I believe that in our current academic envirnonment, a coherent argument is too often prized over thoughtful observation, texts made subordinate to conclusions, and the burden of “proving” something born without question.
It was my experience studying English abroad at Oxford University that opened my eyes to the tyranny of “the thesis sentence”, as it’s frequently taught and practiced in American schools. Allow me to share.
Second term I took Virginia Woolf as a primary tutorial. On reading ‘Between the Acts’ I was struck by its unusual syntax and destabilizing use of metaphor and simile. Intrigued, I set out to articulate these oddities – “a blue vein wiggled like a blue worm” – but with no greater purpose in mind.
I was so excited by the idea of chasing down these peculiarities in my own words that I decided, just this once, not to worry about neatly tying them together. I labored over each long paragraph but dashed between them with things like ‘speaking of …’ and ‘this reminds me …’. I had a one sentence introduction and certainly did not come to any conclusions.
I felt what I had written was insightful, but all my high school and college experience told me it wasn’t a “real” paper. At Oxford, you meet privately with your professor once a week and read your paper aloud to them. Before reading this paper, I promised my tutor that next week I wouldn’t indulge myself in such loosey-goosey nonsense, next week my paper would have a Point.
But to my surprise the tutor thought the paper very strong, and she agreed with me, the constructions were unsettling. Huh…..
The next week I sat down with ‘The Years’ and formulated a pristine thesis sentence. Nothing could have been clearer. I picked through the text for quotes to support my argument (quickly turning the page should I find anything offensively contrary to my scheme): it was a paragon of papers, proceeded steadily and fluently and culminated in a thoroughly supported ((though rather bland)) conclusion.
However, my tutor was not impressed with my discursive skills and she brought up all those scenes I had blithely whistled my way around, ‘but what about this and what about that?’ she asked.
It was like she was speaking my conscience. I had written the paper knowing parts of my analysis were myopic but I had suppressed this dissent, thinking, who could find fault with something so tidy?
Now, lest anyone think I am advocating anarchy, let me state what I am not suggesting. I am not suggesting that students doff that pesky and constricting thing called structure. Nor am I suggesting that one needn’t be concerned their paper have a worthwhile purpose.
All I am suggesting is a greater emphasis be placed on careful observation, always the pre-requisite for analysis. I believe a well structured and sharply focused expository paper is not by nature less valuable than one which purports to prove something.
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