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MSCH F306 Writing Media Criticism

What is a thesis?

thesis is the main point or argument of an essay or other mode of criticism.

In media criticism, the thesis could be an answer to the question, "What does the director do or accomplish?"
Or, "What features of this media text causes viewers to react a certain way?"
If analyzing multiple media texts, "What features make them similar to one another? What makes them different?"
"What do the creators of these texts accomplish collectively?"

A strong thesis is:  

• Arguable: Can be supported by evidence and analysis, and can be disagreed with.

If you wish to claim a film supports a particular theme or advances a certain message, be prepared to point to specific features (of the plot, of dialogue, of the staging of a scene) that proves the claim. You may need to revise your thesis multiple times to fit the evidence you have in front of you.

• Unique: Says something new and interesting.

By researching what other scholars have said about the media that you are commenting on and respond to what has been said before, you can enter into the scholarly conversation and stake out new ground.

• Concise and clear: Explained as simply as possible, but not at the expense of clarity.

A thesis can generally be stated in one or two sentences that use simple concrete verbs.

• Unified: All parts are clearly connected.

Consider: Can the evidence I have assembled support the simple argument that I am making?

• Focused and specific: Can be adequately and convincingly argued within the the paper, scope is not overly broad.

A thesis should be narrowly focused on the text(s) you are analyzing, but also one that you are able to muster evidence and analysis from the text to support.

• Significant: Has importance to readers, answers the question "so what?"

How does this argument tie in to some theme of contemporary or historical relevance? What would it teach us of value if we were to be convinced by your argument?

Crafting a Thesis Statement

Research is usually vital to developing a strong thesis. Exploring both primary and secondary sources can help you develop and refine your central point.

1. Conduct Background Research.

A strong thesis is specific and unique, so you first need knowledge of the general research topic. Background research will help you narrow your research focus and contextualize your argument in relation to other research.

You will want to explore both Primary Sources and Secondary Sources.

A Primary Source is the main media object you will be analyzing. This could be a movie, a news segment, or even a historical text like a newspaper, poster, or magazine. Secondary Sources are articles that are part of scholarly conversation that you are seeking to enter into. If you are analyzing a Primary Source, you want to know what the authors of Secondary Sources had to say about it so that you can respond to what they have said and use it to either bolster or set apart your arguments.

2. Narrow the Research Topic. 

Ask questions as you review sources:

  • What aspect(s) of the topic interest you most?
  • What aspect(s) of the topic interest you most?
  • What questions or concerns does the topic raise for you?  

    Examples of general research topics:  media coverage of a political or social issue; the films of Agnès Varda; the Western; gender tropes
    Examples of more narrow topics: the rhetorical effects of chyrons during media coverage of an event, especially in relation to the spoken rhetoric; depictions of the side-kick in the films of John Ford; the use of still images in the films of
    Agnès Varda and the French New Wave; the use of gendered tropes in zombie-themed media

3. Formulate and explore a relevant research question.  

  • Before committing yourself to a single viewpoint, formulate a specific question to explore. Consider different perspectives on the issue, and find sources that represent these varying views. Reflect on strengths and weaknesses in the sources' arguments. Consider sources that challenge these viewpoints.

    Example: How are side-kicks portrayed in the films of John Ford? What does this tell us either about John Ford or his audience? What do other sources say about the messages embedded in John Ford's films?

4. Develop a working thesis. 

  • A working thesis has a clear focus but is not yet be fully formed. It is a good foundation for further developing a more refined argument.  

    Example: Horror film directors make an implicit moral commentary on their characters' behavior through choices about which characters to kill off and how.
5. Continue research on the more focused topic.

Is the topic:

  • broad enough to yield sufficient sources and supporting evidence?
  • narrow enough for in-depth and focused research?
  • original enough to offer a new and meaningful perspective that will interest readers? 
6. Fine-tune the thesis.

Your thesis will probably evolve as you gather sources and ideas. If your research focus changes, you may need to re-evaluate your search strategy and to conduct additional research. This is usually a good sign of the careful thought you are putting into your work!

Example: "While [Terence[ Malick communicates his vision through a sort of ahistorical mysticism, his choice to set [Tree of Life] in a certain space and at a certain time grounds it in history. That setting means that the philosophical binary Malick presents—with its gendered overtones—cannot be understood without a close examination of that era’s attitudes toward spirituality and gender."  -- Christopher Michael Elias, "Sons of God: Postwar Gender and Spirituality in Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life." In Film Criticism, Volume 44, Issue 1, 2020.