Thursday, May 20, 2010

Face the PUMA

In my experience, a perennial challenge for students learning to write is selecting an appropriate thesis. Most all have it drilled into their heads that their papers need a thesis, but few have a good sense of what makes a good philosophical thesis. The result of this is low quality papers due to the fact that, without an appropriate thesis, students are delayed in getting the writing process off the ground.

To that end, I'm making available a presentation on thesis selection I've used in a number of classes with (I think) some success. It's based on an acronym:

A successful philosophical thesis is
Modest in its ambitions

>> PUMA, for short.

Students seem to find this acronym memorable and I've noticed that my students' theses are tighter and more substantive. Please feel free to use this presentation yourself, and any feedback you have is welcome.


  1. Michael, do many students ever struggle to come up with thesis statements that are simultaneously provocative AND modest? Do you give them examples of ones that you think do a good job or meeting both criteria?

  2. Vance, I don't know that I see that specific problem so often. I think lack of modesty (=excess of ambition) is a common problem for students. It's worth mentioning that by 'provocative' I mean something modest(!): a thesis that goes beyond what is patently obvious. Personhood is a controversial issue in the ethics of abortion, Descartes was a dualist, etc. -- these won't cut it for provocativeness.


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