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EDU 299 - Independent Study - Textbook

Learning Objective

  • Distinguish factual information from subjective opinion; consider informational origin in analyzing relevance in order to represent content in a clear, succinct and logical manner.

Formulating a Thesis

You need a good thesis statement for your essay but are having trouble getting started. You may have heard that your thesis needs to be specific and arguable, but still wonder what this really means.

Let’s look at some examples. Imagine you’re writing about John Hughes’s film Sixteen Candles (1984).

You take a first pass at writing a thesis:

Sixteen Candles is a romantic comedy about high school cliques.

Is this a strong thesis statement? Not yet, but it’s a good start. You’ve focused on a topic–high school cliques–which is a smart move because you’ve settled on one of many possible angles. But the claim is weak because it’s not yet arguable. Intelligent people would generally agree with this statement—so there’s no real “news” for your reader.  You want your thesis to say something surprising and debatable.   If your thesis doesn’t go beyond summarizing your source, it’s descriptive and not yet argumentative.

The key words in the thesis statement are “romantic comedy” and “high school cliques.” One way to sharpen the claim is to start asking questions.

For example, how does the film represent high school cliques in a surprising or complex way?  How does the film reinforce stereotypes about high school groups and how does it undermine them? Or why does the film challenge our expectations about romantic comedies by focusing on high school cliques? If you can answer one of those questions (or others of your own), you’ll have a strong thesis.

Screen Shot 2013-02-09 at 2.32.39 PMTip : Asking “how” or “why” questions will help you refine your thesis, making it more arguable and interesting to your readers.

 

 

Take 2. You revise the thesis. Is it strong now?

Sixteen Candles is a romantic comedy criticizing the divisiveness created by high school cliques.

You’re getting closer. You’re starting to take a stance by arguing that the film identifies “divisiveness” as a problem and criticizes it, but your readers will want to know how this plays out and why it’s important. Right now, the thesis still sounds bland – not risky enough to be genuinely contentious.

Screen Shot 2013-02-09 at 2.32.39 PMTip: Keep raising questions that test your ideas. And ask yourself the “so what” question. Why is your thesis interesting or important?

 

Take 3. Let’s try again. How about this version?

Although the film Sixteen Candles appears to reinforce stereotypes about high school cliques, it undermines them in important ways, questioning its viewers’ assumptions about what’s normal.

Bingo! This thesis statement is pretty strong. It challenges an obvious interpretation of the movie (that is just reinforces stereotypes), offering a new and more complex reading in its place. We also have a sense of why this argument is important. The film’s larger goal, we learn, is to question what we think we understand about normalcy.

 

Cartoon of three people talking about their thesis

What’s a Strong Thesis?

As we’ve just seen, a strong thesis statement crystallizes your paper’s argument and, most importantly, it’s arguable.

This means two things. It goes beyond merely summarizing or describing to stake out an interpretation or position that’s not obvious, and others could challenge for good reasons. It’s also arguable in the literal sense that it can be argued, or supported through a thoughtful analysis of your sources. If your argument lacks evidence, readers will think your thesis statement is an opinion or belief as opposed to an argument.

Exercises for Drafting an Arguable Thesis

A good thesis will be focused on your object of study (as opposed to making a big claim about the world) and will introduce the key words guiding your analysis.
To get started, you might experiment with some of these “mad libs.” They’re thinking exercises that will help propel you toward an arguable thesis.

Screen Shot 2013-02-09 at 2.32.39 PMBy examining __________________ [topic/approach], we can see _____________________[thesis—the claim that’s surprising], which is important because ___________________________.[1]

Example:

“By examining Sixteen Candles through the lens of Georg Simmel’s writings on fashion, we can seethat the protagonist’s interest in fashion as an expression of her conflicted desire to be seen as both unique and accepted by the group. This is important because the film offers its viewers a glimpse into the ambivalent yearnings of middle class youth in the 1980s.

Screen Shot 2013-02-09 at 2.32.39 PMAlthough readers might assume _________________ [the commonplace idea you’re challenging], I argue that _________________________ [your surprising claim].

