“Thesis” Goes Viral

In my previous “Anti-Thesis Thesis” post, I offered some reasons why I have moved away from focusing on “thesis” in my classes.  This week, I look at what happens when instructors (broadly conceived) focus on that one-sentence-at-the-end-of-the-first-paragraph-that-crystalizes-the-argument.

The form of the forensic argument is often reduced synecdochally  to its “thesis statement.” As such, the thesis statement becomes a unit of measurement that indicates how well the rest of the argument will go. “Thesis” is a feature of every college writing rubric I’ve seen; “thesis” is always a separate entry, sometimes with a significant number of points attached to it on a grid. We know where that sort of thesis is typically placed—at the end of an introductory paragraph. And sometimes, when reading quickly, we probably pay much more attention to it (and the topic sentences of the subsequent paragraphs) than we’d like to admit. By assigning a thesis to the rubric, or relying on it as a sign of the quality of what’s to come, we fetishize that sentence. Giving the thesis a place of honor—and other “features” of “good writing”—means that most instructors also want to devote lessons, workshops, and handouts to instruct students on the mysteries of the effective thesis statement. To teach writing, we often break down an essay into constitutive parts and as such the thesis becomes the “quid” of a quid pro quo bid for a good grade.  Or, as a character in one video puts it, “Once you have a thesis. . .you’re well on your way to a good paper” (Ergo 2010).  In this way, the “thesis statement” plays into teaching-as-transaction, in which we give them the tool, and they expect a payment in return for the labor they performed with the tools.

The students know all these things, of course, and their confidence in the form of the thesis means they are likely to stick with the familiar (even if they are not confident at their own execution). And yet, at the same time, they seem a little hazy on what exactly goes into a strong thesis. Their aptitude for filling the form in exchange for good grade is one of the selling points of some choice instructional videos on YouTube. One offers the keys to “How to Write A Thesis Statement” in just under four minutes. The maker guarantees success—that this video will show the writer how to craft an “A+” thesis. Not just successful but really successful. Without fail. “French1972” reads her digitized slides and predictably breaks down the “thesis” into its apparently unvarying components: the subject, the precise opinion, and the blueprint of reasons. Following this formula, “you should have three strong pieces of evidence to support your opinion” which the writer will then elaborate on. The comments of grateful students follow, all of whom laud “French1972” for her clear explanations and promise of better-than-A return on investment. Nearly 108,000 viewers can’t be wrong.

As with kitten videos, it’s hard to stop at just one of the oh-so-many many YouTube videos found with the search terms “thesis statement” (returned 1260).  I offer some samples rather than an exhaustive review and include them as links so that you might make your own choice about whether you want to be sucked into the digital vortex of YouTube.   These videos use characters (including Martin Luther, presumably for his experience as a leading practitioner of theses), music (including rap), and puppetry (well, a stuffed Heathcliff and a Polly Pocket doll) to share the formula with writers whose searches apparently went meta after watching music videos and cute puppies (http://youtu.be/9OAW_bvDMJI).   “ErgoHumour” (a team of two teenage “comics” who have 37 other entries) acts out (roughly) a discussion between Martin Luther and, uh, some guy.  Best line: “a little peer review is good for the soul” (you see what I’m working with here).  The not-Martin actor uses scare quotes for everything he says; it looks like he’s performing a double “Bunny FrouFrou”  (http://youtu.be/rwSFfnlwtjY).  “Erinteacher” has recorded a rap that’s amusing, if only because it seems to be a bunch of white thirtysomething high school teachers endeavoring to appeal to a diverse student body (http://youtu.be/ewSKYVXUpDo).  The “video artist” “willingtonjohn” offers more detail on the formula than many others but includes an inexplicable (but soulful) choice of Claude Kelly as background music.  I didn’t learn much about thesis statements, but it’s got a beat and I can dance to it (http://youtu.be/Wura5m8mStk).

Ultimately, except for the cute puppy video, I was bored and I didn’t really learn anything that I hadn’t been taught in elementary school.

Next time:  Throwing a Widget into the Thesis Generator