You will choose a single topic for all three of your major essays in this course: the Background Essay (BE, Literature Review (LR), and Final Research Article (FRA). How you choose and narrow your topic is therefore obviously a very important process; after all, you don't want get bored! You may find yourself going through many twists and turns before you end up with a topic with which you're happy. Even after you think you've found a suitable and interesting topic, you may end up changing your topic altogether or at least changing how you narrow it and the questions you end up asking and trying to answer. Review the Assignments page to see how the three major papers fit together.
Because you are choosing a topic for a research project, you should not automatically choose something about which you already know, in the hopes that this will reduce the amount of work that you have to do. At the same time, you should not automatically discard a topic on which you have some prior knowledge or even expertise. Still, you should only choose such a topic if you are genuinely curious to learn more than you already know and if you feel that you can be genuinely open-minded and willing to alter your starting views and beliefs, based on the research and perspectives that you will run across.
Also note that you are choosing a topic within the social sciences, which means that you will not be doing research, for example, on the geology of Mt. Everest. Still, it is not only the topic that makes something fall within social sciences, but the kinds of questions we ask with regard to the topic and the kinds of approaches or research methods we follow as we try to answer those questions (review the Social Science Disciplines webpage for more on this point). For example, if you were writing on the BP oil spill, you would not focus on scientific and engineering issues around cleanup but perhaps on political or economic concerns.
You shouldn't dilly dally in thinking about possible topics and even beginning initial, targeted reading on several topics in the library, databases, or the internet, but you should make sure you are allowing yourself the time to consider several real topic possibilities before tying yourself down to one for the rest of the quarter!
Choose a topic that is of current relevance in the United States. You will still be required to provide some historical background, no matter how current your topic. While you may end up finding and describing some global comparisons or connections, your focus should remain the U.S.
Browse through the Table of Contents and readings of our textbook Rereading America for ideas, especially the short 2-3 page introduction for each section: 1) "The Myth of the Model Family"; 2) "The Myth of Education and Empowerment"; 3) "Myths of Porgress on the Tech Frontier"; 4) "The Myth of Individual Opportunity"; 5) "Myths of Gender"; 6) "The Myth of the Melting Pot." Note that you must choose at least one article from Rereading America as one of your secondary sources in your Final Research Article for the course.
Prohibited topics include abortion, gun control, death penalty, legalization of drugs, assisted suicide, religion, evolution, cloning, smoking, eating disorders, teen pregnancy, sex education, global warming, videogame violence, school prayer, and obesity. See more on this prohibition below.
Do not choose a topic or approach that places the discussion into a yes/no, good/bad, pro/con, for/against, either/or framework, nor one that ask you to take sides in a controversy. Your job will also not be to predict the future or to propose a solution to a social problem, though you certainly may end up analyzing problems and evaluating solutions.
1. Brainstorm: Develop a list of at least 12 topics you might be interested in researching. Include a wide range of topics, including those about which you know something, those about which you don't know much but would like to know more, those that you think matter a great deal socially, or those that you think may be relevant for your future. Choose at least three possible topics within each of these categories: 1) your personal background and experience, including your community; 2) your current or future educational or professional goals; 3) cultural issues of concern; and 4) current events, politics and policy debates. Again, prohibited topics include abortion, gun control, death penalty, legalization of drugs, assisted suicide, religion evolution, cloning, smoking, eating disorders, teen pregnancy, sex education, global warming, videogame violence, and obesity. (See below for why these are prohibited.)
2. Other strategies for finding topics: After your brainstormed your own topics, you should also look through reference sources like CQ Researcher and Gale Virtual Reference Library (see Holman Library Class Guide). If you're still not satisfied, go to an actual library and browse the stacks and magazine section or go to a good bookstore's magazine rack. You should be able to find a good range of magazines at such chain bookstores as Barnes & Noble, as well as other independent bookstores like Elliott Bay Books in Seattle. Look for what appear like serious newsmagazines (without a lot of glossy advertisements) as well as some academic journals you will find there. Browse through and see what captures your attention. You can also read through CR, "Quick Tip: Finding Topics" (pp. 49-50) for some more suggestions, as well as the Broad Suggestions for Topics list that appears at the bottom of this page.
