Teaching Writing: Topic Development

This post is part of a series on Writing Pedagogy.

When it comes to choosing topics for research papers, my students, at all levels of writing instruction, fall into two camps. First the Committers–they come to class with a specific topic that they are determined to research. Sometimes these topics are great. Sometimes, however, they are inappropriate to the course or have the wrong scope for the assignment. Then there are the Flailers, who come to class with no idea at all or with a long list of possible ideas, none of which they are willing to commit to.  The series of activities outlined in this post are designed to help both groups of students think carefully about the possibilities available to them in a given assignment, the demands and the limits of the assignment’s scope, and the relationship of their interests to the topics of the course.

Generate Topics Cooperatively – It benefits both the Committers and the Flailers to talk about the possible topics that other people in the class are thinking about. This is an expansive and generative process. Every idea gets put in the brainstorm notes.

Refine Topics as a Class – Students often struggle to understand how to make a topic match the assignment details like page range and structure. It is essential to model this kind of thinking about scope. Although this phase involves making judgements, no topic is a bad topic. Potential problems include topics that may be too broad, too narrow, or only tenuously related to the course’s interests. Any of these problems can, however, be solved with creative thinking.

Identify Individual Topics – Working alone, students choose from among the expansive list generated in the previous two phases, then partners and groups work together to refine each member’s chosen topic to fit the assignment’s scope.

Identify Prior Knowledge and Gaps – Working alone, students identify what they already know about their topic, list the resources they are already aware of, and suss out the gaps in their knowledge that will need to be filled in with further research.

At the end of this process, some Committers will remain committed to their initial topic, but they’ll have a more complete idea of what they need to do in the library. The Committers who came to class with a less appropriate topic will likely have a more appropriate one, as a result of conversation with classmates and individual reflection rather than via professorial fiat. Some of the Flailers will have settled on a narrow topic appropriate to the course and the assignment. Some will still be undecided, but they will have access to a menu of options to think about and choose from.

Here is what this sequence of thought processes looked like recently in two different classes that I am currently teaching, one a first-year composition class, one an upper-level, writing-intensive literature class in my university’s Liberal Arts Core.

Topic Development in First-Year Composition

This first-year composition course, the first in a two-part sequence, culminates in a 3-5 page, thesis-driven essay, in which the argument is supported with library research. At my current university, each section adopts a theme that guides the reading and research; my sections’ theme is travel and place. Initially, students often express interest in topics that are incredibly broad, controversial, and unfamiliar to them. Going through the topic development process reduces the the likelihood of frustration both for the student writers and for me.

Generate Topics Cooperatively
Think-Pair-Share is a cooperative learning structure that scaffolds whole class conversation with individual thinking time and small group conversation. Although the first phase is “think,” I find that asking students only to think results in reaching for phones. Instead, I ask them to freewrite or brainstorm.

  1. Students brainstorm research topics on their own generating a list in their notebook (not to be turned in)
  2. In pairs or small groups (ideally not more than 4 per group), students discuss their ideas and generate more by thinking together. Some groups will need to be prompted to keep thinking. I often say something like, “Even if you’ve already found a topic you love, keep generating more ideas. Chances are, you’ll be helping a classmate find a topic they love.”
  3. Groups contribute the topics they’ve generated to a class list on the board

Refine Topics as a Class
The class list on the board is likely to have a variety of topics, some of which will be appropriate in scope and connected to the themes of the course, but many of which are too broad, too narrow, or insufficiently connected. I usually work through one or two examples to model the thinking that moves a topic from “interesting but problematic” to “appropriate for the assignment”.

A too broad topic like immigration can be narrowed down in a variety of ways:

destination – into what country
origin – from what country
kind of immigrants – religion, gender, sexuality, language group, class, education level, age
purposes of immigration
consequences of immigration or challenges faced by immigrants
culture shock

A student might choose a combination of these filters to create a topic of interest to them–immigration into the United States by wealthy young people.

A topic that initially seems unrelated to the course theme can almost always be connected with a little creative thinking on the part of the class. Most recently, two of my students expressed an interest in abortion as a topic, which is broad enough to fill an entire bookcase and seemingly unrelated to the ideas of travel and place. Our class conversation, however, highlighted that abortion laws differ across the United States and around the world and that women sometimes need to travel in order to get the care they need. Further, these differences in law are related to differences in local culture. One student settled on the motivations that drive women’s medical travel as a topic. The other student is still pondering.

Identify Individual Topics
Working in their pairs or small groups, students collaborate to make sure that each person has a topic that is appropriate in scope and connected to the course themes. These topics are likely to be more appropriate than the topics they came to class with, but they may still need further refinement once students start looking for sources to answer their questions. One thing I often say to students at this phase is, “That’s a great topic to take to the library. You might find that you need to shift it or narrow it further as you start looking at sources.”

Identify Prior Knowledge and Gaps
The K-W-L chart is a helpful tool for activating prior knowledge and guiding reading, but it can also be a useful tool for the research process. I ask students to write their topic at the top of a new page and then create a chart with two columns labelled “What do I know?” and “What do I need to find out?”

