Let’s be honest, there are many times that I listen to my business friends talk and the casual conversation seems so full of jargon and unknown words that I easily find myself dozing off. To my friends, this conversation makes complete sense and they actually think they are “dumbing down” the language for me. However, it doesn’t matter how many times I hear about sub-prime mortgages or adjustable rates or amortization…I won’t get it.
I often think the same is true with my students. That I use language that I think is clear, but, ultimately, it sounds like Spanish to them. Specifically, thesis statements. There are many times in which I use words that are apt, like “complex” and “insightful,” but, to my students, I might as well be saying “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.” The words are synonymous to my students.
As a result, this year I have worked on developing strategies that truly help to explain the descriptors so students have tools to help them determine if their thesis statement is actually complex. I begin by explaining that one way to make an idea is complex is to narrow the scope. To do this, I encourage students to start with their basic idea and then
- Incorporate conditions in which the statement is true
- Examine the effects of the statement
- Consider what the implications are of the idea
- Evaluate why the idea is important.
Realistically, a thesis statement shouldn’t include all of these things. It would become to convoluted and the students might complicate what they are actually trying to prove. However, asking these questions will help deepen their idea and make it more arguable and original. To them, I stress that “complex” really just means that the thesis is derived from multiple ideas.
Then, because I am much better visualizing concepts, I encourage them to highlight or underline in different colors or different types of lines each task or idea that is present within the thesis. This requires them to think about everything they are setting out in their thesis to prove in their essay. I think this serves as the litmus test for thesis statements. If they only have two things underlined then their thesis is most likely too basic or underdeveloped. I remind them that they don’t necessarily need 5 things underlined because that might deviate too far from the actual argument, but that they should have a cohesive statement that is a product of multiple ideas.
Below are two examples of theses for an essay in which the students are asked to analyze the rhetorical strategies and techniques of Fitzgerald in The Great Gatsby. Because WordPress doesn’t offer various ways to underline I have color coded the different ideas/tasks within each thesis.
Fitzgerald’s skillful, albeit superfluous incorporation of oxymorons within The Great Gatsby augments the inconsistencies of the lives of Nick and Gatsby, thereby heightening the reader’s awareness of the implicit incongruities hidden behind their apparent embodiment of the “American Dream.”
Fitzgerald’s use of the oxymoron highlights how the characters embody the “American Dream.”
The first is much more complex than the second thesis not because of the more sophisticated word choice (which often dupes students into thinking an essay is better) but because of the ideas. When the students look at what is being underlined in each they are able to better identify strength.
This strategy is also helpful because it calls attention to what must be accomplished in the essay. When conferencing, I ask the students to locate places in the essay in which each underlined portion is addressed.