Teaching Resources

Integrating Writing: Finding a Topic

Purpose:

Because you will generally design a course around a particular theme or set of issues within a disciplinary or multidisciplinary context, it is a good idea, when assigning a research project, to give students the opportunity to identify a topic within that theme that interests them and that they can invest in on a creative as well as a critical level. Moving from the course theme to the topic is the first step in a process of narrowing their interests to something manageable in a 10-week, 10-12-page research project. They are somewhat constrained by the theme, but as the theme for a course is generally quite broad, you can anticipate that each student can find something related to this theme that will hold his or her interest for a quarter.

Application:

In order to discuss the steps toward bringing students to find a topic, we will use as an example an introduction to interdisciplinary studies course that focuses on the concept of "work." This example is particularly useful in that the theme is broad enough to give students many entry points in terms of locating their own interests.

When introducing the research project (probably early on in the quarter), remind your students that they will need to locate their own investment in the course/project by means of the following types of prompts. (It is a good idea to ask them to free-write in response to these prompts):

  • Finding a personal concern: Since you've enrolled in the course, you can't just look at the theme and say, "I don't care about this!" Take a few minutes to think about the issues that most concern you in life. Are you particularly concerned about education? Human rights? Consumerism? Art? Any of these areas would offer a way to focus the broad issue of "work" into a topic. For example, you may be concerned that the educational system is not preparing our children for the kind of jobs that will be available when they leave school-or, conversely, that students are being too narrowly prepared for later employment. Or you might have read about workers whose human rights are violated by the terms or conditions of their employment. You have a great deal of latitude.
  • "I notice . . . I wonder": Another rich approach to finding a topic and issue that concern you is to be very attentive to what you observe in your daily life, as you read, drive to the supermarket, watch television, etc. For example, have you ever been struck by how tidy the homes of even the largest and busiest television families seem to be? It's something you notice that can lead you to wonder about a lot: who does the cleaning? Is cleanliness on television an aesthetic or a social concern?
  • Worldview/lenses: Once you identify what concerns or interests you, you can begin to identify a perspective you want to bring to it. You may want to narrow by disciplinary perspectives, perhaps because you have a particular interest in psychology or political science; or you may want to examine your topic from the perspective of the individual, or society, or a particular community, or globally. Stop to think about what you know about your topic and what experiences you bring to it.

Topics are, however, still general, and an attempt to write about a topic would most likely result in an informative report rather than our goal of taking a position and supporting it with evidence.

  • Narrow a topic to an issue by identifying problems or controversies and discovering differing perspectives and discussions. Anne Herrington, a specialist in composition and rhetoric, offers another way to think about the difference between a topic and an issue. She writes that "we are more likely to go beyond reporting information to selecting from it and reorganizing, synthesizing, and interpreting it when we are trying to solve a problem or answer a question [i.e., address an issue] for ourselves" (Anne J. Herrington, "Assignment and response: teaching with writing across the disciplines," in S. W. Witte, N. Nakadate, R. D. Cherry, eds., A Rhetoric of doing: essays on written discourse in honor of James L. Kinneavy. [Carbondale, IL: SIU Press, 1992]).

Did You Know?

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