by Margot Szarke, French
Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2013
Teaching Reading and Composition courses, I noticed that most students present vague thesis statements in their early rough drafts, and that the evidence used to support these kinds of arguments tends to be disorganized, inappropriate, or vague. I realized that many students feel challenged when asked to analyze a literary or cinematic work because there is a certain amount of intellectual freedom involved in the task. The overly general and/or meandering thesis statements seemed to relate to the students’ fear of “getting it wrong.” And it appeared as if the bizarre assortment of textual details used with these arguments indicated a lack of commitment to one specific idea, in case that idea was “incorrect.” So how can a text or film be successfully and meaningfully interpreted in multiple ways? How can references and textual details be used to effectively build up an argument? The following classroom activity was designed to address these issues. It spanned a few class periods and combined individual and collaborative work. In the end, this activity provided students with models of how to form a focused argument and how to properly collect and organize textual details to support that argument. And because we worked on multiple arguments, the activity showcased how one text or film opens up a variety of possible interpretations.
On the first day students watched a short film by the Coen brothers entitled “Tuileries,” in which a tourist in the Paris metro becomes a victim of cultural misunderstanding. Before viewing the film, students were asked to pay attention to the various themes in the narrative and to come up with a tentative argument about the film. With the second viewing, students were asked to compile a list of details that related to their specific arguments. Then, students revisited their initial idea and wrote a more focused thesis statement. I collected their work and noted that the majority of the thesis statements centered around two main topics: eye contact and tourist guidebooks.
The next class period, the students watched the film again and I asked them to list the elements in the film that corresponded to the topic of eye contact. With the following screening, they noted all the details that could relate to an argument about tourist guidebooks. I then placed students in small working groups and had them come up with thesis statements for each topic. Once they had their statements, they consulted their lists of key moments from the film and selected the ones that would have the greatest impact for their particular arguments.
The following class period, we collectively examined all the groups’ thesis statements and noticed their similarities and differences. We discussed how the different arguments suggested alternative conclusions. For each argument, we noted which references “belonged” and which ones were not entirely relevant. Many students were surprised at the amount of trimming we did. The point here was to demonstrate that saying more about a few crucial points is better than listing a bunch of things and only saying a little about each one. The class noted how some elements from the film could be applied to multiple interpretations. We also talked about how the order in which evidence is presented in a paper has an effect on the overall strength and dynamic of an argument. Together, we designed basic outlines for the arguments based on how the details could be effectively presented.
Throughout this activity, work was submitted anonymously. I was careful not to imply that there was a hierarchy of arguments, where one argument was “the best.” I emphasized, instead, the way in which each strong argument is solidified and validated through an attention to — and organization of — appropriate evidence found directly in the text or film. After this activity, I found that students took more chances, came up with clearer thesis statements, and used relevant references to effectively illustrate and strengthen their arguments.