Exercise: Initial Thoughts on an Area of Inquiry

Your goal here is to write a thoughtful and well-organized exercise in which you start to define — which essentially means narrow down — a possible area of inquiry for your major research project in this course. At this point, I do not expect or want a final topic, let alone a thesis statement. Instead, I want you to identify an issue in which you have a genuine interest and then think about how you might resolve it. This inquiry must be one that is appropriate for a conceptual essay, not a practical essay. As we have discussed, a conceptual essay aims to define the reality of a particular issue; a practical essay aims to resolve the issue or solve the problem the issue creates. A practical essay requires that the conceptual work has already been done (by the author or someone else) and then must deal with all the practical obstacles to the solution it proposes.

I suggest this exercise contain two paragraphs. In your first paragraph you should provide some background on the issue, and explain to whom it would be important. Who might be interested in reading an essay on this issue? Note that the issue need not be one that has current, widespread relevance to the world. For example, why the painter Caravaggio’s reputation is much higher now than it was for three hundred years after his death is a question that matters to probably fewer than one person in a thousand, but it is a perfectly legitimate question for art historians and might even provoke passionate debate among them. On the other hand, issues in the news can be legitimate topics, too. Just be careful to avoid topics that are are rooted primarily in ideological arguments or are too big and complex to engage with satisfactorily in an undergraduate essay. You are not going to explain how social media affects personal relationships or undermines elections, or assess the causes and effects of climate change in an essay you write for an undergraduate class. Aim for something narrow and deep, not broad and shallow.

Your second paragraph should identify how you can pursue this inquiry, and it should be further down the scale of abstraction. What specific questions do you need to answer to settle the larger issue? What challenges do you anticipate?

Note that this exercise has “Initial Thoughts” right in its name. Realistically, you will not be able to define your topic fully at this stage because you haven’t done the necessary research yet — and you shouldn’t try. Focus on what you do not know and would like to. That is always a good starting point.

Most students choose a topic with some connection to their majors or minors. However, this is not required. What matters is that the topic interests you. Choosing to devote weeks to a topic you find dull would verge on masochism. (Although if you can’t think of any topics connected to your major that interest you, you might think about why it is your major in the first place. Life is too short and days are too long to spend a major portion of yours doing something that bores you.)


This is a somewhat informal assignment. That means that the writing should be clear, grammatical, and carefully proofread, but the voice need not be particularly academic. For example, using the first-person once or twice is perfectly fine, though you should not overuse it.

Examine and follow the Format Rules for this and all documents you submit in this course.

Bring one hard-copy with you to class.

If you complete the exercise according to the instructions, or at least make a good faith effort to do so, you will receive full credit. Ignoring elements of the instructions can bring that down.

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Schedule of Assignments