I had decided to title this post, The Tyranny of the Thesis Statement. Then I Googled it and noted that someone else has already written that essay. Good for that guy! I am glad that I am not the only one who thinks thesis statements are horrible things that we ought to do away with forever, like every other shibboleth of old-timey writing instruction (I’m looking at you, five-paragraph essay!).
I cannot tell you how much I loathe thesis statements and everything they stand for. In my own work, I refuse to write thesis statements or anything that resembles them. I sincerely believe that no piece of decent prose contains anything that might be mistaken for a thesis statement. Thesis statements and good writing are utterly incompatible.
Furthermore, I most certainly will never – no matter how emphatic the department grading rubric – advise my students to write thesis statements. Why? Because I choose to treat student writers like the intelligent people they are. And – to the degree that it is possible – I choose to teach writing in a manner that takes into consideration the way that good writing is actually produced. No writer ever claimed s/he came up with a rad thesis statement and then went on to build an awesome essay around it, just like her 8th grade English teacher told her to do. I do not believe that such a scenario has ever occurred since the invention of the written word.
So why are students obsessed with thesis statements?
In my classes, most students have been told all their lives that they have to write thesis statements to write well. Most of them also had to pass some stupid writing test to graduate from high school. This is why they are traumatized. Even though I never mention thesis statements in class, students still ask me about them. They ask if they can “clear” their thesis statements with me before writing, as if I am an air traffic controller of the written word. In workshops, they advise each other to write better thesis statements and to include them in the first paragraph of every essay. Because that is where thesis statements live. Since I never utter the word, I marvel at how well the students police each other. They are haunted by the ghost of thesis statements past.
Here’s the thing about thesis statements that confuses me the most: what the fuck are they? A thesis is a sentence you’re supposed to put in your essay that states, unequivocally and without doubt, what your point is? Is that a practice we really want to encourage young people to engage in? Why would anyone who really cares about writing or thinking want to do that? What about inquiry or exploration or – god forbid – figuring out what you are saying after you write something? What about the reality that writing is a messy, brutal business that no formula or series of rules could possibly prepare you for?
That brings me to the real reason I do not care for thesis statements. I despise them not only because they turn writing into a formula or a container for content, like a cement mixer of the mind. I also detest thesis statements because I strongly oppose the idea that we should aspire to know things for certain as either a consequence or a precondition of writing. It’s better to teach students – and to remind ourselves – to admire ambivalence and contradiction and to think of writing as a way to cultivate those things, not abolish them. That is what very good writing – a rare and beautiful thing – should be: a reflection of a commitment to knowing nothing at all and to writing forever into that void.