Friday, September 30, 2016

The Blacklist: Topics to AVOID for your college paper


Last week, we talked about how to pick a topic for your college essay. This week, we talk about topics to AVOID. 
This article originally appeared on the Grantham Blog in 2014.

One of the challenges students face in college writing is topic selection.
Some instructors determine in advance what topics their students are allowed to write about; others give students a more or less free rein.
The good thing about such a course is that you may get to write about a topic that already interests you. The bad thing? You have to choose your topic wisely.
The Blacklist of Topics
Some instructors allow students to write about anything they wish; others discourage certain topics or ban them outright. Often called “the Blacklist,” these topics rarely result in good college essays. Although the Blacklist varies from professor to professor, it commonly includes the following topics:
  • abortion
  • stem cell research
  • same-sex marriage
  • legalization of marijuana or other drugs
  • gun control/gun issues in general
  • any sports-related topic
  • death penalty
Topics like these should be avoided for three reasons:
1. "Not This Topic Again!"
Students often select these topics because they aren’t sure what else to write about and they can easily find information about the topics via a quick search of the Internet.
However, students with nothing new to say about abortion or the legalization of marijuana often lapse into summary, merely repeating what their sources have already said instead of making an original argument. Professors cringe when they get such papers. Some want to tear out what little hair they have left.
Other times, students are so dead set on their position that they make questionable claims. If you support the legalization of marijuana because you tried it and turned out just fine, you might want to consider whether or not it is advisable to admit to engaging in an activity that is still illegal in some states.
And it’s tough to make an original argument about divisive issues, which leads us to Reason No. 2:
2. "You're Wrong, and I'll Prove It!"
“Hot button” topics polarize readers who already have strong opinions about them. You can turn on the television and watch most any debate on gun control turn into a shouting match.
Some instructors also have strong opinions about certain issues. Your argument to the contrary is not likely to change their minds, which defeats the purpose of writing the argument. But aren’t professors supposed to be objective?  Yes and no. Professors are human beings, too. The last thing any writer wants to do is bore or antagonize the audience.
Besides, if you have strong feelings on a topic and aren't willing to change your mind, what makes you think your readers will change theirs?
3. Preaching to the Choir
Some topics matter only to readers who already have a strong interest in them.  For example, if you want to argue that so-and-so should be considered the greatest baseball player ever, your audience is already limited to fans of baseball.  
Even so, only fans of that particular player or those who believe someone else should be considered the greatest are likely to care.  (And, in the latter case, you are unlikely to convince them otherwise — see No. 2, above). For other readers, it simply won’t matter who the “greatest player” is.
So, if you can’t write about these topics, what should you write about?  
Begin with your own life and your community. What interests you enough that you want to know more about it? What problems do you see need that need to be addressed? Browse your college databases to get a sense of what topics are relevant to your field of study.
If you have any concerns about whether or not your topic is on the Blacklist, ask your instructor before you proceed. 

Saturday, September 24, 2016

How to Choose a Winning College Essay Topic

Sorry it's been a while since this blog was active. There are some big changes afoot in Greg Gildersleeve Land, including a new Power Club website. Meanwhile, I'm returning to this blog and expanding the focus. Since all writing is connected (at least in my mind), and good writers should be able to do a variety of things, I'm including some non-superhero and non-how-to-be-a-writer topics. 
This first offering addresses something that vexes college students everywhere. It originally appeared on the Grantham Blog. Enjoy.

Writing a persuasive paper or a researched argument can be a daunting task for online students, particularly when you’re given the freedom to choose your own topic.  What topic should you pick when the sky is the limit?
So, you pick a hot subject of the day. You go online, find sources both for and against the topic, write your paper, make sure everything is cited properly, and sit back in anticipation of the A that is surely yours.
Then the paper comes back.
“I got a C!”  What’s up with that?
You did everything the instructor wanted, didn’t you?
Well, yes and no.                     
From someone who has graded hundreds of papers, here are three factors to consider when choosing an essay topic.
Hot Topics are Lukewarm
The problem with selecting a “hot” topic is that you must have something new to say about it.  When instructors ask for an argument, they are not looking for a summary of what other sources say or a rehash of others’ arguments.  They want you to bring something new to the academic conversation.
No “Safe” Topics
To write well, you must take risks.  Writing means exposing some aspect of your soul, your thinking, or your inner world to an audience who is going to react to it. 
For example: When I was in college... I was (and still am) a huge fan of Star Trek.  However, I grew up with the notion that a science fiction television and movie series was not worthy of “serious” discussion in school.  Then, during my freshman year, I took an upper-level course called Transformations of Myth through Time.
One of the required readings was Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces.  In this influential scholarly work, Campbell identifies the paradigm of the hero—a universal pattern that occurs in the heroic literature and mythologies of diverse cultures throughout history.  To me, this paradigm sounded eerily familiar: It reminded me of the back story of Star Trek’s iconic Vulcan character, Mr. Spock.  
So, I wrote a paper showing how Spock’s fictional history could easily be plugged into Campbell’s paradigm. Comparing and contrasting a popular modern character to ancient and universal themes increased my own understanding and appreciation of Star Trek.  It also held significant implications for readers.
Guess what?  I got an A.
When you write a college-level essay, you must look beyond your immediate audience (your professor) and consider who, in a larger context, should read your words.
“Safe” topics won’t take you there.  They ask nothing of the reader because they ask nothing of you, the writer.
Dare to Be Original
Select a topic in which you have a deep, personal interest.   Better yet: draw a topic from your own life—something that excites or annoys you.  A topic you care about is one you will invest the time and effort to research.  It is one you probably already know a great deal about.  It also has significant consequences for your audience, should they accept your viewpoint.
That isn’t to say your topic must be earth shaking.  In fact, the smaller, “quieter,” and off-the-wall topics sometimes work best.
Look for connections between your own life and interests and the material you are studying.  Write something original. Write something you would want to read.
Apprehensive about whether or not the topic will go over well with the professor?
Ask first.  Professors don’t bite. They love it when students save themselves (and the professor) time by troubleshooting a topic first.
Keep in mind that your professor has probably read hundreds or thousands of papers on those hot topics that have been covered to death.  Dare to be different.