Any assignment, whether major or minor, is usually easier and more enjoyable if it is focused on a topic about which you are interested and excited. One of the questions to think about when coming up with a topic, then, is first and foremost: What interests you? What do you care about, in the context of the assignment or course? Taking this as a starting point will lead to fruitful possibilities for the topic of your assignment.
Here is just one example of freewriting:
…Freewriting. what is freewriting? maybe it is just letting yourself go writing whatever comes to your head. it’s a little different from brainstorming, at least it seems different to me, but how. well, brainstorming for me is coming up with ideas and making associations, when I brainstorm I usually list my ideas and then try to come see how they connect I usually draw arrows and circles and by the time I am done I have a kind of chart that tells me where I’m going, but when I freewrite it’s different because I just let the language unwind and I tend to think in more or less complete sentences but I don’t worry about grammar or style or if I’m making transitions between my ideas. what I do instead is just to let my thoughts unfurl like a flag and flap around in the breeze, and even if I don’t come up with anything all that interesting freewriting loosens me up and lets me see that I can write, all I have to do is push buttons, and pushing buttons is a lot more fun than just sitting and staring at a blank screen… (source: Dartmouth College Writing Guide)
Once you have written something, reread it and identify the main thoughts and any interesting points. Look for questions and ideas that might be worth pursuing.
Adapted from: Dartmouth College, Writing Program, “Coming up with your topic”, accessed March 5, 2010.
As you start your research, you will want to keep in mind the types of sources expected in your assignment, and keep track of the kinds of sources you find.
One of the first questions to think about is whether or not a source may be considered “scholarly”. Scholarly, or academic, sources are not the only sources acceptable for work at the university level. But they do make up the majority of research and writing within which professors and graduate students situate their own work, and often make up the bulk of assigned readings and coursework for undergraduates.
It is important to be able to identify whether or not a source may be considered scholarly, though there are grey areas. (When in doubt, ask for guidance from a librarian and/or your instructors!) More generally, identifying some key characteristics of sources can also help you in evaluating how they might best be used in making your claim or argument.
Scholarly sources (also known as academic, peer-reviewed, or refereed) are written by experts in a particular field and serve to keep others interested in that field up to date on the most recent research, findings, and news. These resources will provide the most substantial information for your research and papers.
Peer-reviewed means a source has been reviewed and evaluated by a board of colleagues in the author’s field. Reviewers assess the source as part of the body of research for a particular discipline, and make recommendations regarding its publication in a journal, determine whether there is a need for revisions before publication, and, in some cases, determine whether to reject the source for publication.
Students most often confuse scholarly and popular sources when using a variety of sources from journal articles, books, and magazines.
Journal articles are the most common kind of peer-reviewed source you will likely come across in your geography research. They tend to have these characteristics in common:
Source: University of Minnesota Library.
Journals are organized in a variety of ways, but one of the most useful is to search a database that includes many journals. See below (section on “Library Resources”) and check with the library website and/or a librarian for help in navigating a search using a range of article characteristics such as: author name, key words, title, subject, and date.
Journals are available online through the library website, and sometimes available in hard copy in the Periodicals Department of the library. Many of the articles you may find when searching a database will be available in an online “full text” format (usually a pdf that can be downloaded and printed). Generally, your instructors will not consider such articles “online sources”, even though you may have found them online. If in doubt, ask your instructors about their requirements for the number or type of online sources.
Books can often be characterized as having scholarly or popular emphases by the type of publisher and intended audience. (Just because a book is nonfiction does not mean it is scholarly!) Some things to consider about books:
Popular journalistic sources such as magazines tend to be written by non-specialists (often journalists), are not peer-reviewed, and are intended for a more general audience. They will generally not provide the level of analysis and expertise of journal articles. (But hey might be useful as reflections of particular phenomena in which you may be interested and which you may analyze in the course of your writing.)
Source: University of Minnesota Library.
Websites also may be considered a scholarly or academic source, although certainly the vast majority of websites are not! In addition to some of the concerns above, another consideration for websites is the validity or accuracy of the information presented. Think about the following aspects of online sources, to start to determine how they might fit into your project:
Most academic assignments rely on more than your own opinions or experiences (though some certainly do). Especially when working on a research paper or project, you have to find sources – such as those characterized above – to build your central argument.
The ability to find the information you need, to carry out research, is a fundamental skill.
