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Research Workshop

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Lecture: Forming a Good Thesis

Once you have asked a question, listened to the answer, and engaged fruitfully with that answer, you are ready to express your own position. You have probably met that person who asks a question and then answers it himself, or puts words in your mouth, or assumes he knows what you think before giving you a chance to respond. This kind of rude behavior can extend to the research process as well; you might not ask a question at all and just start by expressing your own opinions, or you might ask a question but then ignore the answer, or you might listen to the answer but then fail to make sure you understand it, or you might understand and engage it but then fail to respond clearly in a way that moves the conversation forward. It is imperative that you wait to establish your own position until you are certain you have all the pieces you need and have comprehended them. Nobody wants to be the unintentional buffoon at the dinner table.

 Your thesis statement seeks to answer your (polished and refined) research question, so the quality of the former depends upon the quality of the latter. This means that many of the criteria for evaluating your question also apply to your thesis statement. For example, your thesis, like your question, should be: interesting, relevant, and appropriate to the scope of your assignment.

However, here are some additional criteria for evaluating your thesis:

  • Takes a stand. You don't want a wishy-washy amorphous blob of text that is just fluff and not a statement at all.
  • Uses specific language. You also want to give the reader the idea, right off the bat, that you know exactly what you will be discussing and (by implication) what you will not be discussing.
  • Is based on support. Your thesis statement can actually contain a "road-map" to the argument you will be presenting in your paper; it can hint at or briefly mention the texts or passages you will be basing that argument on, so the reader knows what to expect as he continues.
  • Expresses one main idea. You don't usually want to try to prove multiple things in one argument. Pick one thing you want to prove and make your thesis statement reflect that. REMEMBER - this does not mean that your thesis statement needs to be a single sentence; it just needs to be concise.

Let's work through some example thesis statements:

"More attention should be paid to children's food and beverage choices."

While this statement does take a stand and is presenting one main idea, its wording is pretty vague, and it doesn't identify any support.

"Experts estimate that half of elementary school children consume more than nine times the recommended daily allowance of sugar."

This statement is specific, and it does express one idea and refer to experts as support; however, it isn't a real thesis statement because it doesn't take a stand. It's just stating a fact.

"Since experts estimate that half of elementary school children consume more than nine times the recommended daily allowance of sugar, schools should be required to replace soda in vending machines with healthier options."

This statement hits all our criteria and makes for a solid thesis statement.

"Balrogs don't have wings."

This statement does take a stand and present one idea, and it is pretty focused and specific; however, not only does it fail to pull in support, it also fails in an area we discussed with research questions: relevance. There may be a very niche group of Tolkien nerds who would enthusiastically debate this question, but unless that group is your primary audience, it is safe to assume that your reader will not care and will consider it a fluff topic.

"Tolkien originally conceived of Balrogs as man-shaped."

Not only is this statement irrelevant, but now it fails to even take a stand.

"Tolkien’s portrayal of Balrogs gradually morphed throughout his work, as can be seen in Morgoth’s Ring, The Silmarillion, and The Fellowship of the Ring. This shift in appearance and character provides valuable insight into Tolkien’s perception of evil."

We have now related the question of Balrogs to a larger view of Tolkien's metaphysics. Thus, this statement's relevance is much improved. It also refers to support from three primary texts. It is now a workable thesis.

"There is a lot of planetary imagery in Hamlet."

This statement takes no stand, is fairly vague, and refers to no support.

"The planetary imagery in Hamlet reveals something about why it is a tragedy."

This statement does take a stand, but it is still too vague and refers to no support.

"Because six of the seven medieval planets are associated with major characters in Hamlet, Shakespeare must have left the seventh out deliberately. In fact, the absence of Jove, which was the planet associated with mirth, kingliness, and wisdom, is the reason why Hamlet is a tragedy."

Seriously, who wouldn't want to read that paper?

Exercise 6

YOUR HOMEWORK FOR THIS LESSON


1. Revisit one of your papers from last term and "reverse engineer" it, listing the following:

  • Your thesis statement
  • How this statement fits the criteria for evaluation
    • Does it: take a stand, use specific language, arise from support, and express one main idea?

2. Revise your thesis statement so that it better satisfies the criteria for evaluation.

3. Submit a PDF document containing #1-2 under the "Exercise 6" assignment on the Populi class page.