This Rough Magic

A Peer-Reviewed, Academic, Online Journal
Dedicated to the Teaching of Medieval & Renaissance Literature

Home | About | Submissions | Editorial Board | Links | Videos | Back Issues


"Writing Thesis Statements with Erasmus and Descartes:
Two Assignments for the Composition and Literature Classrooms"

By Dr. Tanya Zhelezcheva, Queensborough Community College

(June 2019 Issue / PDF)

In many of my writing courses, regardless of the institutions at which I have taught—a community college or a four-year university,—I encounter students who explain their problems with writing in terms of knowing what they want to say but not knowing how to say it. Such perceived inability confirms students’ opinion that they are not writers nor are they good writers. Usually these problems resurface when we are at the drafting stage of an assignment. Telling students that they are fully capable of articulating their ideas is not a convincing approach because much more sophisticated and larger forces are at play in the emergence of an authorial self. Such forces include but are not limited to reader responses, especially favorable ones, from peers or the instructor; editing instruction from Writing Center tutors or others; interest in and engagement with written texts; assistance with and consideration of the visual layout of the work, etc.[1] In addition to the perceived lack of authorial self, students also struggle with finding ideas worth writing about. As students recently shared with me over a conversation on plagiarism the temptation to plagiarize is not out of negligence, but out of the deep concern to submit an essay with ideas worth reading and arguing about. My contention is that instructors do not only need to tell students that they are capable writers, a move that is supportive but, in the end, hardly convincing. We need assignments whose end result testify to students that they are authors because only such evidence has the power to persuade them of their skills as thinkers and writers.

In what follows I will describe two assignments that build on each other: the first is based on Erasmus’ 150 sentences which shows students that they can articulate their ideas in multiple ways and consequently have choices about what to include in their work; the second is an assignment that uses the strategies of Erasmus’s 150 sentences and adds a strategy from Descartes. As heirs of Cartesianism and Romanticism, our concept of the author is different from Erasmus’. If we value argumentation, skepticism, genius, individuality, we do so because of Cartesian skepticism and of the Romantic view of the writer as a genius, one who stands out from the crowd. The second assignment shows students how to build thesis statements that are uniquely their own, and thus helps students to take ownership of their papers.

The two assignments I offer students reiterate key questions for rhetoric and composition studies as well as writing studies. The field of writing studies continues to advance the conversation about the ways in which writing generates ideas in the context of different disciplines (Adler-Kassner and Wardle 2015). Adler-Kassner and Wardle’s collection of essays draw attention to the professional stance and the disciplinary language that we need to introduce students. Language, or in Erasmian terms copia, helps writers to express their belonging to a rhetorical community but also to articulate their ideas. But it is the awareness of the language and the skill of learning new languages, or scholarly parlance, that empowers students as writers and thinkers and allows them to enter conversations in the discourse communities of their choice. Additionally, the assignments contribute to the research on student writing self-efficacy, i.e. student confidence to perform a writing task effectively. As studies show, the higher the sense of self-efficacy, the higher the motivation to perform a task (Pajares 2003).  Arguing that self-efficacy needs to become “an explicit goal for writing instruction” (161), Bruning and Kauffman suggest that one of the sources for self-efficacy is “mastery experience, [the experience of a] successful performance in a domain” (161). The assignments offered here contribute to their recommendation.

Writing with Erasmus

An approach that I have used in the past to show students that they can articulate their ideas is to ask them to attempt an oral description of their ideas. Even though they succeed, they remain unsatisfied with their articulation of the ideas possibly because their thoughts are still in their spoken rather than written form. I have found that to challenge their assumption that they are incapable of articulating their ideas I need to show rather than tell them that they have these skills. To show students their writing abilities I offer an in-class activity based on Dessiderius Erasmus's De Copia (1512). The purpose of this assignment is to leave students with tangible evidence—the sheet of paper on which they have authored work they did not believe they could —that they are experienced in restating an idea in multiple forms. In other words, after finishing the assignment, the students have evidence—the piece of paper with the multiple versions of the simple sentence—that they are proficient in finding different formulations of their ideas without the assistance of a tutor, classmate, friend, or a family member. In addition, they can see that they can accomplish the work of a writer—producing multiple versions of a simple idea—relatively quickly and fairly easily. Erasmus’ assignment has been used to teach students stylistic choices (Dietz 2014), but I use the assignment to achieve a goal: to challenge their assumption that they do not possess at least some of the skills which they think define good writers.

