Advancing an Argument

Faculty Writing Workshop: Advancing an Argument | January 29, 2013

Most students come to us knowing what a thesis is. In my experience, in fact, many will even quote chapter and verse the basic definition of a thesis statement. For example, this one provided by the UNC Writing Center:

A thesis statement:

  • tells the reader how you will interpret the significance of the subject matter under discussion.
  • is a road map for the paper; in other words, it tells the reader what to expect from the rest of the paper.
  • directly answers the question asked of you. A thesis is an interpretation of a question or subject, not the subject itself. The subject, or topic, of an essay might be World War II or Moby Dick; a thesis must then offer a way to understand the war or the novel.
  • makes a claim that others might dispute.
  • is usually a single sentence somewhere in your first paragraph that presents your argument to the reader. The rest of the paper, the body of the essay, gathers and organizes evidence that will persuade the reader of the logic of your interpretation.

While there is nothing wrong with that definition, many of the same students have a problem moving beyond a thesis statement into a more dynamic level of argument that we expect to find in college writing. As a result, we end up with static essays that never move or advance an argument beyond the introductory statement; in some cases, struggling to reach a more complex argument we are expecting, students will even leave out the basic thesis, leaving the essay static and pointless.

The problem, I suggest, is that students don’t grasp a more crucial element of any argument–something even simpler and more familiar to them than the word “thesis.” An argument, any argument, in any discipline, needs a problem. For further background on this approach to college writing across the curriculum, I direct you to Bean’s Engaging Ideas, particularly chapter 6 in which he focuses on “designing problem-based assignments” in formal writing assignments. For some of my additional thinking on how I approach the “problem” problem in student writing, see my post “Argument: You Got a Problem with That?” You might also be interested to see the post on this same topic that I present to my English 101 students, focusing on ways to set up the basic problem of an argument.

Finally, consider these materials/samples from faculty that were shared and discussed in the workshop:

Sean Meehan: sample from English 101 writing assignment

Moriah Purdy: sample from English 101, focusing attention on the tension needed for an argument.

Julie Markin: sample from GRW, problem foregrounded in terms of questions and assertions in response.

John Boyd: sample from English 101, responding to a problem posed by the author of a novel.


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