How to find writing topics that are useful and relevant but not overdone.
It comes up every semester: about which topics will your students write? Whether they are working on argumentative writing, research skills, or general fluency with the written word, they will need to have something specific to discuss. And they might be unsure of what counts as a paper-worthy topic. The instructor has a wonderful opportunity to guide and encourage here. Read on to find out how choosing a topic can be broken down into manageable steps.
Identify the Writing Goal
Is this going to be a scholarly paper? Something short to help students learn the ropes? Or is it a research-skills project?
Know which goal you want students to achieve before assigning the project. Generally speaking, course guidelines can be helpful in setting up these goals – for example, a writing readiness course may encourage students to keep things short and rely on their own personal perspective for information. A research writing course may have strict departmental orders not to use personal experience as a resource.
What you need to know is the page count (or word count) for each paper, and the parameters within which the paper is to be written. Then, you can determine the style of writing: will it be argumentative, formal, or informal? Is it just to inform? Could it be a report or an article that may someday appear in print? Again, departmental guidelines may have some impact on the choices you make here, but you might also have some room to choose the style.
Every class is a new experience, and every teacher has a unique perspective.
Determining these parameters for yourself before the projects begin will help you guide students when they need to complete the work. It’s like figuring out the mileage of a road trip before you depart – it allows you to budget the time and money for fuel without having those “Oh dear! I didn’t think it would take that much!” moments.
Create a Topic List
A question I’ve heard from my students is, “What can I write about?” Good question. Every class is a new experience, and every teacher has a unique perspective. Students want to work with the teacher, to meet the goals of the class to (hopefully) receive a high – or at least passing – grade. They don’t want to mess up their assignments. This is why they want to know what to write about.
And, hard as it is for a writing-obsessed person to fathom, everyone does not spontaneously think of writing topics as they eat breakfast or walk the dog. This is where the topic list comes in to play.
Think of standard writing themes. If you have an argumentative paper to assign, then ideas to debate are going to be necessary – i.e. the history of mustard is out. It happened. No arguments are really going to be easy to follow here.
But some topics are very much used in the writing classroom – so much so, that you may want to avoid them. Why? Things like texting and driving, the second amendment, and other very familiar topics are worthy things to explore and think through: but for college work, they may not present a deep enough research challenge.
So your assignment, should you choose to accept it, is this: create a list. Figure out what would be argumentative enough without being super-mainstream argumentative.
Think about your students. What might be a familiar topic to them? Let me give you some examples.
If your school is a commuter campus, go for relevancy, like the pros and cons of public transportation, mandatory campus residency for freshman/first-year students, or the value of having long-distance learning options.
If your school is in a large city, then you might be able to focus on topics such as the closing of some schools in certain neighborhoods; the price of housing in the city; rental bicycles or cars; or reutilizing abandoned structures for usable space today.
Say you have a school with a largely rural population. Go for topics that impact this community – maybe water rights; crop or livestock practices; agricultural tourism; or the increase in the cost of farming.
What I hope you see here is that students will have some local sources to tackle with a hands-on approach to research. If they want to know why a school is closing, they can interview a city council member, or a teacher, or a parent (if they know a family that is affected by the situation) to get more information. A local, human information source can recommend deeper reading, like specific city records or newspaper stories and statistics.
But these topics also offer some larger research options, so that the information gathered does not have to be strictly local. For example, what have been national trends with rental bicycles in major cities? How many urban centers offer residents the option of renting an electric car for a day? Have city air pollution levels gone down since these practices were enacted?
Local Is Great*
The reason there is an asterisk here is because not all students who are in a school are from that area. Some students travel hundreds, if not thousands, of miles in order to attend a specific college or university. This can limit how familiar they are with area issues.
So with this in mind, you want to mix it up a bit. Add some things that people from an area outside of your school’s geographic parameters might be better able to understand. This can be done by mixing a few urban and commuter school topics with a rural-focused list, (or vice-versa), and by putting some general topics into the mix.
Topics of General Interest
Ah, yes: the general topic list. What topics could this include? As mentioned earlier, frequently-used writing ideas sometimes fail to provide enough of a challenge for students who are writing at the college level. Some topics are also easy to plagiarize. Another thing to keep in mind is how much graphic information you can or want to handle as a reader.
And you want to take into consideration your own knowledge base: go for what you know. If the student is new to an idea and you are new to an idea, you can’t help him or her very much with research. You also won’t know what information about the topic is important and what isn’t – which affects your ability to grade. Prepare for questions and queries about the topics you list ahead of time: it’s the best way to help students have a great writing experience.
General topics could include: student loans; eco-friendly transportation; electronic vs. paper textbooks; art/music in schools; and sports teams and safety practices. Will students write about a national team, an international trend, or something that is brand-new in their former high school? The decision is up to you. Leaving the location open – maybe even the time period open, so that it could be a historical comparison/contrast – is a good way to open the door to topic generation possibility.
Each of these topic ideas offers room for personal/local experience and the option to go into a larger research endeavor without being based solely on the region of the school at which you teach. These are questions that many students face, regardless of their major, and conclusions from each person’s writing work will vary from student to student.
The Big Picture
The writing instructor has a lot of freedom to guide students in the mores of great writing and researching skills. Providing a topic list, with some directional guidance, is a good way to help students figure out how to do college-level writing. It also encourages students to push their own boundaries. If someone has already written about one topic in high school, or at a different college, and only knows how to write about that one, providing a list of different ideas will help them expand their abilities.
As the instructor, you also have to keep in mind your teaching goal. Choose writing topics that you can actually help students research. Some students will find a writing topic and decide to write about it because they don’t know anything about it. This is great! This is how students learn!
But it can pose a problem. If you don’t know anything about a topic, you are going to be challenged to help the student with the research process. Keep everything in perspective: know the materials so you can help students focus on the process.
Writing is a practice, something that is improved over time. As the instructor, you may choose to add more ideas to your writing list, or to take some ideas off as time progresses. Some ideas are very relevant to the past (the popularity of cassette tapes versus an 8-track, for example) and can understandably be taken from the list. New things will be invented or tried, and you can add those as they come along.
What you want to do is encourage students in the paths of good writing skills. Your interests, their interests, and the college’s parameters all have to meet in order for this to happen. But with a little planning, and with a lot of preparation, you can be ready to meet this challenge.