Sample Assignment Response: Selecting a Topic for DeVry University’s ENGL 135

In an earlier post, I note that I ought to follow the pattern my second-semester composition students are asked to follow and work through selecting a topic and several other assignments to the generation of a conference-length paper. Doing so continues to sound like a decent enough idea, so, even though I will have to make some emendations to things in the interest of not doing students’ work for them and to keep materials that are the school’s where the school wants them, I mean to press ahead. And that means I will begin the current series of exercises with that expected of students at the beginning of the session: topic selection. After providing some context for the work, I’ll write through my process of generation and, at the end, append the resulting document, hoping that it will prove useful to my students and to others’.

Picking a topic sometimes feels like this.
Image from

In ENGL 135, students are asked to work from four broad headings: Education, Arts & Culture, Technology, and the Environment. For topic selection, students are asked to first develop five questions about one of those four headings before expressing their stake in their chosen area of inquiry. They are then asked to cite and summarize two sources that offer differing views of their topic before proceeding to identify an audience to which to direct their efforts. Finally, they are asked to develop what amounts to a working thesis for their project so that, in the following weeks, they have a direction for their research to follow–even though that direction may well change in light of additional information found. The whole is to be presented in a template provided by the University; a pre-formatted Word document awaits them, and all they need do is fill in the required information in the indicated locations.

Given my worries about documentation, I’ll not be using the template provided to students. I will, however, be following the standard formatting for their assignments; DeVry University operates in APA style, so I will adhere to it as best as I am able for formatting, citation, and writing style–in the documents I prepare. (My writing in this webspace will continue to follow my usual patterns. It is explanatory rather than demonstrative.) Because I want to make sure I do that correctly, I’ll set that up first, setting my document’s type to 12-point Times New Roman, typing a title page, and setting up my running head and page numbering as appropriate. (Students are given a tutorial for how to do it, and I’ve given pre-formatted templates any number of times. Still, they have problems. I do not understand why.)

The document formatted, I then proceed to address the questions posed, taking them from the template provided to students. Working with how I tend to work, I copy the questions over from the student template and stub out spaces for my answers; I benefit from having a framework, although I deliberately keep my conceptions loose, as I expect that my ideas will change as I go through doing the work. I also make a few adjustments to formatting in the interest of easing reading. (Again, I am not working form the student template, so I have to make changes.)

With my framework in place, I then begin mulling over my possible topic. As a scholar in the humanities, my inclinations are initially towards education and arts & culture as broad headings. As a long-time educator, I have done a fair bit of work looking into how to teach–indeed, the current project arises from my desire to return to a best practice I well know. I am concerned, however, that doing a project meant to serve as an example of best practice on best practice will, in its meta-educational nature, come off as a bit awkward–particularly if my research ends up suggesting that my practice is not among the best. (If it is, it is a thing I need to know, of course, but I am not certain that this would be the appropriate venue for the revelation to be made.) So perhaps that is not the best path for me to take.

Instead, I might focus on one of the other parts of my life, the participation in the community band about which I’ve written. I know that one of the purposes of that ensemble is to help those of us who used to play and miss playing to play again; I know also that one of the things that is happening in that ensemble is that high school students who fill out the sections are benefiting from the experience of the more senior members of the organization. Because there is benefit accruing in more than one direction, it occurs to me that questions of support are relevant–and so I begin to have questions to brainstorm and fill our my self-created template.

Having developed an initial raft of questions, I move on to consideration of my own stake in the overall field. Rather, I move back to it, because my selection of the general heading and of the specific topic preceded my coming up with questions to ask. I am a member of a community band, so questions about its representation and support bear in on my membership and participation in the ensemble.

With questions and my involvement established, the time is come to get a feel for the field. Using Academic Search Complete through the school’s library, I search for “community band” in full-text peer-reviewed journals, limiting myself to a few document types (articles, book chapters, and case studies) published since 2010. Only five articles appeared, which tells me that there is much to do in my area of inquiry (and that future research will need to take a broader view–though I note there is an International Journal of Community Music that might continue to be a useful resource); I reviewed and summarized the two that seemed most amenable to the present purpose.

That done, I moved to considerations of audience. It occurred to me that there are two potential threads of discussion my paper might follow: support and representation. They will speak to different audiences. Concerns of support would be addressed to members of my local community and community groups that are in position to offer support. Concerns of representation would be addressed most likely either to the general readership of my blog or to the more academic readership of such publications as the International Journal of Community Music. The latter will rely more upon documentary information and logical development of argument than the former; the former will take more of a pathos appeal and a less intricate presentation. And such information found its way into my topic selection document.

At that point, I had almost all the content needed for the exercise, and I moved to fill out the last part, addressing my specific issue and angle. If I work on the issue of support, I will do so with an eye to getting support together for the community band in which I play now. If I work on the issue of representation, I will do so with an eye towards maintaining or enhancing the authenticity of representation. I am still not sure, though, the direction the project will take–although I tend to think that the issue of support will be more amenable to treatment than that of representation, at least within the terms of the course project I expect my students to complete. As I progress through the process through which my students are moving, I will decide more fully, but that seems the direction to start moving in.

Having made such notes in my document, I reviewed my text for overall style, glancing over it to make sure paragraph length is as it should be and vocabulary reflects the project being conceived and the materials treated so far. I also looked for typographical errors, making one or two final passes from my usual amid-writing corrections. That done, I saved the file in an accessible format, the which is included below:

G. Elliott Sample Topic Selection September 2018

I expect I will be continuing to work on this project, leading perhaps to a document I can use as a basis for other work–but, more hopefully, to a series of piece I can use to help my students do better in successive terms.

Teachers still don’t make much. Care to help offset some more of that?


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