Q: I'm taking an online communications course, and our final project is a 15-20 page research paper on a subject of our own choosing. I have no idea where to start. Do you have advice for finding ideas for research papers?
It's an academic mystery. Teachers always think they're being flexible and helpful when they offer students the opportunity to come up with their own ideas for research papers. But in truth, as I have discovered, students rarely appreciate choosing topics for a research paper, usually preferring to be sent in a specific direction. On their own, they often come up with topics that they tire of easily, or have trouble finding any information about.
As Bruce Ballenger, author of an invaluable textbook called The Curious Researcher, curiosity must be the driving force behind your selection of a research topic. Otherwise, you'll lose interest, and therefore, so will your reader, guaranteeing that you will hate research papers for the rest of your life.
Ballenger suggests making an Interest Inventory. Start with a blank page, and create several columns with general headings, such as "Places," "Trends," "Technology," "People," "Controversies," "History," "Jobs," "Habits," or "Hobbies." Then begin brainstorming for each category, listing words or phrases that interest you.
There are several useful sources for picking research topics online as well. Here are some I'd recommend that should get the ideas flowing:
The Online Writing Lab (OWL) at Purdue: The premiere site for advice on all matters writing, from how to properly cite sources for any academic style guide to how to write an outline, business letter, resume, or nearly any kind of paper. It contains a comprehensive section on the writing process, including numerous methods for generating ideas and turning them into drafts.
The Idea Generator: This site, maintained by Virginia's Old Dominion University, is genius. It's merely a set of extensive lists, categorized by academic subject, that might make for useful topics. A quick scan of the Arts and Humanities topics reveals such provocative ideas as "goddesses," "the hero in literature," "slanting in journalism," and "manners -- out of style?"
ProCon.org: This site, entitled "Pros and Cons of Controversial Issues," is the work of ProCon, a nonpartisan, 501c3 nonprofit organization designed for educational purposes, to showcase the various sides of numerous public issues on a variety of topics, ranging from "media & entertainment" to "money & business," "education," "elections & presidents," "science & technology," or "sex & gender." It contains considerable discussion of the different sides of specific controversies, as well as credible statistics and research to get your work going. It's an especially useful site for finding research topics for arguments or proposals.
Debatabase: Sponsored by IDEA, the International Debate Education Association, the Debatabase is a storehouse of frequent or ongoing debates about hundreds of topics (there are 48 debates for Philosophy alone!), and debates are characterized by writers who present opposing sides, as well as a limited number of facts.
I might also suggest perusing your local newspaper's website, or The New York Times' "Room for Debate," for stories about local or national issues that might pique your interest. Good luck! And as always, submit your questions about teaching or learning online here to OnlineColleges.com, or follow me on Google+ to read more!
Purdue Online Writing Lab, https://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/587/1/
Old Dominion University, Idea Generator, http://www.lib.odu.edu/researchassistance/ideagenerator/index.htm
ProCon.org, Pros and Cons of Controversial Issues, http://www.procon.org/
International Debate Education Association, Debatabase: A World of Great Debates, http://idebate.org/debatabase
The New York Times, Room for Debate, http://www.nytimes.com/roomfordebate