“I will argue that…” – A Product-based Analysis of Students’ Argumentative Thesis Statements in English Literature Term Papers after a Writing Training in the Discipline

1 Kommentar schreiben zu Absatz 1 1 Regina Leonie Schmidt (Justus-Liebig-Universität Gießen)

2 Kommentar schreiben zu Absatz 2 0 The thesis statement guides the argumentative flow of papers, determines the relevance of individual arguments, and anchors texts within the academic discourse in Anglophone academic writing. To train students in successfully drafting thesis statements for their argumentative term papers, the Writing Center and two lecturers implemented a co-teaching in 2019 at the English literature department of the Justus-Liebig-University Giessen that trained students in discipline-specific matters and argumentative writing. The subsequently conducted research explored the actual realization of thesis statements in students’ term paper introductions and their application of and problems with the trained composition criteria, based on establishes research insights regarding issues in thesis statement composition. The results show that students had major difficulties in the composition of thesis statements despite the training. However, I propose that training thesis statement composition is not a futile endeavor.


3 Kommentar schreiben zu Absatz 3 0 Thesis statements are a standard fare in argumentative writing inside and outside academia as they are widely considered to be key to an efficient and coherent argumentation (see Hamlitsch 2015, Hyland 1990, Miller and Pessoa 2016, Tankó and Tamási 2008). Especially in Anglophone educational environments, this one-sentence summary of the proposed argument, which appears towards the beginning of texts and which is often, though not necessarily, accompanied by the infamous five-paragraph essay, is widely taught to students in schools and universities not only across different academic disciplines but also across different course types, such as discipline-specific courses, writing courses, and language courses for L2 learners. Anglophone literary studies poses a somewhat special case among the academic disciplines in at least two respects:

4 Kommentar schreiben zu Absatz 4 0 – by means of its research objects and target discourse community, it is necessarily to a great extent acculturated into Anglophone academic (writing) traditions even outside of actual Anglophone environments.

5 Kommentar schreiben zu Absatz 5 0 – it is largely being taught as well as studied by L2 speakers as, for example, in Germany.

6 Kommentar schreiben zu Absatz 6 0 Accordingly, thesis statements haunt academic writing in English literary studies even outside English-speaking countries.

7 Kommentar schreiben zu Absatz 7 0 Possibly precisely because being a significant skill to master, thesis statement composition also poses a major challenge to students. While helpful research has been conducted on the composition of thesis statements as well as problems that might arise with this task, and an amplitude of writing guides and courses instruct students in composing them, far less seems to be known about the impact of these instructions on students’ actual composition of thesis statements in their argumentative texts, especially in English literary studies in Germany (see Hamlitsch 2015, Tankó and Tamási 2008). Given that thesis statements are part and parcel of argumentative writing in Anglophone academia, my research set out to ask some of the questions that arise with teaching their composition in a German English literary studies classroom:

8 Kommentar schreiben zu Absatz 8 0 How can the composition of thesis statements for argumentative writing be taught to students of English literary studies in Germany? Which problems might arise for students in relation to their composition? And, as a subsequent concern, should the composition of thesis statements even be taught to German students of English literary studies?

How can the composition of thesis statements for argumentative writing be taught to students of English literary studies in Germany?

9 Kommentar schreiben zu Absatz 9 4 In order to address this question in teaching practice, the Writing Center and two lecturers implemented a team-teaching in 2019 at the English literature department of the Justus-Liebig-University Giessen, which trained students in discipline-specific subject matters in interrelation with argumentative writing. Two seminars with the same content (“The US-Mexico Border: Politics, Literature, Culture”) were held by two different lecturers and both student groups received the same writing training carried out by myself. Despite the fact that the seminars were, in accordance with the curriculum, designed for and designated as introductory courses to English literary studies for first-year students, the two student groups were rather heterogeneous, i.e. from different study programs, at different stages of their study program, and with different academic writing experiences inside and outside the discipline of English literary studies.