Example:

Although viewers might assume the romantic comedy Sixteen Candles is merely entertaining, I believe its message is political. The film uses the romance between Samantha, a middle class sophomore, and Jake, an affluent senior, to reinforce the fantasy that anyone can become wealthy and successful with enough cunning and persistence.

Still Having Trouble? Let’s Back Up…

 

 Cartoon drawing of a car speeding down a hill.  Over it, the word "Problem" is connected by arrows to the word "thesis"

It helps to understand why readers value the arguable thesis. What larger purpose does it serve? Your readers will bring a set of expectations to your essay. The better you can anticipate the expectations of your readers, the better you’ll be able to persuade them to entertain seeing things your way.

Academic readers (and readers more generally) read to learn something new. They want to see the writer challenge commonplaces—either everyday assumptions about your object of study or truisms in the scholarly literature. In other words, academic readers want to be surprised so that their thinking shifts or at least becomes more complex by the time they finish reading your essay. Good essays problematize what we think we know and offer an alternative explanation in its place. They leave their reader with a fresh perspective on a problem.

We all bring important past experiences and beliefs to our interpretations of texts, objects, and problems. You can harness these observational powers to engage critically with what you are studying. The key is to be alert to what strikes you as strange, problematic, paradoxical, or puzzling about your object of study. If you can articulate this and a claim in response, you’re well on your way to formulating an arguable thesis in your introduction.

How do I set up a “problem” and an arguable thesis in response?

All good writing has a purpose or motive for existing. Your thesis is your surprising response to this problem or motive. This is why it seldom makes sense to start a writing project by articulating the thesis. The first step is to articulate the question or problem your paper addresses.

 

 Cartoon drawing of a woman thinking "What's my 'problem'"?, with a title of Step 1.

Here are some possible ways to introduce a conceptual problem in your paper’s introduction.

1. Challenge a commonplace interpretation (or your own first impressions).

 Cartoon drawing of a hand in the air, with a caption saying "Halt!  Not so fast..."

How are readers likely to interpret this source or issue? What might intelligent readers think at first glance? (Or, if you’ve been given secondary sources or have been asked to conduct research to locate secondary sources, what do other writers or scholars assume is true or important about your primary source or issue?)

What does this commonplace interpretation leave out, overlook, or under-emphasize?

2. Help your reader see the complexity of your topic.

 Cartoon drawing of a scroll of paper with phrases and drawings on it, to illustrate brainstorming

 

Identify and describe for your reader a paradox, puzzle, or contradiction in your primary source(s).

What larger questions does this paradox or contradiction raise for you and your readers?

3. If your assignment asks you to do research, piggyback off another scholar’s research.

  Cartoon drawing of one stick figure giving a piggyback ride to another, with the caption "Yipee!"

Summarize for your reader another scholar’s argument about your topic, primary source, or case study and tell your reader why this claim is interesting.

Now explain how you will extend this scholar’s argument to explore an issue or case study that the scholar doesn’t address fully.

4. If your assignment asks you to do research, identify a gap in another scholar’s or a group of scholars’ research.

Cartoon drawing of a woman looking through a magnifying glass to see a crack in a substance below her, captioned "A Gap!"

 

Summarize for your reader another scholar’s argument about your topic, primary source, or case study and tell your reader why this claim is interesting. Or, summarize how scholars in the field tend to approach your topic.

Next, explain what important aspect this scholarly representation misses or distorts. Introduce your particular approach to your topic and its value

5. If your assignment asks you to do research, bring in a new lens for investigating your case study or problem

Cartoon drawing of a pair of glasses, with the caption "Wow!  Things look different now!"

Summarize for your reader how a scholar or group of scholars has approached your topic.

Introduce a theoretical source (possibly from another discipline) and explain how it helps you address this issue from a new and productive angle.

Screen Shot 2013-02-09 at 2.32.39 PMTip: your introductory paragraph will probably look like this:

Cartoon drawing of a square.  At the top is the word "Problem" emphasized, followed by "why it's significant."  A line is drawn beneath this, with the word "Thesis" appearing below the line 

Testing Your Thesis

You can test your thesis statement’s arguability by asking the following questions:

Screen Shot 2013-02-09 at 2.32.39 PMDoes my thesis only or mostly summarize my source?

