Do not encourage students to narrow their research topic (opinion)

“You have to refine your subject.”

How many times have you said those words? A student comes to ask for help with a research assignment and you can see that he is still lost in too broad a subject. So you ask, “Have you tried to reduce it?”

We’ve given this well-meaning advice ourselves to students working on term papers and to graduate advisors working on multi-year studies. “Narrow” is the verb academics usually use to encourage students to focus, delineate scope, focus on specific sources, and make their project feasible.

Narrow is also the gospel of most research guides. In How to write a thesisUmberto Eco warns students to ‘remember this fundamental principle: ‘the more you restrict [restringe] in the field, the better and safer you will work.’”

The research profession echoes Eco. List your topics of interest first, the authors recommend, “then narrow them down to one or two promising topics.” Still not feeling focused? A broad topic, they continue, “can daunt you with the task of finding, let alone reading, even a fraction of the available sources. So reduce it.

The logic is valid, at least on the face of it: a narrow subject is easier to work on than a broad one, and students indeed need to move from overly broad interests to specific concerns.

But there is a loophole to this advice: a student who follows it will most likely end up just as lost as they were before, only this time in a slightly narrower wilderness.

We call this the Narrow-Down-Your-Topic trap.

In itself, even a narrow subject is never enough, because it always leaves the essential unanswered. How? ‘Or’ What and Why questions that underpin all meaningful and rewarding research. Even when a student manages to narrow down their topic, they may still have no idea what they are actually working on. Limiting a subject does not bring them closer to the real question they must ask themselves: what is the problem who is hiding behind their project that will propel it forward?

Simply put, you can’t smash your way out of Topic Land.

Topic Land is a world in which all research activity is organized by things – sometimes general things, sometimes specific things – rather than by the questions and concerns one has about and with those things. When you try to escape Topic Land via shrinkage – making the start and end dates closer together, choosing one topic instead of three to focus on – you just end up in a corner of Topic Land (call it Subtopic Land).

The only way to escape Topic Land – and you have to escape it! – is to understand what your problem is.

“Problem” here doesn’t mean “a negative thing” (obviously) but rather the specific existential irritant that keeps a seeker up at night or directs their eyes and ears to certain sights and sounds rather than others. A problem is a deep, personal turmoil that haunts the researcher wherever he goes: on the subway, at the breakfast table, and on vacation, as well as in the lab, archive, and field.

We are not the first to point out the importance of the problems, of course. Eco himself points out in the first sentence of his book that research is about tackling “a particular problem [problema] in [the] chosen domain. However, after telling us how big the problems are, neither Eco nor most other research guides tell us much about how to identify them. Nor, for that matter, our education systems in general.

Students who tend to be praised are those who seem the smartest when talking about an assigned topic. We reward articulation. We encourage beginners much less often to do the more risky introspective work of finding their problem.

The problem against the subject

How, then, can instructors help students understand something as personal as their research problem?

Let’s say a student comes in during office hours and tells the instructor that he has found a research topic that interests him: feng shui. A topical response would be to immediately recommend books and articles on feng shui and perhaps related studies in geomancy and divination.

In contrast, a problem-focused response would be to ask, “When did this topic first occur to you?” What was the context? What are the challenges for you? Why choose this particular subject rather than others?

When faced with such probing questions, most students take the spotlight away from themselves. Additionally, high achievers tend to unleash the full power of their A-level vocabulary. “Feng shui is a window into the production of non-Western knowledge,” one student might reply. “The practice of feng shui helps us better understand China’s transition from tradition to modernity,” they might add. In other words, they try to avoid a discussion of why they themselves find feng shui interesting and instead appeal to external authorities, essentially stating that feng shui interests them because it interests people. others.

A more specific answer here might be to take these statements at face value, directing the student to focus their proposed paper on the variables that best match their reason for studying feng shui. “If you want to study feng shui as the production of knowledge, what period will you focus on? Which individuals? What part of China?

