From Topic to Thesis

Author: 
Tisha Turk, Gender and Women's Studies, UW-Madison
Description: 
Instructors often have to help students learn how to make a strong, analytical or argumentative central claim in a paper, a claim that goes beyond a mere statement of fact or obvious point.  In this handout for her students, Tisha Turk explains and illustrates what she's looking for in a strong thesis statement.

A well-constructed thesis statement helps hold an essay together by showing the reader where the paper is going to go. It defines not just a paper’s topic but its argument, and introduces the kinds of evidence or mode of reasoning that will be used to back up that argument. It does not merely summarize the points that will be made; rather, it shows the relationship between those points. A thesis may need to be more than one sentence in order to do all these things; it may turn out to be a “thesis cluster” rather than a “thesis statement.”

As we all know, “construct an argument” is easier said than done. Many papers merely describe texts in the introduction rather than articulating a specific thesis that makes an argument about those texts. Sometimes the paper simply hasn’t foregrounded an argument that shows up elsewhere in the paper. Sometimes the paper makes lots of good individual points without figuring out the relationship between those points, so that the thesis is more like a list than an argument.

In order for us to examine what an argument actually looks like and look at some ways we can push on a topic to get to one, I’ve provided a couple of sample take-home essay prompts and a series of increasingly specific thesis statements or clusters (based on past student essays) addressing those questions. I’ve included some commentary on each sample thesis so you can get a sense of what kinds of questions (mostly “why?” and “how?”) I ask when I’m reading.

Example: Assignment #1

Analyze hooks and any other two authors we’ve read in terms of their use of the concept of denaturalization. What behaviors or beliefs do they denaturalize, and what specifically do they hope to accomplish by doing so?  You may also consider negative examples, in which an author fails to denaturalize a behavior or belief that is historically or culturally situated.

 

1.     hooks, Mackler, and Sepanski all address the issue of denaturalization.

Well, yeah. The question assumes that the concept is relevant to some of our readings. I need to see the paper make a claim about the essays in relation to the concept.

 

2.     hooks is successful at denaturalizing certain behaviors; Mackler and Sepanski are not.

Okay, this is starting to look more like a thesis; there’s a claim being made about the authors’ success at doing the denaturalization thing. But I want more specificity:  what are the “certain behaviors” being denaturalized?

 

3.     While hooks successfully denaturalizes the idea of women as inherently non-violent in her essay “feminism and militarism:  a comment,” Carolyn Mackler’s essay “Memoirs of a (Sorta) Ex-Shaver” fails to denaturalize the idea that women are hairless, just as Diane Sepanski’s essay “The Skinny on Small” fails to denaturalize the idea that women are quiet.

Much better, because now I know what the issues are that we’re going to be discussing. But: what are the criteria for “successful denaturalization”?

 

4.     Using hooks’ argument that “the personal is political,” denaturalization should be seen as a complex process that involves acknowledging the stereotyped behavior, personally overcoming it, and, ultimately, collectively resisting the stereotyped behavior in the political arena. While hooks successfully denaturalizes the idea of women as inherently non-violent in her essay “feminism and militarism:  a comment,” Carolyn Mackler’s essay “Memoirs of a (Sorta) Ex-Shaver” fails to denaturalize the idea that women are hairless, just as Diane Sepanski’s essay “The Skinny on Small” fails to denaturalize the idea that women are quiet.

Aha!  This explanation of denaturalization is especially sharp because, while totally in line with the concept as discussed in class, there’s actually an extra claim embedded in it:  denaturalization can be usefully connected with the idea that “the personal is political.”  (Incidentally, the author was able to come back to this connection in the essay’s conclusion and offer further commentary on its importance—a strategy that made for an interesting and effective final paragraph that didn’t just reiterate the intro.)  I think the thesis could still be pushed further, though; I want to know how Mackler’s and Sepanski’s projects fail to meet the criteria that have been established, and whether they fail for similar reasons.