They are not going to turn this in to me, so I remind them that the only audience is future them; therefore, they don’t need to worry about someone else being able to decipher their writing. They don’t need to worry about spelling and grammar, they don’t need to write in sentences, they can write in a different language or even a mix of languages if that’s the way the ideas come. The items they list in the “What do I need to find out?” column become the inspiration for their searches when we meet in the library for instruction on using search tools.

Topic Development in an Upper-Level, Writing-Intensive Course

My current university’s liberal arts core curriculum includes a writing across the curriculum component that allows students to take writing-intensive courses in a variety of fields of study. These activities are based on what I do in the 300-level writing-intensive literature courses, which culminate in a 10-12 page literary analysis paper in which the argument is supported by both close reading of primary sources and engagement with secondary sources.

Most students are not English or writing majors, and their attitudes about writing and confidence as writers is variable. As these students are thinking about internships and nearing graduation, I emphasize that the ways of thinking outlined here are transferable skills they can take to any setting in other fields of study or in the workplace outside of academia. The topics they choose often integrate the course texts, the overarching themes of the course, and the students’ interests from their majors. In my experience, these students often bring sophisticated knowledge to the topics they choose. What is new for them is integrating the topic with literary analysis.

I start the class with this reminder:

Silence and put your phones away. For real this time. When engaged in this part of the writing process, it is important to let yourself get a little bit bored. Your most interesting ideas often come when you’ve run out of things to think about. If you reach for your devices, you’ll miss them.

Generate Topics Cooperatively
Brainstorm Round Robin – Students work in groups of 4-5, each with a large (24 x 32 or greater) piece of paper and several colored markers.

  1. For five minutes, the group brainstorms topic ideas on their shared paper. Organization on the page is up to them. It can be a neat list or a mind map or Wordle-style randomness, whatever works for that group.
  2. Papers rotate clockwise to the next group. After reading the ideas on the page, students refine the existing ideas, add more new ideas, and put stars next to ideas they feel particularly positive toward. (This step can happen once or more than once.)
  3. Papers rotate clockwise to the next group. After reading the ideas on the page, students make connections among them. What topics are related to each other? What topics might show up in the same paper? (The annotations listed in Step 2 can also be done, if students are so inspired.)
  4. Papers rotate clockwise to the next group. After reading the ideas on the page, students start to add the title of the texts from the course that would be good to use for particular topics or clusters of topics. (The annotations listed in Step 2 and Step 3 can also be done, if students are so inspired.)
  5. Papers return to their group of origin, and students read their classmates’ annotations and additions.

Refine Topics as a Class
From the conversation in the room, pull the topics that the students are struggling with the most, and discuss them in terms of relationship to the course themes and scope for the assignment.

Identify Individual Topics
Working in their small groups, students collaborate to make sure that each person has a topic that is appropriate in scope and connected to the course themes. These topics may still need further refinement once students start looking for sources to answer their questions. One thing I often say to students at this phase is, “That’s a great topic to take to the library. You might find that you need to shift it or narrow it further as you start looking at sources.”

Identify Prior Knowledge and Gaps
Freewriting with Shifting Perspectives is a strategy that I’ve developed based loosely on the invention strategies known as Cubing and Looping.

I start with the following speech about freewriting:

The most important thing when freewriting is to keep your pen or pencil moving. Your pen or pencil needs to be like the pens on a seismograph–constantly moving as they record the vibrations of the earth, only your pens or pencils are recording the thoughts in your brain. Follow your thoughts where they go, even if they seem disconnected from your topic. You will probably surprise yourself. Don’t worry about grammar or spelling. Don’t worry about organization or neatness. The only person who needs to be able to read this is future you. You may write in English or another language or a combination of languages. If you run out of thoughts, doodle or write “I’m bored” until your brain supplies a new idea. Periodically, I’ll prompt you to wrap up your current thought and then switch gears to write about your topic from a different perspective.

Tell students to start and then start yourself, making sure that there is a clock or watch in your line of sight. Writing along with them reinforces the value of this kind of activity. After 3-8 minutes, prompt students:

Wrap up your current thought. Draw a line across the page or skip to a different space on the page and begin writing about your topic from a different perspective.

Students who have never done this kind of writing before might only tolerate 3-4 sessions of 3-5 minutes each. Students who are seasoned free writers can write for longer sessions, up to 8-10 minutes, and may be willing to do more of them before getting restless.

Once all sessions are complete (watch the room to know when too many of them are checking out), prompt the students to reflect on what they’ve written:

Read back over what you’ve written. Highlight, underline, or star any ideas that seem significant to you, any ideas you don’t want to forget, any ideas that surprised you. [Pause 2 minutes] Without reading your freewriting out loud, share with your group. Maybe tell them what surprised you or tell them an idea you’re excited about.

In my experience, even the students who were skeptical at the beginning of the process will have something to say here. If they participated attentively, they will have recorded ideas that hadn’t occurred to them before.

Finally, prompt students to make a list of things they need to look up in the library’s article databases. What are the aspects of their topic where their knowledge is lacking?