Review of Thesis Protocols


Often times, many of the problems we have in writing are attributed to the failure to assign a strong, argumentative thesis. Keeping in mind the difference between observations and claims (see handout if necessary), let’s review some protocols for developing strong assertions so you can address this issue specifically in your writing and in the revision process:


?           Your thesis is an assertion or claim—a claim, remember, is speculative or to some degree conjectural (that is, it necessitates further discussion/argument)

?           The thesis claim must be clear

?           It should involve a certain complexity. That is, it’s not “obvious” or predictable; it offers a unique perspective that is the outgrowth of independent thinking

?           It must be specific, not broad


Ä      When you meet all these criteria, you have a strong argumentative thesis. These criteria are the foci for “A-level” thinking.


**According to the English Department’s grading rubric, a writer may submit an essay that is generally well developed, relatively error free, and organized overall and still earn a B or C. If that describes you, review the criteria above. You may be stuck in the rut of “B-or-C-level” thinking (as described above and often attributed to a weak thesis/assertion). Writing is as much about thinking as it is about the ability to convey your thoughts in clear, precise prose.



What to remember…


1)       Observations are not viable theses (observations are statements of plot/summary. They generally hinge on the “what” of the text: what happens in a work, what the author says or does, etc.)




·         Malcolm X experiences oppression, both physical and mentally.

·         Malcolm X follows any orders under command of several different people or groups of people, black and white.

·         In such scenes as “American Nightmare,” Spike Lee utilizes a specific color schema—red, white, and blue.


Stating the obvious sets the rest of the paper up to be general and simplistic to the reader who has already read the text/s. For example, to say that Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby is “about the self-made man” is a simplistic observation. There is no complexity to the issue, nothing to argue or prove—anyone who has read the texts already knows this. A thesis of this sort limits the essay to generalizations, redundancy, particularly summary. This is generally because an “observational” thesis (hinged to an observation, not a claim) lacks an argumentative drive; in other words, there is nothing to actually prove. Look for “slant” in your writing—reach for ideas that provide ample opportunity for analytical inquiry and depth. Remember, you want to suggest a view of the text or texts that is not readily obvious to the reader and therefore must be proven.



Ask yourselves those hard “how,” “why,” and “so what” questions and develop compelling conclusions as a result:

Ø      (How?) Through the use of mise-en-scene and lighting, Spike Lee conveys the psychological, interior world of Malcolm X and his experiences with both physical and mental oppression.


Ø      (Why?) Due to Malcolm X’s traumatic loss of a father at an early age, along with the low esteem he internalizes as a result of growing up in a racist environment, Malcolm clings desperately to the teachings and leadership of other people—black and white—sadly contributing, often, to his own oppression.


Ø      (So What?) In such scenes as “American Nightmare,” Spike Lee utilizes a specific color schema—red, white, and blue—to underscore, symbolically, the irony of Malcolm’s plight: he lives in America, the “land of the free,” yet he is deprived of the basic freedoms of which the colors speak: democracy, equality, racial unity.



**According to the English Department’s grading rubric, essays that lack a thesis will not pass with a C or higher. Essays that summarize and therefore fail to analyze do not meet the minimum passing requirement.



2)       Move toward a greater degree of specificity and complexity in your thinking and analysis. Avoid broad and general claims.


SPECIFICITY: offers a highly specific focus, a tight focus. By this, I cannot simply apply this idea to any given text; this type of claim can only make sense within the context of the specific text I am analyzing.


COMPLEXITY: Analysis goes beyond the surface-level and obvious; it interrogates—often ruthlessly and tirelessly—the multiple dimensions of meaning within a given text. It doesn’t try to simplify a text’s layers of meaning; it explores them, often from different angles.



*      Broad/Simplistic: Malcolm X explores, at large, the dichotomy of assimilation and resistance.

*      Specific/Increasingly Complex:  In the scene “Riding the Rails,” Spike Lee brings to light one of racism’s most visceral and damaging consequences: the complicity of African-American men in holding intact the white racist regime, one that economically imposes social compliance and cultural assimilation.  The scene highlights Malcolm’s resistance to the “economy” of racism, marking his larger quest for self-definition in the face of white mainstream America as well as his own African-American community.


Ask questions—interrogate your own thinking! Look at the subject from different angles and see what kinds of interpretations the text offers up for analysis.


Throughout the film Malcolm X, Spike Lee underscores the power of language.


Ø      How, and where, does Lee enforce this theme?

Ø      How is language “power”?

Ø      Why is language powerful?

Ø      What kinds of power does language consolidate—social, interpersonal, cultural, psychological, religious, etc…. Which one will be your particular focus? (remember, you can’t do it all, so narrow the focus)


One of the greatest ironies of the film is that Malcolm X contributes to his own oppression.

Ø      How so?

Ø      Why?



3)       Move toward a greater degree of specificity and description in your language. Avoid vague, general, and clichéd words.


Instead of….                                             Try….

Society oppresses Malcolm.                          White mainstream society oppresses Malcolm.

Malcolm learns things in prison.                   Malcolm learns the religion of self-love while in prison.

This shows us that….                                  This gruesome image shows us that….

Language is a mechanism of power.             Language is a mechanism of political power.

The boy                                                  The subservient boy

Men often buy the product.                                      Men, generally middle- to upper-class males, ….

The woman uses Malcolm.                           The beautiful, blonde bombshell Sophia...

Many people follow Malcolm.                      Many people, particularly poor African Americans in the Northern ghettoes, follow Malcolm.

Malcolm conks his hair.                               An insecure, affirmation-seeking Malcolm