I helped a student today find a scholarly source for what I have to say was a truly terrible paper topic. Not the worst I’ve encountered, but not good either. Some of the best (by which I mean worst) that my colleagues and I have seen include an argumentative paper taking the side that aliens built ancient structures, a paper about how celebrities are all part of a secret society (the Illuminati), a similar history paper about how our founding fathers were part of the Illuminati (thanks Dan Brown!), and my personal favorite, an argumentative paper about how RVing can save people money. Then there was today’s request. This poor student needed a scholarly article about how to “get on your professor’s good side” for a paper that was due later today.
These terrible paper topics come about when professors allow students to write about “anything that interests them” and then approve topics without taking available resources into account. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t totally blame the professors. Goodness knows they are overworked and stretched thin, just like we are. I’m not writing this post to point fingers, but rather to discuss some ways that these sorts of topics could be avoided.
First, when librarians go into classes to do Information Literacy instruction, we usually know ahead of time what sort of assignment the students are working on. If we know that the students are picking their own topics, and I mean really picking their own topics, not just from a list the professor provided, we need to take the time to cover pre-research. Though I have to say, I wish there was a catchier, less groan-inspiring name for it. If anyone has a suggestion, leave it in the comments! Students need to understand that, especially in a two-year college library, they don’t have access to infinite sources on infinite topics. Not only that, they need to have an understanding of how and why information is created. Ever have a student ask for statistics on how many single mothers living below the poverty line were killed in drunk driving accidents last year in your county? Yeah, that statistic doesn’t exist. You know what else doesn’t exist? A scholarly source on the meaning of the lyrics of the latest Taylor Swift hit. I digress. The point is, if students had a better understanding of how and why information was created, not to mention what “scholarly” means, they would be less likely to pick a terrible paper topic.
My second idea falls to the faculty, but maybe librarians could make the suggestion. If a faculty member is going to allow students to choose a topic out of thin air, build a little library time into the assignment. Require that before they settle on one topic, they choose three topics and see what they can find in the library. If there is a paper requirement that at least one source be scholarly, make them find the scholarly source (or not) before they make their final topic selection. That way they’ll realize that maybe one of their topics doesn’t really lend itself to the kind of research their professor wants to see. Or maybe none of their topics does, and they need to rethink completely, but it’s better to figure that out at the beginning of the process than on the day the paper is due like my poor friend this morning, who actually said, “I wish I could change it, but it’s too late now.”
What other ideas do you have for avoiding terrible paper topics? And on the lighter side, what are some terrible paper topics you’ve heard over the years? Let the comments begin!