Narrowing a Topic

Deborah Walker                                                                    Spring 2011

Activity: Understanding Proposals—Narrowing a Topic into a Manageable Issue

Preparation: I tell students to come to class with a “short list” of three potential topics for the Proposal essay they have to write for Portfolio II (at this point, they are putting together a Topic Proposal).  I urge them to look for controversy, or “problems” that exist in the culture around them.  I’m not too worried if they bring in topics like “world hunger,” because part of the activity consists of narrowing the broad topic into a local, narrow issue that they can treat in ten pages.  I put this list on the board to help them gather topics for the next class’s activity:

  • Read news websites/editorial pages in newspapers—what are people arguing about when it comes to policy, or problems that need solutions?
  • Think about problems you have as a student, or as a citizen in a community—has something happened at CSU or in Fort Collins (or your home town) that is problematic and needs a solution?  (Try to think of yourself as part of a group, so that the problem doesn’t become too idiosyncratic, like, “my boyfriend is a major problem for me.”)
  • Think about what controversial issues exist in your major—if you have trouble thinking about what these might be, ask a teacher in your major

Objectives: My objective is to get students thinking about topics, obviously, but also how to narrow and focus large topics into smaller issues.  The Topic Proposal Assignment Sheet (below) asks them to think about how they will focus and narrow their topic.  I often have students who say, for example, that they want to write a 10 page paper about “abortion, euthanasia, and the personhood statute.”  Too much!  My main objectives in teaching focus is to get them to understand that a narrow focus will really help with their research and analysis of their issue, and that good writing is detailed and developed writing; if they bite off more than they can develop adequately, they’ll be forced to stay on the surface of the issue and move very quickly, and this is not as desirable as covering less ground and going into more depth.

Activity:  I put students into groups of 3—4 and ask them to compile a list of the topics they brought to class.  They should come to consensus about which one they would like to concentrate on.  For the topic they choose, they try to narrow that topic into three possible issues, keeping in mind that any broad topic “contains” any number of issues.  I give them an example using “world hunger,” which is far too broad to work for their papers, yet it a problem that many people would like to do something about.  I encourage them to think about focusing devices.  Geographically, I can narrow the topic and focus on Larimer County.  There are hungry people (unfortunately) right here in our community, so one way to narrow a global topic is to think about a local manifestation of the problem.  I can also narrow the topic in terms of group.  How are children affected by policies having to do with food shortages?  How about seniors?  The focus here can be in any country: North Korea’s chronic food shortage problem comes to mind, although this needs further focusing.  I can also focus the “world hunger” topic by solution or policy: what should the U.S.’s policy be regarding food aid to countries where warlords commandeer the food and oversee distribution?  How do we best solve the problem of hunger here in Larimer county?  Is it a problem government can work on, or is private enterprise a better choice?  Audience is another focusing device that can help students pare down a topic.  Who will be reading your proposal, and what can they do about the problem?

At any rate, I’m hoping that students can take the broader topics and focus them into narrower issues.  After 15 minutes of discussion, with a recorder taking notes, they should be ready to come back into a large group.  We go around the room, and students are encouraged to make suggestions and ask questions as group members present the results of their conversation.

Unit Goals: Being able to focus a topic is vital for adequate development.  I’ve read papers that exhibit poor focus that come across as breathless races across acres of subject matter.  I’d like students to avoid this at all costs.  I also want to make their research easier to do and more fruitful, by cutting down the number of hits they’ll get in the databases.  Understanding how focus contributes to better key word searching is a likely benefit of this activity.

Course Goals: Extend knowledge of rhetorical concepts, demonstrated by a student’s ability to:

  • Compose effective arguments in different genres (such as academic and public media) and different modes (such as alphabetic, auditory, and visual modes, as well as multimodal texts that combine these strategies) designed to achieve multiple and specific purposes for multiple and specific audiences

Extend experience in composing processes, demonstrated by a student’s ability to:

  • Hone strategies for generating ideas, revising, editing, and proofreading mono- and multi-modal texts in disciplinary/professional/specialized discourse
  • Critique one’s own compositions and the compositions of others
  • Evaluate sources for accuracy, relevance, credibility, reliability, and bias


Topic Proposal Assignment Sheet

Narrowing a Topic into an Issue
When picking a topic, be aware that you’ll have to focus and narrow that topic into a manageable issue.  Since Portfolio II is a research project, focusing your topic really is in your best interest; you don’t want to be overwhelmed with information; conversely, no writer wants to leave out crucial information because s/he never found the area of the topic that was most vital for the argument.   Keep in mind that focus is something you can adjust as you go along.  Sometimes you need to widen your focus so that you can fruitfully develop a seven to ten page Proposal paper without repeating yourself.  Most students, though, have the opposite problem: they bite off more than they can adequately develop in the space of their paper.
Focus is one of the key concepts for Portfolio Two, and it is difficult to focus some topics.  Think about limiting your topicgeographically (try to explore the local effects of a topic that may have global ramifications), by group (children, seniors, voters), or by solution/call to action (audience).  We’ll talk more about how to focus topics as we go along because adjusting your focus is something you’ll do throughout the writing process.

A Topic Proposal Should. . .

  1. Employ a title that asks your basic research question (think Robinson’s TED talk here)
  2. Talk about the exigency to which you are responding
  3. Describe the topic and show how it will be narrowed and focused into a manageable issue
  4. Explain the student writer’s expertise and/or stake in the issue
  5. Give an accounting of “who’s who” in the issue.  Who are the serious players in your issue?  Name names and be specific about their expertise and what they’ve said and written about your issue (give titles of works).  You’ll have to do some preliminary research to do this part.
  6. Give a quick sketch as to what kinds of sources can be used to support an argument on this issue–again, preliminary research needed
  7. Provide your position on the issue (pro/con, or which solution? etc.).  A position statement precedes a detailed and specific claim
  8. Describe a tentative oppositional audience (which may change and/or get much more specific as the project develops)

This is a document that needs to convey a good amount of information easily and directly.  Feel free to use subheadings that capture the ideas in the numbered list above.  Be aware that I am your primary audience for this piece, and I want to have a good understanding of how your project may play out.