The Best Thesis Ever

Let me tell you how to write the best thesis ever. But first, let me tell you a story. My advisor in college was a man named Ken Fields. Besides being a Stanford professor, he was a poet, a recovering alcoholic, and a Texan. He brought his dog, Dixie, to class. He took the elevator. You couldn’t take notes in his class, because one minute he was talking about Renaissance ballads, the next Leonard Cohen, and the next a feud his family had in Kentucky in the 1800’s. When I graduated, I went to his office one last time and sat between his towers of papers and he told me about a guy he knew who had hiked the Sierras with a mule. It felt random at the time, but looking back on it that story sanctioned the road less travelled, which was the best blessing new-graduate-me could have received from a professor.

Ken Fields, more or less as I remember him.

 He might have come off as a bumbly old guy, but there was a thread through it all though, an underlying organization, a poet’s kind of sense. So somehow I am not surprised to have learned the best thesis-writing tip I know from Professor Fields. 

And this tip, oh wow. Not only does it make your thesis clearer and stronger, it lays out your whole essay for you.

A good thesis, said Professor Fields, goes like this: A but also B, therefore C.  C is the classic thesis; A and B lay out the pros and cons of your particular argument. A argues one side, B argues the other. C corroborates one or the other.

To go back to the elephant, a possible thesis might look like “Although elephants are large and stinky (A), if we owned one we would be the most popular family on the block (B). Therefore, we should get an elephant (C).”

Another thesis might be, “Elephants are friendly, trainable animals long kept by families in other parts of the world (A), so although they are not a common, or possibly even legal, pet in Seattle (B), we should still get an elephant (C).”

Notice that while the C parts are the same in both these examples, the points laid out in the A and B parts are completely different. The essays that follow will be just as different. One essay is going to need to deal with where to keep an elephant. The other will need to address legalities. The tension of the unresolved question that lies at the heart of every good essay (because what good is an essay if the question is already resolved?) gets laid out bare, right in the thesis. From there it’s just a matter of teasing out that tension, using Leonard Cohen lyrics and other evidence to support your points when necessary, straight down to the conclusion, at which point you can close your mouth, put down your pen and walk to the elevator with Dixie while your words begin their lifelong trickle through your listeners’ minds.

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