Class Activity: Choosing your Topic


Choosing a topic for your essay or project is perhaps the most difficult step you'll face in this class.Letís roll up our sleeves and get going:

Team up with one partnerómake sure that your partner is taking the same class as you do, i.e., if you take the one-semester capstone, your partner should be taking it too; if you take the two-semester Senior Essay, so will your partner.

Read the guidelines below.

Discuss these Guidelines with your partner.Prepare a list of questions and comments for class instructor: First, are the guidelines clear?Second, and more importantly, can they be improved in some ways?

Choose 3-4 possible topics.This choice is not binding yet, in any way.Itís only meant to get the process going:

                      You can choose to do the standard research essay.If you are curious about something, here is your chance of becoming an expert!  If you are interested in conspiracy theory, you may wish to investigate the murder of one of the Kennedy brothers, Martin Luther King, John Lennon, Princess Diana, Marilyn Monroe, Malcolm X--all inconvenient, and all dead in mysterious circumstances.If you like bees, this is your chance of researching in depth their nuptial flight, or conceptual flexibility, or swarming.If you plan to travel to Chiapas, Mexico, here is your chance of writing a paper about Subcomandante Marcos! 

                      You can carry out original research on a subject; in that case, youíll begin with a review of the literature and then, with the guidance of a faculty member, proceed to not merely synthesize and reflect upon known information, but generate it.You can for example, carry out a study in animal behavior at the Detroit Zoo or the humane society, or write a biography of a living person in this area--Jack Kevorkian? Another Jackson inmate?  Rosa Parks?óthe possibilities are endless.If you are interested in labor history, you may wish to research, in part through actual interviews, allegations that Walter Reuther was murdered by our government.If you are interested in civil liberties, you may wish to investigate the Sept.5, 2001 Crosslin-Rohm murder, by the FBI and Michigan police, near Vandalia.Or how about Isaiah Thomas--has anyone written his biography yet?  Has anyone written a biography of Ann Arbor's historian Howard Zinn?  How about Terry Nichols?  How about the deer of Belle Isle?  The receding shorelines in the Great Lakes?  Or David Adamany's tenure as Wayne State University's president--an evaluation?   The condition of Detroit schools--visiting one school for a few months and describing what you see? 

                      If you and I feel that you have the talent for this (and only if we do), you can also choose a creative project, such as writing a novel, a travel book, or an oral history of your neighborhood.


Discuss this choice with your partner, and change the topic and its scope if necessary

In a discussion of the class as a whole, present your favorite topic to the class.

To be successful, this choice must meet the following requirements:

It must be a topic that you are really interested in, or even passionate about.Youíll have to spend a great deal of time and effort researching it, generating an outline, organizing it, thinking about it, dreaming about it, talking to your spouse and grandmother about it, so you better make sure itís something you care about.


                      The worst mistake beginning researchers make is choosing a topic that is too wide.Thus, the topic Media Coverage of African-Americans sounds wonderful, as does the History of the KKK, but both topics are a bit too broad.Another way of putting it: both topics require a book-length manuscript, at the very least, to do them justice.On the other hand, Detroit News' Coverage of African-American Culture  in 2001, or, A Study in Contrasts: KKK Portrayal in Mitchellís Gone with The Wind and Wrightís Black Boy are both appropriate.Now, in either case, you can really go deeply into the subject, make some original contributions to it, and perhaps even have your work published in some format.You canít become an expert on the media or on the KKK in one class, but you can become an expert on the Detroit Pressí Coverage of the events leading to the Second Iraqi Conquest, and you can become an expert on Gone with the Wind and Black Boy.

                      Another constraint is your own background and skills.Some topics are just too difficult.If you donít have a solid background in ecology and economics, leave the greenhouse effect alone (Iím talking from personal experience here).If you have only taken one course in biology, leave viruses and DNA alone (again, Iíve been there).Choose a topic you can fully understand and handle, or else the whole thing will become a nightmare.I donít mean to imply that scientific topics are inappropriate, only that you need to choose ones that can be easily mastered.For instance, The Behavior and Ecology of Emperor Penguins can be mastered by the typical ISP student, but not The Behavior and Ecology of Chimpanzees (the literature in the second case is too vast and technical).You can carry out an original research project on creative problem solving on dogs, but not on creative problem solving in blue whales.

                      The next constraint has something to do with the interdisciplinary studies program.The whole point of interdisciplinarity is bringing together insights and facts from two or more disciplines.Your essay should make a conscious effort to do that.And again, some topics lend themselves well to this.For instance, a paper on the Plight of the Frogs may bring in insights from ecology, biology, and economics.A Biography of Coleman Young will encompass history, racism, and politics, while a Biography of Walter Reuther will have to touch upon labor history, criminology, and conspiracy theory.On the other hand, Anatomy of Drones does not lend itself well to interdisciplinary perspective, and hence, should be avoided.

                      A more technical constraint is traceable to the fact that I need to repeatedly edit and evaluate your work.To do so, I must know something about your subject, for I canít obviously read background materials and educate myself on 16+ different topics.So, if for example, you choose literature as your topic, it will have to be on one of the many writers I know well, as opposed to one of the many writers I never read.If you choose foreign culture, Nepal, India, Israel, Mexico, Cuba are in, for example, but Serbia and Chad are out.If you choose a scientific topic, ecology, biology, animal behavior, cognitive psychology, bruxism, astronomy, science teaching ...are in, but geology and systematics are outónot because the last two are dull, but because I will not understand your paper, let alone be able to help you improve it!

                      The last constraint has to do with the goal of this entire class: itís an exit class aimed at giving the final touches to your lifelong skill of competently researching and mastering a comparatively new topic.You want to be traveling to a new vacation spot, not to the spot you have been frequenting for the last 157 years.Hence, you canít write on anything you have written about before, in another class, for your job, and so on.Your formal proposal for a topic next week should clearly state that your paper meets this novelty requirement.


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