Essay as Argument: You Got a Problem with That?

We have been thinking about and reading examples of the essay as a dynamic form of thinking and writing–a genre with a logic (and rhetoric, and poetics) that moves and responds to other arguments, other essays. I agree with Joseph Harris, the author of Rewriting: How to Do Things with Texts: this is a crucial element of intellectual or (if we must call it this) academic writing, and this stands in stark contrast to the kinds of static essay writing many of us have come to associate with a “thesis statement.” As Emerson reminds us, “there is then creative reading as well as creative writing.”

Here is a basic definition of a thesis statement, provided by the writing center at UNC:

A thesis statement:

  • tells the reader how you will interpret the significance of the subject matter under discussion.
  • is a road map for the paper; in other words, it tells the reader what to expect from the rest of the paper.
  • directly answers the question asked of you. A thesis is an interpretation of a question or subject, not the subject itself. The subject, or topic, of an essay might be World War II or Moby Dick; a thesis must then offer a way to understand the war or the novel.
  • makes a claim that others might dispute.
  • is usually a single sentence somewhere in your first paragraph that presents your argument to the reader. The rest of the paper, the body of the essay, gathers and organizes evidence that will persuade the reader of the logic of your interpretation.

That works for me. However, a problem I often encounter with student writing: students can quote this definition but have difficulty getting two key elements of a thesis into their argument: that it is a matter of interpretation (not a statement of a topic); that it is a matter for disputation. In other words, a thesis is an argument; it must be arguable. It’s not a fixed answer–it’s the pursuit of a possible answer or resolution in response to a question, a problem. Responding to a problem is what makes an argument dynamic rather than static. An argument essays.

A related way to think of this more dynamic kind of academic argument or essay, as opposed to what you might have encountered previously in school, where ‘academic’ as an adjective unfortunately meant ‘dry’ or ‘boring’: think of what we value in the liberal arts, and think of how that contrasts with a focus on narrow specialization. A good argument has the flexibility of moving and responding. Here is a recent description of the liberal arts that made me think of our discussion of the elements of academic argument and writing:

The second, slightly less utilitarian defense of a liberal-arts education is that it hones the mind, teaching focus, critical thinking, and the ability to express oneself clearly both in writing and speaking—skills that are of great value no matter what profession you may choose. It’s not just that you are taught specific materials in a liberally designed context, but more generally, the way your mind is shaped, the habits of thought that you develop.

These skills were well described by a former dean of the Harvard Law School, Erwin Griswold, cited in a recent speech by the current dean, Martha Minow. Griswold was discussing an ideal vision of the law school, but his arguments fit a liberal education wherever it is provided: “You go to a great school not so much for knowledge as for arts or habits; for the art of expression, for the art of entering quickly into another person’s thoughts, for the art of assuming at a moment’s notice a new intellectual position, for the habit of submitting to censure and refutation, for the art of indicating assent or dissent in graduated terms, for the habit of regarding minute points of accuracy, for the art of working out what is possible in a given time; for taste, for discrimination, for mental courage, and mental soberness.” [The Liberal Arts as Guideposts in the 21st Century, Nannerl Keohane]

Artful argument of this sort needs a structure, a set-up; it can’t emerge out of a vacuum. In order to be set up effectively, to be dynamic and responsive, it needs three things: a conventional view (the sources, what others have previously argued), a problem with that conventional view, and a response to that problem (the argument or thesis that leads to the resolution of the problem). One of the central limitations professors often find with student essay writing: a writer delves into the argument without identifying the problem. In other words, there is no thesis. Recall that I indicated that I have found this even amongst advanced student writers–including a student writing a senior thesis.

To help visualize this set-up structure, and particularly the importance of a problem, I suggest we consider film–a dramatic structure that builds on conflict and its resolution.

Basically, the introduction of a film (Act 1), the first 15-20 minutes leading up to the ‘thesis statement’ of a film, known as the turning point or promise (sometimes called the “hook”) follows this three step structure.

  1. Given/Conventional View [the normal world of the protagonist]

    1. think of this as the conventional view, the context of the argument–where things stand right now with the particular topic
  2. Problem/Disturbance/Question/Conflict [in film, a disruption or problem that confronts the protagonist, upsets the normal world]

    1. think of this as some initial problems with the conventional view of things, perhaps emerging more recently, something that has been neglected by others, not fully considered, etc.
  3. Turning Point/Hook [in film, a real but surprising or unusual/unconventional way of thinking about the problem, responding to it]

    1. your thesis: your response to the problem, also an unconventional or surprising way of re-thinking things, leading to a resolution of the problem and new understanding of the topic. Think of how the essay has been defined, as a genre, in much these terms: a recognition of something new or unfamiliar in the familiar. The transcendentalism, as Emerson puts it in “Circles,” of common life.

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