Picking humanities paper topics

Picking a good topic for college papers in humanities classes can be challenging. It’s particularly hard if the subject of the class is new to you, and/or if you’re not used to choosing your own topics.

Good topics usually have all of these attributes:

  • You find the topic interesting.
  • The topic is relevant to the class.
  • Enough material is available that you’ll be able to find sources.
  • The topic is small/specific enough that you’ll be able to write about it in the amount of time you have.
  • The teacher knows enough about the topic to be able to help you if you get stuck.

One way to find topics that probably fit into all of those categories is to use the class syllabus:

  • Look through the syllabus of the class.
  • Find the reading that is most interesting to you.
  • When you do that reading, notice what you’re curious or confused about.
  • Is there something that doesn’t make sense?
  • Is there something that makes a surprising amount of sense?
  • Or something that you’d like to know more about?
  • Or something that raises a question?
  • Once you’ve found something you want to know about, write down your question.
  • Then look at the footnotes in the reading.
  • Go look up the sources the reading cites.
  • It can also help to check out the book that the reading came from, or to look up other things by the author.

This usually works well because:

  • If the reading has a citation related to your question, that means there’s material on it.
  • If your topic is related to the reading, your teacher will probably be at least somewhat familiar with it.
  • If you’re raising a question about the reading, it’s more likely that you’ll be able to finish the paper in the amount of time you have.
  • If the topic is coming out of a question you had while reading, you’re more likely to find it interesting while you write.
  • Writing about something closely related to the reading can also help you to review material and prepare for the final exam.

Short version: Picking a paper topic in humanities classes can be hard. Using the readings and the syllabus to find topics can make it easier. Scroll up for some specifics about how to do that.

Electronic books can make reading possible for people with executive dysfunction

Electronic books can be an important disability accommodation for a lot of people, including some people with normal vision. If you’re having a lot of trouble reading, or not reading as much as you’d like to, it might help to use electronic books.

There are a lot of steps involved in reading a print book. Some of these steps can be difficult or impossible for people with impaired executive function, autistic inertia, fatigue, chronic pain, or other conditions. Some difficult steps can be eliminated with electronic books.

In order to start reading a print book, you have to be able to do all of these things:

  • Have the book in a place where it’s available to you when you have time to read.
  • (Which can involve remembering to bring with you somewhere.)
  • (And keeping track of the book and not losing it.)
  • Decide to stop what you’re doing and do a different kind of task.
  • Figure out where the book is.
  • Go get the book.
  • Avoid getting distracted by other things as you find the book or get the book.
  • Figure out where you are in the book.
  • (Which can involve things like remembering the place.)
  • (Or using a bookmark, which comes with its own multi-step challenges like remembering that bookmarks exist and having one available.)
  • Open the book to the right page.
  • Avoid getting distracted by other parts of the book.
  • Get into a position in which you can read, which you can also sustain long enough to read for a significant among of time.
  • Actually start reading the book.
  • If you want to take notes or highlight, you also have to gather all your note-taking tools.
  • And not get distracted and forget what you’re doing.
  • And not forget where you put the book in the process.
  • That’s a lot of steps, any one of which can sometimes be difficult or impossible.
  • Using electronic copies can eliminate some of these steps, or make them easier.
  • This can be game-changing.

Some ways in which electronic copies can eliminate steps:

  • You can store your entire electronic library on one device (or synced to multiple devices).
  • If you know where your device is, then you know where all of your electronic books are.
  • This can mean you don’t have to physically search for anything.
  • (Electronically searching to remember where you put something can be much easier.)
  • You also don’t have to remember to bring a specific book. You just have to remember to bring one device.
  • (Which can be a device like your laptop, phone, or iPad which you’re in the habit of carrying with you anyway).
  • If you’re already using your computer, you don’t have to get up to go get your book.
  • You also don’t have to change positions.
  • Being able to stay in the same position and location can make it much easier to start reading.
  • It can also be easier to remember your place. A lot of software will leave the book open to the same place as when you were last reading it.
  • Searching can be easier, faster, and less distracting than flipping through a print book. (This isn’t true for everyone, but it’s true for some people).
  • Electronic bookmarks may also be easier to use than physical ones.
  • You don’t have to look for highlighters, pens, pencils or notebooks, all of that is right there in the book-reading software.
  • Eliminating these steps can make reading a lot easier.
  • Making it easier can make it possible.

