First, unless your instructor assigns a specific topic, you’ll need to think of one. This is often the toughest—and the most crucial—part of the process. Fortunately, the library can help! By following this series of steps, you can figure out your topic and be handing in that paper before you know it.
Click the links for details on each step:
1. Explore ideas for potential topics.
Right from the start of any class, you should always be asking yourself: What's starting to be really interesting to me? What do I find myself caring about? For example, you're taking an American history course, and when the class gets to the section on the 1960s Civil Rights Movement, something clicks. You're suddenly paying extra attention, thinking of lots of questions, and wanting to read and know more. This is the kind of topic you should choose for your research.
2. Ask a specific question about the topic you've chosen.
The Civil Rights Movement is an enormous subject, and your topic will be impossible to research if it is either too broad or too narrow. Once you’ve decided on a broad topic like the Civil Rights Movement, ask yourself: What it is it about this broad topic that interests me? Maybe you’re interested in the Civil Rights Movement’s music, in which case you might ask: How did music help to shape the actions of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement?
3. Make lists of keywords relating to your topic.
Now that you’ve asked the question, it’s time to think of some keywords that might relate to it. This will help you seek information sources about your topic. Initially, the keywords will probably be obvious. Just from the question itself, we can come up with:
Civil Rights Movement; music; 1960s
We can also think of some possibly related terms. For instance, many of the songs were likely to have African American influences, with Christian or gospel roots. So we could say that some more keywords might be:
Christian (or Christianity); gospel music; African American
4. Use reference sources to help you refine your topic.
Reference materials—that is, encyclopedias, dictionaries & handbooks —can be a big help at this point. These sources can quickly summarize the research in a given area and direct you to further reading. There are reference works on hundreds, even thousands, of highly specified topics. See what reference works have been written in the subjects you’ve identified as your keywords, and pretty soon you’ll have started to refine your research topic—gaining insights about some finer points, finding some new keywords, learning specific questions to ask.
5. Determine what kinds of scholars and experts would be interested in your topic.
Now that you have some basic knowledge about the topic under your belt, you can start to look for even more information, such as books and scholarly articles. Now, you need to ask: What scholars might have produced material on this topic? In our case, this might be: • historians of the 1960s, or of the Civil Rights Movement • musicologists • Africana Studies or American Studies scholars. Now you know where to look for information—you look in the places where the above scholars’ works might be found. Use the keywords you’ve generated to create searches in catalogs and databases.
6. Based on the evidence you've collected, answer your research question with a clear statement.
Now that you’ve collected substantial information, you want to ask: Where does all the evidence I’ve found lead me? For instance, maybe you’ve discovered that music actually did have a considerable effect on the ways in which people involved in the Civil Rights Movement perceived themselves. Whatever you’ve discovered is what you will turn into your thesis statement, which should be clear and direct. You now have something to argue in your paper; in other words, you now have a topic. Congratulations!
Be sure to run your topic by your professor before you start writing your first draft!