Easy Way to Find Fresh and Relevant Research Paper Topics
The research paper. Some teachers love it, some don’t. When the research paper season comes around, I struggle with more than the paper load and the process. I also struggle with finding fresh topics. I am a fan of letting students pick topics (within boundaries), but I am decidedly not a fan of reading papers on the same topics over and over. A teacher can only read so many papers about global warming before going crazy! One day as I was driving home and listening to This American Life in my car, I was struck with how perfect this NPR show would be for finding engaging research topics. So naturally, I wanted to share it with all of you!
What is This American Life?
This American Life is a weekly public radio program and podcast with a new theme each week. Writers and contributors put together stories that fit each week’s theme. The show has been on the air since 1995, so quite expectedly, there are a ton of episodes. Thankfully, Ira Glass put together a list called “New to This American Life?” and is a great way to get your feet wet. If you want to dive in and see everything, check out the entire archive.
Variety and Engagement
With 570 shows over a myriad of topics, there is bound to be something that will pique the interest of each student. The producers take interesting spins on the topics, which allows students to see many other perspectives and ways of looking at a particular topic. This pushes students to think critically about their own ideas and will help inform their research.
A resource is only as good as it is relevant. This American Life is updated weekly; therefore, the topics reflect current happenings around the globe. Oftentimes, it’s difficult for students to research newer topics (such as gender expression and inclusivity or something that is still evolving in our society) because there are not enough credible sources to be found.
Hopefully, by now I’ve convinced you to check out This American Life, but I’d like to offer some ideas as to how you can use this in your secondary English/Language Arts classrooms.
- Start by introducing students to the program’s website. They may need instruction on how to navigate the site, search for topics, and browse the staff’s favorite episodes.
- Next, task students with finding a show of interest. Be sure to let them know that the shows are broken into Acts, so one show may have several Acts.
- After listening to their chosen episode, give them a writing or discussion task that asks them to think about not only the topic, but the arguments or claims made in the episode. Have them respond to them. This will help your students identify their own thoughts about the topic.
- After they have had a chance to gather their thoughts and articulate them, guide students into formulating an appropriate research question. Some things to ask students: What did they find compelling or interesting? What would they like to know more about? Are there reliable sources available for that question?
- Once students have their research question(s) and you confirm that it fits with the project, students can now begin the process of finding credible sources and evaluating them. To help students through this process, try using Conducting Research: Evaluating Sources, Internet & Library Research Handouts!
After the why and the how, here are a few examples of topics I think would lead to great inquiries for a research paper (Click link to hear the show):
I know it can be overwhelming to dive into the archives, and you may be looking for something a bit quicker, but don’t have the time to do the digging. So, I’ve done the digging for you! Below is a list of some research topics and episodes that address those topics. I hope you find them helpful!
Herd Immunity and A Global Pandemic
- The Herd: “What happens when your own community suddenly turns on you?”
- The Empty Chair Prologue: “Things lost in the past year that we haven’t talked about much.”
- Act Two: History is Not a Toy: “There’s a museum in Baltimore that was created to memorialize the black experience in America. It’s called The National Great Blacks in Wax Museum.”
- Act One: Interracial Marriage: “Rich Robinson's father is black, his mother is white. They married during the civil rights movement, believing the whole nation was moving toward greater and greater integration.”
- Act Two: Black Like Me: “Professor Glenn Loury from Boston University and John Simpkins on basketball, hockey, and what makes a real black person.”
- Act Two: If You See Racism Say Racism: Comedian W. Kamau Bell has two daughters, and tries to figure out just how much about the violent history of racism and oppression his four-year-old can handle.
- Cops See It Differently Part 1 and Part 2: “There are so many cops who look at the killing of Eric Garner or Mike Brown and say race didn’t play a factor. And there are tons of black people who say that’s insane. There’s a division between people who distrust the police — even fear them — and people who see cops as a force for good. Stories of people living on both sides of that divide, and people trying to bridge it."
American Prison System
Lockup: “With the number of prisoners in the United States rising rapidly, we present stories of their lives and the lives of their families and children.”
- Act V: “Over the course of six months, reporter and TAL contributor Jack Hitt followed a group of inmates at a high-security prison as they rehearsed and staged a production of the last act—Act V—of Hamlet.
The Psychopath Test
- The Psychopath Test: “Recently we heard about this test that could determine if someone was a psychopath. So, naturally, our staff decided to take it. This week we hear the results. Plus Jon Ronson asks the question: is this man a psychopath?”
- The Coca-Cola Company: “The formula for Coca-Cola is one of the most jealously guarded trade secrets in the world. So we were surprised to come across a 1979 newspaper article with what looked like the original recipe for Coke. Talking to historian Mark Pendergrast, author of For God, Country and Coca-Cola, we were even more surprised when we found reasons to believe the recipe is real.”
Muslims in America
- Shouting Across the Divide: “A Muslim woman persuades her husband that their family would be happier if they left the West Bank and moved to America. They do, and things are good…until September 11. After that, the elementary school their daughter goes to begins using a textbook that says Muslims want to kill Christians.”
- Act Six: Times Square: “Ira talks to a Muslim woman who tweeted on election night that she was worried she would no longer feel safe wearing a hijab.”
A Special Note About Research Topics
Teachers have to make decisions everyday about what content they bring into their classrooms and must consider the political and ideological atmosphere of their schools and districts. As an English teacher, I encourage students to think critically about the issues that affect them or what they see on the news and other media. However, as teachers, we also need to be intentional about how information is delivered and received. This is just a gentle reminder to consider your teaching context when allowing or disallowing certain research topics.
There are so many ways to refresh your research paper unit, I’d love to hear what you do to keep it new and interesting! Share with us below!