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Thesis: Asking What and Why

Thesis: Asking What and Why

Author: Gavin McCall

This lesson details how using self-aware techniques improves thesis statements.

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Thesis: Asking what and why

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Welcome to English Composition. I'm Gavin McCall. Thanks for joining me.

What are we going to learn today? We're going to take an in-depth look at the thesis, arguably the most critical part of any essay. We'll talk about the purpose of a thesis and learn how asking so what can help with thesis development. And finally, we'll discuss the occasion for writing and how that impacts the writing process.

So, what exactly is the purpose of a thesis? It's a core of an essay and it functions like a backbone, providing support for the essay's argument or purpose. But what does that mean really?

Let's look at a couple examples. Say I've been assigned to write an argumentative essay about minimum wage. I've already brainstormed about the subject and performed a couple pre-writing exercises. And the working thesis that I came up with is that the minimum wage in any given talent or county should be set in accordance to the cost of living, rather than being an item for the federal or state governments to decide on.

Now, with that thesis in mind, I go about finding research to support my argument. But most of what I find seems to be arguments against minimum wages in general. They're discussing the freedom of the market and how it's against civil rights to force people to pay others a certain amount, et cetera, et cetera.

If it wasn't for my clearly defined thesis, I might be distracted by these arguments and begin to steer my essay into these broader subjects of civil liberties and right to work and the other arguments about what the market will bear and more. But since I've got my thesis, I hang in there and managed to find within the work cited of some of these arguments books and articles that focus more clearly on my chosen aspect within the subject of minimum wage.

Or let's say I'm writing an informative essay about the difference between foods labeled organic and natural. My thesis, the core behind my writing, is that foods labeled organic have to be certified. And while that can be faked or falsified, it's a much more solvent label than natural, which doesn't actually mean anything, at least from a legal perspective.

So as I'm writing about this, discussing how Twinkies could be considered natural since they come primarily from corn, which is a plant, I start to get a little sidetracked and begin to lecture about how the big companies that make so much of our food don't actually care about their customers. They just care about the bottom line.

It's good writing, passionately written. And at first, I'm proud of it. But then I take a look at my outline and remember, I'm supposed to be writing about two labels-- organic and natural. I've strayed a fair ways off topic. But because I remember my clearly defined thesis in time, I manage to pull the essay back on track. And who knows, maybe those good passionate lines about evil companies will find themselves a place in some other essay someday.

In addition to working as the backbone of an essay, the thesis also has to be the answer to a meaningful, significant, compelling question, a question worth asking that is. Remember that whenever you're writing an academic essay, your goal is to participate in the broader academic conversation. And nobody wants to join a conversation by stating something obvious or arguing for something that everyone else already agrees about, right? What would be the point of that?

So what, the readers might ask. If, for example, I was to tell you about a new essay I'm trying to get published. And you ask me what it's about and I say, racism, you might say, OK. That's certainly a subject worthy of a real debate. But if I said that my thesis is that racism is bad and we should stop it right now, you'd probably laugh at me, not because you disagree, I hope, but rather because you know there's no point in making that argument since every reader I could probably intend to reach would already agree with me. I'd be wasting my time writing it and wasting theirs reading it.

This is a pretty obvious example, but thesis statements like this are why experienced writers and poor teachers advocate the philosophy of so what. This states that a writer should always ask him or herself this question any and every time he or she thinks of a possible thesis around which to build an argument. Really, you should ask this at every step of the writing process. But it's most important during thesis development.

So what? In what way and to whom does this matter? Who am I trying to convince? And what do they most likely think about it already? What's been said before me? And why or how would my argument add to the conversation?

If I'd asked myself so what earlier, you probably wouldn't have laughed at my thesis. If I'd asked earlier, I might have come up with a more specific thesis to argue about racism, if only I'd been a little more aware of my thought process, a little more meta. If, for example, I'd recognize that it's OK to just assume racism is bad and go further, asking myself how to solve the problem or perhaps what causes racism in the first place, then I might have been able to formulate an argument worth making because now I'm asking questions worth asking. Right? Right.

Now, let's talk about one more thing that affects thesis development, the occasion for writing. This is the set of circumstances that lead to a writer undertaking a writing task, including the rhetorical situation, assignment requirements, and other elements. Thinking about the occasion for writing is another way to think about the rhetorical situation of the text, except you're focusing more on the prompt, the assignment, or task at hand.

Still though, in order to understand the occasion for writing in a composition class or any other class for that matter, we still need to consider the author's purpose within and beyond the assignment that is, as well as the presumed audience, again including but possibly extending beyond the teacher, the professor, or the evaluator, the cultural and historical context, and how that context influences topic choice, and the writer's personal background.

If, for example, we were to look at the occasion for writing that I experienced the last time I wrote a paper in an undergraduate class, we'd have to take into account the fact that I was a senior in a sophomore music seminar assigned to write five pages about how music changes over time. Now, I knew I was one of the oldest students in the class and one of the most experienced writers so the pressure was different for me than for most of my classmates. I wanted to impress the teacher, not just get a good grade. So I chose to write about appropriation of blues by white and, if I remember, English musicians and to focus on how they use the genre to create what we now think of as rock and roll, though of course rock and roll had started before that point.

It was a very broad topic, given the five double spaced pages allowed by the assignment. But since this was a genre I was interested in, having been raised listening to artists like Led Zeppelin, for example, I wanted to go with the subject even though there were probably easier and more effective theses I might have been able to choose otherwise. This is just an example of one occasion for writing and one only dimly remembered. But still, it should provide enough of an example of the breadth and depth of information and observation that's required to understand the occasion for writing anything.

What did we learn today? We learned all about the thesis-- its purpose, how and when to apply the so what question, and how understanding the occasion for writing can help us understand the hows and whys behind thesis development. I'm Gavin McCall. Thanks for joining me.

  • Occasion for Writing

    Circumstances that lead to a writer undertaking a writing task, including the rhetorical situation, assignment requirements, and other elements.