In the early modern period, the debate on the relationship between res (things, ideas) and verba (words) hinged on what comes first: words or ideas? Unlike his contemporaries, Erasmus understands both res and verba as inextricably linked because when one has words, one has ideas. To demonstrate strategies of proliferation, he offers one hundred and fifty versions of the sentence “Your letter has delighted me very much” (De Copia, Book I: Ch. XXXIII) in his De Copia (1512).[2]  Thomas O. Sloane argues that Erasmus’ exercise in copia is not merely about showing off one’s rich vocabulary but also one’s vast capacity for producing ideas as well as one’s liberal way of thinking. Aiming to produce a good Christian prince, Erasmus considered that it is imperative that princes have a large storehouse of words and that they know their meaning. To make his point, he argued that the abuses of the Church stem from lack of knowledge of words: the biblical reference to ‘church’ should not be interpreted as ‘priests’, ‘world’ should not be interpreted as ‘evil things’ or ‘lay Christians’ (Pollnitz 2015: 84).

The first assignment that I offer students aims to expose them precisely to their own vocabulary and ideas. The most recent iteration of this assignment was in my Accelerated Learning Program (ALP) class, in which a number of students are enrolled simultaneously in two courses taught by the same instructor: in a non-credit bearing course (ALP) as well as in College Writing. The students in the ALP course need additional assistance with a range of writing tasks. I use the assignment when students are about to begin work on their second paper, preferably during a class period in which I sense that the students feel the pressure of the new assignment: they know what they need to do, but they experience an issue all too familiar: how to say what they want to say, or perhaps they dread having to write five pages and do not have a strategy of filling them up with words. On the day I offer the assignment, I might have planned a focused freewriting for the paper, but if I can see that students are not confident in their skills, I tell them that we will switch gears for a moment. I begin the assignment by asking students to take a guess about the number of versions in which the sentence “I really liked your message” can be restated. Some of them venture: five, ten, twenty, another might suggest fifty, at which the whole class is surprised. Then I let them know about Erasmus, a sixteenth-century Dutch scholar who, while teaching at the University of Cambridge in the early 1500s, showed that he could restate the sentence “Your letter has delighted me very much” in more than one hundred ways. He published this example of copia of sentences in his work entitled De Copia (Paris, 1512) which was hugely popular among teachers and students and underwent eighty-five editions during his lifetime. My students are typically very surprised at Erasmus’ skill. Next, I introduce a game, or a friendly contest, offering students extra credit for those who can write 150 versions of the sentence “I really liked your message.” Since this is a low-stakes assignment, students are keen on experimenting, though some of them start with hesitation. Soon after they start writing, I am invariably asked about the rules of the game: what can they change in the sentence and how much? As a result, I have developed a habit of stating the rules in advance: the content cannot be changed; words, including jargon, and word order may vary; cellphones for the use of Thesaurus is permitted.

Over the course of the years, I have noticed a pattern in the students’ engagement: during the first five to ten minutes, the students are still finding their way about how to approach the task, and their writing is somewhat slow and tentative, but after the warm-up period, some students write in a hurry, others at a slower but still steady pace having found a method of their own to generate ideas. As soon as they start writing, I circulate and ensure that they number each sentence. This allows me to keep track on who has written the most number of sentences. If I notice a student who is lagging behind, I would offer a tip: to switch the word order or to use synonyms for a different word. Occasionally, I would also announce the largest number of sentences that I have seen in their notebooks. For competitive students, this works well as a stimulus. Depending on the class morale, I might stop the class when one student reaches an impressive number (e.g. 60 or in some cases 90 sentences), or when I see more students are giving up in the face of the impossible feat that one or two of their classmates have achieved. In my most recent ALP class, the least number of sentences a student was able to compose was eight, while the most number of sentences which one student was able to complete were close to seventy.

