This comment is my favorite. I have learned much about the act of trying to accomplish the world in one paper. I have this bad. I believe I can cover the whole world of English in a five-page to seven-page paper. It took some time for me to understand the valuable lessons I’m going to share with you below, but I have learned that providing quality writing is better than doing a whole bunch of things in one sitting.
Of course, I’m still a work in progress, but I digress.
The objective of writing and revising a paper is always be effective. For example, develop a thesis that you can execute. Add topic sentences that actually support the thesis. Include supporting evidence that is verifiable. Be realistic in your assessment of future implications. This is simple to understand if you are evaluating another person’s paper, but hard to execute within your own.
Let’s explore this comment and how a professor uses it to help you restructure your thesis and your paper.
Note: Don’t take the comment too literally in terms of thinking that your professor is criticizing your professional and/or academic potential. There is never anything wrong with having and pursuing ambition, but you can’t do 50 different things in one year and expect to develop each thing with great quality. I have to remind myself of this fact everyday, so I don’t get off into a race to accomplish more than I am realistically able to chew in one sitting.
The reference source for this discussion is Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” Since it is too long to include within this post, you can find a copy of the letter here. You don’t have to read the text in order to understand the discussion below.
Area of Paper: thesis sentence
Type of Paper: statement of purpose
You will often find this comment from your professor written as feedback for a statement of purpose. A professor will require you to provide a statement concerning what you will write for the final paper. You must outline a method for how you will choose to complete the task, bearing in mind the page count and other limits the professor will place on the assignment.
A final paper for most English undergraduate classes is typically under 10 pages, no more than 12 total. In some classes, professors allow the page count to extend to 15, but it is rare that you will be able to perform this feat at both freshman and sophomore levels. Baby steps are always important.
The professor always provides some kind of indication of what your final paper will be at the beginning of the semester. She may require you to come up with the idea yourself. Just know that when you get the assignment, the clock starts. Therefore, you must decide earlier on in the semester what you will write about and simultaneously winnow unnecessary goals and information.
The most important goal to remember is to structure your purpose statement so that you don’t develop a generalized view of the topic. This will require you to examine your thesis, since it is the guide post for everything else you will do within the paper.
Here are a few broad theses for you to review to prepare for the discussion that follows.
A thesis that centers on the differences and similarities between King’s assumptions and the facts and the clergymen beliefs in Letter from Birmingham Jail is borderline ambitious.
A thesis that centers on This paper will examine the thoughts and plans of King, and the biblical and secular implications of the Letter from Birmingham Jail is overly ambitious.
A thesis that centers on the differences between King’s assumptions and how he structures the text in Letter from Birmingham Jail is a specific topic.
Although the third thesis still needs work, it is functional. A student could easily locate all of King’s assumptions and analyze them within the context he writes. In addition, the same student can then use those sentences as tools for analyzing the structure of the text. Consider the following questions:
- Where does King place each assumption within the text?
- How does that assumption affect the structure of the work?
Therefore, Thesis #3 is workable. You can take it and expand, reduce, and qualify each idea without compromising the integrity of the author’s work or your paper.
In what follows, I address only Thesis #1. The assessment I provide below will give you enough insight into understanding the comment “Ambitious.”
Understanding Thesis #1
The student wants to accomplish multiple goals with this thesis:
Goal #1: Identify assumptions, facts, and beliefs.
In this case, the student refers to King’s views as assumptions and facts, but refers to the clergymen perspectives as beliefs. In the letter, King uses his assumptions and refers to the clergymen words to address the social and political environment of the day, which represents a conflict between civil disobedience and the adherence to current law.
Goal #2: Identify the differences between assumptions, facts, and beliefs.
Outlining “difference” is no easy task, because you must provide a paralleled view of each character’s perspective.
For example, King believes that all dogs are nice. The clergymen believe that all women are pretty. This is not a difference. This is one person believing something about animals and another person believing something about people. No comparison.
However, if King believes all dogs are nice and the clergymen believe all dogs are nice if they lick your face, then you can reasonably conclude that there is a difference between each statement. Both characters have a view about dogs: King offers a straightforward assessment, but the clergymen add a condition.
Goal #3: Identify the similarities between assumptions, facts, and beliefs.
Identifying the similarities between King’s assumptions and facts and the clergymen beliefs will expand the paper to thesis/dissertation level. To determine “similarity” you must first understand the definition for the word “similar,” which means “almost the same but not exactly the same” (Longman Dictionary).
Within the letter, King addresses the criticisms of his fellow clergymen. One of the criticisms refers to purpose. The clergymen call his presence in Birmingham “unwise and untimely.”
Here’s a little background: An affiliate organization of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference initially asked King and his associates to come to Birmingham to support a nonviolent, direct-action program. Therefore, King is in Birmingham, Alabama on the authority of the affiliate organization, the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights. Essentially, King’s purpose for writing the letter is to highlight this fact and explore the problem of racial injustice.
However, the purpose of the clergymen, as King defines it, is different. King outlines within the letter the beliefs of the clergymen as he understands them. He writes the following to refer to the clergymen statements. I have applied italics to distinguish the text from the main text.
- “You deplore the demonstrations taking place in Birmingham.”
- “You may well ask: ‘Why direct action? Why sit-ins, marches and so forth? Isn’t negotiation a better path?'”
- “You express a great deal of anxiety over our willingness to break laws.”
- “In your statement you assert that our actions, even though peaceful, must be condemned because they precipitate violence.”
- “You speak of our activity in Birmingham as extreme.”
- “You warmly commended the Birmingham police for keeping ‘order’ and ‘preventing violence.'”