If so, try some of the exercises above to articulate your paper’s conceptual problem or question.

Screen Shot 2013-02-09 at 2.32.39 PMIs my thesis arguable –can it be supported by evidence in my source, and is it surprising and contentious?

If not, return to your sources and practice the exercises above.

Screen Shot 2013-02-09 at 2.32.39 PMIs my thesis about my primary source or case study, or is it about the world?

If it’s about the world, revise it so that it focuses on your primary source or case study. Remember you need solid evidence to support your thesis.

 


“Formulating a Thesis” was written by Andrea Scott, Princeton University

 

Acknowledgements

I’d like to thank my current and former colleagues in the Princeton Writing Program for helping me think through and test ways of teaching the arguable thesis. Special thanks go to Kerry Walk, Amanda Irwin Wilkins, Judy Swan, and Keith Shaw. A shout-out to Mark Gaipa as well, whose cartoons on teaching source use remain a program favorite.

[1] Adapted from Erik Simpson’s “Five Ways of Looking at a Thesis” at http://www.math.grinnell.edu/~simpsone/Teaching/fiveways.html

5 Ways of Looking at a Thesis

1. A thesis says something a little strange.

Consider the following examples:

A: By telling the story of Westley and Buttercup’s triumph over evil, The Princess Bride affirms the power of true love.

Photo foregrounding a homemade sword held by a man dressed in all black, wearing a mask
 

B: Although the main plot of The Princess Bride rests on the natural power of true love, an examination of the way that fighting sticks–baseball bats, tree branches, and swords–link the frame story to the romance plot suggests that the grandson is being trained in true love, that love is not natural but socialized.

I would argue that both of these statements are perfectly correct, but they are not both strange. Only the second one says something, well, weird. Weird is good. Sentence A encourages the paper to produce precisely the evidence that The Princess Bride presents explicitly; sentence B ensures that the paper will talk about something new.  

Romeo and Juliet concerns the dangers of family pride, Frankenstein the dangers of taking science too far. Yup. How can you make those things unusual? Good papers go out on a limb. They avoid ugly falls by reinforcing the limb with carefully chosen evidence and rigorous argumentation.

 

2. A thesis creates an argument that builds from one point to the next, giving the paper a direction that your reader can follow as the paper develops.

This point often separates the best theses from the pack. A good thesis can prevent the two weakest ways of organizing a critical paper: the pile of information and the plot summary with comments. A paper that presents a pile of information will frequently introduce new paragraphs with transitions that simply indicate the addition of more stuff. (“Another character who exhibits these traits is X,” for instance.) Consider these examples:

A: The Rules and Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey both tell women how to act.

B: By looking at The Rules, a modern conduct book for women, we can see how Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey is itself like a conduct book, questioning the rules for social success in her society and offering a new model.

Example A would almost inevitably lead to a paper organized as a pile of information. A plot summary with comments follows the chronological development of a text while picking out the same element of every segment; a transition in such a paper might read, “In the next scene, the color blue also figures prominently.” Both of these approaches constitute too much of a good thing. Papers must compile evidence, of course, and following the chronology of a text can sometimes help a reader keep track of a paper’s argument. The best papers, however, will develop according to a more complex logic articulated in a strong thesis. Example B above would lead a paper to organize its evidence according to the paper’s own logic.

 

3. A thesis fits comfortably into the Magic Thesis Sentence (MTS).

The MTS: By looking at _____, we can see _____, which most readers don’t see; it is important to look at this aspect of the text because _____.

Try it out with the examples from the first point:

A: By telling the story of Westley and Buttercup’s triumph over evil, The Princess Bride affirms the power of true love.

B: Although the main plot of The Princess Bride rests on the natural power of true love, an examination of the way that fighting sticks–baseball bats, tree branches, and swords–link the frame story to the romance plot suggests that the grandson is being trained in true love, that love is not natural but socialized.