After I announce the class winner, I show students Erasmus’ sentences, but before we begin reading them, I reiterate that Erasmus writes in the early sixteenth century, and therefore writing style and manner of expression are different from contemporary conventions. Erasmus himself recognizes that many of his sentences would not be fit for prose. At the end of the chapter where he provides the sentence examples, he states, “[i]f any of these [sentences] appear to be of such a sort as would scarcely be considered suitable in prose, remember that this exercise is adapted to the composition of verse also” (Erasmus 42). In other words, Erasmus recommends that this exercise can help students with writing different genres. Like Erasmus, my students acknowledge that sentences using slang will not be suitable for all genres or audiences. While we read through Erasmus’ sentences, I use this as an opportunity to underscore how language—its grammar, syntactical conventions, punctuation, as well as style—are subject to change. Earlier in the semester, I typically let students hear how Old English was written and how it is presumed it sounded, and at this point, I stress how language and its conventions change. I might also explicitly address, in this or in a future class, the techne—what made it possible for them to produce so many sentences from the short sentence. Many students discover the techniques that Erasmus offers in De Copia on their own: synonyms, change of word order, passive voice, perhaps also an appositive, or description. Erasmus offers many more strategies on how to craft these sentences, but I do not dwell on them too long at that moment. Depending on the class, I alert students to just a few of the strategies though if they are curious, I offer more.

This assignment could be used also in a segment on teaching Renaissance sonnets which thrive on restating ideas using various figures of speech. After offering the students, the assignment described above, the instructor could explain figures of speech such as metonymy, metaphor, and others and organize groups in which students can collaboratively restate the sentences using these figures of speech. To offer one example from Erasmus of metonymy, the original sentence would become: “I have received the letter you sent; it lightens my heart with a new light of joys” where the part—the heart—stands for the whole—the reader of the letter (Erasmus 40).

To conclude the activity, I restate to students why I asked them to complete this assignment: the purpose of the assignment was to show them that they have the capacity to say what they need to say in a range of ways without the help of a tutor or anyone who is considered an expert or somehow a better, more experienced or faster writer than them. Because no one assisted them in producing the many versions of their sentences, they show high level of mastery. Now they have incontrovertible evidence that they can state their ideas in many ways and that ultimately they can make the decision which sentence they want to leave in their final work. I also add that if they could restate a simple idea like “I really liked your message,” they would be even more prolific if they have to restate the much more complex ideas which they develop in their essays. The assignment allowed them to accomplish the much more challenging task of rewriting a simple sentence in many ways. I also emphasize that even if they produced no more than four different versions, this still shows that they have the necessary skills to articulate their ideas. I would consider this assignment a success even if most students wrote only five or ten variations of the sentence because the assignment still demonstrates to them that they are skilled at restating a simple sentence in more ways than they thought possible. 

Doubting with Descartes

In subsequent classes, I remind students the assignment on various occasions in order to build on its effects. I might bring back their achievements with the copia assignment, and at that stage we explore more specifically the various ways they can rephrase a sentence for clarity or for precision or both as well as how words suggest the rhetorical situation in which they need to appear: we echo Erasmus’ own distinction between formal or informal words as well as words pertaining to a particular discourse community. Students are usually aware of the benefits of an appositive, and we work on the ways in which modifiers operate. When appropriate, I introduce students to a Collocations Dictionary, which can be useful to ESL students with selecting the appropriate synonyms.[3]

On a different occasion when I reference the 150-sentences assignment, I stress that the various sentence versions they wrote are evidence of their capacity to articulate their ideas as well as that they can generate debatable ideas. This assertion, however, needs to be made evident. How is Erasmus’ multiplicity of words the same as generating ideas? Reminded of Erasmus’ warning of the scriptural misinterpretations of words, I add to the above strategies—synonyms, change of word order, passive voice, appositive, description—another one: definition. In one of the many seventeenth-century versions of Erasmus’ De Copia, Joshua Poole, a schoolmaster, explains that some of the methods of achieving copia are based on ‘forms of speaking’: “Affirmative, Negative Interrogative, Admirative” (Poole 1663).[4]  While interrogative way can be important for academic research, admirative way of speaking is rarely used in professional or academic discourses, and even if students can write sentences in this manner, they are likely not going to find them practical. Instead students would benefit from the Cartesian, skeptical, manner of speaking and writing.

