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“You need to narrow down your topic.”

How many times have you said these words? A student comes for help on a research assignment, and you can tell they are still lost inside an overly broad topic. So you ask, “Have you tried narrowing it down?”

We’ve given this well-meaning advice ourselves—to college students working on term papers and graduate advisees working on multiyear studies. “Narrow” is the verb academics habitually use to encourage students to find focus, delimit scope, concentrate on specific sources and make their project workable.

Narrow is the gospel of most research guides, as well. In How to Write a Thesis, Umberto Eco cautions students to “remember this fundamental principle: ‘the more you narrow [restringe] the field, the better and more safely you will work.’”

The Craft of Research echoes Eco. List your topics of interest first, the authors recommend, “then narrow them to one or two promising ones.” Still feeling unfocused? A broad topic, they continue, “can intimidate you with the task of finding, much less reading, even a fraction of the sources available. So narrow it down.”

The logic is valid, at least on the face of it: a narrow topic is easier to work on than a broad one, and students do indeed need to move from overly broad interests to specific concerns.

But there’s a shortcoming to this advice: a student who follows it will very likely end up just as lost as they were before, only this time inside a slightly narrower wilderness.

We call this the Narrow-Down-Your-Topic Trap.

By itself, a topic—even a narrow one—is never enough, because it still leaves unanswered the all-important how and why questions that underlie all meaningful and rewarding research. Even when a student succeeds in narrowing down their topic, they might still have no clue what they’re really working on. Narrowing down a topic brings them no closer to the real question they need to ask: What is the problem that lies behind their project that will propel it forward?

Simply put, you cannot narrow your way out of Topic Land.

Topic Land is a world in which all research activity is organized by things—sometimes broad things, sometimes specific things—rather than the questions and concerns one has about and with those things. When you try to escape Topic Land via narrowing—dragging the start and end dates closer together, choosing one subject instead of three to focus on—you merely end up in a corner of Topic Land (call it Subtopic Land).

The only way to escape Topic Land—and escape it you must!—is to figure out what your problem is.

“Problem” here does not mean “a negative thing” (obviously) but rather the specific existential irritant that keeps a researcher awake at night or guides their eyes and ears to certain sights and sounds over others. A problem is a profound and personal disturbance that shadows the researcher everywhere they go: on the subway, at the breakfast table and on vacation, as well as in the laboratory, archive and field.

We’re not the first to underscore the importance of problems, of course. Eco himself emphasizes in the first sentence of his book that research is about addressing “a particular problem [problema] in [the] chosen field.” Having told us just how important problems are, however, neither Eco nor most other research guides tell us much about how to identify them. Neither, for that matter, do our educational systems at large.

The students who tend to be praised are those who sound the smartest when talking about an assigned topic. We reward articulateness. Far less often do we encourage beginners to do the riskier introspective work of finding their problem.

The Problem vs. the Topic

How, then, can instructors help students figure out something so personal as their research problem?

Let’s say a student comes to office hours and tells the instructor that they have found a research topic that interests them: feng shui. A topic-focused response would be to immediately recommend books and articles about feng shui and perhaps related studies on geomancy and fortune telling.

In contrast, a problem-focused response would be to ask, “When’s the first time this topic came to mind for you? What was the context? What are the stakes for you? Why choose this particular topic over others?”

Faced with such probing questions, most students turn the spotlight away from themselves. High-achieving students, moreover, tend to unleash the full power of their grade-A vocabulary. “Feng shui is a window into non-Western knowledge production,” a student might respond. “The practice of feng shui helps us to better understand China’s transition from tradition to modernity,” they might add. In other words, they try to avoid a discussion of why they themselves find feng shui interesting and instead appeal to external authorities, declaring basically that feng shui is interesting to them because it is interesting to others.

A narrow-it-down response here might be to take those statements at face value, pressing the student to focus their proposed paper on whichever variables best fit their claimed reason for studying feng shui. “If you want to study feng shui as knowledge production, which time period will you focus on? Which individuals? Which part of China?”

