In Gordon Harvey’s Elements of the Academic Essay, he makes a succinct attempt to define the thesis statement, stating that it is “your main insight or idea about a text or topic, and the main proposition that your essay demonstrates” (Harvey 1). He also places it foremost in his list of elements, with the implication that it is the most crucial component. The fact that Harvey uses the second person, “your main insight” and “your essay,” is significant. Rather than rehashing what has been discussed in class, a student presents her or his opinion in a hopefully simple sentence, and then devotes the following paragraphs to supporting it, defending against counters, and ideally convincing the reader.
This expected format of the academic essay, with the thesis statement, is contentious, as opined by Anne Berggren, who complains that “only in student writing is the writer expected to place at the end of the first paragraph a one-sentence of the conclusion the writer is aiming for and then, as students often put it, ‘prove’ that point” (Eisner, Caroline, ed. 54) While Berggren laces this statement with her own opinions, it is true from a personal standpoint, and it is also true that students do seek to create a single sentence meant to achieve numerous expectations, from presenting a provocative argument to conveying a general sense of the direction of the paper.
In Writing Your Thesis, Paul Oliver establishes arguably neutral expectations of a thesis statement, stipulating that it have a “structure and format which help the reader to absorb the subject matter” and an “intellectual coherence which starts with precise aims” (Oliver 13). The ambiguity of these definitions is no coincidence; throughout the book, Oliver offers similar direction such as theses’ being “original contributions to knowledge” (20). It is important to acknowledge that Oliver is clearly part of the system in that the thesis is prevalent, that it is should presented as this “single sentence,” and that it is something that any student is capable of formulating. In Avoiding Thesis and Dissertation Pitfalls, R. Murray Thomas and Dale L. Brubaker recognize this predicament by recording actual conversations between Professor and Student, with a professor allegorically explaining to a mystified student that “writing a thesis is rather like a strategy you adopt for helping someone find a place on a map. The strategy involves starting with a broad area that you are confident the person already knows, and then by gradual steps leading the person to the place you want to talk about” (Thomas and Brubaker 154). Though this reasoning is definitely clearer, thanks to lay analysis, it still is a broad concept that does little to investigate the means by which a student creates a good thesis statement.
Beyond these philosophical ideals, little natural proficiency at thesis statement composition should be expected among novice writers. In Virginia Perdue’s “Authority and the Freshman Writer: The Ideology of the Thesis Statement,” she addresses this understandable disparity and encourages that the writing instructor aim to think of different approaches to explain the purpose of thesis statement. She complicates the issue by pointing out that there are changing perceptions of academic argument that may be more apposite for first-year writing, and—taking a page from Berggren—that the format itself, in the form of a “simple” single sentence, is paradoxically complicated for students to engage in. In Writing Research Papers, James D. Lester attempts to tackle this paradox by positing an approach to the thesis statement that divides it into a two-step process: first with the preliminary thesis that allows the writer to neatly prepare arguments, and then with the final thesis that is presented to the reader. “The two differ slightly because the preliminary thesis helps you explore issues for discussion while the final thesis sentence informs your audience of the particular issue being discussed” (Lester 24). While this process may seem helpful on the surface, it in actuality further elucidates the troublesome mystique that perplexes students.
The thesis statement and expectations of it bring forth a larger problem in the academic society in general. Novice student writers feel pressured to conform to this broad notion of what a thesis statement is. Tutors should be aware about allowing their students to be able to write effective academic papers without sacrificing their originality.
Eisner, Caroline and Martha Vicinus, ed. Originality, Imitation, and Plagiarism: Teaching Writing in the Digital Age. U Michigan Press, 2008.
Kellogg, Ronald T and Bascom A. Raulerson III. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, Volume 14, Number 2, April 2007, pp. 237-242.
Lester, James D. Writing Research Papers: A Complete Guide. Scott, Foresman and Company, 1986.
Oliver, Paul. Writing Your Thesis Statement. London: SAGE, 1994.
Perdue, Virgina. “Authority and the Freshman Writer: The Ideology of the Thesis Statement.” Writing Instructor, v11 n3 p135-42 Spr-Sum 1992
Thomas, R. Murray and Dale L. Brubaker. Avoiding Thesis and Dissertation Pitfalls: 61 Cases of Problems and Solutions. Bergin & Garvey, 2001.