The Essential Nine: Choosing Topics For The Dreaded Composition Research Paper

Whenever I teach academic writing that involves research, I usually assign an open topic essay as the biggest writing project of the semester. Despite the fact that my students have already gained an ample amount of research experience, they always break a sweat at the beginning of the open topic essay.
What am I supposed to write about for 10-15 pages?” they all want to know.

And I suppose I don’t make it easy for them to generate ideas: nothing terrifies my students more than a thirty-minute diatribe on unacceptable topics, which, for me, range from hot button issues like gun control and abortion to anything they may have written for a high school research project.

On several occasions, I have encountered sighs, grunts, and moans while giving my “Unacceptable Topics” lecture, and when it’s over, I always look up from my notes into what I can only describe as a sea of alarm, with waves of shocked silence broken only by the sound of a barely audible curse word or two.

My olive branch materializes in the form of a class discussion on what I like to call the “Essential Nine”. These nine different approaches to the research essay have never failed to pique student interest, and when I use them as springboards for possible topics, not only do I get a variety of different kinds of research papers-every instructor’s dream-but sometimes students get so excited that the project becomes a painless experience, one they actually enjoy.

The “Essential Nine” encourage students to personalize their research essays by exploring their individual interests and experiences. These nine different approaches dispel the idea of research as a global kind of writing activity, one in which students feel they must have a formal, detached relationship with their chosen topic. The “Essential Nine” promote a more localized way of writing, insisting students write about a world in which they already live, as opposed to one composed of ideas or theories far removed from their daily lives.

The “Essential Nine” ask students to:

Consider their outside interests. Even busy college students make time to visit the gym, catch a movie, or attend a concert, so thinking about their hobbies might prompt a topic worth exploring more.

Think about their career paths. College is generally one in a series of steps students will take in order to achieve their ultimate goal of becoming a nurse, a lawyer, an entrepreneur. A topic generated from this approach gives students a chance to assess where they’ve been, where they are now, and where they intend to be in the future.

Explore the jobs they hold now. Even full-time students have some kind of job experience, whether as a summer lifeguard at the local Y, or maybe even a work- study student in a computer lab. These experiences offer all kinds of possibilities for research writing that students may be unaware of.

Develop a guide to ____. Spring Break, summer vacation, weddings…all these events take planning, and planning takes research, so students who might want to get a head start, or those who want to demonstrate their ability to make fiscally responsible choices, might enjoy this kind of approach to the research essay.

Consider their unusual talents. This one gets a lot of laughs from students, but think about the following scenario: a student can burp the entire alphabet. He does some research to find out how people burp, what causes burps, and so on. He consults the Guinness Book of World Records for burping champions. Maybe he interviews a guy he knows who can burp the alphabet twice without stopping, or a doctor who’s convinced burping is good for your heart. He consults medical journals to see if burping provides any other health benefits. And before he knows it, he’s got more than enough research to complete the project, not to mention more than a few conversational tidbits about burping he may or may not care to share with others.

Trace their roots. Genealogy is a great way to discover more about the most important person in a student’s life: themselves. Not only can students research people, but also places, professions, and history.

Consider organizations they belong to or want to join. What better way is there to help students make informed decisions about fraternities, sororities, or other social, academic, or recreational clubs than to have them research these organizations at the local, national, and even international levels?

Location, location, location. Students can create informative, and often quite entertaining, research essays when they re-count some of the places they may have had a chance to visit at some point in their lives.

Think about their own world: the university. This approach to the research essay allows students the opportunity to educate themselves on the community in which they live, and might even prompt students to raise questions about, or offer solutions to, policies, procedures, and problems that directly affect them.

Once the class has had an ample amount of time to discuss these approaches, I usually ask each student to generate a list of questions regarding possible topics for the next class meeting. These questions are designed to help students move out of the realm of possibility and into the realm of the thesis statement.
Because of the “Essential Nine,” I can proudly say I’ve never had a student who wasn’t able to come up with a topic for the research essay. In fact, once we discussed the “Essential Nine,” most students had more trouble deciding which approach would yield the best results.

The sea of anger quickly dissolves in the end, and most of my students leave the classroom-dare I say?-inspired…well, as inspired as they can be about having to write a research paper anyway. And because I am continually impressed with the essays they create, I’ll continue to employ the “Essential Nine” in my introductory class on the open topic research essay…the idea of tearing down students’ preconceived notions in order to develop their writing abilities, though it might be a bit militant, is also very effective.