Thesis Workshop Worksheet
A thesis is a claim. It is a statement of the thing your paper is trying to show your own readers about a text you have read. Very often, the claim will be simple enough to express in a single sentence, and it will usually appear early on in the paper to give your readers a clear sense of the project of your paper. A good thesis is a claim that is strong. For our purposes, the best way to define a strong claim is to say it is a claim for which you can imagine an intelligent opposition. It is a claim that you actually feel you need to argue for, rather than a very obvious sort of claim or a report of your own reactions to a text (which you don't have to argue for at all). Remember, when you are producing a reading about a complex literary text like a novel, a poem, or a film the object of your argument will be to illuminate the text, to draw attention to some aspect of the work you think that the text is accomplishing. Once you have determined the detail or problem or element in a text that you want to draw your reader's attention to and argue about, your opposition will likely consist of those who would focus elsewhere because they don't grasp the importance of your focus, or who would draw different conclusions than you do from your own focus. The thesis names your paper's task, its project, its object, its focus. As you write your papers, it is a very good idea to ask yourself these questions from time to time: Does this quotation, does this argument, does this paragraph directly support my thesis in some way? If it doesn't you should probably delete it, because this likely means you have gotten off track. If you are drawn repeatedly away from what you have chosen as your thesis, ask yourself whether or not this signals that you really want to argue for some different thesis.
Part A. BRAINSTORM. Take fifteen minutes or so and write down fifteen to twenty claims you can make about your chosen text. Don't worry about whether these claims are "deep" or whether they are "interesting," just write down claims that you think are true about the text and be as clear and specific as you can manage.
Thesis Workshop Worksheet (Continued)
PART B. In small groups of two to three peers:
One. EDIT! Once the time is up, take fifteen minutes or so to share your claims with one another. Determine together which, if any, of your claims are not really about the text at all. For example, eliminate claims that say the text is "good," or "correct," or "effective" -- since these are really claims about the way you react to the text rather than claims about the text demanding argumentative support. Also eliminate claims that say the text is "wrong," or "incorrect," or "ineffective" since, again, these are really claims about you, or they are claims that will lead you to discuss some more general or tangential topic rather than remaining focused on the text itself. How many claims are you left with?
Two. ORGANIZE! Now, take another fifteen minutes or so to discuss the claims that remain. Do some of the claims seem conspicuously more interesting or more important than the others? Do some of the claims really say the same thing in different ways? Do these comparisons suggest ways to re-phrase claims to capture your intentions more forcefully? Do some of the claims make or rely on observations that might function well as support for other claims? Have other, more forceful, claims occurred to you as you have engaged in this process? Do some of the claims suggest lines of argument and support that seem more promising to you than others? This process of elimination, honing, ordering should leave each of you with three or so strong claims.
Thesis Workshop Worksheet (Continued)
PART A. You should now each have a two or three candidate claims for a thesis remaining (some of you may have similar claims by now). Now, for each of these possible thesis claims come up with the strongest or most obvious opposition to each thesis. For example, what would the opposite claim be to the one you are making? Or, might there be an element or detail in the text that initially seems to contradict the thrust of your claim? Devote ten minutes or so to this.
PART B. Read over these oppositions. Of course, you are likely to disagree with these claims since they are opposed to the ones you want to make yourself -- but can you imagine anyone actually making these oppositional claims about the text you have read? Be honest with each other about this, it is important. Take twenty minutes or so to make these determinations and discuss them.
If the opposition you have come up with seems vague or unintelligent or highly implausible this probably indicates that you need to sharpen up your own initial thesis. Is there a version of your thesis that is more focused and specific that retains the spirit of your claim but which provokes a more interesting opposition? What is it? What is its opposition?
If, on the contrary, the opposition you have written suddenly seems more compelling than the thesis itself this probably indicates that the stakes of your project, or possibly your whole take on the text itself, is different than you initially thought it was. Perhaps what you thought of as opposition to your thesis actually provides you with a stronger thesis and a new direction for your own paper. What is the strongest or most opposition to the new thesis you have adopted?
PART C. Now, quickly identify the best, strongest, most argumentatively promising thesis that results from this process for you personally, as well as what you take to be its most provocative opposition. Then in your groups, help one another identify two key details or elements in the text to which you could direct a reader's attention in an effort to support your individual theses, and also one detail or element you might use to circumvent its opposition (include page numbers). Take twenty minutes or so to do this.