10 Kommentar schreiben zu Absatz 10 1 One of the seminar’s seven writing interventions dealt with the composition of thesis statements. Conjoining models for teaching thesis statement composition and research question composition, we developed a low-threshold, in-class exercise that focused at familiarizing students hands-on with the basic compositional aspects of thesis statements in relation to the seminar topic. Students were familiarized with thesis statements by means of best-practice examples as well as contrasting examples for what thesis statements are not, i.e. statements of intent, of a fact, of a topic or of an observation (based on Purdue OWL 2015, Rienicker 2003). Students were also instructed on how to clearly introduce thesis statements with a linguistic signal such as “I will argue/demonstrate/show that …” and, subsequently, they were trained in composing their own thesis statements. In particular, students were trained to phrase and then answer several “what” and “how” questions about their main idea/interest/pattern in order for them to focus on a specific phenomenon and the way it is represented in a particular text (adapted from Hamlitsch 2015, Purdue OWL 2015). Students were further instructed on the necessity of including an answer to the question “why/so what,” i.e. indicating relevance of the investigated phenomenon, which is particularly important in literary studies (based on Hamlitsch 2015, Purdue OWL 2015, Palmquist and Connor 1994-2020). During other writing interventions in the course, the topic of thesis statements was picked up again, for example, where to place them in term paper introductions.

Which problems might arise for German students of English literary studies in relation to the composition of thesis statements?

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12 Kommentar schreiben zu Absatz 12 1 In order to address this question, I conducted a pilot study in agreement with the students of the course, in which I explored the actual realization of thesis statements in a product-based analysis in twenty-one of the students’ final term papers, which they had to hand in at the end of the semester in order to receive credit points. While argumentative typologies in English literary studies as well as thesis statement typologies in L2 writing have already been established (see Fahnestock and Secor 1991, Tankó and Tamási 2008), both of these research endeavors seem more suitable to investigate texts of more experienced academic writers, who can be sure to compose a successful thesis statement in their argumentative texts. These typologies, therefore, focus on what type of argument is put forward by the thesis statements, such as evaluation, policy recommendation, causation, etc. (see Tankó and Tamási 2008) as well as which type of argument is most accepted or common in a discipline’s discourse community (see Fahnestock and Secor 1991). Accordingly, these typologies are too advanced to cover the basic compositional aspects and the ensuing compositional problems that are likely to be encountered by less experienced academic writers and, therefore, important for the learner context of L2 academic writers in the discipline of literary studies. On the basis of these typologies it is not possible to evaluate whether writers address just some or all three compositional aspects “what,” “how,” and “why” in their thesis statements, all of which are necessary, though, to make a successful argument in a literary studies paper and need to be addressed within the particular learning context. Moreover, the typologies do not offer an indication of the, potentially partial, success or failure regarding the efficiency of the less experienced writers’ address of these particles, for example, in consideration of whether the answers provided by the student writers are even relevant to the discipline-specific discourses.

13 Kommentar schreiben zu Absatz 13 0 I, therefore, first intended to deductively identify the (possible lack of) thesis statements in students’ term paper introductions and, then, evaluate students’ application of and problems with the three trained composition criteria. I also compared the emerging challenges to insights from the existing research literature in order to identify general problems with the basic compositional aspects of thesis statements as well as problems that might be specific to the composition of thesis statements in English literary studies. In order to do so, I used categories of issues arising for students with the composition of thesis statements in other academic disciplines from the research of Ryan T. Miller and Silvia Pessoa, Nathan Hamlitsch, and Gyula Tankó and Gergely J. Tamási as guiding categories, such as the problem of “overly general macro-Themes,” i.e. topic announcements rather than argumentative announcements (Miller and Pessoa 2016), as well as the organizational problems of, on the one hand, “one-paragraph macro-Theme,” i.e. thesis statements lacking but disseminating over a larger part of the text (Miller and Pessoa 2016), and, on the other hand, bifurcated or trifurcated thesis statements (Tankó and Tamási 2008).

