If your student has had a hard time writing essays, whether for history or English class, the difficulty often comes from one single sentence: the thesis statement.
A lot is riding on the thesis statement. Most teachers (and AP exam graders) expect the thesis statement to do many things well: summarize the argument, outline evidence, and inform the reader while at the same time leave them wanting more. It’s no wonder students buckle under the pressure of the thesis statement and sit staring at the glowing screen, fully writer’s blocked.
In his most recent work, quirky though critically acclaimed novelist Nicholson Baker spent a year as a substitute teacher. Straddling the line between fiction and non, Substitute showcases Baker’s attempts to make sense of the contemporary education landscape.
Of the both serious and light-hearted reflections that Baker presents, his offbeat take on thesis statements highlights one of the most commonly echoed complaints of a “typical” English student, namely: “More injury is done to high-school essays by the imposition of the thesis statement requirement than by any other means. The trick, kids are sometimes told, is to begin with a word like ‘although.’ No.”
The last word says it all: No. And yet, the thesis statement requirement isn’t going anywhere. A Google search will provide thousands of resources about how to write a thesis and how to fix a bad one, but what you won’t find anywhere is an impassioned defense of thesis statements.
Though students find the emphasis on thesis statements tedious, teachers have not hesitated to shine a spotlight on the importance of them. In some classes, students cannot even begin to write their papers until the thesis has been approved. As much as teachers tend to emphasize theses, they don’t always offer effective instruction on how to construct them, which in turn leads many frustrated students to tutoring.
Tutors work diligently with students to help them craft their thesis statements. Known effective processes to improve thesis statements and to minimize the stress of composing them include brainstorming, foregrounding the search for evidence, and finding ways to visualize the argument that is to come.
AJ Tutoring’s English department has worked hard to change the focus surrounding thesis statements. We know how important they are to the English classroom, and we want the student to experience writing as a process, an ongoing craft, and an opportunity to experience the possibilities of language and creativity.
Our English department truly believes in the working thesis—an evolving controlling idea that adapts to evidence and responds to new ideas as the student experiences them. We work with students who write in different ways, with different levels of confidence, and with different purposes in mind. To reach these varied students, we recommend multiple thesis writing strategies.
In some cases, we encourage the student to compose a working thesis first and then find supporting evidence before returning the thesis for a round of revision.
Other students may respond better if they find textual evidence first, analyze the trends and patterns of those textual resources, and then begin crafting a working thesis. That working thesis may then adapt and change over the course of the writing of the paper.
Though students craft theses differently and with varying degrees of enthusiasm, we know that the explicit thesis statement isn’t going anywhere. Teachers are going to continue to assign them and demand that they appear in their usual spot, bringing up the rear of the opening paragraph of the essay.
We also know that thesis statements serve an invaluable purpose.
Nicholson Baker calls the thesis statement, along with ethos and the unreliable narrator, “fluff knowledge, meta-knowledge.” Baker’s premise is predicated on utility; he compares the relative usefulness of basic math to the useless pedantry of the thesis statement. Baker’s criticism lies in the focus of these teachers. By privileging the thesis statement at the expense of nurturing a kind of wide-eyed curiosity toward reading and writing, Baker thinks teachers are missing the mark. Baker worries that “beyond these basics,” students are missing the “vast, beautiful, glittering midden of applied and miscellaneous knowledge.”
It’s dangerous to take Baker too much at his word. He is a tongue-in-cheek prankster, and yet, his denigration of the thesis statement misses an important pedagogical point. Students need organization, visualization, and conceptual understanding in order to structure their writing and produce a strong finished product. The thesis statement, as controlling idea, is not “fluff knowledge.”
By treating a thesis statement less as an outcome and more as a process, it becomes a quiet metaphor for the writing process itself. It is never quite finished, but always evolving. In its earlier forms, it is supple enough to adapt to new ideas, fresh feedback, and rigorous revising, but strong enough to guide the student through hesitations, false starts, and doubts. Like Baker, we want to treat the thesis statement not as an end, but as a path toward one possible end. Unlike Baker, we would like to rehabilitate the thesis statement from torturous, academic busy work and refocus what it can do for students’ writing and thinking: provide clarity, structure, and unity.
If your student needs help crafting thesis statements and developing their voice for essay writing, you can read more about our English tutoring program or give us a call at (650) 331-3251 to discuss how our English tutors can help.