Most academic writing is organized around a controlling thesis. In Engaging Ideas, John Bean defines a thesis as “a one-sentence summary of the writer’s argument, a main point to be supported by good reasons and evidence” (18). He also notes that “thesis-governed writing entails a complex view of knowledge in which differing views about the nature of truth compete for allegiance.” For many student writers, this is a fundamental problem. Students new to college tend to believe that there is a true answer to every question, and that their task is to find that answer and present it, in order to demonstrate that they have learned it. However, a thesis statement by its nature implies disagreement and argument, dialog and discussion. The writer must present a position rather than a truth, and proceed to defend it.
Thus the first requirement of a thesis is that it state something that admits disagreement. Many student writers are afraid to commit themselves to a position, and so write thesis statements such as “There are both good and bad aspects to X,” or “People have different opinions about X.” Or someone might argue a safe point that no one would disagree with, such as “Forest fires are dangerous,” or “Nuclear war would be bad for the world.” No one would disagree, and no one would want to read such an essay. However, if a student wanted to take a very controversial position, such as “A nuclear war every so often would solve the over-population problem,” readers might find the essay interesting to read, but the thesis would be very difficult to defend.
Once the thesis has been stated as an issue about which people can disagree, it must be narrowed and focused so that it can be dealt with in the appropriate length. Perhaps the easiest technique to teach students is to qualify or hedge the thesis with an “although” clause, and to support the thesis with a “because” clause. For example:
Although writing skills are important, freshman composition should be abolished because it encourages faculty in other disciplines to think that they don’t have to teach writing in their own classes.
Professor Haskel Simonowitz of the Liberal Studies program at Cal State, Los Angeles recommends a more complex but very effective technique:
There are a number of mechanical ways to create a narrow topic from a broad subject. . . . We can apply the ideas of "people, places and times" as a narrowing technique. "People" asks which people are involved, and the answers can be Latinos, blacks, Asians or African American, Catholic women elementary school teachers. Applying "places" we can ask where the people we are studying live or work, and the answer can be in the US, in California, in Los Angeles or in rural Kansas, in factories in the garment district, in hospitals, or any other place. Finally, we can narrow by considering "time." So, we can decide to study the nineteen thirties or the nineteen sixties or today. We can even compare times. Using this technique, we can almost mechanically with a minimum of thought begin to create a topic which we can later refine as our research teaches us more about the topic. Almost automatically, the narrowing technique suggests comparisons, so we can compare a situation at different times or how different persons were affected in different places.
The technique described by Simonowitz above was turned into a topic-generating grid for use in the Summer Bridge program at Cal State, Los Angeles.
"Race, Ethnicity, and Gender" Topic Generator
All of History
The student picks an item from each column, then begins narrowing by making each term more specific. The choices are designed to trigger ideas for topics, not to generate one strictly by formula. The terms in column one can be combined to create still narrower groupings. For example, if you choose "Ethnicity" and narrow it to "Latinos," you could narrow it further to "poor Latina women" by using the "Gender" and "Class" categories. Then you might choose "Health Care" as an issue. Perhaps the topic area might end up as "Access to health care for poor Latina women in Los Angeles in the last decade."
For another example, perhaps the student is interested in the problems of inter-racial marriage. The group would be defined in terms of "Race," but in this case you are interested in marriages between members of different racial groups. The issue is "Marriage." Defining the place and time in different ways will lead to very different projects. One possible topic might be "Inter-racial marriage in Los Angeles in the last decade." If you researched this topic you would find that inter-racial marriage is becoming more common, and that it has brought racial categories on census forms and other documents into question. If you took a more historical approach, you would find that in the fairly recent past, inter-racial marriage was called "miscegenation" and was illegal in many states. The student might want to look at "Anti-miscegenation laws in the U.S. in the past century."
Different "topic generator" grids can be developed for different purposes. Such a grid can help students think of something to research, or it can help them refine a topic they are already interested in. Once the topic area has been narrowed, the writer must compose a research question that will guide and focus the process of searching for information. Ultimately, as the writer begins to learn more about the topic, this research question can be turned into a thesis statement.
When teachers think about argumentation, they often think about formal logical structures. However, arguments in college papers are usually embedded in disciplinary contexts that require looser, more rhetorical ways of looking at logical relationships.
After years of teaching argument and logic in composition classes, and shifting through hundreds of thesis statement, Jeanne Fahnestock and Marie Secor found that they could reduce all of the argument types to four different questions that the thesis statement answers:
These four questions can be further reduced to two categories. “What is it?” is a question about classification. In other words, the answer to the question will be what logicians call a “Categorical Proposition” or CP. We define an object by deciding what category to place it in, what class or set it is a member of, and we can disagree about the choice of categories. One biologist may argue that the bird she collected in the Brazilian rain forest is a new species, while another might argue that it is too similar to another previously identified bird. Similarly, an English professor might argue that Homer’s Odyssey is the first novel in western literary history, while another might argue that is an epic poem and nothing more. Arguments like these are common in the academy.
