The Tyrany of the Thesis Statement

I've written about this before, but it's always nice to hear that others feel the same way - especially when their affirming voices make it into the pages of the NCTE's English Journal.

High school English teacher Alec R. Duxbury goes toe-to-toe with the five-paragraph thesis essay in EJ's latest edition, which came out a few weeks ago:

"[The] truth about the teaching of writing is avoided in schools everywhere. The error in pedagogy that governs the teaching of the essay is built on the sanctity of the thesis statement and the insistence that formula will produce quality writing. Teachers ask students to find a thesis statement first and to organize the content of their writing around that thesis statement.

Most students encounter this set of rules in the general category of the five-paragraph essay, a form that students know exactly how to produce by the time they leave middle school. As a result, it is too often a form that inspires little in students but lack of thought and engagement with their subjects. Such thesis-first writing and writing instruction has been a boon to teachers who seek to quantify the art of writing through rubrics and scoring methods.

The assessment of most thesis-first writing assignments is accomplished by checking the introduction for a three-part thesis statement, counting the number of examples, checking for topic sentences, and noting the repetition of the three-part thesis statement in the concluding paragraph. The art of writing, the gift of meaning a writer gives to a reader, is neglected by the assignment of such writing and the quantitative assessment of it.

The tyranny of the thesis statement demands that students write mechanical, lifeless prose in which they have no interest and that teachers of writing never entertain the activity that their titles imply."

Hallelujah brother! I'm a few weeks removed from reading 65 five-paragraph thesis essays on The Old Man and the Sea. Let me tell you - students disliked writing the essays just as much as I disliked having to read them. They were, for the most part, formulaic, lifeless, and predictable. This isn't a knock on my students - I asked them to write in a specific form to a specified set of guidelines, and because most of them are conscientious and willing to do what I ask, they wrote the essays with minimal complaints.

I'm glad it's April and we're onto our poetry unit.

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