University: Improving your thesis statement
Mar 30, 2020 6:58:30 AM
For three years I taught a university course all about Critical Writing, and one of the most important elements of this required course was to help students see the importance of a good, sophisticated, and well-developed thesis statement as the linch pin of their essay. But sometimes that's easier said than done. As students are now often working from home and don't necessarily have face-to-face access to colleagues and professors due to Covid-19, we've collected some of our key advice to help support your academic writing. In particular, here's how you can craft a good, sophisticated, and well-developed thesis statement.
We've written about thesis statements before, and the advice you'll get from googling will be much the same (all of us academic types know what it is we're looking for):
What can a thesis statement do?
A thesis statement might:
- disagree with a common view,
- justify and/or clarify an insight,
- raise a question or problem,
- challenge a standard interpretation,
- propose a new/refined interpretation,
- note a gap in a debate,
- critique an underlying assumption, or
- identify policy implications.
In particular, it is important that your thesis statement is clear and debatable. Ultimately what your thesis statement must do is boil down the insight that you are making in your essay, article, thesis, or dissertation into its clearest and most straightforward form. Then throughout your writing, you can complicate and add details to flesh out the full implications of what you argue.
Answering the "so what?" question:
Ultimately, the question I always asked of those students back in my Critical Writing course was: "So what?"
Once you have decided what your essay, article, thesis, or dissertation will explore or analyse or argue, you want to be able to answer the "so what" question.
- So what if I disagree with a common view? - It matters, because in this case, this type of thesis is helping to show how the common view may be wrong or too limited, therefore, a thesis of this type is broadening the knowledge base on a subject. What if the common view has been wrong all this time, what if by disagreeing, you are pointing out its limitations? Then you are providing a valuable academic insight!
- So what if I justify and/or clarify an insight? - It matters, because in this case, this type of thesis is refining known knowledge or wisdom about a particular topic. You are in the unique position to tweak what people know or think about a subject. In this case, you are not only disagreeing, but providing a tweak on how to justify or clarify something that others already know or write about.
- So what if I raise a question or problem? - It matters, because while you may not have all the answers with this type of thesis, you are identifying key areas for further study that may have been over-looked. In so doing you are pointing other scholars in the direction of work still to be done. Perhaps the view you raise as a question or problem speaks for underrepresented communities or viewpoints? Then your research is valuable for bringing to the surface voices that might not otherwise be heard.
- So what if I challenge a standard interpretation? - It matters, because as the early liberal thinker John Stuart Mill, writes in defending freedom of the press and disagreeing opinions: "If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error." Put more simply, challenging certain views has the value of either replacing "error for truth" or refining that truth by forcing it to defend itself from other views.
- So what if I propose a new/refined interpretation? - It matters, because in this interpretive case, you are contributing to a larger dialogue of how those in your field understand the subject. Perhaps your insights are new or refined, which shine a light on an area that others have not considered before. You add to the store of knowledge on this subject.
- So what if I note a gap in a debate? - It matters here, because you're identifying a hole in the literature and showing what that gap leave un- or understudied. Perhaps the debate doesn't take into account the role of women or perhaps there is a blind spot in the data around a particular age category. These gaps can lead to incomplete knowledge, and by pointing them out, you are helping!
- So what if critique an underlying assumption? - It matters, because perhaps the research in this field to date is based on some flawed or out dated underlying assumptions. By drawing attention to these potential flaws, you invite scholars to revisit the research that is built upon these assumptions. For instance, if economic modelling is built on certain givens of the economy, but your view is that those "givens" are not accurate, then all the modelling that follows could be inaccurate. These types of foundational questions in a variety of disciplines are vital to knowledge production.
- So what if identify policy implications? - In papers designed to explore policy or larger actions that can be taken as a result of the research, by drawing a reader's attention to the policy implications of your findings, you provide a crucial and practical set of resources that people can then use.
Depending on what kind of research you conduct, you will have a different type of thesis statement. No matter what type yours is, the more refined you can make it, the better the direction of your research will be, and the better your readers will be able to understand why it matters.
And if you're out there seeking grants, scholarships, and awards for your research, the more you can make those funding agencies understand why your work matters, the more likely you are to get funded...and the "so what?" for that is pretty obvious!
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