This isn’t the right strategy for everyone; computers, phones and other devices have their own executive dysfunction pitfalls. But for some people, it makes reading much more possible.

Short version: Some people have trouble reading print books, even if they have normal vision. Sometimes the reason for this is that executive dysfunction (or another disability) makes some of the steps involved in starting to read a print book difficult or impossible. (Eg: people with ADHD might get distracted looking for the book.) For some people, using electronic books instead of print books can make reading much more possible. Scroll up for some specific reasons that electronic books can help.

Executive dysfunction and teachers

we-aint-borntypical asked: Sorry if this is late, but how do I tell my teachers about my executive dysfunction and how it affects my ability to do assignments?

realsocialskills said:

I think the most important thing you can do is accept that the problem is real, and that it’s ok to need help.

It can be hard to accept that executive dysfunction is real. It can be very tempting to feel like if we just try harder or wait long enough, it will somehow work out. And some percentage of the time that does work — which can make it seems like it will *always* work if we try hard enough. But it doesn’t work that way, and expecting it to causes a lot of problems.

Executive dysfunction means that sometimes there are insurmountable barriers to doing things completely independently. Sometimes this can happen with things that our culture says are easy and that you may not have heard of anyone having trouble with. It can be hard to come to terms with that. It gets easier with practice.

More directly about managing relationships with teachers, I’ve found two things helpful: I try to err heavily on the side of asking for help as soon as I’m feeling stuck, and I also try to select instructors based on understanding and/or cognitive compatibility.

If you’re facing an assignment and can’t figure out how to make progress on it, it’s good to err on the side of asking for help immediately. This can be hard to do, especially if you feel ashamed or like you don’t have a good reason. It’s actually ok though, and it gets easier with practice.

It’s normal to need help sometimes, even if the reasons you need it are unusual. All teachers have students who need help. Good teachers understand this and consider needing help normal. (Not all teachers are good, but many are). A lot of teachers care about helping their students, and it’s usually a lot easier for them to do that if you ask sooner rather than later. (It also saves you the time you’d waste trying to do something impossible through sheer force of will.)

If you can, it helps to explain in concrete terms what you are having trouble with, and what you think would help. (If you don’t know what would help, the concrete request might be “Can we meet to talk about this assignment?”). I think that it usually helps to err on the side of talking about concrete problems rather than abstract concepts like executive dysfunction.

For instance, I think “I’m having trouble getting started on this assignment. Could you help me narrow down my topic?” is usually more effective than “Executive dysfunction makes this assignment hard for me, what should I do?”. That said, if the latter is the only way you can ask for help in a particular situation, don’t wait until you know a better way. It’s ok to ask for help imperfectly; it’s ok to need help even if you’re not sure what help you need.

Not all teachers will be good at helping you. Some won’t be willing, some some won’t know how. Some will be inconsistent. But a good percentage of teachers *are* skilled at helping. If you have a choice about who your teachers are, it’s good to err on the side of picking teachers who are good at helping.

Also, some teachers are going to be inherently more cognitively compatible with you than others. Different teachers do instruction and assessment differently. If you have a choice, it can be good to err on the side of taking classes with teachers who give assignments that are more reliably possible for you.

Aside from attributes of teachers — asking for help effectively is a set of skills. One of those skills is the emotional skill of feeling ok about the fact that you need help. Another is assessing what’s going on and figuring out what your needs are. Another is expressing it to teachers in a way that they can understand and act on readily. And there are other skills I’m not sure how to explain. No one is born knowing how to do these things, and they all get easier with practice.

