Constructing a Thesis Statement

For this class a thesis statement must include a verb that DOES something. If you are not sure if your verb is ok, try putting a form of "DO" in front of it, e.g. "Literacy killed John." "Literacy DID kill John." "Pocahantas was smart" but not "Pocahantas did was smart." Note that the last example contains the verb TO BE in the form "was." Your thesis statement cannot contain any form of the verb TO BE. Why? The verb TO BE allows you to hide things and slip in opinions that cannot be tested. For example, "It is thought that economics is dull." Thought by whom? The verb TO BE (here in the form of "is") allows you to hide who it is that thinks economics is dull.  If you want to read a bunch of sentences that hide this sort of thing regularly, try any book on slavery. 

A good thesis begs the question "How?" For example, if I say "Literacy killed John," an appropriate question to guide research would be "How did literacy kill John?" Compare this to the ungrammatical "How did Pocahantas was smart?" The answer to the question "How?" is always a full sentence, and if your thesis makes you say "How is that so?" then you are on the right track.  

OK, so how do you go about constructing one?  Just starting from scratch is a difficult task.  Start by coming up with a list of topics that might interst you.  A good idea is to browse through the bookmarks for primary sources that catch your interest.  Write them all down, even if you are not sure.  Then pick a topic or two that you like and brainstorm them.  Just write a paragraph or even a list on what catches your interest about each topic.  Work quickly. Don't take more than ten minutes on a topic.  Turn off your inner editor, don't worry about "DO" or "BE," and just write.  When you are finished, go back and pick out every word that could possibly be an active verb (one that you can put DO in front of as shown above).  

For an example, let's use a paragraph on the use of Socratic irony from Wikepedia (see  According to Wikepedia, "Socratic irony is "feigning ignorance in order to expose the weakness of another's position."  Here is the quoted section used to exemplify this form of irony:

Television journalist Louis Theroux is someone who has demonstrated expert use of Socratic irony to his audience, by interviewing a number of diverse individuals with an air of relaxed naivety and appreciative curiosity. This has led to his subjects becoming less guarded and more open in answering questions than they would have been in a more adversarial dialogue, while more often than not also granting Theroux subtle control of the interview.      

Now let's pick out the active verbs.  In our example I found the following:
guard open answer
oppose? (adversarial)
Note that many of the words -- television, journalist, relaxed, appreciative, guarded, open, adversarial, control, and interview -- were not verbs in the sentence, but it is easy to turn them into verbs.  

Then you want to construct the simplest sentence that you can using the verbs:  No adjectives, adverbs, prepositional phrases, even negatives (so your simple sentence will actually mean the opposite of what it is supposed to).  You do this by asking WH questions of each verb, e.g. "What goes where?" "Who constructs what?" "Who starts what?" and so on.  For the paragraph I chose, the list looks like this:
Who televises what? Some organization televises LT.
WHo journals what?  LT journals the news.
WHo demonstrates what? LT demonstrates irony.
Who uses what? LT uses irony.
Who interviews whom? LT interviews individuals.
Who relaxes whom? LT relaxes individuals (that he interviews, which is the same as saying interviewees).
Who appreciates whom? LT appreciates interviewees.
What leads to what? LT's tactics lead to subjects becoming less guarded and more open. (note that subjects = interviewees here and below).
? subjects ?  (doesn't really work here as a verb)
Who guards whom, how? Subjects guard themselves less.
Who opens what? Subjects open themselves more.
Who answers what? Subjects answer questions.
Who questions whom? LT questions subjects.
Who opposes whom?  LT and subjects oppose (verb for "adversarial") each other (NOT).
What grants what to whom? LT's tactics grant LT control (of the interview).
Who controls what? LT controls the interview.
Who interviews whom? Lt interviews the subjects.

Then go through your list and find the statements that best describe what you want to do.  Don't worry that they are not exactly right...we'll add all the modifiers back in later to get them exactly how you want them.  Many of the statements are not very helpful by themselves, like "LT demonstrates irony" but they may come in handy later we'll see.  So for this paragraph, the most descriptive statement is:  "LT uses irony." That doesn't get us very far, though.  Why not?  Because the verb doesn't have much is vague, unspecific.  Try to find a better verb by asking HOW he uses irony, or in this case, WHAT does he use irony for? He uses it to DO something...what does he DO with irony? Note that because we had a DO verb in our provisional vague thesis statement (DOES use), we have to answer questions about it with a full sentence.  Because of the way we have extracted the verbs and their arguments, our answer will also have a DO verb in the sentence. This way we hone in on the thesis.  So what does LT DO with irony?  "LT controls the interview."  This is probably your best basic thesis.  "Control" has much more specific meaning than "use," so when you ask "How?" you get a more meaningful answer.  As an aside, this process can help you untangle the densest prose and extract what the author is saying in spite of even the best attempts at obfuscation...If it fails to work or doesn't make sense, that means the author isn't really saying anything at all!

So what do we do now?  Well, keep asking "How?"  How does LT control interviews? With irony.  We can thus write about how LT uses irony in our would-be study of LT.  Perhaps we want to make the sentence more specific, so lets add our modifiers back in:

LT subtly controls his television interviews using Socratic irony.

When we ask "How?" the answer could be a paper in itself.  We would examine how he uses relaxed naivety and appreciative curiousity.  How does he appear relaxed, naive and curious, when he is actually inquiring about a point the interviewee doesn't see coming?  This is after all the heart of irony.  What are his tactics?  How does he get the interviewees less guarded and more open?  To answer these questions, we would need to find out what makes them guarded in the first place and how LT overcomes that suspicion.  How does he get them to open up?  Well, we've already answered some of that with the section on relaxed naievety and curiosity, but maybe more can be said about how he actually goes about that in an interview.  One tactic is to remain non-adversarial in his approach to dialogue...How does he go about doing that?  As you can see, armed with a tape or two of LT interviewing people as your primary source, you could write a pretty good paper using this thesis.  

Now suppose we find out in our primary research of LT's interviews that some of the stuff in our brainstorming session was wrong?  What then?  Suppose it wasn't LT exerting subtle control, but actually the ghost of Princess Di? or that the control wasn't subtle?  Or that he wasn't actually controlling it but just appearing to through trickery?  Or that it wasn't the interviewees he was controlling, but a herd of feral cats along Maille Way?  Well, you change your thesis!  "LT" becomes Princess Di's ghost.  "Subtly" becomes ""obviously."  Instead of controlling the subjects, your thesis might shift to "LT tricks his audiences" (followed, of course, by "How?" and all its consequences), or if its is not the interviewees he controls, "LT subtly controls a herd of feral cats along Maille Way  using Socratic irony."

Your thesis is always a working proposition. You use it as a guide to your research. Always ask if and how your present reading relates to your thesis. This will keep you from getting lost and overwhelmed while doing research. If you find things that change your thesis, change it! Your thesis is not written in stone. You want it to always reflect your best thinking on your subject. When you are done you should have a working thesis and a bunch of research that supports it.

If you have trouble with a thesis statement, come see me before you get too wound up about it.

Next step: Meet with Prof. Rath to discuss your topic.