14 Kommentar schreiben zu Absatz 14 3 A major challenge for my research turned out to be the identification of thesis statements in the term paper introductions as most students did not use the proposed linguistic signal “I will argue/demonstrate/show that…” to introduce their arguments, used the signal inefficiently, or used it several times at different places in their introductions. As the number of introductions received for the research project was already smaller than expected, it was decided that all term papers would be taken into account for the analysis. In cases in which the thesis statement was not introduced by the proposed signal, I searched for another kind of statement that seemed to roughly conform to the trained compositional criteria and from which the students’ main argument could be at least partially inferred. I also analyzed those term papers that did not have any kind of clearly identifiable statement about the proposed argument.

15 Kommentar schreiben zu Absatz 15 0 On this basis, I would like to propose the following observations about students’ composition of thesis statements in their English literary studies term papers after a writing training in the discipline:[1]

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  2. Just because the composed (thesis) statements address the “what” and the “how” compositional aspects, they do not necessarily propose an argument.
  3. The composition of students’ (thesis) statements in their term papers focus on the compositional aspects of “what” and “how” while neglecting answers to the “why/so what” aspect.
  4. Just because the composed (thesis) statements address the “what” and the “how” compositional aspects, they do not necessarily propose an argument that is relevant to the discipline of English literary studies.
  5. Students face major challenges related to the organization of their (thesis) statements and arguments in term paper introductions.
  6. Students who do not compose a (thesis) statement in their introduction might still propose an argument.

Conclusion: Should the composition of thesis statements for argumentative writing be taught to students of English literary studies in Germany?

17 Kommentar schreiben zu Absatz 17 3 While it is hailed by some as the key to good argumentative writing, the imperative of the thesis statement has also received considerable criticism, having been accused of creating, for example, inauthenticity, unoriginality, and inhibitions in texts and among writers (see Hamlitsch 2016, cf. Berggren 2008, Duxbury 2008, Schneer 2014). To complicate an already complicated matter, there seems to be little agreement about the ultimate necessity of thesis statements in English academic writing in Germany. While argumentative writing is crucial to all academic disciplines, most research and research writing is led up front by the often explorative nature of empirical research questions and, possibly, their hypothetical answers, while still making an argument. Aspects relating to a given (academic) culture have already been identified as complicating students’ learning of the “argument up-front” strategy that is common to Anglophone academic writing (see Pisanski Peterlin 2008). Finally, the question needs to be asked whether an argumentative strategy such as the thesis statement, which seems to work well in the genre of the essay, is maybe unsuitable for the larger argumentative scope of the genre of the term paper. In consideration of the challenges already pointed out by previous research and the rather unsuccessful attempt in teaching students thesis statement composition related here, it seems legitimate to reassess the necessity and desirability of such an endeavor.

18 Kommentar schreiben zu Absatz 18 1 Nevertheless, I propose that teaching thesis statement composition to students should not yet be dismissed as futile. While students’ compositional attempts might not have been completely successful despite the writing training they received, they did assess the writing interventions as overall positive in their written class evaluations. Moreover, from the fact that most students did not master the skill of thesis statement writing after the first training instance cannot be concluded that they will not master it in the future with further support or different kinds of training or simply more discipline-specific writing experience. Possibly, the training measures carried out during the writing intervention were simply insufficient – they certainly suffered from a lack of class time as so many writing interventions do.

19 Kommentar schreiben zu Absatz 19 0 Steven Frank suggests that providing the readers of a text with a thesis statement is comparable to showing them one’s underwear – and might be equally embarrassing for the author (Frank 2005). The thesis statement is stripped of any embellishments and cannot hide behind fine words, it is the naked argument of the writer boiled down into one sentence clearly presented up front in the text and visible for all to read. And even if it is not a little shabby, or has holes in it, or is simply a bit old-fashioned – features that much underwear and many thesis statements share – the reader will be able to get a pretty good impression of what the writer stands for as an author. But precisely because of that, the thesis statement does encourage students to formulate their “big idea,” to mend it until it is presentable, and to come back to it until it is no longer perceived as embarrassing. Thesis statement trainings do have the potential to, at least, open the door to argumentative writing for students.

20 Kommentar schreiben zu Absatz 20 0 [1] Kindly note that these observations are momentarily based on handwritten notes rather than the actual term papers as I, at this point, do not have access to my data due to IT problems the University of Giessen is currently facing. All observations are, therefore, preliminary.


