague sense of a topic but has not yet crafted an argument, I recommend that he or she generates a list of ways in which the text deals with the topic. The student would then sift through that list critically, deciding what evidence is compelling and relevant. I perform this exercise in class with students' input.

For example, for my class on Melville, we began by looking at the chapter "The Mast-head" in Moby-Dick. I had the students list the ways in which Ishmael talks about the mast-head or crow's nest: its history, its literal use, its convenience for indolence and introspective thinking. We came up with the following list:

  • used for spotting whales
  • perilous footing atop the mast, unprotected from elements
  • compared to tower of Babel
  • like Egyptian pyramids, used for astronomical purposes
  • used by Christian hermits
  • other "mast-head standers": statues of Napoleon, Washington, Admiral Nelson (looking out for future shoals)
  • site of "sublime uneventfulness," away from manual labor
  • Ishmael and other sailors given to "unseasonable meditativeness" make poor mast-head standers
  • possibility of mast-head stander losing identity: "taking the mystic ocean at his feet for the visible image of that deep, blue, bottomless soul"
  • BUT think too much, and you'll fall, drown, and get your identity back "in horror"

We then talk about why sentences such as "Ishmael enjoys being in the mast-head" or "Melville describes the mast-head as a good place to think" make for poor theses, since they are informational without being critical or making an argument. The students observed that Melville links the simple act of standing lookout to more spiritual, elevated practices, such as seeking god or plotting the firmament. He cautions mast-head standers, however, that too much intellectual contemplation places the physical body in danger of literal (since the mast-head is a shaky perch) and metaphorical drowning. After weighing the evidence, the students came up with a more persuasive thesis: "Ishmael finds isolation in the mast-head to be a good condition for philosophical thought, but Melville warns of the physical and intellectual dangers of too free or too removed contemplation." This thesis describes the general topic of the paper, and makes an explicit, evaluative argument about the topic.

I've had success with this model of teaching thesis statements, especially since it encourages students to refer to the text for evidence, and not to engage in general or unsupportable claims. It is also easier for them to start actually writing, since they've assembled a lot of their evidence already.