Its Week 6 of your first semester of your Master of Research and you sit down to do your reading for your Research Literacies unit. It’s a chapter of your textbook – Rosenwasser and Stephen’s Writing Analytically (2015) – entitled “Finding and Evolving a Thesis.” Now, if you’re anything like me, you’re freaking out. “Thesis? What thesis?” I started to think to myself. I know I have a research area (film and history), I know the questions I want to interrogate (can film engage with history and historical discourse meaningfully and how?), and I know I have an opinion about it (film’s visual and emotional capacity allow it to explore history in creative and experiential ways that are just as valid as written history) but I don’t have a proper question yet, I don’t really have a thesis. Naturally, I started to mildly panic. Once I realised this was the single most unproductive thing to do and actually started reading, I calmed down because this chapter is great. This chapter not only went over what a thesis is and how to work with it and write about it effectively but it told me that I was actually okay and on the right track.
This chapter starts with a really handy definition of what a thesis actually is. Rosenwasser and Stephen summarise a thesis as being “an idea that you formulate about your subject. It should offer a theory about the meaning of evidence that would not have been immediately obvious to your readers” (Rosenwasser and Stephen 2015, 147). I think this neatly sums up what they think a strong thesis is and what it is not. It should not be too broad or too straightforward. There’s no point writing a paper trying to argue something that was common sense in the first place.
The thing that really struck me with this chapter though was the idea that the thesis is not static. It evolves with the evolution of the paper itself. Its probably best not to go into the reading about and writing about a topic all guns blazing with a rigid thesis already in place. This is not to say that we shouldn’t have an idea about the topic, its important that we do as that will guide the research and the writing BUT if we’ve decided that that is the be all and end all then it becomes a case of evidence to fit the theory and we run the risk of ignoring complicating evidence and thus limiting the scope and quality of our ideas and blinding us to better ones (Rosenwasser and Stephen 2015, 148). Rosenwasser and Stephen (2015, 157) use the analogy of a camera lens to describe the thesis and its reciprocal relationship to the subject, “while the lens affects how we see the subject (what evidence we select, what questions we ask about that evidence), the subject we are looking at affects how we adjust the lens.”
Something they suggest (and demonstrate a fantastic example of) is working on exploratory drafts to help evolve the thesis. As you write and explore your ideas and evidence, new and better ideas may become clear as well as errors and problems. The more you draft and explore the thesis, the clearer and the stronger it becomes. Writing as thinking as Jack (our tutor) would say. They provide a six step process to follow when doing this which I’m not going to regurgitate here but it basically involves writing the draft and then identifying the competing thesis statements and complicating evidence that do not fit with the current working thesis and then using these to reformulate your it and then testing the new thesis by doing the process over. Rosenwasser and Stephen (2015, 166) also stress in this the importance of making your process clear to your reader. Basically, explaining to them how you got to where you did. I think that’s really important but also not necessarily something that I’m used to so I should keep that in mind and work on it.
The class for this week and this topic was also really helpful. Jack got us to freewrite about certain aspects of our projects to get us thinking about our thesis and how it fits with the existing literature. Identifying the “interpretive context” of your thesis is something Rossenwasser and Stephen (2015, 150) also emphasize. In doing this exercise, I realised that I actually did know more about what I wanted to do and what other researchers were doing and what they were debating. Importantly, I realised I was able to tease out possible questions, how does film use its unique language to engage history and do what Tessa Morris-Suzuki (2005, 27) calls “historical truthfulness” – how different people and mediums try to make sense of the past.I’m well aware that this needs to be done within the context of a case study and will need to be significantly more specific but I’m working on it. I’m also aware that this time next year, my question will probably not be close to this at all but I guess that’s all part of this process of evolution.
I guess at the end of this week, I felt a lot better than I had at the start. I don’t need to have a thesis right now. I just need to be working on it, reading a lot and writing things down. I have a little more faith in me today than I did before.
Morris-Suzuki, Tessa. 2005. The Past Within Us: Media, Memory, History. London, UK: Verso.
Rosenwasser, David, and Jill Stephen. 2015. Writing Analytically. USA: Cengage Learning.
Image source: https://theleidener.com/2016/03/06/thesis-tips/