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.

tl;dr Picking a paper topic in humanities classes can be hard. Using the readings and the syllabus to find topics can make it easier.