Access today is usually through the web:
The University of Minnesota Libraries website gives you access to all of these types of information. As opposed to using a general search engine such as Google, the library can provide more focused, narrow, and potentially more relevant searches.
The library website can provide you with:
Catalogs: to search for print materials, microformatted material (microform, microfiche), videos, maps, sound recordings, digital books, digital journals, databases and indexes in all University of Minnesota libraries and special collections.
Indexes: search engines that allow you to search for specific articles on a topic, some of which may be available in “full text” form online. Some indexes are focused by subject, or allow you to search government documents, books and book chapters, dissertations, theses, and images.
E-journals: if you know a specific journal, you can access it through the library website e-journals page. You can then browse within online versions of the journal, and search articles within that journals using keywords, author, date, etc..
You can search the library quite generally, or search within specific databases or particular journals. Databases organized by subject can be very helpful. Along with a variety of other fields, the library has such databases and other resources specifically organized for Geography.
This section includes material reproduced from:
“Evaluating Internet Sources”, University Library at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, accessed March 2, 2010.
This section includes material adapted from:
“Popular or Scholarly?”, University of Minnesota Libraries, 2003, accessed March 10, 2010.
A topic you are considering may be so broad that it will be hard to successfully write about it based on the expectations for the assignment. Sometimes your topic will be too narrow, depending on the expectations of your instructor as outlined in the assignment. You may get feedback to either narrow or expand your topic – but how do you do this?
Look for specific examples.
Consider focusing on particular and important aspects of the larger context.
So far, your topic for a class presentation is: “Biotic factors in urban forests”. This seems important from the course reading. However, “biotic” can be interpreted to mean any living thing in an ecosystem. That’s pretty broad! Would a specific example help? You have heard quite a bit about the Emerald Ash Borer in the Twin Cities metro area. These insects are moving westward from other regions of the upper Midwest and eating up ash trees – have there been management strategies that have helped minimize the loss of trees in other urban areas? What is the response in the Twin Cities? How will this affect different neighborhoods in the metro area? Are there two or three neighborhoods you might compare?
In this case, a specific example can provide a way to focus your topic so that you can develop a better set of questions to get your research underway. So, your refined topic might be: “Impacts of Emerald Ash Borer in Three Twin Cities Neighborhoods”. This will need even further work to develop a problem and thesis, but is much more manageable than your original topic!
How is your topic connected to other concepts, facts, or theoretical approaches?
Consider your topic from another vantage.
Consider the larger context.
In many assignments, you are asked to develop an argument. This can also be thought of as a claim or assertion about your topic, and is called the thesis of your paper. You will develop several key supporting points to your thesis based on your interpretation and explanation of the evidence you present, in order to defend your assertion about the topic.
The thesis and the topic are not the same thing. Once you have identified your topic – usually a fairly broad area of interest (see section #4 above: Coming up with a Topic) – you need to think about how it might become an interesting ‘problem’ or question that you can explore and answer within the context and constraints of the assignment (e.g. a 3-5 page paper for a particular geography course). This process might be called ‘problematizing’ your topic.
This last and more specific set of questions points directly to a particular institution, identifies a neighborhood adjacent to the institution, and identifies a single significant feature (housing). If this were your project, you must now decide about a time frame, select which housing-related variables will be examined, and consider how to find the information needed.
There is no formula for when or how to do this – but it will help to begin focusing your interests within your topic early in the process. You may need to go back and forth between (1) researching the available information and existing work on your topic, and (2) refining how you define the problem within your topic that you will eventually develop into your thesis.
Don’t feel pressure to come up with your thesis immediately. It often takes an outline or draft before you develop your thesis. Your thesis can be thought of as an assertion or proposition with which the reader may agree or disagree – ideally one that is interesting to the reader!
The thesis is communicated by the thesis statement – a sentence that states your assertion and suggests your interpretation and analysis. Most often the thesis statement comes towards the end of the Introduction (see section #10 Structure and Organization). Thesis statements sometimes begin with “I will argue that…”.
The purpose statement is related, but different, from the thesis statement. Rather than stating the argument of the paper, the purpose statement provides a road map to the reader and outlines the purpose and scope of the project (e.g. “This paper examines…”). Your instructor may have specific instructions regarding purpose and thesis statements.
This section adapted from:
University of Minnesota, Master of Liberal Arts Program, Instructions for Final Project, accessed February 20, 2010. Also, Swarthmore College Writing Center, “Developing a Thesis Statement”, accessed March 10, 2010.