The Jolly Librarian Considers The Problem of Too Much Versus Too Little Choice

One of my favorite students approached the desk today and announced that she needed help with her research paper.

“What’s your topic?” I asked.

“That’s my problem,” she said. “Our instructor said it could be on anything we feel strongly about.”

“So what do you feel strongly about?”

She shrugged. “I don’t know.”

After throwing out topics for several minutes, I sent her away to brainstorm.

In the library, we often work with students who’ve been given the assignment of choosing a subject that interests them for their research paper. Now this would not seem to be so hard. After all, on any given day, I hear students in the lounges and the parking lots arguing passionately over politics, religion, morality, sports, and, of course, the inherent unfairness of the present educational system. Any of these could be turned into a good research project.  But the same student who will passionately follow another down the hall proclaiming that owners are the real villains in team lockouts suddenly becomes dumbstruck when faced with the choice of a research paper topic.

There are several reasons for this: Students may not feel that their interests are ‘important’ enough for such a project. They may be afraid there won’t be sources. They fear that the choice may lead to not finding good sources and ultimate failure. Or maybe, faced with so many choices, they freeze and can’t make one.

It can be frustrating for the instructor who knows that good research comes from curiosity, and a student who owns the research question is more likely to find better sources, take more time on the paper, and have an essay that’s both compelling and interesting to read. It’s even more frustrating because if students hate open choice research paper assignments, they are not happier with assigned ones.

More than once, a student has sighed deeply at the circulation desk and emphatically stated, “If I didn’t have to research this stupid topic, I could do a much better job. No one cares about this.”

So what is the poor professor to do? Having assigned both types of papers, I know that, unless I just gave up on research papers altogether, I was never going to make everyone happy. So I tried to make the assignments focused with choice for individual preferences, but still there were students who felt I had not given enough direction and some who thought I was taking away their authorial freedom.

But I can hear my student friends saying, “Forget about the teachers. They assigned this. They deserve what they get. What about us? What can we do?”

 I don’t claim to be an expert, but just an old warrior who has lived through many, many research papers of various kinds. So here is some advice culled from over the years:

  • When the topic is assigned, don’t automatically assume it won’t be interesting to you. Remember, that somewhere out there, someone is dedicating his/her life to the academic study of that field. Try to find a way to make it relevant to your interests. Maybe drug abuse bores you, but you love sports. Look at steroid or performance-enhancing agents. Maybe you don’t particularly care about the great love between Jane Eyre and Mr. Rochester in your paper on the novel, but you like education. Maybe you can focus on  Bronte’s critique of education during the Lowood chapters.
  • If you can choose any topic, calm down. Don’t just go to the library and pick the first topic that seems to have lots of books about it (Yes, I know that we’re an electronic age, but I still know many of you hope for that one book that will give you everything you need to know about the topic.) Instead, brainstorm a list of things that you care about, find interesting, or argue about. What are the topics that seem to catch your interest when you’re online? Then go from there. 

Too many choices can seem overwhelming at first. When I bought a new car recently, after the first day of doing research, I longed for the day many years ago when my dad came home and said, “There’s one car in Huntsville you can afford. Do you want it?”  There were just too many cars, and that was before I even considered colors, drink holders, electronic stability systems, etc.

But once I calmed down and started a list of what was important to me, things got a little easier to handle. I knew I wanted a compact wagon. I knew how much I was willing to pay. Each round made it easier to narrow in on my choices. Soon, I had gone from every car being made that year to three.

Even though it comes with its own set of problems, I’ll take choice over no-choice every time.



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