Notice that the MTS adds a new dimension to point number one above. The first part of the MTS asks you to find something strange (“which most readers don’t see”), and the second part asks you to think about the importance of the strangeness. Thesis A would not work at all in the MTS; one could not reasonably state that “most readers [or viewers] don’t see” that film’s affirmation of true love, and the statement does not even attempt to explain the importance of its claim. Thesis B, on the other hand, gives us a way to complete the MTS, as in “By looking at the way fighting sticks link the plot and frame of The Princess Bride, we can see the way the grandson is trained in true love, which most people don’t see; it is important to look at this aspect of the text because unlike the rest of the film, the fighting sticks suggest that love is not natural but socialized.” One does not need to write out the MTS in such a neat one-sentence form, of course, but thinking through the structure of the MTS can help refine thesis ideas.

 

4. A thesis says something about the text(s) you discuss exclusively.

If your thesis could describe many works equally well, it needs to be more specific. Let’s return to our examples from above:

A: By telling the story of Westley and Buttercup’s triumph over evil, The Princess Bride affirms the power of true love.

B: Although the main plot of The Princess Bride rests on the natural power of true love, an examination of the way that fighting sticks–baseball bats, tree branches, and swords–link the frame story to the romance plot suggests that the grandson is being trained in true love, that love is not natural but socialized.

Try substituting other works:

A: By telling the story of Darcy and Elizabeth’s triumph over evil, Pride and Prejudice affirms the power of true love.

Sure, that makes sense. Bad sign.

B: Although the main plot of Pride and Prejudice rests on the natural power of true love, an examination of the way that fighting sticks–baseball bats, tree branches, and swords–link the frame story to the romance plot suggests that the grandson is being trained in true love, that it is not natural but socialized.

Photo of two stacked handmade books, the top one with the title "Pride and Prejudice"

Um, nope. Even if you have never read Pride and Prejudice, you can probably guess that such a precise thesis could hardly apply to other works. Good sign.

 

5. A thesis makes a lot of information irrelevant.

If your thesis is specific enough, it will make a point that focuses on only a small part of the text you are analyzing. You can and should ultimately apply that point to the work as a whole, but a thesis will call attention to specific parts of it. Let’s look at those examples again. (This is the last time, I promise.)

A: By telling the story of Westley and Buttercup’s triumph over evil, The Princess Bride affirms the power of true love.

B: Although the main plot of The Princess Bride rests on the natural power of true love, an examination of the way that fighting sticks–baseball bats, tree branches, and swords–link the frame story to the romance plot suggests that the grandson is being trained in true love, that love is not natural but socialized.

One way of spotting the problem with example A is to note that a simple plot summary would support its point. That is not of true example B, which tells the reader exactly what moments the paper will discuss and why.

If you find that your paper leads you to mark relevant passages on virtually every page of a long work, you need to find a thesis that helps you focus on a smaller portion of the text. As the MTS reminds us, the paper should still strive to show the reader something new about the text as a whole, but a specific area of concentration will help, not hinder, that effort


Process: Writing a Thesis Statement

Thesis statements are easy to construct if you:

1. can condense your secondary sources – that you’ve read and understood – into a “main idea and argument” grid (explained below); and

2. answer a framework of organizational questions (also below). These two steps can help to ensure that your thesis simultaneously situates an idea within a particular “conversation” and specifies a unique perspective/makes a new argument/contribution to the conversation.

  1. Condensing secondary sources:

a. Include some brief information each of your secondary sources (books, journal articles, etc.) on a grid so that you can organize the authors’ main ideas and perspectives in one space. For instance,

 

Author

Main Idea

Argument

Jones Climate change policy Climate change policy is at a standstill because the government is concerned about economic growth
Smith Climate change policy Climate change policy ought to be communicated as an ethical imperative because that will motivate the public to respond
Taylor Climate change policy Climate change policy needs to be communicated to the public by interdisciplinary teams of academics and politicians

