Terrible Paper Topics and How to Prevent Them

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!

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3 thoughts on “Terrible Paper Topics and How to Prevent Them

  1. ” You know what else doesn’t exist? A scholarly source on the meaning of the lyrics of the latest Taylor Swift hit. ” Yes! We have an English professor who gives students an assignment to argue why a song of their choice should be considered poetry. It’s a cool assignment, but the instructor requires students to use a peer-reviewed journal article. So we do get students thinking they’ll find a peer-reviewed journal about a Taylor Swift song. When we get to do a one-shot for this instructor, we emphasize in class that they won’t be able to find that. So instead, we’re trying to help students find general information about elements of poetry (imagery, metaphor) that they could apply to their song choice, but peer-reviewed articles are definitely not the best source for that. So sometimes we see assignments that are great, but the instructors’ requirements are the terrible part.

    One of the things I try to do to combat this is speak to department meetings and new faculty orientations, and let them know that librarians can look over their assignments to make sure their requirements match our resources.

    Related topic: scavenger hunts. TERRIBLE scavenger hunts.

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  2. Jane, your comment made me laugh out loud! Yes, sometimes it’s the professor’s fault. I think they forget that we are not the research library they are used to from when they were working on their PhD. And I think scavenger hunts could easily be another post all to themselves! They’re nice in theory, but they rarely come out the way we (or the instructor) hope they will.

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  3. How about requiring students to meet with the librarian who will tell them whether their topic is feasible or work with them to make it feasible. I have an instructor who requires 5 sources for a demonstration speech. Popular topics include, how to bake a cake, how to throw a baseball, I even had one who wanted to show how to do the Heimlich maneuver. I’ve tried telling students to think more broadly, to look for fun facts to spice up their speeches, but I still get students who want articles from our databases on how to throw a baseball. I tried to talk to the instructor about at least reducing the amount of sources, and she did – for her online classes, not her in person classes. Why do instructors want quantity over meaningful endeavors?

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