That response would lead the student into a trap, however. After all, our students are trained from early on to deploy the words they imagine will please their instructors, admissions review boards, grant application committees and so forth—to mimic, to playact. But when they do so, they often end up just miring themselves in a more abstract region in Topic Land.

Instead of playing into this conditioned desire to sound articulate, a problem-centered response would be to steer the student back to the original set of questions.

“I know why I think feng shui is interesting,” you, the instructor, might respond. “But I’m still unclear: Why do you find it so compelling?”

This is where a moment of breakthrough becomes possible—when a student feels sufficiently secure to offer up something more personal, vulnerable and uncertain: “My mom is a lawyer and the most rational person I know. Yet she believes in feng shui—really believes in it—and I just don’t understand how.”

All of a sudden, the room opens up, filling with questions that have no opportunity to emerge when the goal is narrowing: “What else should a ‘rational’ person not believe in? Meditation? Reflexology? Numerology? Who or what defines this ‘rational/irrational’ boundary? Is it because ‘rationality’ depends on logic, and I think feng shui is illogical?”

This project in the making becomes wonderful—in the literal sense of the word. It’s now full of the researcher’s curiosity and questions. By starting to identify their “problem with feng shui,” the student has unlocked not only their excitement but also multiple project options. They have already started thinking about feng shui not as a topic but as a case of a problem—one that they could also solve through a study of other “nonrational” practices. Should they need a plan B, they now have multiple options.

Now, when the time comes to focus on one case study or another, they are equipped with an internal compass that helps them make this choice authentically rather than arbitrarily.

Creating a Climate for Exploration

This student (a real one, by the way) does not go on to write about their mother, mind you. The goal of a problem-driven approach to research is not to produce autobiographical researchers but rather researchers whose projects emanate outward, from their centers—rather than from the outside in. Indeed, they and their sounding board are now free to consider an array of possibilities regarding the sources needed for a research project that articulates with their interests.

To help your students break through to their problem, create a climate in which they can engage in such vulnerable introspective work. Keep the conversation nonjudgmental, with questions aimed at clarifying rather than challenging their speculations. The mode is exploratory, and the goal is not to “sound smart.”

This way of beginning a research project achieves several things. First, it opens up a productive dynamic between the big picture (the problem) and the particular sources (the case) that the student wants to investigate, encouraging a mode of inquiry that is kinetic rather than static. When it comes time to draw conclusions about the project’s significance, the student will be better equipped to do so and less likely to freeze up.

Second, it encourages the student to think of their case study as one among many, pushing them to look beyond predictable sources and find out how other researchers have engaged with their problem. They are more likely to seek out intellectual kindred spirits beyond their field and to achieve more radical insight and originality.

And the benefits of this dispositional shift extend well beyond the project at hand. With every future project, a problem-centered student will look for the concern that has drawn them to the topic and sort through the many sources and studies out there to focus on the ones that matter most.

So the next time you feel the urge to tell a student to narrow down their topic, stop. Instead, try asking some of the following questions to get a better sense of what is at the center of this topical interest and which case study might be best for their circumstances:

  • What do you wonder about this topic? What might be, say, the top 10 factual questions you would want answered?
  • When did this topic first occur to you? Where were you at the time? Which questions led you to this topic? Which sources or experiences made you think of this idea? Why, do you think?
  • Leaving aside practical considerations for the moment (language skills, travel funding, etc.), what would be your ideal sources of information? What would you want that document/physical object/interview subject to reveal?
  • If you were to think in more abstract terms for a moment, what would you guess is the scenario that most interests you here? If you were to take this case out of its particular context, what might be the more general puzzle or conundrum that you’re dealing with?
  • Let’s say the word [topic] did not appear in this study. What might be another way of phrasing or explaining what you want to figure out?

This type of nonjudgmental conversation about a topic of interest will begin to open things up instead of narrowing them down. You will help the student find their center as a researcher by identifying the problem that they will carry with them throughout the research process.

The work is by no means done. But now the student has many more ideas for the why-are-you-interested-in-that question that only they can answer—the question that will propel them out of Topic Land and toward questions, sources and a workable project.

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