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Eric Dayton, Philosophy Faculty

Thesis Statement

How does a student go about arriving at a thesis statement?

It depends on how specific the writing instruction is. If someone says, 'Write a paper,' and gives you no further instruction, then you have to do a lot of work in determining what the proper topic is and what the readings are that you're going to use and doing some research and seeing what the arguments are and then you come to like one or you come to hate one. If you come to like one or hate one then you can argue either for or against the thing that strikes your fancy. But very often, what students are really trying to do is give a reasonable exposition of a position that has already been articulated in the class. They'll be asked, 'What is Descartes's theory of X?' or 'What does Mill think about punishment?' or something. Then there will be what Mill says or what Descartes says, and the student will have to actually look at their book and see what's said. Then, once they see what's said, then they have to consider and think about what those claims mean, so that they can see how they could test them and how they could evaluate them. So I think that coming up with a thesis statement too early is a mistake, because you don't yet know what's going to count for or against the claims that you want to make. This is another thing: ideally a paper shouldn't be written all at once. ... The central themes of it should be investigated first and then you can develop an interesting introduction and conclusion. I'm not one for introductions that say in advance, 'I'm going to do this and this and this and this,' (announcing) and then say at the end, 'I did this and this and this,' but that's better than nothing. Ideally, what you have are sign posts that say that without doing it in this kind of overt way, but that takes some skill and lots of students really don't have the literacy skills that are involved in being able to write graceful essays. [It's] better to write blunt awkward ones if that's the best they can do.