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Finding that elusive spark

posted: 10.19.12 by archived

If you’re not writing memoir, you’re writing a research paper, I tell my students. If it’s not already inside your head, you’re seeking out some sort of “outside” source to write from. But as we get towards mid-semester, it’s the big R-Research Paper that’s been on my mind and just how to handle it this semester.  I’ve told my students we’re doing a multimodal research project, made up of several smaller pieces (an argument, something image-based, some primary research), but I’ve been vague about topic.  So I’ve been scouring around for possibilities, examples to help me convey to my students what I’ve got in mind.

What I ran across was “Greeting cards are getting slammed by social media.” It drew my attention because of my interest in how technology is changing social connections, my appreciation of handwritten artifacts, my disdain for prepackaged sentiment and too-obvious rhymes. I noted some numerical evidence (and thought of other sorts of statistics I might be able to find): “According to a U.S. Postal Service study, correspondence such as greeting cards fell 24 percent between 2002 and 2010. Invitations alone dropped nearly 25 percent just between 2008 and 2010.” I remembered some cards I have stashed away: a Spanish dancer birthday card my father had improbably sent my mother during their courtship; a Snoopy card sent to ask my fifteen-year-old self for a date; a flowery card of best wishes from fellow workers when I left my job at the library. I thought about the personal timeline these cards would define for me. Widening my scope to the historical, I could construct a photo essay of greeting cards through the decades of the twentieth century. Digging through my boxes, I found these baby cards from my birth and my oldest daughter’s, fodder for a visual analysis to contrast attitudes towards birth and family roles:










A quick search turned out some relevant database articles from periodicals such as The Journal of American Culture and Basic and Applied Social Psychology and a promising book, A Token of My Affection: Greeting Cards and American Business Culture. I could visit the local Hallmark store or Papyrus for an ethnographic approach, or I could explore online e-card sites for some primary research.

What I like (and what I’m trying to avoid). It’s this sort of excitement and richness of possibility that I want my students to find in their research topics. I’d like them to see the limited and local transform to the vivid and evocative, the personal to open into the cultural and historical and sociological (substitute your favorite academic discipline). I’d like them to find fresh topics that they can examine and research, not as a robotic process of looking for evidence to shoe-horn into an already-formed view but rather an enjoyable search sparked by authentic curiosity in the manner of Ken Macrorie’s The I-Search Paper. (Translation: I want students to find topics fresher than outlawing abortion or lowering the drinking age, more controversial the health risks of smoking or the crisis of childhood obesity, and more manageable than global warming or the war in Afghanistan.)

For many years I’ve known that was the goal; my problem has always been how to help students find these fresh, engaging topics and exactly what guidelines the assignment should provide. Sometimes I’ve given students a choice of several topics (for several semesters it was Celebration, Florida or bottled water or computer spam), but like Jay Dolmage, I feel that finding a topic is “an essential and important part of the writing process.” So the past few years I’ve been encouraging students to keep their antennae out for possible topics, bringing in stacks of magazines and lists of sites for them to sift through, and I give multiple examples the topics I have found, but so far my success has been limited. This semester I’m trying more consciously to stimulate curiosity and give them opportunities to practice that habit of mind.

What I’m trying:

  • Personal-to-public photographs. I’ve asked students to connect the personal to the public by posting on their blogs personal photographs that raise public issues. In class I suggested a photo of an over-indulgent Christmas morning, which might raise questions about appropriate toys for various ages, the yearly budget of the American family or the economic impact of Black Friday, the environmental dangers of wrapping paper. (Norman Rockwell paintings or iconic photographs could serve the same purpose.)
  • Evocative objects. I plan to do a similar exercise with photographs of objects that have resonance; I can explain what I mean by this, I’m hoping, by showing examples, of political signs on neighbors’ lawns, TV dinners, ghost bicycles, designer shoes, and participation trophies for young athletes.
  • The personal behind the infographic.  To reverse by connecting public to personal, I plan to ask students to browse the categories at a site such as, to find a researched poster that connects to something in their own lives, and then to post on their blogs a link to the infographic along with a brief explanation of the personal connection.

Do you have any tricks up your sleeve to help students find some fresh topics they care about researching? If so, please share with the rest of us in the comments below (or offer your counterargument, perhaps, that students instead should be able to write engagingly on whatever topic they’re assigned).

Categories: Holly Pappas
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