21 Kommentar schreiben zu Absatz 21 0 Berggren, Anne (2008). “Do Thesis Statements Short-Circuit Originality in Students’ Writing?” Originality, Imitation, and Plagiarism. Ed. Caroline Eisner and Martha Vicinus. Michigan: University of Michigan Press. 53-63.

22 Kommentar schreiben zu Absatz 22 0 Duxbury, Alec R. (2008). “Speaking My Mind: The tyranny of the Thesis Statement.” The English Journal 97.4: 16-18.

23 Kommentar schreiben zu Absatz 23 0 Fahnestock, Jeanne, and Marie Secor (1991). “The Rhetoric of Literary Criticism.” Textual Dynamics of the Professions: Historical and Contemporary Studies of Writing in Professional Communities. Ed. Cahrles Bazerman and James Paradis. Wisconsin: The University of Wisconsin Press. 76-96.

24 Kommentar schreiben zu Absatz 24 0 Frank, Steven (2005). “I’ll Show You My Underwear (or How to Tackle the Dreaded Thesis Statement).” Writing 27.4: 14-17.

25 Kommentar schreiben zu Absatz 25 0 Hamlitsch, Nathan (2015). “The Necessities for Building a Thesis Statement.” NU Ideas 4.2: 39-47.

26 Kommentar schreiben zu Absatz 26 0 Hyland, Ken (1990). “A Genre Description of the Argumentative Essay.” RELC Journal 21.1: 66-78.

27 Kommentar schreiben zu Absatz 27 0 Miller, Ryan T., and Silvia Pessoa (2016). “Where’s Your Thesis Statements and What Happened to Your Topic Sentences? Identifying organizational Challenges in Undergraduate Student Argumentative Writing.” TESOL Journal 7.4: 847-873.

28 Kommentar schreiben zu Absatz 28 0 Palmquist, Mike, and Peter Connor (1994-2020). “Developing a Thesis Statement.” The WAC Clearinghouse, Colorado State University. Web. 17 February 2020.

29 Kommentar schreiben zu Absatz 29 0 Pisanski Peterlin, Agnes (2008). “The Thesis Statement in Translations of Academic Discourse: An Exploratory Study.” The Journal of Specialised Translation 10: 10-22.

30 Kommentar schreiben zu Absatz 30 0 Purdue OWL (2015). “Developing Strong Thesis Statements.” Purdue University, 2015. Web. 21 April 2015.

31 Kommentar schreiben zu Absatz 31 0 Rienecker, Lotte (2003). “Research Questions and Academic Argumentation: Teaching Students How to Do It Using Formats and Model Examples.” Schlüsselkompetenz Schreiben: Konzepte, Methoden, Projekte für Schreibberatung und Schreibdidaktik an der Hochschule. Ed. Otto Kruse, Eva-Maria Jakobs, and Gabriele Ruhmann. Bielefeld: UVW, 95-108.

32 Kommentar schreiben zu Absatz 32 2 Scheuermann, Ulrike (2011). Die Schreibfitness-Mappe: 60 Checklisten, Beispiele und Übungen für alle, die beruflich schreiben. Wien: Linde Verlag.

33 Kommentar schreiben zu Absatz 33 0 Schneer, David (2014). “Rethinking the Argumentative Essay.” TESOL Journal 5.4: 619-653.

34 Kommentar schreiben zu Absatz 34 0 Tankó, Gyula, and Gergely J. Tamási (2008). “A Comprehensive Taxonomy of Argumentative Thesis Statements: A Preliminary Pilot Study.” Working Papers in Language Pedagogy 2: 1-17.

35 Kommentar schreiben zu Absatz 35 0 The Writing Center University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (n. d.). “Literature – Fiction.” Tips and Tools. The University of North Carolina, n. d. Web. 25 March 2019.

36 Kommentar schreiben zu Absatz 36 0 The Writing Center University of Wisconsin – Madison (n. d.). “Generating Ideas for Your Paper.” Writing Process and Structure. University of Wisconsin – Madison, n. d. Web. 25 March 2019.

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