Dr Critical: Or how I learned to hate the term ‘Thesis Statement’

It is essay season.  A season sometimes dreaded by students and faculty (and most likely always by TAs who often are burdened with the majority of the marking).  Now, I say dreaded because of the marking involved, but actually (because I’m a huge nerd) it also a season that I secretly love as it is one of the few chances I get to meet with students about the research they wish to conduct.  This year I feel particularly spoiled as my 3rd year Peacebuilding students are choosing some truly original case studies, and case studies I know little about.

I know there are a few essays coming down the pipeline (no pun intended) on Indigenous-Settler relations in Canada, the USA and New Zealand.  Another student is writing a paper on memory and forgiveness in relation to Comfort Women, whilst another student is tackling the unique dilemmas of DDR in relation to female ex-combatants.  None of these topics or cases were on my ‘question list’ in the syllabus, but I have been more than happy to approve these topics, encouraged by my students’ passion for these cases and the originality in their approach.

However, in my office hour, the first question I often get is ‘Professor, will you read over my thesis statement’.   Urgh, yes I will.  But also, Urgh, here we go again.

To be clear, a good academic essay needs a clear argument, and if you want to call it a thesis statement, fine by me.  However, I worry that the getting the ‘Thesis Statement Right’ often becomes the first and primary focus of students.  I often feel that they just want to know they’ve got this piece right, they want a simple yes or no and that this approval will equate to a giant tick mark that guarantees a good mark.  When expected grades don’t materialize, one of the first bits of ‘push back’ I get from students is actually ‘but you said I had a good thesis statement!’.

I believe that this  fascination and faith in having a thesis statement approved (and my further concerns below)  can actually be detrimental to their intellectual growth and progress.  I say this for two reasons.

First, I often see students starting with a thesis statement.  Before they have done their research, grappled with the issues, thought about what part of the intellectual puzzle interests them, they feel the need to have a clear thesis statement.    The idea that they can tell you what their argument will be before they’ve done the heavy lifting of research and analysis is so problematic.   It often leads to an introductory paragraph that doesn’t match what they then go on to do in their essay (ie they get their thesis statement approved by teaching staff, slap it at the beginning and then go off on a tangent related to what they are really interested in).

This can be easily fixed of course by having students return to their ‘thesis statement’ after they write the essay to make sure there is a match.   I might also start refusing to ‘approve’ thesis statements until students can produce the research that shows me how they arrived at said thesis statement.

However, what is more concerning to me is that once students have their thesis statement ‘approved’ they become trapped/stifled for the rest of the writing and research process.  They’ve said ‘This essay will prove A by exploring XYX’  so dog-gonnit, that’s what the  essay will do, even if in their further reading  and research they become fascinated by ABC.    They didn’t get a thesis statement approved for ABC so they’d better not risk it.

I find this second scenario particularly problematic in terms of the fact that I’m increasingly seeing students think that a ‘good thesis statement’  proves something and has three parts (don’t even get me started on my hatred of the 5 paragraph essay—well, at least wait for a future post on that!).  This concern is perhaps a product of me now being in a more empirically driven department (whereas during my time at Manchester you couldn’t  fall over without taking out a Critical-Post-Positivist scholar), but I feel that the way we sometimes talk about and teach about ‘thesis statements’ signals to our students that the only types of knowledge-moves they are free to engage in are things that prove ‘A led to B’ or ‘C causes D’ or ‘E and F are locked in a dangerous feedback loop’.

These are interesting questions and I’m happy for students to go in this direction.  I want them to discover their own epistemic identity of course!  But I also want them to be aware of other knowledge-moves, ways of knowing, ways of understanding the world and I feel that in some cases the way we set up and define a good ‘thesis statement’ mitigates against students developing more critical, post-positivist epistemic identities that are so central ensuring plural ways of understanding the world around us.

As such, I’ve tried to have an honest discussion with my students about this in the lead-up to this semester’s term paper.  I don’t want them to feel like I’m trying to destabilize all prior learning and advice.  Further,  they will still certainly take courses where they are expected to have a clear/traditional/empirically grounded thesis statement.  But for my class, I leave them with the following slide and discussion to try to encourage those who want to take intellectual risks or move towards a different set of knowledge-production techniques.

The (dreaded) thesis statement

  • Your essay should of course have a clear focus/purpose
  • I use the language of the ‘thesis statement’ cautiously– I know it is a term students understand and use, but I worry it narrows understandings of what they can write about
  • Your essay does not need to prove You do not have to prove causation for example. You are welcome to do so, but this is not the only type of research political scientists engage in.
  • Think more about the purpose of your essay— the puzzle you want to solve, the issue or fact you want to explore in an in-depth or innovative way, an issue or policy you want to apply a critical lens to. This wider/more general purpose might be your ‘thesis statement’.
  • This may include—exploring how themes of victimhood materialize in your case study, how a project reinforces patriarchy in society, how definitions of peace are exposed in a political negotiation, how a specific ideology acts as a foundation for a peace talk (or how two ideologies seem to be at odds), is there a tension between rationality and emotion in the policy you are analyzing? Be creative, be original.
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