Building your thesis on the corpses of your enemies: OR integrating dissent in a robust argument

Lucy Liu from Kill Bill sweeping a samurai sword around and looking fierce

Okay, so this post is perhaps a bit more Kill Bill than Thesis Whisperer,  but this has been coming up a lot recently in conversations I’ve been having with research students, and with people on the blog comments and on Twitter.  They can’t work out how to include the research of people who disagree with their findings without mortally wounding their own argument. 

Sometimes writing up your research is like transcribing a circle of friends, it’s like a dialogue or a conversation. Brown backs up Wong, who agrees with Peters, who develops the work of Germane. This is easy to do—all your evidence supports your argument, so it feels like you’re building a really strong argument.  And it’s pretty good, till you have to defend it against someone who disagrees; and then there is blood everywhere and it’s messy, and you get hurt.

Instead, it can help to think of the thesis as a fencing match. It’s civilized, there are rules, no-one is supposed to die, but it’s also a contest, a fight, there is staged violence.  The back and forth of the play of blades in fencing is in fact called a ‘conversation’.

So imagine me as your librarian-fencing mistress, and I’ll take you through some exercises to swashbuckle your way through your thesis. *Cue Princess Bride music*


A good scholarly fencer needs three things:

A strong position.

A handful of traditional moves which can be recognized by your opponent and your audience—the Attaque au fer, the Balestra, the Capo Ferro.

And the conviction of their argument—it needs to be worth fighting for.

1.  En Garde

Take a position that enables you to both attack and defend.   There’s no point standing in a corner with your mates. Take up your sword. Stand with your legs wide apart and knees bent, so you can move, so you can balance, so you can meet your opponent as an equal.

How do I do that in writing?

‘Many scholars, particularly Schmidt, Li and Patel, have suggested that this approach helps us to answer my research question.’

You haven’t said ‘all scholars’, you haven’t said ‘this is the only truth’, you have given yourself room for maneuver. At the same time, you have also backed up your position with some evidence.

2.  Advance …

Lead with your strongest leg and use your strongest arm—‘put your best foot forward’, and then bring your back foot to follow.

How do I do that in writing?  There are a couple of ways.

‘The translation therefore clearly demonstrates that the unknown librettist clusters words together and repeats words and cognates intentionally.’

Start with your research, your expertise, your strong point.  The follow up, which is all but invisible here, is implicit ‘other people have not noticed this but they are clearly wrong’.  Here the front leg is the original contribution to knowledge, the new findings.

‘The English translation of the Gospel narrative broadly follows the text of the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, though it is extensively  adapted to provide closer translation of Luther’s German.’

Sometimes it’s better to start with the solid basis of other scholarship, other publications, align yourself with a major canonical authority in your field (and you can’t get much more canonical than the Bible).  The follow up (the back leg move) is more visible in this sentence, and is often introduced by words like ‘however’ or ‘although’.  Here the weaker part of the argument is allowed to follow through in the wake of a stronger move.

3.   … and Retreat.

Retreating when you’re fencing doesn’t mean you’re losing.  It doesn’t mean you’re giving up. It means you’re moving, and responding to your opponent.

If you are retreating, you move your back foot first, then your front foot.

How do I do that in writing?

Although Peter Pears’ collaboration with Imogen Holst in producing an English language performance text for Benjamin Britten’s 1971 recording of the work resulted in a highly innovative and dynamic English paraphrase of the libretto, it still used the English of the reformation.’

Again, the back leg move is introduced with words like ‘although’, ‘while’, ‘even’ and ‘in spite of’. By starting a sentence with these tags, you discount the opponents argument, even as you react to it. You escape. You retreat.
The second part of this move is signaled here by the use of ‘still’. ‘Nonethless’ and ‘regardless’ are good other words to do this. This returns your weight to your best foot, enabling you to attack again.

4.  Lunge.

The Lunge is how you hit your opponent, it’s how you ‘kill’ people.

How do I do that in writing?

Therefore, we consider this translation to be the most scholarly translation currently available in English’.

Bang! We couldn’t start the fight with these words, but they make a killer conclusion.

The lunge is usually signaled by concluding words, ‘therefore’, ‘for this reason’.

Some scholars you can dispose of with a flick of the wrist. Your most significant opponent may require repeated re-engagements.  Remember, though, this is a civilized fencing match, there is no need for real blood. You want to say, as Wesley says to Inigo Montoya in The Princess Bride,

‘I would as soon destroy a stained glass window as an artist like yourself’.

As Westley knocks out Montoya, he says ‘I hold you in the highest respect’, and so should you—they may not agree with your findings, but they are your peers and colleagues. You need to win, but you don’t actually want to build your thesis on the bones of your enemies.

Thanks to Dr J. Andreas Loewe (@melbournedean) for allowing me to quote from his forthcoming Commentary on Bach’s St John Passion (Brill, 2013) for many of the examples in this post. 


Succeeding in a Research Higher Degree

Doing a Research Higher Degree (like a PhD) is hard, but lots of people have succeeded and you can too. It’s easier if you understand how it works, this blog gives you the insider view.


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