Rene Descartes’ task was not to use commonplaces as a foundation for his thinking, but to adopt a doubting stance in order to arrive at hard-won incontrovertible evidence. The context in which his famous “I think, therefore I am” appears reveals that he adopts the questioning or doubting stance:

And considering, that the same thoughts which we have waking, my also happen to us sleeping, when as not any one of them is true. I resolv’d to faign, that all those things which ever entered into my Minde, were no more true, then the illusions of my dreams. But presently after I obser’d that whilst I would think that all was false, it must necessarily follow, that I who thought it, must be something. And perceiving that this Truth, I think, therefore, I am, was so firm and certain that all the most extravagant suppositions of the Scepticks was not able to shake it, I judg’d that I might receive it without scruple for the first principle of the Philosophy I sought.
(Descartes 1649: 51)

Unlike Erasmus, whose approach is to experiment with as many perspectives as possible, to demonstrate familiarity with a range of discourse communities, and to show off his liberal education, Descartes chooses to pursue rational truth, establishing his philosophy on his existence as a thinker and doubter. After Descartes, our stakes for ownership our reasoning have increased much higher than those which Erasmus navigated at the end of the sixteenth century.  

Extending Erasmus’ techniques for copia of ideas—synonyms, change of word order, passive voice, appositive, description, commonplace definition—we add another one strategy: personal definitions. A relatively quick way in which the students see the importance of personal definitions is when I ask them to provide three qualities of an interesting novel or article. I write on the board a sentence like “This novel is interesting,” and ask the students to write three key features of an interesting novel. I give students time to think about the qualities and write them in their notebooks. Once they are ready, we share their descriptions with the class. What I stress is that while some of the features might be similar to those of other students, each one of them has created a unique blend of categories that define their concept of interestingness. At this stage, I stress that it is not important how discourse communities define the words they have chosen, and that, in observing Descartes’ principle, in their drafts and final papers they need to show their own unique perspective and critical reasoning. While asking students for their personal definitions make the process of coming up with thesis statements clearer, students are also quick to observe that the process is difficult. At this point I remind them that they are experiencing what thinking feels like and that this kind of thinking is an assertion of the self through thinking. I point out that thinking is a difficult task which is why we need to give credit to other writers and cite their ideas accurately and avoid plagiarism.

The process of arrival at a thesis statement entails a repetition of the personal definitions technique, which means that students isolate keywords in a given statement, and ask the question: “what is my definition of concept x?”.  For instance, I might write on the board a sentence like: “I really like this novel.” Next, we indicate the keywords in that sentence: “I”, “like”, “this novel”.  I ask students to provide their own definition of each of the keywords in the sentence. We may end up with a sentence such as, “I, who typically do not like novels about war [appositive strategy], admired [synonym strategy] Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried [synonym strategy].” In this second revision, we once more highlight the new keywords: “admire,” “war novel”, “The Things They Carried.” Then I ask them to use the same technique of definition for as many of the keywords mentioned in the new sentence as possible: What is their definition of “admire” in general and as it relates to a novel? What exactly do they mean by Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried? The whole novel? The characters? The setting? A particular chapter or scene? This is an appropriate moment to offer students the language used to discuss theoretical categories introduced earlier in the semester or any concepts that are thematically pertinent for an upper-level course. Such categories might include race, gender, class, hybridity, nationhood, or memory. If students explain that they admire the novel because it shows the importance of memory and storytelling, then they can rewrite their earlier hypothesis so that it reflects their new insight into what they think about the novel. 

I explain that the process of questioning how one defines the key concepts in the various iterations of the initial statement continues until one reaches a sentence that is a testable hypothesis. As we work towards building a hypothesis statement, I explain its two key features: a hypothesis is that it is a statement with which someone can disagree, and it uses language that can be tested.[5] As I keep insisting on the defining their terms, we may write a sentence collectively such as: “Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried is captivating because of its characters, setting, and point of view. ” At this point, I would still ask them to define ‘captivating’ and the hypothesis may continue to be rewritten into something like: “Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried questions the concept of truth in storytelling.” The process can repeat until the appropriate sophistication of the thesis statement is achieved, which will vary based on the course level.