Short version: Executive dysfunction makes school complicated. Taking classes with teachers who teach in a way that makes cognitive sense to you can help, when you have a choice. It can be hard to ask for help, and hard to feel ok about needing help. That’s a set of skills, and it gets a lot easier with practice.

When you’re talking a lot and worried about how much space you are taking up

A reader asked:

Do you have any advice for how to facilitate participation when you’re a student who does tend to talk a lot?

I have social anxiety but when it doesn’t affect me as badly I tend to talk a lot. I’ve tried waiting for others to speak but they often don’t even if I wait 30+ seconds… And then I feel an intense urge to fill the space.

realsocialskills said:

A couple of things:

It might be ok if you’re talking more than some other students. Very few classes have everyone talking an exactly equal amount.

Different students have different preferences about how much they like to talk in class. It’s ok that some students prefer to talk more and some students prefer to talk less. It’s not always a problem. It becomes a problem if some students are taking up space in a way that prevents others from participating.

I’m not sure how to tell whether you are taking up space in a problematic way. One way might be to ask your teacher after class or in office hours if they think it’s becoming a problem. (If they do think it’s a problem, they’ll probably be glad you asked and that you care.)

Another way might be to watch whether you’re interrupting people. And if you are interrupting people, whether or not they’re shut down by your interruptions. If you’re interrupting people and that’s resulting in them not getting to make their points, that’s a problem. (Interrupting isn’t always a problem – in some cultures it’s normal and expected for people to respectfully interrupt one another and be respectfully interrupted in turn. If the class you’re in doesn’t have that culture, it’s important to be careful about interrupting.)

Here’s one strategy that might work for coping with silences without interjecting to fill them (this can also work for overcoming urges to interrupt people).

Typing or writing out what you’re having an urge to say:

  • If you type or write the reply you have an urge to make, it can calm the urge without you having to say anything
  • While you’re doing this, someone else may start talking
  • Then, if you still want to say the thing, you can take a turn and say it
  • If you don’t want to say a specific thing but are just feeling uncomfortable, typing/writing about how uncomfortable you are might work to fill the space until someone else starts talking (This works for me sometimes; it seriously backfires for other people. Your milage may vary; trust your own judgment about whether it will be helpful or harmful to you).
  • This can work even in a seminar class when not everyone is taking notes
  • (It may be more socially accepted in that context to use an iPad than a laptop, because you’re significantly less likely to be perceived as goofing off on Facebook with an iPad)

Short version: Talking more than some other students in a class isn’t always a problem in itself. It’s a problem if the way or the amount you talk prevents others from participating. Typing out stuff you’re thinking of saying before you say it can make it easier to refrain from interrupting people and from rushing to fill silences.

7 second rule

If you’re leading a group discussion or teaching a class, it’s important to pause for questions periodically. Part of pausing for questions is giving people time to react before moving on. People can’t respond instantaneously; they need time to react. If you don’t give them time to react, it can give you an inaccurate impression of their level of interest or engagement.

Eg:

  • Leader: Does anyone have any questions?
  • Group: …
  • Leader: Ok, moving on. 

When this happens, it’s not usually because no students had questions. It’s usually because the teacher didn’t give them enough time to process before moving on. It doesn’t actually take a huge amount of time, but there has to be some. A good amount of time to wait is seven seconds. If you wait seven seconds before moving on, someone will usually say something.

Seven seconds can feel like a really long time when you are teaching. It can feel like an awkward empty space that, as the teacher, you’re supposed to be filling. That can lead to interactions like this:

  • Leader: I just said a controversial thing. What do you think of the thing?
  • Group: …
  • Leader (immediately):… none of you have opinions about this?
  • Group: …
  • Leader: (immediately):… Really? No one?

