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4.2 The Research Essay -- Selecting a Topic

So, it's the first day of class and your instructor is busy going over the syllabus and explaining the structure of the course. Let's say the course is Modern European Intellectual History. He then announces that all students will be required to submit a research essay at the end of the term. Everyone moans. Your instructor can then say one of two things: [1] "Everyone is to write a research essay on Nietzsche's Thus Spoke Zarathustra." That's it. He explains that he will hand out the topic and general instructions in a week or two. Or, [2] he could say "I would like you all to submit a research essay on a subject of your choice." This is even more difficult than the first scenario because now it's up to you. With a topic as broad as Modern European Intellectual History, you are to choose a topic which embraces 200, perhaps 500, years of the western intellectual tradition. So what do you do?

Well, choose your topic carefully. That goes without saying. Choose a topic in which you are interested in some way. Conducting research on a topic which doesn't interest you makes for a boring life. So try to select a topic about which you do have some genuine interest. Of course, trying to select a topic in a class which has just begun is difficult. I can't tell you how many times I have chosen a topic in the first two or three weeks of class only to find that in the seventh week the instructor was talking about something I found more interesting. Given this problem, what do you do?

It's all a matter of judgment. The ideal topic is one about which you think you already know something. Perhaps you had encountered some event, or theory, or person, or war, or idea or something, and you want to know more. That's where selecting the topic of your essay can be easier to do.

If your instructor has given you a few weeks to decide then get to work right away. He will probably ask you to submit a proposal. I ask my own students to submit a one page essay which specifies the title of the proposed essay, a description of what the essay is to be about and a short list of books the student might have consulted. I also ask that the student mention any problems they might have encountered thus far. In the unlikely event that your instructor does not ask you to submit a proposal, you ought to ask him if he will look at one you have written. Better safe than sorry.

The bottom line is this: if your instructor has left the topic totally up to you, then choose carefully. You must choose something for which information exists. Choosing a topic upon which 2000 books and journal articles may have already been written in the past ten years is not such a good idea. Why? Well, you'd be covering a topic that your instructor already knows well and that makes for boring reading on the part of your instructor. Also, if you choose a topic in which your instructor is the expert, you may find yourself fighting a losing battle. It's much better to select a topic that interests you and also contributes to your overall understanding of the course in which you are enrolled.

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Copyright � 2000 Steven Kreis
Last Revised -- April 13, 2012
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