In a previous Academic Success series, we discussed the importance of making an original argument in your academic paper and some of the details of writing the academic paper (down to whether you should start with a quote or end with “In conclusion.”) But what does it mean to make an original argument? And what really sets an outstanding academic paper apart from the rest?
An Original and Complex Argument
A successful thesis statement engages your audience and encourages them to want to respond. That is, you don’t want to make an argument that’s obvious such as “Art is important,” “Pollution is bad,” or “This text raises questions about ethics.” Your audience will just nod because, of course, pollution is bad. You want to make a specific and complex audience that your readers can’t just answer with “Yes, of course.” If they were to answer you, they’d have to write an essay of their own!
So how does one do this? A complex question will answer the questions “Why?” and “Why should we care?” That is, “Art is important because….” and “This text raises questions about ethics in this manner and that means…” If you’re unsure where to start, just naming the texts you will work with already adds more specificity to your argument. You can try something like “In this essay I examine the nature of heroism in J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit” and then add “I argue that…” Even just starting with “I argue that…” may help you think about the complexity and specificity of your argument. After all, who says “I argue that pollution is bad.” No one. Because you don’t actually have to argue about this with most people.
Before you criticize a work, you are expected to understand what the author is saying. That is, you can’t erect a straw man argument to destroy an author because you don’t like their worldviews or disagree with their statements. So if you’re reading C. S. Lewis and you’re not Christian, you have to begin by understanding why Lewis believes what he does and how his thoughts are consistent within his own worldview. Only then can you begin to criticize his work.
But keep in mind that you also want to stick to the assignment. If the assignment asks you to discuss the nature of heroism in Narnia or gender roles or how the work compares to other children’s literature with talking animals, you’re not being asked to address Lewis’s religion or worldviews (unless, of course, you need to talk about it in light of what heroism means in a Christian context or something like that). Talking about how Christianity is stupid or “brainwashes” people or how Lewis is contradicting the Bible, etc. is outside the purview of the assignment; you don’t want your own personal beliefs to take your paper off topic.
Avoiding Value Judgements
Along with the above statement, you want to avoid adding remarks like “Happily, the artist ignored criticisms about whether his art was exploiting individuals and kept on doing his thing” or “This character was an awful human being.” These read as your personal opinion and your’re ignoring issues like why some people might think that exploitation in art might be a problem without explaining why you think we don’t need to worry about exploitation.
It’s tempting to want to pigeonhole texts into certain boxes to make them easier to engage with, but you don’t want to claim a work or an author is doing something they’re not. For instance, if you’re working with Dante, you need to find a way to deal with the fact that he’s both extremely orthodox in his theology and that he sometimes seems to question his faith. Assuming that he’s either a brainwashed religious fanatic or some sort of religious reformer like Martin Luther because it makes your argument about him easier to write does no justice to the complexities of his work and makes you look like you misunderstood it.
If you make a statement like “Of course the sciences are more important than the arts,” you should immediately realize that not everyone is going to agree with you. You can’t just assume that all your readers share your views. How will you answer people who raise questions about or oppose this statement? Anticipating counter-arguments makes your own argument stronger.
If you make a claim, you must support it. You can’t simply write “Millenials are all irresponsible and living in their parents’ basements.” Why do you think they are irresponsible? Where’s the data for how many are living with their parents? Also beware historical generalizations. If you say “The [specific government] was totally corrupt in [insert century]” you have to say specifically what the government was doing at that time that makes you see it as corrupt.
This goes along with supporting evidence. You can’t just make up evidence because it sounds good and you can’t assume you know what you’re talking about. Imagine writing an argument about how Shakespeare is incomprehensible and old-fashioned because he’s writing in “Old English.” If you had looked up Old English, you would have realized that Old English stopped being used around 1150, that it’s the language Beowulf is written in and that you probably can’t understand a word of it, and that Shakespeare actually writes modern English. Oops! Doing a quick search will help you avoid such mistakes.
A Conclusion That Doesn’t Moralize
Academic papers aren’t about finding a moral or a message in a work. That’s seen as unprofessional and unscholarly, often because trying to provide a moral oversimplifies a problem. Ending a paper with a statement like “Love is so important! If only we were kinder to each other [genocide or war ] would have never happened!” is a really blithe and facile response to a major tragedy. Try to find another ending that’s more directly related to your specific topic and doesn’t make easy generalizations.