When this happens, it’s usually not that no one had anything to say. It’s usually that the leader or teacher kept interrupting them while they were trying to get words together and respond. It’s easy to inadvertently do this, because it feels like you’re supposed to be doing something to get your students to respond. But, often, the best thing you can do to get them to respond is to wait and give them space to do it in.

It helps to remember that as the teacher or leader, you shouldn’t actually be taking up all of the space. You should also be offering your students some space and listening to them, and allowing them to ask you questions so they can understand. It’s ok if that space isn’t immediately filled; no one can react instantaneously. 

Short version: If you wait seven seconds every time you pause for questions/responses, it gives people time to process, and some people will become capable of participating who weren’t before.

Surviving awful roommates

warpcorps asked:

how to deal with awful roommates without doing a room change esp if you’re nonconfrontational

realsocialskills said:

It depends on what kind of awful, and what your resources are.

If you can’t change rooms or negotiate with them, probably the best thing you can do is figure out things that you can do without their cooperation.

For instance:

If the problem is that they steal your food or take your stuff, it might be worth getting a lockable container, or putting your stuff somewhere they don’t see it.

If they bother you while you’re trying to study, it might be worth finding another place to study. Other possible places to study:

  • The library (can be good if you like quiet, because quiet is enforced, can also help to focus you since other people are studying)
  • An unoccupied classroom (classrooms can be good for studying and internetting because they are often completely empty, and you don’t have to be as quiet as you do in the library)
  • Outside (Some people find it pleasant to read outside if the weather is good)

If they’re loud, and keep you up at night, it might be worth trying earplugs.

Anyone else want to weigh in? How have you survived bad roommates?

On being in school and working

What are some ways to balance work and school? Cus I’m working 25 to 30 hours a week and taking only three classes and I’m still behind. I don’t know how some people work fulltime AND go to school fulltime while paying rent and having kids.

realsocialskills said:

I don’t know how people balance that kind of schedule with school/kids/work. I think that it’s nearly impossible and that most people couldn’t do it.

Here are a couple of things I do know about passing classes under time pressure:

Choose your classes carefully:

  • Not all classes are equally time-consuming.
  • If you’re working a lot of hours, it’s probably better not to take all the really time-consuming classes in the same semester
  • (Eg: if you’re taking a class that has five papers, or lots of complicated programming assignments, it might be better not to take others than are like that at the same time).
  • It can also go a lot better to select classes based on who is teaching them rather than based on which description theoretically looks best
  • Classes go much more smoothly with teachers you’re readily compatible with
  • (particularly if you tend to need a lot of help)

Consider taking classes that are relevant to your work:

  • If some of what you’re working on at work can inform your class assignments, that makes life a lot easier
  • For instance, it’s much easier to write a paper on something you’ve researched for work than it is to research something else *and* what you have to work on at work
  • And more generally: if the concepts you’re learning in school are related to and overlapping with what you think about at work, it will be much less time consuming than if you have to do both separately
  • This can be true even if your work isn’t particularly intellectual on the face of it. No matter what your job is, it involves knowing things, and classes are easier if you can make knowing those things relevant.

It is possible to pass classes without doing all of the reading:

  • Most people don’t do all of the reading (except in seminar classes in which most of class consists of an in-depth group discussion of the reading).
  • If you are struggling to keep up, you may well be doing more of the reading than you should be.
  • It’s worth learning how to skim text in order to get the basic ideas
  • When a teacher cites something a lot in class, it’s generally worth reading it again after more closely

Having a study group or partner helps in several ways:

  • Perspective from other people can make it easier to tell whether you’re understanding what you need to understand
  • It can also make it easier to tell whether you’re doing *more* work than you need to in order to keep up and pass.
  • You can also pool knowledge. There will always be things that some people get and some people miss, and some people talk about it.
  • Meeting with others at a set time to do the work for a class can stop it from expanding to fill all available space
  • Even if you don’t have a regular study group, sometimes you can organize review sessions before tests. Those can also be helpful in similar ways.

