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Developing a Thesis: Finding the Umbrella Idea

July 19, 2019

Developing a good thesis is often the result of finding the "umbrella idea." Finding this idea requires that students move back and forth between a text's particularities and its big ideas in order to find a suitable "fit" between the two that the students can write about. This fit is then summed up in the "umbrella idea," or the big idea that all of their observations can stand under.

For instance, in an exploration of the Gospels as rhetoric, a student makes the specific observation that, in three of the four gospels, Jesus is reported as saying dramatically different things during his crucifixion. This observation by itself won't produce a paper - it's simply a statement of fact, with which no one will disagree. Nevertheless, this observation provokes a broader question: do these differences constitute a contradiction in the text? And if so, how do we understand this contradiction? What are the conditions of religious truth? Is there room for a contradiction as important as this?

Of course, these questions are too big to be addressed in an academic paper. And so the student returns to the text, still with these too-big questions haunting him. Reviewing the specific contradictions of the text, he crafts another set of questions: How should we understand the differences we see across the four gospels? What might have inspired these writers to craft this important crucifixion scene differently - particularly when, as is true of the authors of Matthew and Luke, they were using the same sources? The student posits that these differences arise from a difference in audience, historical moment, and rhetorical purpose. He turns to scholarship and finds his interpretation confirmed.

But the bigger questions persist. If the gospels are constructed to serve the earthly purposes of converting or supporting the beliefs of specific audiences, how can they also be considered as true? After doing a great deal of sketching, the student posits that perhaps the differences and contradictions are precisely what communicates the texts' truth to its audience of believers. After all, if the truth of a supreme being is beyond human grasp, then perhaps it requires a many-voiced or polyglossic narrative. With this idea in mind, the student produces a paper that not only details the variances across the texts, but offers a claim about why an audience of believers are not deterred by the differences. It is this claim that serves as the umbrella idea, synthesizing the student writer's various observations and ideas.

To sum up, successful employment of the umbrella method depends on four steps:

  1. Students must move fluidly back and forth between the text and their abstractions/generalizations, ready to adjust their ideas to the new evidence and new abstractions that they encounter.
  2. Students must sketch their ideas. Drawing their ideas helps students pull their thinking out of linear, two-dimensional modes, enabling them to see multiple possibilities for their essays.
  3. Students must seek an umbrella idea, under which their ideas can stand. To get to this umbrella idea, they need not only to analyze but to synthesize: they need to bring disparate ideas together, to see if they fit.
  4. They further need to create this synthesis by playing with language, creating an umbrella sentence that can embrace their ideas. This requires that students write and revise their thesis sentence several times as they write their paper. It also requires that students have a basic understanding of the principles of style, so that they can understand how to place their ideas in appropriate clauses, create the proper emphasis, and so on.

 

About the Author: Karen Gocsik is the Director of the Analytical Writing Program at the University of California, San Diego.