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9.1: Revisiting the Working (and Inevitably Changing) Thesis

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  • Chapter Five, “The Working Thesis Exercise,” describes the process of developing a working thesis. Here is a quick review of the characteristics of a good thesis:

    • A thesis advocates a specific and debatable issue.
    • A thesis can either be directly stated (as is often the case in academic writing) or implied.
    • A thesis is NOT a statement of fact, a series of questions, or a summary of events.
    • A thesis answers the two most basic reader questions “What’s your point?” and “Why should I care?”

    While it is important that you start your research project with a working thesis that is as clear as you can possibly make it, it is also important to remember that your working thesis is temporary and it will inevitably change as you learn more about your topic and as you conduct more research.

    Here are examples of some working theses:

    • While some computer hackers are harmless, most of them commit serious computer crimes and represent a serious Internet security problem.
    • The international community should enact strict conservation measures to preserve fisheries and save endangered fish species around the world.
    • The Great Gatsby’s depiction of the connection between material goods and the American dream is still relevant today.

    Chances are, if you started off with a working thesis similar to one of these, your current working thesis has changed a bit. For example, let’s consider the working thesis “While some computer hackers are harmless, most of them commit serious computer crimes and represent a serious Internet security problem.” While the researcher may have begun with this thesis in mind, perhaps she changed it slightly, based on interactions with other students, her instructor, and her research.

    Suppose she discovered journal articles and Web sites that suggested that, while many computer hackers are dangerous, many are also helpful in preventing computer crimes. She might be inclined then to shift her emphasis slightly, perhaps to a working thesis like, “While many hackers commit serious computer crimes and represent a serious Internet security problem, they can also help law enforcement officials to solve and prevent crime.” This change is the same topic as the original working thesis (both are still about hackers and computer crime, after all), but it does suggest a different emphasis, from “hackers as threat and problem” to “hackers as potentially helpful.”

    Of course, these changes in the working thesis are not the only changes that were possible. The original working thesis could have just as easily stayed the same as it was at the beginning of the process or research. Further, just because the emphasis of the working thesis may be in the process of changing doesn’t mean that other related points won’t find their way into the research project when it is put together. While this research writer might change her emphasis to write about “good” hackers as crime solvers, she still would probably need to discuss the fact that there are “bad” hackers who commit crimes.

    The point here is simple: your working thesis is likely to change in small and even large ways based on the research you do, and that’s good. Changing the way you think about your research topic and your working thesis is one of the main ways the process of research writing becomes educational, interesting, and even kind of fun.

    Exercise 8.1

    Either as a short writing exercise or with a group of your peers, consider the evolution of your working thesis. Where did it start out and how has it changed to what it is now? What sparked these changes in your working thesis and your point of view on your topic? If your working thesis has not changed (yet), why do you think this is the case?

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