 

b. Once you’ve created an organizational table, you’ll want to examine it for commonalities/linkages among the authors’ ideas and arguments. In the example above, all authors have written about climate change policy, so now you know that you’ll need to include something like this phrase, “climate change policy,” in your thesis statement. Regarding the authors’ arguments, Jones argues about how climate change policy is affected by the government’s concern with economic growth; Smith argues that it needs to be communicated as an ethical imperative; and Taylor argues that it needs to be communicated by interdisciplinary teams.

c. Given this information, the first half of your thesis – which explains the specific topic – needs to explain to the audience/reader that you are writing specifically about climate change policy. The second half of your thesis – which contextualizes the argument – needs to explain to the audience/reader your interpretation of these authors’ arguments. For instance, you may choose to argue that:

  • climate change policy regarding the effect of government policies about economic growth is the greater imperative for accomplishing more effective climate change policies in the U.S.
  • ethical imperatives are the motivating factor for encouraging the public to respond – causing academic institutions to work with government officials/decision-makers in responding to the public’s opinion/support of climate change policy as an ethical concern

d. The examples above are hypothetical; and only two of the many, creative possibilities for interpreting an argument out of a specific topic. Whereas an argument seeks to persuade an audience/reader about a way of interpreting others’ information, a topic simply describes how to categorize/identify where the argument “fits” (i.e. which generalized group of people would be concerned with reading your writing)

e. Hint: oftentimes, the authors of academic journal articles conclude their arguments by suggesting potential research questions that they believe ought to be addressed in future scholarship. These suggestions can potentially provide some really excellent information about how to begin articulating a unique argument about a specific topic

Assessment: Topic and Working Thesis

Time to commit!   By now you’ve explored several ideas, and probably ruled out a few easily.  Now, though, I’m asking you to pick one particular topic to use for the final research essay project.  You can change your mind later, if you’d like–but will have to get permission from me to do so.

For this assignment, I’d like you to do the following:

  • Identify which particular topic you’ve decided on
  • Describe a specific controversy that exists within this topic. Identify what the sides are (and there may be more than just 2 sides), and why each believes what it does.
  • Define what side you agree with, and why.
  • State the overall claim that you want your essay to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt. (This will be your working thesis, and it’s welcome to change as you progress in later weeks.  It’s okay to start simple, for now, and build in more complexity later.  I suggest looking at the Thesis statement websites in this module to get started).

 

A (Silly) Sample:

I have decided to focus on Cheezits for my research project.  There are a number of serious controversies when the matter of cheese-flavored snack crackers is discussed, but I’d like to focus specifically on how they compare with their primary rival, Cheese Nips.  Supporters of Cheese Nips believe their product to be superior because of the flavor, nutritional value, and cost; supporters of Cheezits use the same criteria to claim the better product.  I personally find Cheezits to be preferable in every way, but primarily when it comes to taste.  Cheese Nips taste oily to me, and leave a bad taste on my tongue, while the taste and texture of Cheezits is a perfect consistency.

Cheez its are a better food product than Cheese Nips.



Assessment: Reading Notebook Entry #2

 

Now that you’ve got an initial topic and viewpoint in mind, find ONE source that gives you helpful information about this topic.  This source can come from anywhere, be any length, and can be the same source you consulted for the 3 Research Topic Ideas task earlier, if you’d like.

Create an entry for your Reading Notebook that includes any or all of the following:

  • questions you had while reading
  • emotional reactions to the text
  • key terms that seem important to you
  • what you think the thesis or main idea of this source is
  • what you think the intended audience for this source is
  • how effective you think this source is
  • anything else that comes to mind

 

This is an informal assignment.  Your writing can be in complete sentences, or bullet points or fragments, as you see appropriate.  Editing isn’t vital for this work, though it should be proofread to the point that obvious typos or misspellings are addressed and corrected.  Target word count is 150-300 words for this entry.

Please do include the web link URL to the source you’ve chosen.  You do not have to cite it with MLA or APA citation, though you are welcome to if you want the practice.

Though it isn’t mandatory that this reading notebook entry be about the same source you choose for the Source Evaluation Essay, you may find it very useful later on if it is.