When teachers refuse to accommodate your disability

A reader asked:

What to do if teachers refuse to give you the accommodation? I couldn’t ever finish my work because they would refuse to write down things ect

realsocialskills said:

That’s a hard problem.

In my experience, you usually can’t make them write down assignments if they’re not doing it willingly (even with a letter). Sometimes you can, if you’re sufficiently insistent.

I’ve had surprisingly good results with reminding a teacher politely and discretely the first time, reminding them in front of other students the second time, and insisting more bluntly that it’s not ok for them to neglect to do this the third time. I’ve also had this blow up in my face. Your milage may vary. It’s not something I’d wholeheartedly recommend, but it does work sometimes.

Also, if the problem is that they don’t remember (or can’t be bothered to remember), sometimes reminding them by email works. Eg, by sending an email after every class asking them what the assignment is.

Another thing that can help is getting support from other students rather than the teacher. For instance, getting the assignment from a peer who is able to write it down. Or getting other students to also ask in the moment for it to be written down so it doesn’t have to come just from you all the time. (That helps me both in terms of getting what I need, and in not feeling like I’m alone and unreasonably demanding.)

If you are in college, another thing you can do is change classes. If a teacher is not treating you well and is making it impossible to do the work, treating that as a red flag and changing to a different class can make things a lot better. In college, there is often a lot more flexibility to work with people who are willing to accommodate you, and it’s important to learn how to take advantage of that flexibility.

Preparing for a college interview

A reader asked:

Any advice for college interviews?

I have one coming up and I always get tongue-tied and I generally don’t do well at them at all, but this is a really big deal and I don’t want to mess it up…

realsocialskills said:

The best way I know of to prepare for any type of interview is to get someone else to do a practice interview with you before you do the real interview.

In a practice interview, someone asks you a whole bunch of questions that might come up, and you practice interviewing them. Once you have practiced, it can be a lot easier to answer interview questions for real.

If you’re in school, you might be able to get a teacher or guidance counselor to do a practice interview with you as you’re applying for college. A lot of adults in that role do that kind of thing regularly. Many adults in schools or teen programs really want to help their students get into school, and most people who want to help are likely to understand why practice interviews are a good idea. (If you’re currently in therapy and your therapist is someone you somewhat trust, you might also be able to convince your therapist to help you practice.)

If you don’t have a teacher or someone like that to help you practice, it can be helpful to practice with a friend. (And you might also be able to help them practice for their interview). While it’s particularly helpful to practice with someone who has good knowledge of how college admissions work, practicing with someone who doesn’t can also be very helpful.

It’s especially helpful if they ask you the questions you’re afraid of hearing. Because if a question you’re afraid of comes up in the real interview, it’s a lot harder to figure out an answer on the fly than if you’ve practiced. It can help to tell the person practicing with you what questions you’re worried about.

Some questions that some people might be worried about:

  • Are you worried that they’ll ask about your activities, and that you might not be able to say anything that sounds impressive
  • Are you unsure about what you want to study and afraid that will make you look bad?
  • Are you worried they’ll ask disability-related questions?

Whether or not the questions you’re nervous about come up in your real interview, it will help to have practiced them. If you feel confident about your ability to answer possibly-difficult questions, you’ll feel a lot more comfortable during the rest of the interview and it will be easier to focus on communicating.

Some questions that are very likely to come up in most college interviews:

“Why do you want to attend this college?”

  • Any answer that reflects positively on the school will work for this
  • Eg: “It’s academically rigorous”
  • “Some of the most interesting people I’ve met have gone to this school”
  • “I’ve heard really good things about the archeology department”
  • “The first year classics curriculum seems like an excellent foundation for further learning”
  • It’s also ok if the reason is partly personal, so long as it also says something specifically positive about the school, eg
  • “I’m looking to study pre-law and stay close to home so that I can be there for family. I like that this college has a large percentage of non-traditional students so that I will have a peer group even though I won’t be able to live on campus.”
  • Don’t say something that would reflect negatively on the school like “I’ve heard that everyone passes” or “I’ve heard it’s a great party schools,“ or “I just don’t want to work that hard.”