This answer would lead the student into a trap, however. After all, our students are trained from the start to deploy the words they imagine that will appeal to their instructors, admissions review boards, grant application committees, etc., to imitate, play. But when they do, they often end up getting bogged down in a more abstract region of Topic Land.

Instead of playing into this conditioned desire to appear articulate, a problem-focused response would be to lead the student back to the original set of questions.

“I know why I think feng shui is interesting,” you, the instructor, might respond. “But I’m still not clear: why do you find this so compelling? »

This is where a moment of breakthrough becomes possible – when a student feels safe enough to offer something more personal, vulnerable and uncertain: “My mother is a lawyer and the most rational person I know. Still, she believes in feng shui – really does – and I just don’t understand how.

Suddenly, the room opens, filling with questions that have no chance of emerging when the lens narrows: “What else should a ‘rational’ person not believe? Meditation? Reflexology? Numerology? Who or what defines this “rational/irrational” boundary? Is it because “rationality” depends on logic, and I think feng shui is illogical? »

This future project becomes gorgeous– in the literal sense of the word. It is now full of the researcher’s curiosity and questions. By beginning to identify his “problem with feng shui”, the student unlocked not only his enthusiasm, but several project options as well. They have already started to think of feng shui not as a subject but as a Case of a problem – a problem that they could also solve by studying other “irrational” practices. If they need a plan B, they now have several options.

Now, when the time comes to focus on one case study or another, they are equipped with an internal compass that helps them make that choice authentically rather than arbitrarily.

Create a climate conducive to exploration

This student (a real one, by the way) does not continue to write about his mother, mind you. The goal of a problem-oriented approach to research is not to produce autobiographical scholars, but rather scholars whose projects emanate from outside, from their centers rather than from outside in. . possibilities regarding the sources necessary for a research project that articulates with their interests.

To help your students solve their problem, create a climate in which they can engage in such vulnerable introspective work. Keep the conversation non-judgmental, with questions aimed at clarifying rather than challenging their speculations. The mode is exploratory and the goal is not to “look smart”.

This way of starting a research project achieves several objectives. First, it opens up a productive dynamic between the big picture (the problem) and the particular sources (the case) the student wants to investigate, encouraging a mode of inquiry that is kinetic rather than static. When the time comes to draw conclusions about the importance of the project, the student will be better equipped to do so and less likely to freeze up.

Second, it encourages the student to view their case study as one among many, prompting them to look beyond the predictable sources and find out how other researchers have tackled their problem. They are more likely to seek intellectual kindred spirits beyond their field and achieve more radical insight and originality.

And the benefits of this layout change extend far beyond the current project. With each future project, a problem-focused student will research the concern that drew them to the topic and sift through the many sources and studies available to focus on those that matter most.

So the next time you feel the need to tell a student to cut back on their topic, stop. Instead, try asking some of the following questions to get a better idea of ​​what is at the center of this topical interest and which case study might be best for their situation:

  • What do you wonder about this subject? What could be, for example, the top 10 factual questions you would like answered?
  • When did this subject come to your mind? Where were you at the time? What questions brought you to this topic? What sources or experiences made you think of this idea? Why do you think?
  • Beyond practical considerations for now (language skills, travel funding, etc.), what would be your ideal sources of information? What would you like this document/physical object/interview subject to reveal?
  • If you had to think for a moment in more abstract terms, what would be the scenario that most interests you here? If you were to take this matter out of its particular context, what could be the conundrum or more general conundrum you face?
  • let’s say the word [topic] did not appear in this study. What could be another way of formulating or explaining what you want to understand?

This type of non-judgmental conversation on a topic of interest will start to open things up instead of narrow them down. You will help the student find their research center by identifying the problem that they will carry with them throughout the research process.

The work is by no means finished. But now the student has many more ideas for the question why are you interested in this question that only he can answer – the question that will propel him out of Topic Land and into questions, sources and a workable project .

Jessica C. Bell