Sunday, March 11, 2012

Importance Is Not a Thesis

In a nutshell: Students often evade thinking critically about a text by identifying a topic or theme as "important" rather than explaining how and why it is important. Teachers need to intervene.

As literature teachers, we ask students to read not only for pleasure and profit, but also for comprehension. Yes, we want students to recognize important topics or themes. But what we really want them to do is explain how and why they are important. For students, this can be a difficult task. How can we help?

Step one is understanding the problem. Consider the title of this post: "Importance Is Not a Thesis." Our students, however, tend to think it is, at least until we teach them otherwise. For example, ask students to write about women in literature, and many will submit an essay that begins, "Women are very important in literature." Yes, indeed, they are. Importance, however, is not a thesis. What happens once "Women are very important in literature" becomes "Women are very important in literature"? Put that on your dry erase board, complete with strikethrough, and ask your students what to do next. What do you do, Dear Student, when confronted with "Women                     in literature"?

Ask your students to brainstorm. After blank stares and icy glares, your students will try to retain the verb "to be" and slip another meaningless verbal complement past you, like "prevalent" or "frequent" or "often seen." Nice try, but those are just synonyms for "important." Before I propose ruling out the verb "to be," entirely, let's revisit that classic 1975 statement of what "woman" can be.

Women can be strong, wise, enduring, triumphant, invincible, flexible, determined, resilient, and more. Any of these would make for a better, more critically thoughtful thesis than "important." A thesis using a predicate adjective other than "important" (or one of its sly substitutes) is a good start.

In another post, we will consider the possibility of banning the verb "to be" from our thesis development entirely. What happens when you cannot simply say that women "are" this, that, or the other? What other verbs can we put in that space? More blank and icy stares will greet you. What we need to do at this point is listen to 12 seconds of Frank Sinatra:

Do, be, do, be, do: How do we get students to move from making "be" statements to making "do" statements? TO BE CONTINUED...