“What do you want to study?”

  • The answer to this question should show that you have interests, and that you like learning things
  • It’s ok not to know what you want to study; a lot of entering college students in the US do not.
  • If you’re not sure what you want to study, your answer to this should still indicate that you’ve thought about it and that you care about something, eg:
  • “I’m not sure yet, but I’m considering either history or political science or economics.”
  • “I want to learn a broad range of things before I decide for sure, but I really enjoy math.”
  • If you do know what you want to study, say so, and say something about what interests you about the subject (it does not need to be original, so long as it’s reasonably sincere), eg:
  • “I’m interested in the history of conflict. I want to try and figure out why people fight wars and how we can make peace.”
  • “I’m interested in studying biology so that I can eventually do medical research.”

“Do you have any questions for us?”

  • This question is likely pretty much any time that you’re interviewed for anything
  • It’s helpful to have a question in mind to ask them; it will show that you care about the school and aren’t just generically applying
  • The question should be something that you can’t easily google or get from their website, and it should show that you know something about the school
  • Eg: “I saw on the website that a lot of undergraduates do research. What’s the process like for finding a research adviser?”
  • (Don’t ask about possible exceptions to policies. That’s a conversation to have after you’re accepted, especially if it’s disability-related.)

Short version: If you’re interviewing for college (or anything really), it’s very helpful to do a practice interview. There is likely a teacher, guidance counselor, or coach at your school who would be willing to give you a practice interview. Having a peer do one can also work. Whoever does it, it is most effective when they ask you the questions that you’re afraid or nervous about being asked in the real interview.

Including people who get talked over

Often, in class conversations, some students will talk over other students and not let them get a word in edgewise. (This happens a lot between male and female students. It’s not always gendered that way but that’s a common dynamic.), eg:

  • Brenda: I thought the colors were too bright because they made the background more prominent than the…
  • Bob: Actually, the colors were too bright. They made the background more prominent than the foreground. That’s a problem because you have to be able to pay attention to the foreground.

When Bob is allowed to do this, it effectively cuts Brenda out of the conversation. Eg, this is one continuation I’ve seen a lot:

  • Bob: Actually, the colors were too bright. They made the background more prominent than the foreground. That’s a problem because you have to be able to pay attention to the foreground.
  • Teacher: Yes, distracting background colors detract from the most important parts of the scenes.

When the teacher says something like that, they’re responding to Bob and ignoring Brenda. If Brenda was making the same point, then she deserves to be acknowledged. If she was making a different point, then she deserves to be heard. It’s important to listen to all the students who participate sincerely, not just those who talk over others.

You don’t have to put up with this. You can turn your attention back to the student who was talking before they got interrupted. This is one way to do that:

  • You (ignoring Bob): Brenda, what do you mean about the background being more prominent? Can you say more?
  • This lets Brenda know that you value what she’s saying.
  • And it allows her to be heard even though Bob doesn’t value what she’s saying.
  • This also sends the message to other students that you will listen to them, take them seriously, and not allow them to be talked over.

This usually works better than directly addressing Bob in the moment. If you call Bob on it directly, that can lead to derailing the conversation into an argument about Bob, eg:

  • Teacher: Bob, please don’t talk over Brenda
  • Bob: I wasn’t talking over Brenda.
  • Teacher: She was saying something, and you interrupted her.

This can backfire because it keeps the focus on Bob rather than the person he was talking over. It’s also less powerful. You don’t need Bob’s permission to pay attention to the student he interrupted. You can just pay attention to her.

Another possibility:

  • Teacher: Bob, let Brenda finish then you can make your point. Brenda, what were you saying about the background colors?

This can work sometimes because it’s not directly accusing Bob of anything, and it immediately shifts the focus back to the person he interrupted.