Why can't Johnny write a thesis statement? And what can we do about it?
Although I'm teaching an upper-division Shakespeare class composed largely of juniors and seniors, I've had repeated requests to explain what a thesis statement is, how to acquire a good one, why even complex observational statements are not thesis statements, and so on.
One explanation that had crossed my mind was that this was a stalling tactic: i.e., that the students really did know how to write a thesis statement, but that they were acting as though they didn't as a way of procrastinating. You know, "How can I possibly start working on my term paper if you haven't even told me how to write a thesis yet?"
But now that I'm actually getting a closer look at what my students seem to think is a well-thought-out thesis statement, I'm starting to believe that they really don't know how to do it. And I am, therefore, alarmed.
When I've taught lower-division courses in the past, I've always spent a good amount of time discussing this topic, but I assumed both that (1) my job in an advanced class was to focus more on the literature than on skills and that (2) upperclassmen would already know how to construct a solid thesis statement. Apparently, I was wrong on at least count #2.
It would seem, then, that we're turning out English majors who don't know how to make a well constructed argument about texts. That's the equivalent of producing a Chemistry major who can't write a decent lab report.
WTF? How is this happening? Is the five-paragraph-essay brainwashing students get in high school nearly impossible to overwrite? Are they just not getting the one-on-one time or the feedback they need to turn the information they hear from instructors into actual practice? Are we really failing that catastrophically to teach one of the most basic skills in our discipline? If so, why? How do we fix it?
I'm doing lots of emergency instruction in thesis writing this week, lest I end up reading 42 term papers without a real argument. In the meantime, I'm both befuddled and deeply concerned.
UPDATE: Although I and quite a few of my colleagues do spend time on such issues in our lower-division and writing-intensive classes, feedback from troops here on the ground seems to indicate that many others do not. I find this little short of criminal.
Dammit. I thought I was already nearly as disilllusioned as I could possibly be. This is so depressing.