Over the last several weeks I have been immersed in the world of Classical rhetoric. I’ve been reading the advice of Aristotle, Cicero, Quintilian and the anonymous author of Rhetorica Ad Herrenium on the construction of persuasive speech. Trust me, it’s not my usual choice of reading material, but it is extremely useful for my thesis. I’m analysing the early Christian author, Tertullian. I’m interested in his adherence to the principles of Classical rhetoric in his construction of the human embryo. To be honest, it’s a little dry– rhetoric simply is not as juicy a topic as, say, Hippocratic theories of sperm production (see my last post). Nonetheless, I feel that rhetoric is one of the many areas where the Classics demonstrate their usefulness to contemporary society, and to academia in particular. If there was one thing that the Greeks and the Romans were good at, it was persuasive argument. That’s a pretty integral component of all aspects of academic writing, no matter the discipline. Indeed, the very word ‘thesis’ comes from the Greek word θέσις, ‘something put forth.’ What can we learn from the ancients?
As I get down to the crunch time on my dissertation, I find myself subconsciously making plans for writing my thesis introduction. It’s a little way off yet, as I still have one chapter left to write. Nonetheless, it’s important to start thinking about it early. As we all know, a solid introduction is absolutely crucial to writing a pass-worthy thesis. Everything ties into this chapter. If your intro is weak, the thesis won’t hold together. Writing the introduction can be one of the most nerve-wracking parts of the thesis process. I certainly found it so on my previous dissertations. How to structure it? I’ve been looking over the dissertations of academics whose work I admire, trying to figure out the key to writing a good introduction. And then it hit me: perhaps I’d had the answer all along in Cicero and Quintilian.
The key to a good thesis introduction may just be to write it like a Roman. Oh, I don’t suggest that you should drape yourself with a sheet and call it a toga as you tap away at the keyboard. Though if you do, you’re officially my hero. And chances are that you don’t have a helpful Tiro dutifully transcribing your words on a tablet, of the wax or touchscreen variety. I’m suggesting that one could write the thesis introduction effectively by structuring it like that of a Latin speech. Different academic disciplines have different requirements, of course, so feel free to adapt and modify as needed. The Romans themselves certainly had no real qualms about mixing and matching the sections of their speeches, when it suited their rhetorical purposes.
A Latin forensic speech was divided into three parts, roughly analogous to the introduction, body, and conclusion of an essay. Or rather, how an undergrad’s essay should read, in the ideal world. The introduction consisted of two parts: first, there was the exordium, a preamble where an orator was expected to set his audience in a sympathetic frame of mind. It often featured an emotive plea to listeners’ senses of justice or ethics.
Now, I don’t think it’s a great idea to write a thesis emotively. At all. It’s not good academicese, and emotive language will straight away set alarm bells going off in the marker’s mind. Still, it is not uncommon for a thesis to open with some general observations or remarks which serve to let the reader ease into the thesis, rather than jumping into the argument. But keep it short and sweet, because the next part is a doozy. In the great scheme of things, the exordium is not the most important part: even for the Romans, it was not uncommon to either drop it altogether, or slot it in after offering more substantial arguments.
The next part, the narratio, was essential. It was in the narratio that the speaker narrated the circumstances from which their topic emerged, and gave some indication of their plans to deal with it. According to the anonymous rhetorical handbook Rhetorica Ad Herrenium, and confirmed by Cicero, the narratio chiefly consisted of a partitio, which explicated the main point of contention. It was here that the speech-writer stated the central thesis which he was trying to prove. In the partitio, the speaker was also expected to demarcate the points on which he agreed with his opponent from those with which he disagreed, and then summarise the content of his speech. Of course, Quintilian relabelled the partitio as the propositio, but we’ll leave that to one side.
This is where one explains the problem the thesis is tackling, and why it is necessary to do so. How did the problem come up? Moreover, one must review the current literature in one’s area, and explain how your method is similar, or different. You can explain where you think previous research is lacking, and explain why that has happened. What are you going to do to compensate for the existing problems in the literature? It’s important to write one’s lit review critically, I think, rather than it simply being a catalogue of your readings. The most effective lit review is narrative, tracing the development of theory over time, as well as applications of the research. Believe it or not, the art of story-telling is a powerful skill, with a wide range of applications.
Now is probably the time to state your thesis and provide a summary of the thesis content; some say the thesis statement should be earlier, and that is fine too. Either way, the introduction probably won’t be the first time the reader has encountered the thesis, since they’ll have read your abstract. It is also absolutely essential to summarise the body of the thesis effectively, in perspicuous language. It is going to be your reader’s guide to the remainder of your thesis. That’s why it’s usually a good idea to write it last, after you have formed your ideas… Otherwise, it’s really easy to wind up contradicting yourself.
Anyway, thinking about the thesis introduction in these terms has certainly helped me. I’m going in with a greater sense of confidence, knowing that in crafting my thesis, I’m engaging in an academic tradition which is literally thousands of years old. I hope it is helpful for you too.
If you’re looking for more advice on constructing your discussion chapter, I heartily recommend the thoughts of the Thesis Whisperer here:
I may yet make more posts in future about the relevance of ancient rhetorical theory to today’s world.
Vale for now,