- “I wish you had commended the Negro sit-inners and demonstrators of Birmingham for their sublime courage, their willingness to suffer and their amazing discipline in the midst of great provocation.”
After each statement, King proceeds to offer an assessment of the clergymen views in light of his purpose for being in Birmingham and what this purpose means in comparison to the need for implementing a social justice program to combat racial prejudice. He provides an in-depth assessment of current attitudes.
In considering the statements above, what can we conclude? What I understand these lines to mean is this:
- King addresses the statements of the clergymen. We assume that they send King a letter while he is in jail.
- King uses each statement to start a discussion about the nonviolence direct action program.
- King explains the purpose of the program.
- King employs “you” to break up long passages of text. The “you sentences” function similarly to topic sentences.
Now we get to the problem. Nowhere in the passage do we, as the readers, actually “hear” the clergymen voice nor can we conclude for certain that the words King uses to refer to the clergymen are accurate, because they are not set off in quotation marks.
What’s the point?
It is hard to outline “similarities” between assumptions, facts, and beliefs if one person is the only one outlining the assumptions, facts, and beliefs. It is difficult to achieve certainty in determining what the clergymen believe in light of King’s letter. We only have King’s sentences and not those of the clergymen.
Returning to our definition, is anything that King writes concerning what the clergymen believe and the words he uses to refer to the clergymen statements “almost the same but not exactly the same?”
First, we can’t determine if their statements are the same, or similar. There might be a possibility if King had set off with quotation marks the words of the clergymen. Then we would be certain what King says and what they say.
Therefore, we can’t explore the option of outlining similarities.
. . . . . .
This has been an interesting exercise. We could go on, but I think you get the picture. Now here are some steps to consider when revising a thesis that is ambitious.
How do you begin to approach revising the thesis of a statement of purpose where the ideas you express, according to your professor, are ambitious? What steps should you consider?
It’s simple. The goals we have outlined above represent the steps you need to take before writing the actual paper.
Step #1: Identify assumptions, facts, and beliefs.
Highlight the main text. Develop a color coding system. Yellow is for “assumptions.” Red is for “facts.” Blue is for “beliefs.” You might have to use another color for “other.” Consider “green.”
- Yellow: I think of yellow as similar to the phrase “yellow-belly,” a term that refers to coward. It is somewhat cowardly to assume when it takes more courage to get to the truth.
- Red: I think of red as similar to the stop sign. You can’t run past a stop sign without actually stopping. It is the most exact symbol of authority. If you run it, you suffer the consequences. The same is true about facts. You can’t change a fact into an assumption. A fact should stop you so you can consider its potential within your paper.
- Blue: I think of blue as an equalizer. Everyone has beliefs.
- Green: Last, I think of green as referring to a person lacking experience. There are some quotes that you will consider using within your paper that will not have enough substance to be effective. In other words, you might struggle to make a point with a certain quote. Don’t use any quote as a filler if it will not help to convey your ideas effectively.
Step #2: Identify the differences between assumptions, facts, and beliefs.
On a sheet of paper, draw a standard multiplications table. Consider the one below.
Constructing this table will help you understand the text. You need to know which words/sentences/ideas belong to the author of the text, and which words/sentences/ideas belong to other characters. If the author is making an assumption, then place that sentence in the box up under this category. Use the word “assume” as you write the sentence. Do the same for the other characters.
For any wording set off in direct quotation marks, don’t interpret the sentence. Place the full sentence in the box. This way you won’t get confused about 1) who says what and 2) what that person actually says and 3) to whom.
Step #3: Identify the similarities between assumptions, facts, and beliefs.
The same exercise for Step #2 is useful here. Instead of focusing on multiple characters, consider only structuring your purpose statement around two. This will “focus” your paper, removing general statements. This will allow you to add more details within your analysis.
In addition, if you are suggesting two things are similar, make sure that they are actually similar and on the same level. When you suggest anything within the context of English writing and analyzing, you are actually “assuming.” Think about it. You were not there during the time of composition. Therefore, do you know for certain the author’s intention for the work?
For example, when you write “Both King and the clergymen have similar views on the problem of racial injustice,” you are now suggesting that their views are similar. This becomes problematic because unless the author points out that his views are similar to another, then how can you make the connection accurately? Unless their ideas are actually similar, you can’t make this assumption within your paper.
To make connections without compromising the author’s views and the integrity of your own paper, you must use the words “assume” and “suggest” in your analysis.
- King’s views on . . . and the clergymen’s views on . . . suggest that their perspectives about . . . might be similar.
Phrase the sentence as a conditional statement by using the modals “might” and “may.”
Remember, when the text is one-sided, it is hard to determine each character’s perspective. Therefore, read each sentence thoroughly and ask yourself this question: “Who is saying this?”
It is no easy task to edit the thesis of your statement of purpose.
Don’t take offense after receiving this comment. When your professor writes “Ambitious” within the margins of your paper or at the end, she is not referring to your long-term aspirations or to your professional potential.
The purpose of this type of comment is to help you develop an approach for revising a thesis that your professor knows you cannot reasonably and fully explore within a 10-page paper.
Your teacher is there to help you structure your material so that it is readable and effective. Too many ideas within one paper often contribute to a teacher’s frustration in ultimately understanding your purpose.
Reread sections of this post that apply to you directly. As you begin to revise your purpose statement, go through the process of winnowing unnecessary assumptions, including your own.
For an extended explanation, see also the comment “Winnow, Winnow, Winnow.”
Copyright 2011 Regina Y. Favors. All Rights Reserved.