Am I Winning the War Against Sluggish Topics?

From Steve Ethridge —

My final research papers will be arriving this Wednesday, and for the first time, and at the suggestions of colleagues, I’ve altered my research topic assignment to require that students in ENC 1102 investigate some issue of concern within the conversation that is his or her major. Confining research to an academic course of study is, according to many, a means by which we can help them to become immersed in their own declared interests here at UCF, particularly in the writing they may or may not be required to accomplish semesters hence.

I have been eager to see what this pedagogy might yield, since over the years, my suggestions for topic selection in Comp. II have probably been not unlike those promoted by others: various dialogues in the arena of current events. The results were, of course, predictable—the intriguing argument in favor of the legalization of marijuana, the heart-wrenching and revealing study of the glass ceiling, the staggering expose of an ever-increasing epidemic of childhood obesity, and the often dismissed societal effects of computer games. Avoidance of these banal discussions was to be the happy consequence of my topic shift; this was the optimistic master plan anyway.

As mentioned, the final essays are not arriving until Wednesday of this week, but over the course of the semester, I’ve seen how these topic selections are proceeding, and all indications so far point to my sad conclusion that the trajectory should have been similarly predictable.

In spite of some sincere efforts on the part of better students, I’ve been unable to deflect these paperistic topics from the new focus on academic majors. There are still business majors, for example, who can’t avoid the allure of the marijuana issue. Since the topic is in the news more profoundly these days, I couldn’t really disallow the topic as I have in the past, yet it seems incomprehensible to me, with all the other matters of business and economics going on amid the most gigantic fiscal blunder since the Great Depression, the focus remains on marijuana.

I will be interested to find out on Wednesday if any of these writers even reference the part that Prohibition repeal played in economic relief as the Great Depression itself lumbered along, or if any of these essays bother to reference the recent documentary shown on CNBC about what is going on in Seattle and Denver—or even wander into other recent developments as reported daily. Do they even need to involve new developments anyway, or will the ubiquitous and steady logic of research papers past suffice? My worst (and often reinforced) fears forecast the inevitable, yet still I remain hopeful.

The nursing student, as another example, who wants to forge ahead with the glassceiling-in-nursing treatment, which began as a nursing topic but quite likely will transform into the ”87 cents on the dollar” diatribe, might include the paycheck fairness initiative recently surfacing as an executive order from President Obama, yet I remain guardedly hopeful in this regard as well. And while childhood obesity and computer games could be considered nagging concerns among those in the study of medicine, suddenly I wonder if there are others.

Whether or not redefining college majors as discourse communities wherein are contained pressing matters worthy of academic discourse is a still a riddle for me, and my heart beats with the ebb and flow of earnest curiosity as I look to Wednesday.

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