How to Choose a Paper Topic

This page is closely related to the "How to Write a Prospectus" page. You write a prospectus once you have a general topic. Finding a topic is just the first step, as you'll see on that page.


In a survey course, people often have a hard time deciding on a topic. This can be for several reasons. Nothing in the course might seem interesting. Or, everything might seem interesting. Many would much rather just have a topic assigned.


At a university level, though, it is important to go through the process of developing a topic (and then a question and a thesis, as you'll see in the prospectus page). Especially in a humanities or philosophy course, you need to learn to recognize what's worth being interested in, and what's worth caring about.


The first thing to do is to see if you can relate the course material to something that you are already interested in. The obvious place to look would be to your major or minor. Since humanities draws from so many disciplines, you can likely find a topic that relates to something you already know. That doesn't mean that you should just write the paper on what you already know, though. It is a starting place, not a finishing place.


So, let's suppose that you are interested in art. We do lots of art in humanities. That, in itself, isn't a topic. So, the next step is to think about some of the themes of the course. You can get these from the lectures (or your notes) and the texts. For example, each chapter of the Fiero book has a kind of organizing theme. You could take one of those themes and apply it to an example or area other than what Fiero does. Or, take some of the themes from the lectures. We've talked a lot about the rise of individualism, about the nature of visuality, about the nature of modernity. Those would be excellent places to look for a topic.


You should probably be able to come up with a few possibilities. That's when you start to winnow out the good ideas from the bad. You can come to me with those ideas, and I'd be happy to help focus them, or to suggest alternatives. Then, you should go through the process outlined in the "Prospectus" page - even if I haven't asked you to hand in a prospectus. It is still a good process to help you focus the paper. Bad papers generally have bad questions, and students don't know how to answer them. Good papers have good questions. That means that, once you have a topic, you need to figure out what question you are asking about that topic. Papers aren't written on topics, but on questions.


I would be happy to help you with the questions as well. Send me an email, talk to me after class, come by my office.


Some, no doubt, will try to take the easy way out, avoid the work, and hand in a plagiarized paper. Please don't do it. If you get caught, the consequences can be severe. And I do catch people.