The Seven Steps of the Research Process

The following seven steps outline a simple and effective strategy for finding information for a research paper and documenting the sources you find. Depending on your topic and your familiarity with the library, you may need to rearrange or recycle these steps. Adapt this outline to your needs. We are ready to help you at every step in your research.

 

STEP 1: IDENTIFY AND DEVELOP YOUR TOPIC

SUMMARY: State your topic as a question. For example, if you are interested in finding out about use of alcoholic beverages by college students, you might pose the question, “What effect does use of alcoholic beverages have on the health of college students?” Identify the main concepts or keywords in your question.

More details on how to identify and develop your topic.

 

STEP 2: FIND BACKGROUND INFORMATION

SUMMARY: Look up your keywords in the indexes to subject encyclopedias. Read articles in these encyclopedias to set the context for your research. Note any relevant items in the bibliographies at the end of the encyclopedia articles. Additional background information may be found in your lecture notes, textbooks, and reserve readings.

More suggestions on how to find background information.

 

STEP 3: USE CATALOGS TO FIND BOOKS AND MEDIA

SUMMARY: Use guided keyword searching to find materials by topic or subject. Print or write down the citation (author, title,etc.) and the location information (call number and library). Note the circulation status. When you pull the book from the shelf, scan the bibliography for additional sources. Watch for book-length bibliographies and annual reviews on your subject; they list citations to hundreds of books and articles in one subject area. Check the standard subject subheading “–BIBLIOGRAPHIES,” or titles beginning with Annual Review of… in the Cornell Library Classic Catalog.

More detailed instructions for using catalogs to find books.

Finding media (audio and video) titles.

 

STEP 4: USE INDEXES TO FIND PERIODICAL ARTICLES

SUMMARY: Use periodical indexes and abstracts to find citations to articles. The indexes and abstracts may be in print or computer-based formats or both. Choose the indexes and format best suited to your particular topic; ask at the reference desk if you need help figuring out which index and format will be best. You can find periodical articles by the article author, title, or keyword by using the periodical indexes in theLibrary home page. If the full text is not linked in the index you are using, write down the citation from the index and search for the title of the periodical in the Cornell Library Classic Catalog. The catalog lists the print, microform, and electronic versions of periodicals at Cornell.

How to find and use periodical indexes at Cornell.

 

STEP 5: FIND INTERNET RESOURCES

SUMMARY: Use search engines. Check to see if your class has a bibliography or research guide created by librarians.

Finding Information on the Internet: A thorough tutorial from UC Berkeley.

 

STEP 6: EVALUATE WHAT YOU FIND

SUMMARY: See How to Critically Analyze Information Sources and Distinguishing Scholarly from Non-Scholarly Periodicals: A Checklist of Criteria for suggestions on evaluating the authority and quality of the books and articles you located.

 

If you have found too many or too few sources, you may need to narrow or broaden your topic. Check with a reference librarian or your instructor. When you’re ready to write, here is an annotated list of books to help you organize, format, and write your paper.

 

STEP 7: CITE WHAT YOU FIND USING A STANDARD FORMAT

Give credit where credit is due; cite your sources.

Citing or documenting the sources used in your research serves two purposes, it gives proper credit to the authors of the materials used, and it allows those who are reading your work to duplicate your research and locate the sources that you have listed as references.

Knowingly representing the work of others as your own is plagiarism. (See Cornell’s Code of Academic Integrity). Use one of the styles listed below or another style approved by your instructor. Handouts summarizing the APA and MLA styles are available at Uris and Olin Reference.

Available online:

RefWorks is a web-based program that allows you to easily collect, manage, and organize bibliographic references by interfacing with databases. RefWorks also interfaces directly with Word, making it easy to import references and incorporate them into your writing, properly formatted according to the style of your choice.

See our guide to citation tools and styles.

Format the citations in your bibliography using examples from the following Library help pages: Modern Language Association (MLA) examples and American Psychological Association (APA) examples.

