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PICKING INTERESTING TOPIC IS HALF THE BATTLE

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My son is in the middle of a rite of passage common to all high school students in Utah. It usually happens in the junior year and is more serious than pimples and less fun than getting a driver's license. He is in the middle of his library research paper.

The hard part of the assignment for my kids is the fact that their dad saved the research paper he did for Mrs. Zarr at South High in 1960.I flaunt the paper because it was good then, and in all humility, it's good now. Only the information is dated, like the typewriter and yellowed paper it was written on. (For copies of "Penicillin and Penicillin Therapy" by Roger Baker, send $500 and a self-addressed envelope with 27 stamps.)

"Way back then when I wrote this paper we didn't have word processors. We had to leave space at the bottom of the page for footnotes, and if we made a mistake the computer didn't correct it for us. A mistake meant that we had to type the whole page over again because Mrs. Zarr didn't believe in the new-fangled white-out liquid or easy-erase paper, and erasure smudges would give her an excuse to grade us down. Not only that, but our papers had to be longer than yours. Look at this. Ten pages of flawless writing, all carefully documented from sources that weren't on microfilm or in computers in those days. It took hours in the University of Utah library, and I had to walk five miles uphill each way. And notice Mrs. Zarr's comments.

"It's clear that . . . You're not listening."

"Sorry, but I thought I heard an echo. Has this been recorded?"

"Don't get smart with me or I'll tell about how we thought nothing of walking to school in the snow."

"Well, I don't think much of it either."

The truth is that Jay will probably save his paper, too. He'll save it because it will be good. That's what his teacher expects. He'll also save it because he has followed the two rules of successful term papers.

Rule one: Choose a topic about which you are honestly interested.

I meet struggling students every quarter who are in difficulty just because they chose a research topic for a class for a usual wrong reason. "I'm doing research on - because I thought there would be lots of stuff on that topic."

Doing a paper because there is a lot of "stuff" on the topic implies that the student is looking for easy. What the student finds instead is hard. Term papers are difficult enough without a boring topic even if information about it falls off the library shelves as they walk by. What genuine interest does is make many of the writing requirements moot. For example, students writing on interesting topics don't have to worry about how many sources are required, how much reading is necessary or how long the paper is supposed to be.

The biggest problem will be defining the point at which research is over and writing starts. There will always be more to read on an interesting topic. Perhaps a simple question is in order: How can a student expect someone, including the teacher, to be interested in reading a research paper on a topic that the student writer was not interest in?

Rule two: Ask an honest question about the topic. Again the easy way turns out to be the hard way. If a student has already decided what she thinks about her research question, then all she will do is look for information that supports her preconceived notion. This will make it necessary to bend data, ignore important facts and will mean that the student writer will not be able to answer honest questions on the opposite side of her argument. Preconceived answers also make the search boring. Why not look for something with the excitement of not knowing what you will find. It is academically dishonest and boring to do research knowing exactly what you plan to find.

I would tell any student who already knows the answer to quit wasting time supporting existing biases. If he has already decided that gun control won't reduce crime, it is dishonest to simply look for information to support the idea. But if a student really wants to know whether or not gun control will reduce crime, then more power to the honest question. Start reading, interviewing, asking and, most important, getting some information from people who feel passionately on all sides of the argument. Let those who want more control speak for themselves and allow those who want less control the same privilege.

At the end of the day a student who has asked an honest question will be closer to an honest answer, not an answer for which the only source are the pronouncements of dad at the dinner table.

Jay's paper will be a keeper that he will show off to his kids because he really wants to know if reintroducing wolves into Yellowstone National Park is a good idea or not. His answers will be informed because he knows what biologists, ranchers, hunters, Forest Service, government officials, friends and even Dad thinks about the problem. Excluding Dad, he has read informed people. What has happened is that the topic has become more interesting with each new source. It's what makes school fun.