First Day of College Composition Class—Syllabus, Tone, and Thesis Statement


I do more talking on the first day than I usually do. (Reminder: A teacher should always keep a lozenge in her briefcase. Better to have it and not need than to need and not have it.)

I spend the first day of English Composition class teaching about thesis statement and tone.

Of course, I go over the syllabus first. I always hated it when one of my instructors spent the entire first session covering every word of the syllabus, giving us a preview of each upcoming lecture, so I tell the students that they made it this far and they should be able to read a syllabus on their own. Instead, I focus on the required texts for the class, my grading policies, due dates for assignments, and my expectations for appropriate classroom comportment.

I stress the following sentence from my syllabus:

It is important to maintain a cordial demeanor which facilitates free and open discourse.”

In other words, in this classroom we need to be able to disagree with one another without being disagreeable.

I tell my students that it’s perfectly acceptable to say, “Professor Bray, I disagree with everything you just said for the following reasons….”

However, it is not acceptable to say, “Professor Bray, you are stupid and your mother dresses you funny.”

I beg my students to disagree. Please, I tell them, disagree with me, the authors we are covering, and anyone else in the class. That’s what we are here for, the free and open exchange of ideas. My students will receive no brownie points for agreeing with the instructor. This is true for the classroom discussions and also for their essays. Students are not graded on the positions they choose to take; they are evaluated based upon the quality and structure of their arguments and the style of their prose.

In order to teach students about thesis statements and tone, I select two short essays that vary in style and substance; usually I read them a serious article first (for example, Katha Pollitt on reproductive rights or Pat Buchanan on trade policy) and then I read them something lighter (a silly article by Jon Carroll about his cat, perhaps). Before I read the articles, I ask who can tell me what a thesis statement is, and then I type their answers into a machine which magically projects words onto a large screen for all to see.

Their answers will include:

An essay’s argument, an essay’s main point, an essay’s main point distilled into one sentence.

I tell them these answers are correct, but in my class it’s okay to state a thesis in two or even three consecutive sentences rather than trying to jam it all into one very long and awkward sentence with too many clauses and too many commas.

When I ask them where the best place to put their thesis is, they tell me it belongs at the end of their introductory paragraph. I say, “Correct.” (Good job, high school English teachers!)

This is the point where I tell them that different types of writing are bound by different types of conventions and expectations. For student essays (but not for other types of student writing such as journals) I expect them to follow specific conventions, such as placing the thesis statement at the end of the first paragraph and supporting their arguments with “evidence” (the quoted opinions of people who are assumed to know what they are talking about for one reason or another.) I tell them that the two essays we are covering today are written by professional writers for popular consumption. Such authors are under no obligation to follow any of Mr. Bray’s rules for academic writing. For example, fragments and one-sentences paragraphs can be very effective tools, but they are not generally acceptable in academic writing.  Furthermore, many professional writers believe that a thesis statement placed at the end of the introductory paragraph is a clunky device.  And I agree with them, but you will nevertheless be marked down substantially if you do not have a clear thesis statement in any paper you submit to me. However, in the essays we are about to consider, the thesis statement might be at the beginning of the essay, it might be at the end of the essay, it might be broken up and scattered throughout the essay, or it might not exist at all.

Next, I ask my students what the word tone means in relation to writing.

Probable answers include: mood, attitude, voice

I tell them that these are all good answers. I also suggest that they think of tone in relation to a person’s actual speaking voice. Many of the authors I teach are people I have seen on television so I can imagine how they would sound reading a particular essay. For example, in my head I hear how Pat Buchanan stresses and elongates the second syllable of “bamboozled,” one of his favorite verbs.

Then I ask my students for adjectives that could describe the tone of a particular piece of nonfiction prose.

I get answers such as: sad, angry, sarcastic, light, witty.

I tell them these are all good answers.

I inform them that my rule about tone is that is must be appropriate in relation to the chosen subject matter of and essay and also appropriate for the anticipated audience for an essay.

For example, if one is writing about 9/11 in a mainstream American news magazine such as Time, a witty tone would not be appropriate. Also, if one were writing an essay for young children about the adorableness of puppies, a sarcastic tone would not be appropriate.

(I briefly explain the distinction between sarcasm and verbal irony, something we will go into in detail at a later time.)

Lesson Plans

#1 Distribute first article.

#2 Instruct students to get out their writing utensils and number the paragraphs.

#3 Instruct students to look for and mark possible examples of tone and thesis statement as I read the essay aloud.

#4 Instructor reads the essays aloud.

#5 Allow students an additional seven minutes to look for examples of tone and thesis statement.

#6 Pair and share (if time permits and if you’re into that sort of thing).

#7 Review as whole class discussion.

An appropriate answer for an example of tone in the essay would be: “The author is using a verbally ironic tone in paragraph six when she says, “I just love it when my boyfriend leaves me dirty laundry to pick up.”

#8 Repeat steps 1-7 with second article.

#9 Instruct students to save the articles for later use with this exercise on strong verbs.

#10 Remind students that it’s going to be a long semester and send them on their merry little way.

by Richard W. Bray

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