  • Style guides in print (book) format:
  • MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers. 7th ed. New York: MLA, 2009. This handbook is based on the MLA Style Manual and is intended as an aid for college students writing research papers. Included here is information on selecting a topic, researching the topic, note taking, the writing of footnotes and bibliographies, as well as sample pages of a research paper. Useful for the beginning researcher.
  • Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association. 6th ed. Washington: APA, 2010. The authoritative style manual for anyone writing in the field of psychology. Useful for the social sciences generally. Chapters discuss the content and organization of a manuscript, writing style, the American Psychological Association citation style, and typing, mailing and proofreading.

If you are writing an annotated bibliography, see How to Prepare an Annotated Bibliography.

 

RESEARCH TIPS:

  • WORK FROM THE GENERAL TO THE SPECIFIC. Find background information first, then use more specific and recent sources.
  • RECORD WHAT YOU FIND AND WHERE YOU FOUND IT. Record the complete citation for each source you find; you may need it again later.
  • TRANSLATE YOUR TOPIC INTO THE SUBJECT LANGUAGE OF THE INDEXES AND CATALOGS YOU USE. Check your topic words against a thesaurus or subject heading list.

Understanding Bias

Bias

Graphic that says bias and looks like a piece of graffiti artwork.

Bias means presenting facts and arguments in a way that consciously favours one side or other in an argument. Is bias bad or wrong?

No! Everyone who argues strongly for something is biased. So it’s not enough, when you are doing a language analysis, to merely spot some bias and say…”This writer is biased” or “This speaker is biased.”

Let’s begin by reading a biased text.

Hypocrites gather to feed off Daniel’s tragic death

The death of two-year-old Daniel Valerio at the hands of his step-father brought outrage from the media.

Daniel suffered repeated beatings before the final attack by Paul Alton, who was sentenced in Melbourne in February to 22 years jail.

Rupert Murdoch’s Herald-Sun launched a campaign which included a public meeting of hundreds of readers. Time magazine put Daniel on its front cover. The Herald-Sun summed up their message:

The community has a duty to protect our children from abuse – if necessary by laws that some people regard as possibly harsh or unnecessary.

But laws – like making it compulsory for doctors and others to report suspected abuse – cannot stop the violence.

Last year, 30 children were murdered across Australia. Babies under one are more likely to be killed than any other social group.

Daniel’s murder was not a horrific exception but the product of a society that sends some of its members over the edge into despairing violence.

The origin of these tragedies lies in the enormous pressures on families, especially working class families.

The media and politicians wring their hands over a million unemployed. But they ignore the impact that having no job, or a stressful poorly paid job, can have.

Child abuse can happen in wealthy families. But generally it is linked to poverty.

A survey in 1980 of “maltreating families” showed that 56.5 per cent were living in poverty and debt. A further 20 per cent expressed extreme anxiety about finances.

A study in Queensland found that all the children who died from abuse came from working class families.

Police records show that school holidays – especially Xmas – are peak times for family violence. “The sad fact is that when families are together for longer than usual, there tends to be more violence”, said one Victorian police officer.

Most people get by. Family life may get tense, but not violent.

But a minority cannot cope and lash out at the nearest vulnerable person to hand – an elderly person, a woman, or a child.

Compulsory reporting of child abuse puts the blame on the individual parents rather than the system that drives them to this kind of despair.

Neither is it a solution. Daniel was seen by 21 professionals before he was killed. Nonetheless, the Victorian Liberal government has agreed to bring it in.

Their hypocrisy is breathtaking.

This is the same government that is sacking 250 fire-fighters, a move that will lead to more deaths.

A real challenge to the basis of domestic violence means a challenge to poverty.

Yet which side were the media on when Labor cut the under-18 dole, or when Jeff Kennett[1] added $30 a week to the cost of sending a child to kindergarten?

To really minimise family violence, we need a fight for every job and against every cutback.

– by David Glanz, The Socialist, April 1993

There are good and bad aspects of bias.

