In my Freshman Writing class, we have just finished reading Fahrenheit 451. The students are writing an essay comparing America in the novel to our present-day society. They discussed the similarities they observed in small groups, then we came together to share our observations as a class. They then had to go and find a variety of sources (one book, two peer-reviewed articles, two others of any kind) that illustrated or backed up their claims about our society. After that, they had to choose quotes from the book and match them with quotes from the sources.
At this point, 90% of their essay has been written. This is probably the easiest essay they’ve ever written. Except for one little thing: I asked them to tell me why this comparison matters. So what? What do we learn by doing this comparison? Their thesis isn’t just: This essay will compare and contrast Fahrenheit 451 with our current society. Their thesis should be: This essay will compare and contrast Fahrenheit 451 in order to…
From the looks on their faces, I’ve clearly rocked their world. We had a long discussion on what the similarities could mean and why it is important that they mean something. I used my recent brush with wordlessness as an example: I had many of the same symptoms as a stroke, but I wasn’t having a stroke. Their are important distinctions to be made when making a comparison and just because something looks the same, doesn’t mean it is. At the same time, if there are lessons that Bradbury wants to teach us using his fictional world, can we apply them to better understand our own situation?
A compare and contrast essay without a clear purpose is just two lists. Any essay that doesn’t have a clear purpose is just a long series of words. If a students is able to answer the questions, why am I writing this or what am I trying to say, then they will not have any problems writing any assignment. And the answer has to be something more meaningful than, because I have to. The answer to the question is your thesis; as long as everything you write is in service of your purpose, then everything you write will have meaning.
One of the most common issues I had with my first batch of essay is that they were writing to fill pages, not fulfill the purpose of the paper (rhetorical analysis); most of their observations were good, but the students didn’t tie their observations back into the central thesis. For how many of our students is that ultimately one of the biggest issues, staying on topic or realizing they have a clear focus from which to write from? Or that they need to organize their essays in order to best serve their central purpose?
But, ultimately, this is an exercise in critical thinking. They have to come up with their own purpose, their own thesis, or at least try. Some already have made connections and shaped a thesis. Other have an idea but are having trouble putting it into words. And I know that in two weeks, when the final draft of the essay is due, I’ll have some who still won’t have a thesis. At that point, I’ll give them some suggestions. But I want my students to do the hard work of coming up with one little sentence on their own.
This is why I still like using literature (or even pop culture) in my writing classes. When we engage with ideas in different ways, we can “force” students to think about our world in a new and challenging way. It is only when a students’ pre-conceived notions are disrupted can they begin to form their own ideas, their own thesis statements. It’s important not just to give them materials that are engaging, but to provoke different ways of engaging with it.