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.

When a class is harder than you expected


My entire life English has been my thing – my best class, I even just started writing a novel. And AP Lang is kicking my butt up down and all around.

Advice on avoiding the soulcrushing feeling that I lost a large part of my identity to this class?

realsocialskills said:

I think it might help to remember that this class is not an ultimate test of whether you’re good at writing.

It’s one class. I don’t know why it’s kicking your butt. There are a lot of possibilities.

For instance:

New skills that don’t come naturally to you:

  • Sometimes students who are good at a particular subject expect that everything about it will always come naturally to them.
  • In the long run, that’s unlikely to be true.
  • No matter how good someone is at something, there will probably be things that are difficult, unnatural, and have a steep learning curve.
  • This can be scary the first time students experience it, particularly if they have a lot of identity hung up in being good at something.
  • Particularly if they’re young enough that their peer group might be made up of people who also haven’t experienced struggling with their strongest subject much before.
  • If that’s the issue, it might help to remember that this is normal. Everyone struggles with something related to their field in the long run. That’s ok.
  • And it also might help to remember that part of being great at something is learning how to do hard things
  • Most people who write seriously consider writing to be difficult.
  • Writing is probably going to be hard sometimes. Sometimes it’s going to feel like a miserable slog. It’s still worth doing. For a lot of writers, writing through the stuck places is a vital part of what makes good writing possible.

The class might be designed to kick your butt. Some classes are like that, eg:

  • Some teachers assign things that they know are barely possible for their students
  • The point of this is to push you hard to increase your skills dramatically over the semester
  • Teachers who do this tend to keep making the assignments harder as their students develop more skills
  • Your teacher may be assigning books they expect most or all of the students to find extremely difficult to read
  • Your teacher may be having you write in ways that they know will be very difficult
  • Or holding you to very high standards that they expect to be only barely possible for you to meet
  • Struggling with that kind of class doesn’t mean you’re bad at English
  • It means that you’re in a class where the teacher is pushing you really hard, and not giving you any chances to do anything comfortable
  • If this is a factor, it might help to remind yourself that it’s ok to struggle when you’re being asked to do difficult things

The grading standards might be more difficult than you’re used to:

  • Different teachers grade differently
  • In most classes, there’s a default grade you get if you do all the assignments more-or-less competently. In some classes, that’s an A. In others, it’s a B. In others, it’s a C.
  • If you’re having to work much harder for grades than you’re used to, it may well just mean that the scale is different.
  • (Even if it’s a teacher you’ve had before; many teachers grade AP classes more stringently).

Your classmates might be different than you’re used to:

  • Sometimes students are used to being much better than their peers at a subject
  • Then they take an advanced class, and everyone else is good at the subject too
  • Then they’re not dramatically better at it anymore, and feel like they must not be good at it after all
  • This is also common among people who are used to being at the top of their class in high school, then go on to an elite school and have peers who were also at the top of their classes
  • If this is what’s going on, it might help to try to focus on doing things well rather than doing them better than your peers
  • And to remember that if you’re around others who are strong in your subject, you can learn from them as well as the teacher
  • You don’t have to dramatically outperform everyone else for your skills to be real
  • Writing well and reading seriously matter as ends in themselves, whatever test scores say.

The class might suck:

  • Some classes are terrible and make students feel terrible.
  • The teacher might be giving you unreasonable or unclear assignments
  • The assigned books might be excruciatingly dull.
  • The writing assignments might be pointless busywork that makes you hate writing.
  • The teacher might be mean.
  • Your classmates might be mean.
  • You might have access needs that the teacher isn’t meeting.
  • Or any number of other ways classes can suck.
  • Most people who go to school for a long time deal with classes that suck sometimes.
  • If that’s the problem, it might help to keep in mind that bad classes don’t mean you’re bad, and that the class will end.

You might have a lot of other stuff going on.

  • High school is hard on a number of levels for a lot of people.
  • Particularly the last two years, in which there can be a lot of pressure to believe that your future will be ruined if you don’t push yourself superhumanly hard.
  • Life in general can be hard for all kinds of reasons.
  • Sometimes when stuff is really hard, people find things difficult that they normally are able to do easily.