  1. It is good to be open about one’s bias. For example, the article about Daniel Valerio’s tragic death is written for The Socialist newspaper. Clearly socialists will have a bias against arguments that blame only the individual for a crime when it could be argued that many other factors in society contributed to the crime and need to be changed. Focusing on the individual, from the socialist’s point of view, gets “the system” off the hook when crimes happen. The socialist’s main reason for writing is to criticize the capitalist system. So David Glanz is not pretending to not be biased, because he has published his article in a partisan[2] newspaper.

Here are some ways to be open about your bias, but still be naughty.

  • (a) Deliberately avoid mentioning any of the opposing arguments.
  • (b) Deliberately avoid mentioning relevant facts or information that would undermine your own case.
  • (c) Get into hyperbole.
  • (d) Make too much use of emotive language.
  • (e) Misuse or distort statistics.
  • (f) Use negative adjectives when talking about people you disagree with, but use positive adjectives when talking about people you agree with.

Can you find examples of any of these “naughty” ways to be biased in Glaz’s article?

2. You mustn’t assume that because a person writes with a particular bias he/she is not being sincere, or that he/she has not really thought the issue through. The person is not just stating what he/she thinks, he/she is trying to persuade you about something.

Bias can result from the way you have organized your experiences in your own mind. You have lumped some experiences into the ‘good’ box and some experiences into the ‘bad’ box. Just about everybody does this

3. The way you have assembled and valued experiences in your mind is called your Weltanschauung (Velt-arn-shao-oong). If through your own experience, plus good thinking about those experiences, you have a better understanding of something, your bias is indeed a good thing.

For example, if you have been a traffic policeman, and have seen lots of disasters due to speed and alcohol, it is not ‘wrong’ for you to biased against fast cars and drinking at parties and pubs. Your bias is due to your better understanding of the issue, but you still have to argue logically.

Really naughty bias

4. If you pretend to be objective, to not take sides, but actually use techniques that tend to support one side of an argument, in that case you are being naughty. There are subtle ways to do this.

(a) If the support for one side of the argument is mainly at the top of the article, and the reasons to support the opposite side of the issue are mainly at the bottom end of the article; that might be subtle bias – especially if it was written by a journalist. Journalists are taught that many readers only read the first few paragraphs of an article before moving on to reading another article, so whatever is in the first few paragraphs will be what sticks in the reader’s mind.

(b) Quotes from real people are stronger emotionally than just statements by the writer. This is especially true if the person being quoted is an ‘authority’ on the subject, or a ‘celebrity’. So if one side of the issue is being supported by lots of quotes, and the other side isn’t, that is a subtle form of bias.

(c) If when one person is quoted as saying X, but the very next sentence makes that quote sound silly or irrational, that is a subtle form of bias too.

Common sense tells us that if someone is making money out of something, he/she will be biased in favor of it.

For example, a person who makes money out of building nuclear reactors in Europe or China could be expected to support a change in policy in Australia towards developing nuclear energy.

A manufacturer of cigarettes is unlikely to be in favor of health warnings on cigarette packets or bans on smoking in pubs. 


Photo of papers on a desk, with a bumper sticker reading "Assume Nothing Check Everything"

Nonetheless, logically speaking, we cannot just assume a person who is making money out of something will always take sides with whomever or whatever will make him/her more money.

We have to listen to the arguments as they come up. Assuming someone is biased is not logically okay.  You have to show that someone is biased and use evidence to support your assertion that he/she is biased.

[1] Jeff Kennett was the leader of the Liberal party in Victoria at that time.

[2] When you are a partisan you have taken sides in an argument, or a battle, or a war.

[3] Learning critical thinking (which is what you are learning in Year 11 and 12 English) is aimed at getting you to do more, and better, thinking than that.


Examples for Reading Notebook #4

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  • Research Minutes: How to Read Citations. Authored by: Olin & Uris Libraries, Cornell University. Located at: https://youtu.be/R1yNDvmjqaE. License: All Rights Reserved. License Terms: Standard YouTube License
  • Research Minutes: How to Identify Substantive News Articles. Authored by: Olin & Uris Libraries, Cornell University. Located at: https://youtu.be/QAiJL5B5esM. License: All Rights Reserved. License Terms: Standard YouTube License