Going from Micro to Macro

One of the great challenges when working with students is convincing them that it’s OK to narrow their research topics. Students commonly report that beginning a research paper (understanding the scope of the assignment, picking a topic, and finding a question to answer) is usually the most challenging part. Alison Head’s 2007 article in First Monday about the results of focus groups and surveys with college students at one college noted that “[t]rying to figure out what constituted a professor’s expectations for an assignment caused…the most frustration.”

From what I’ve seen, students flounder around in a sea of broad topics at the outset of the research process for a variety of reasons:

  • Lack of domain expertise. They usually don’t know enough about the topic yet to know what sub-topics, sub-sub-topics, sub-sub-sub topics, etc. exist. Reading/skimming around, presearching, talking to someone else (teacher, librarian, friend, etc.) are all strategies that can help at this early stage if the student has set aside enough time for it.
  • Fear of picking a topic that’s too narrow. Students often worry that the professor won’t approve of a topic that . Students believe they need to impress their professor with grand topics, that they need to demonstrate that they have wrestled with mighty issues. Students also fear that they won’t find enough sources on topics that are too granular.
  • Limited ideas about how to use sources. Students commonly have very basic notions about how to use sources creatively and strategically. They tend to limit their searches to those sources that that they believe will directly discuss their topic and back up their assertions; they rarely think about finding sources that will complicate their assertions. (For more on helping students understand how to think more broadly about source use, see my post about using Joseph Bizup’s BEAM model; also take a look at Mark Gaipa’s article in Pedagogy, “Breaking into the Conversation: How Students Can Acquire Authority for Their Writing”).

Because students can’t see how they can crossbreed sources across disciplines and topics, they tend to think their research topics should be broad, as that’ll make it easier to find sources. We must convince them that a narrow topic can be connected in lots of interesting ways to larger topics and disciplines, that sources from left field can be deployed in defensible ways in their papers (see Joseph Bizup and the BEAM model). I recently stumbled across these lines by William Blake in “Auguries of Innocence” that have inspired me to work harder at communicating this essential cognitive skill we want to teach, the move from micro to macro:

To see a world in a grain of sand
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.

I think I may have a new poetic pitch to deliver to the students I work with. Here’s hoping it helps.