3. Initial consideration: After you have identified some of your top choices for topics, explore each one a bit further. Brainstorm a list of questions for each one. What would like to know? Are you able to go beyond good/bad, yes/no, for/against, pro/con frameworks? Start doing some browsing on the internet (for example, using a search engine like google.com) or a preliminary review of articles and sources that might be available on your potential topics using a database like ProQuest (available through the Holman Library website). Note that when you're doing these preliminary searches for information, you will make use of research skills like experimenting with a range of subject and keyword terms to search for articles and results for any given topic.
4. Reconsideration: This is an important moment. You may be ready to choose ONE topic at this point because you may have discovered that you're no longer equally interested in or curious about all of the topics that were remaining in the previous stage. After a preliminary review of available articles and sources, you may have discovered that you cannot find equally rich ones for all of them. A brand new topic may have occurred to you. If you still can't decide on just one yet, start reading one or two articles on more than one topic, recognizing that you can't stay in this limbo of not deciding your topic choice for too much longer.
6. Narrowing your topic: You may not be happy to hear that, even though you've gone through a number of steps already, finding a topic is only half the battle! Because the amount of time you have in a single quarter to produce a research paper is relatively short, you must narrow your topic so that you are not biting off more than you can chew. Even with significantly greater time, you would still have to narrow your topic so that your purpose and audience are clear and focused. The way in which you narrow your topic and the aspects that you research further will continue to go through some revision as you move through the various stages of the process.
7. Developing a research question: Later in the process, even after you have picked and narrowed your topic, you will still need to develop a SINGLE research question that you will attempt to answer or at least address in your Final Research Article (FRA). You will come up with possible research question at the end of your Literature Review (LR); and finally you will have another chance to revise it for your FRA. Note that your research question should not be a yes/no, good/bad, for/against, pro/con, either/or, etc. kind of question. Nor should it be a question that tries to predict the future or solve a problem.
These topics are prohibited because they have been debated for a long time, and it is rare that new points of view and analyses are added to the conversation. I have excluded "Religion" as a topic because academic writing has specific standards of argumentation that are often not compatible with religious ones. Note, however, that there is a long tradition of highly complex theological debate that has been conducted in academic settings; these debates, however, are usually not suitable for the social sciences, the length of assignments in this course, nor for the strategies of argumentation we will cover. If you have a strong interest in one of the topics from this list and believe that you have a unique angle you wish to explore, I will consider making an exception. Once again, your research question (the original angle you will be pursuing with regard to your narrowed topic) should not be a yes/no, good/bad, for/against, pro/con, either/or, etc. type of question; nor should it be a question that tries to predict the future or solve a problem.
Topics that Require a Fresh Angle
As in the "Prohibited Topics" category above, these topics are very important but have also been debated extensively. Do not choose from this list unless you are prepared to do new kinds of thinking and research, going beyond simple yes/no or for/against positions, as well as the obvious perspectives that we see repeated in the mainstream media. However, with a bit of additional reading and critical thinking, you may discover new angles and questions that go beyond the commonplace understanding of them. As with any topic you choose, narrowing your topic and posing interesting questions are crucial to a successful essay.
Broad Suggestions for Topics
Please note the earlier discussion about narrowing topics and finding research questions. The topics in this section are still way too big. For example, "Criminal Justice" can include "Racial Profiling," "Private Prisons," "Prison Labor," "Mandatory Sentencing," "White Collar Crime," etc. Even after you have chosen a subtopic, you have to figure out what argumentative angle you're going to explore. For instance, an investigation of "Private Prisons" might lead you to explore the financial contributions of prison corporations to political campaigns.
I have taught a themed section of English 127 just focusing on Criminal Justice. Look at the huge list of potential criminal justice topics.