I find it useful to refer to the 150 sentences assignment throughout the semester as a reminder of students’ success and as a reminder of what it means to think through ideas. I would also use the same technique during a whole-class peer-review by using the document camera equipment in class. I might ask for a volunteer to share his or her draft; after reading a selection of the draft, perhaps the paragraph that was most difficult to write, I might ask the students for concepts in the draft that would benefit from personal definitions. In this way, the students can apply a methodology for various aspects of their writing process: from assuring themselves that they have the capacity to write to generating ideas, developing their papers, and finessing their thesis statements.  In the past, I have used the metaphors of ‘unpacking’ or ‘digging deeper’ to ask them to offer their own ideas on the works we study, but I have not found such language less pedagogically effective than the technique I outline here. I would hypothesize that students find the approach of personal definitions more meaningful because it is presented as a fairly simple technique as well as because it allows them to assert their own authorial selves.

Talking with the Instructor

Last year, mid-semester, a student came to my office hours to discuss her paper. The student conveyed anxieties about the development of the paper and filling in the required page numbers. The student was in essence saying that she knows what she wants to say but not how to say it. 

I did not even have to mention the copia assignment. The student herself brought it up, reminding herself that she can use it as a strategy to rewrite her ideas, and make her own choices. This was a moment of a student exhibiting self-efficacy: the student acknowledged a problem and was aware of an approach to address it.



[1] On the factors affecting the emergence of the author see Dustin Griffin, “The Social World of Authorship 1660–1714,” in The Cambridge History of English Literature, 1660–1780, ed. John Richetti (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 37– 60. Griffin draws attention to how authors in the long eighteenth century defined themselves as authors-for-pay. I think students may see themselves as authors-for-a-grade. The hasty analogy aside, I think we need to reconsider the definition of authorship—ghost writing, anonymous commentary, and others—and to expose students to different types of authorship and what they entail. Ghost writing, for instance, does not require research; in addition, the person responsible for the core of the message or even the thesis and argumentation is the public figure who obtains the title author. My assertion is that some conceptions of the author make a wide range of demands on the students that prohibit self-efficacy. 

[2] According to my count based on King and Rix’s translation, Erasmus offers 145 versions of this sentence.

[3] One of the largest online resources is the Corpus of Contemporary American English (Accessed August 15, 2018).

[4] An affirmative statement, “Love overcomes all things,” turned into a negative manner of speaking becomes “There is nothing, that doth not obey Love” (Poole 1663: 4). An interrogative way of restating the sentence would be: “What unfound land contains those things, which Love doth not overcome?” (Poole 1663: 6). An example of admiration is “Oh the infinite number of things that are overcome by Love!” (Poole 1663: 6).

[5] In her textbook Writing Research Papers Across the Curriculum, Susan M. Hubbuch provides useful examples of the Cartesian technique of personal definition and uncovering one’s assumptions, working with judgement statements, as well as of testable language (26-32).

Works Cited

Adler-Kassner, Linda and Elizabeth Wardle, eds. Naming What We Know: Threshold Concepts
       of Writing Studies. Boulder: Utah State UP, 2015.

Brunning, Roger H. and Douglas F. Kauffman. “Self-Efficacy Beliefs and Motivation in Writing
Development.” Handbook of Writing Research. Eds. Charles A. MacArthur, Steve Graham,
and Jill Fitzgerald. New York: Guilford, 2016. 160-173.

Descartes, Rene. A Discourse of a Method for the wel-guiding of reason, and the Discovery of     Truth in the Sciences. Being a Translation out of that famous Philosopher Renaldus Des Cartes. London, 1649.

Dietz, Gretchen. “Style, Imitation, and Craft.” Teaching English At the Two-Year College 42.1
(2014): 90-91.

Erasmus, Dessiderius. On Copia of Words and Ideas. Transl. Donald B. King and H. David Rix.
Milwaukee: Marquette UP, 2012.

Hubbuch, Susan. Writing Research Papers Across the Curriculum. Boston: Thomson, 2005.
Pajares, Frank. “Self-Efficacy Beliefs, Motivation, and Achievement in Writing: A Review of
the Literature.” Reading and Writing Quarterly 19 (2003): 139-158.

Poole, Joshua. Practical Rhetoric. London, 1663.

Sloane, Thomas O. “Schoolbooks and Rhetoric: Erasmus’s Copia.” Rhetorica: A Journal of the
       History of Rhetoric 9.2 (1991): 113-129.

Webmaster: Michael Boecherer,, 631-548-2587