Mental or physical health:

  • If you have a mental or physical health condition, that can make school harder.
  • Some mental and physical health conditions tend to start in adolescence.
  • Long-standing conditions often also change or develop complications in adolescence.
  • Health conditions in adolescence are not always diagnosed quickly or treated appropriately.
  • Even when things are managed well, they still have to be managed, and that can still complicate things a lot
  • And that’s not always acknowledged, particularly when people want to reassure you that your brain is fine and you are totally mentally normal
  • The reality is that mental and physical health problems, as well as treatment, tend to make school harder
  • It can help to remember that it’s not your fault that dealing with health is hard and takes time and can suck in other ways and makes things other than health hard sometimes.
  • Or, as one of my friends once said to me, “it turns out that brains care more about oxygen than they do about academics.”

Disability issues:

  • Sometimes students with disabilities start needing academic accommodations when their classes get harder.
  • For instance, someone who could take notes by hand in an easy class might need a computer to take notes in a hard class.
  • Someone with dyslexia who can read 20 pages a week of standard print might need to use a screenreader for a class that requires 120 pages a week.
  • When students haven’t needed accommodations before, or haven’t needed them in a while, it doesn’t always occur to anyone that they might need them now
  • (Particularly if they were pushed really hard to learn to do something in the standard way, and were able to do so for a few years before classes got harder).
  • If you have a disability or suspect that you might, it’s worth considering whether you would benefit from modifications or support.

And in general: There are any number of reasons this class could be hard. This class is not a test of whether you are good at English, whether you are good at writing, or whether you should write a novel. If you want to write, you can do that, and do it well, no matter what happens in this class.

Short version: A lot of things can make classes hard, even in subjects you’re used to being good at. Those classes aren’t tests of whether you’re good at the subject, or whether you can keep doing the things you’re interested in. They’re just classes. It’s ok to do hard things.

Don’t miswrite dialects

So, I’ve seen this problem when people want to write characters from a culture other than their own:

  • They know that those characters speak a different dialect than they do
  • And they want to convey this
  • But they don’t realize the dialect actually has a rich grammar and other idioms and conventions
  • So they end up just using a lot of stereotypes, or mis-using well-known attributes of the dialect
  • For instance, white authors who want to write characters who speak AAVE often misuse “be” as an indicator (by replacing “is” with “be” at random times rather than learning how “be” actually functions grammatically and writing it correctly.)

It’s important not to do that. If you want to write dialogue in a particular dialect, it’s important to actually learn that dialect so that you can write it correctly. 

Don’t tell me my pain is beautiful

I’ve seen this happen a lot:

  • Something awful happens to someone
  • Or they see something awful happen to someone else
  • Or they notice a thing that’s awful in the world
  • And then they write something about it
  • And they put a lot of effort into writing it, so it is really polished

And then a lot of people comment along these lines:

  • What a beautiful piece
  • That was so eloquent and moving
  • You’re such a good writer
  • I wish I could write like that

And often, those are the only or the primary comments a post like that gets, especially if it is written in highly personal terms.

I think there is something really wrong with that. Because when someone wrote something like that, the point was to communicate something important. And often, people completely ignore the content and focus on some sort of beauty unrelated to what the writer was actually saying.

When someone’s trying to tell you about violence, the right response isn’t “you’re so awesome at describing this violence in an asthetically pleasing manner!”; it’s “That shouldn’t happen,” or “What can I do to stop this?” or even “I think you’re wrong,” because sometimes you will disagree and sometimes you will be right. In any case, it’s important to take the content seriously.

Some things you can do alone

Sometimes people don’t want to interact. In those times, it’s important to have stuff you can be ok doing by yourself. This can also be important if you’re waiting for something and stressed about it.

For some people, that can be very difficult.

Here are things that work for some people:

  • Carrying a drawing pad for doodling.
  • Playing iPhone games
  • writing things (stories, blog posts, thoughts about how you’re feeling)
  • Making lists (eg: of your favorite ball players, of all the country songs involving watermelon you can think of, things you’re anxious about, things you might like to eat)
  • reading a book
  • building things with legos or neoballs

What are some other things?