The second question, “Is it good or bad?” is closely related to the first, but includes an ethical dimension, a consideration of human values and beliefs which Fahnstock and Secor call “evaluation.” For example, to the English, Sir Francis Drake is an explorer and a naval hero, but to the Spanish, Drake is a pirate. One person’s freedom fighter is another person’s terrorist. The types of arguments made in answering these two questions, and the types of evidence used, may be very different, but both questions boil down to an argument about categorization.
Fahnestock and Secor say that the basic tactic for supporting a categorical proposition is through examples (94). It is not so important that the examples be numerous, but they must be typical of the category. For example, take the proposition “My father is a really strict parent.”
In this case, no definition of the category is necessary because almost any audience will be familiar with the concept of a strict parent. In academic arguments, however, articulating the definition of the object may be a very important part of the task. In general, the structure of a categorical argument is a definition, plus evidence, which is likely to take the form of examples.
The third and fourth questions involve arguments about cause and effect. “How did it get that way?” is a question about the past. “What should we do about it?” is deliberative, and implies an argument about the effects of present actions on future conditions. Fahnstock and Secor call this latter type of argument a “proposal.”
For example, anthropologist Nancy Yaw Davis argues in The Zuni Enigma: A Native American People's Possible Japanese Connection. (W.W. Norton) that linguistic, genetic, and cultural anomalies in Zuni society (a tribe of Pueblo Indians) may be explained by intermarriage with Japanese travelers 700 years ago. Davis found similarities between Zuni religion and Japanese Buddhism, and discovered 20 religious words in Zuni that she says are derived from similar words in Japanese. On the other hand, Keith W. Kintigh, an anthropologist and expert on the Zuni at Arizona State University, says, "The question of how the Zuni came to differ from the other groups is an open one. My sense is that people have looked at her evidence, decided it's not plausible, and moved on" (Miller). This is a classic “How did it get this way?” type of academic question. What kind of evidence would Davis need to convince Kintigh that Japanese travelers visited the Zuni in 1300 CE?
When we ask why something happened it is often difficult to be certain about the answer. The fact that one event follows another does not mean that the first one caused the second. The perceived effect may be due to coincidence, or another unknown cause. Sometimes, a number of different causal factors must be present before a particular effect will be achieved. Still, much of what we argue and write about is about asserting cause and effect relationships. Fahnestock and Secor discuss three sets of different types of causes.
As a tutor, your job is to help the writer define the issue and to recognize the kind of proposition that must be discussed to make the point. Helping the student work back from a vague or confused thesis to one of these basic underlying questions can reveal the nature of the arguments that must be made, and the evidence that must be presented. Thinking about definitions and causes can generate ideas and bring about insights.
Barbara Walvoord and Lucille McCarthy, in collecting the data for the naturalistic studies presented in Thinking and Writing in College, found that college instructors in many different disciplines tend to ask what they call “good/better/best” questions. These questions go beyond the “review” types of assignments common in high school classrooms. High school assignments are generally graded on the accuracy of the student’s recitation of newly learned material, while typical college assignments ask students to “apply discipline-based categories, concepts, or methods to new data and new situations” (7). Typical good/better/best assignments take the following forms:
Walvoord and McCarthy define five tasks that are typical of good/better/best reasoning:
"Good/Better/Best" questions are more common in some disciplines, Business and Engineering, for example, than in others. If you are dealing with a student from one of these disciplines who doesn’t understand what the instructor wants, these five tasks may be a source of insight about how to proceed.
Stephen Toulmin’s model of argument is a dialogic one. We have to imagine an assertor and a questioner. When a claim is made, and questioned, the assertor will produce data or evidence. If the evidence is challenged, not in terms of its veracity, but in terms of its relevance, a warrant will be produced to connect data and claim. If the warrant is challenged , the assertor refers to a body of knowledge, a system of principles or accepted wisdom, or disciplinary practices, to give backing to the warrant. To summarize:
Toulmin’s example is the claim, “Harry was born in Bermuda, so he is a British subject.” If the questioner asks, “How do you know?” the warrant is “People who are born in Bermuda are British subjects.” If the questioner asks further, “Why is that so?” the backing for the warrant will refer to particular statutes in British law.
Of course, Harry might have become an American citizen through naturalization. Thus, qualifications and possibilities of rebuttal are built into the system as well (97-107).
When students are introduced to a new discipline, part of what they are learning is the “backing” for arguments that are made in a disciplinary context. Without this knowledge, they cannot apply appropriate “warrants” to the data and the claims, instead resorting to common sense, or layman’s arguments based on experience. Careful assignment design and appropriate feedback can push them in the right direction.