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...


  1. Perhaps one way is to start at the other end, to teach them examples of how elements of a text function. For example, I might ask “How is Aeneas in the Aeneid like Augustus?”; then “How can the actions of Aeneas in the Aeneid show the ideological dimensions of the Aeneid?” and then “What are some ways a text can be a conveyer for ideology?” .

    Another example. “How does Ovid in the Ars Amatoria depict women as objects to be used, consumed and discarded?” Then “How can these poems demonstrate how women are objectified?” And then “What are some way a text can demonstrate the objectification of women”?

    1. Thanks for your comment. Modeling is always a good pedagogical practice. One caveat, though, is that our students may end up being able to perform only what we model, and nothing more. So if we give them the answers--texts convey ideology, texts objectify women--our students may not be able to find anything in texts other than ideology or objectification of women. How do we get them to make their own textual discoveries?

  2. I once looked at a paper in which every paragraph summed up the class discussion-- it was super bizarre as a paper, but as a course syllabus, it was kind of cool. The fundamental gap is that students invested in the banking model of education (the student "withdraws" information from the professor) cannot see themselves as makers of knowledge. We give a lecture about women in antiquity because we think it's important, but without the step in which a student says, "Hey, I have to continue these arguments ON MY OWN" the student cannot write the paper that is the work of the course. To a certain extent, modeling fails because the student mis-recognizes what is being modeled. If they thought, oh, yes, I should develop a thought process like the one my teacher is displaying, they'd be fine. But as long as they think that the what we are modeling is the exact argument they should repeat back, then there is no space for discovery. It ultimately has to do with the students recognizing their role as creator of knowledge and critical thinker. When I go to the barber, I don't expect to learn how to cut hair, I just expect to leave with the haircut I want. Knowing how to cut hair is the barber's job. Many of our students think of us that way. They came in to get the knowledge they wanted, not to learn how to produce it themselves.