On Thesis Statements

Now I am grading. I am at a loss to explain to one of my students why it is that she needs to complicate her thesis. With the one she has, she could not get out enough material to meet the length requirement for this essay. She does not see that the problem is the simplicity or overbroadness of her thesis. I have not been able to explain effectively so far. Let’s see.

She starts out: This story by [famous feminist author], centering on the struggles of a female protagonist, appears to be about poverty, but really it is about the oppression of women. I say it is uncontroversial that it is about the oppression of women – that is on the surface of the story, as is the question of poverty. And in fact this beginning leads the writer in her paper to summarize the plot and little more. She does not give herself an opening to explore, for instance, what kind of analysis of women’s oppression the story makes, or what sort of perspectives upon it the story opens up.

What can I suggest: the story interlaces exposition and critique of the oppression that is poverty and the oppression of women, but in its development it emphasizes womens’ oppression insofar as it explores the relationships of this woman with two poor men, her father and her prospective employer. As the story progresses these dynamics are increasingly foregrounded and, especially through the use of imagery and the framing of the scenes through the use of both inner and outer perspective, the uneven power relationships between the protagonist, her employer, and her father are emphasized to great dramatic effect.

At the beginning of the story, for instance, the protagonist dominates the room, and then the street; her imagination stretches out to a future. By the end it is her father’s shape which fills the room and obliterates the view to the street. His words have reinterpreted her reality, and the truth she originally knew can be remembered – by her alone – as a kind of blurry dream, but can no longer be spoken or acted upon. It upon this power relationship that the story shines its strongest light.

Much more could be said about this story. I keep thinking I should be able by now to formulate paper topics which will necessarily guide students right into the texts, but it does not always work.


4 thoughts on “On Thesis Statements

  1. Maybe tell her that stories don’t have to be about one thing. They have to be about at least two things and maybe three. Ask her to look for the conflict in the story. What are the two things that are most in conflict, does she think? Maybe it is the two conflicting storylines in the narrative — the one that becomes a blur, and the father’s narrative, which comes to dominate. Tell her to go through, chapter by chapter, and describe how these two things change.

  2. May I just have your permission to emit a small whine about today’s teaching? in which my students in one class complained that “other professors” had told them that their current bad writing habits were rules?

  3. Yes, but is it true or are they just alleging it? Or have they perhaps misunderstood?

    I think it’s half and half, actually. My more meaningful student evaluations say that what is wrong with me is I have too much mercy.

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