 

5.     Using hooks’ argument that “the personal is political,” denaturalization should be seen as a complex process that involves acknowledging the stereotyped behavior, personally overcoming it, and, ultimately, collectively resisting the stereotyped behavior in the political arena. While hooks successfully denaturalizes the idea of women as inherently non-violent in her essay “feminism and militarism:  a comment,” Carolyn Mackler’s essay “Memoirs of a (Sorta) Ex-Shaver” fails to denaturalize the idea that women are hairless, just as Diane Sepanski’s essay “The Skinny on Small” fails to denaturalize the idea that women are quiet. Both Mackler and Sepanski begin the process of denaturalization in that each author shows the transformation of her own consciousness, but their actions have not yet fully contradicted the stereotypes of which they have become aware.

Yup, I’ll take that. I’m not entirely sure that I actually agree with this argument, but the logic behind it is clear and sound and has been effectively presented. Now, of course, the rest of the essay has to follow through on this argument and do the actual work of proving the claims, but since the thesis cluster sets up such a specific set of criteria for analyzing and evaluating the essays, it should be fairly easy to check back and answer the question “is the essay really doing what I said it was going to do?”

 

Example: Assignment #2

As Toni Morrison wrote in Beloved, “The definitions belong to the definers, not the defined.”  This quotation suggests that control is exerted not only through physical and economic means but also through representational means. How does capitalist patriarchy maintain representational control of women?  How do women participate in and/or resist this control?  Discuss using one essay from Coward or Rapping and two other essays by authors of your choice.

 

1.     Our society’s beauty standard has been fostered by men’s control over the appearance of women’s bodies in movies and photography.

Well, this is a claim, but it’s one that’s kind of hard to disagree with because it’s not very specific; it also doesn’t let me know which essays will be used or how they’re going to fit into the discussion.

 

2.     Coward explains that our society’s beauty standard has been fostered by men’s control over the appearance of women’s bodies in movies and photography. Grealy and Hooper resist that control.

Better. But why Grealy and Hooper?  We read lots of essays—why are these the important ones for this argument?

 

3.     Coward explains that our society’s beauty standard has been fostered by men’s control over the appearance of women’s bodies in movies and photography. Grealy and Hooper resist that control because they suffer from disabling and disfiguring diseases such as cancer, and thus cannot possibly meet that beauty standard.

Okay, so there’s a crucial similarity between those two authors. But how do they resist?

 

4.     Coward explains that our society’s beauty standard has been fostered by men’s control over the appearance of women’s bodies in movies and photography. Grealy and Hooper resist that control because they suffer from disabling and disfiguring diseases such as cancer, and thus cannot possibly meet that beauty standard. These women have found peace and strength in their community, and I would like to assert that this may be a way that other women too can face up to the demands made on them by patriarchal representations.

As a thesis, this works okay. It’s taking care of the control part of the question pretty quickly and focusing on the resistance part, which is fine—the important thing is that an argument is being made. But, because the idea of resistance is the focal point of the argument, I do think that the claim that other women can learn from Grealy and Hooper could be further emphasized.

 

5.     By arbitrarily defining the “perfect” female body, men have convinced women of their view of what is desirable and beautiful in our society. As Coward explains, this beauty standard has been fostered by men’s control over the appearance of women’s bodies in movies and photography. We can find suggestions for resistance from women like Grealy and Hooper, who, because they suffer from disabling and disfiguring diseases such as cancer, cannot possibly meet that beauty standard. These women have found peace and strength in their community, and I would like to assert that this may be a way that other women too can face up to the demands made on them by patriarchal representations.

Rather than doing a comparison/contrast of the three texts, this argument draws on Coward to establish an answer to the initial question (“how does capitalist patriarchy maintain control of women?”) and then analyzes two essays on similar topics to come up with a possible solution to the problem. The rest of the essay, then, needs to briefly summarize Coward and explain why her claims are compelling in order to justify the first part of its argument, and then go on to show that what women face as victims of debilitating diseases is analogous to what women face as victims of patriarchal control, and that therefore the strategies for dealing with one can help deal with the other.