An Academic Treat: Getting to Write About What You Want to Write About!


Trick Or Treat Halloween Bucket<—— The spiders and rats in this picture are grammatical mistakes and lack of analytical thinking! Beware!

At first, it seems like a trick: you are given an “open” assignment to conduct a research project. You can write about anything… as long as you get professor’s approval first. For anxious students such as myself, being given too much freedom can be cause for panic (Please just tell me what you want! I can’t make decisions by myself! Academia has trained me not to!) Existential terror aside, researching and writing on a topic of your choosing can be one of the biggest treats you will come across as an academic writer.

I recently signed up for an independent study project. Somehow, I missed the word “independent”  in the description. I came in thinking it would work basically like every other course I had taken: my professor would tell me what to read, she would guide me to an idea, bing-bang-boom, awesome A-paper. Winning! When I walked in my project adviser’s office, I brought a pen and paper, eager to take in all the knowledge she would impart to me. She smiled at me.

“So, Tricia, what do you what to write about?”

At first I thought she had misunderstood the reason I was there. I wanted to respond: No, no, madam, you’re mistaken.  Figuring out ideas is your job. I’m just a student, you’re the scholar. You tell me what to do. However, that seemed too strange to say out loud, so instead I muttered:

“I don’t know.” Then I smiled, too, obviously confused and afraid. The awkward smiling continued for a moment. Finally my adviser broke the silence:

“Ok… Tricia… What do you like to write about?”

This question lead to further confusion for me because I have almost never been asked this by a professor. I thought back to the last paper I had enjoyed writing and responded:

“Drama and government.”

My adviser nodded at me, “Alright then, so let’s start there. For our next meeting, compile a reading list and write an initial proposal for your project.”

“Cool,” I said.

I left her office, no less confused and still smiling like I was crazy. I honestly had no clue where to begin. I went to the library and began to search through the databases for things that had to do with drama and government. There was so, so much. After a few fruitless hours of searching, I realized I was going about it the wrong way. Contrary to my initial belief, my adviser wasn’t trying to trick me into giving her the answer she wanted to hear. Instead, she wanted me to write about what was interesting to me. I began to seriously consider the idea. What kind of things did I value? What plays made me want to read more? Which authors did I find to be the most intriguing? It took me most of the following week to figure it out, but in the end I was able to come up with a few books and articles on drama and the military.

This process continued week after week. I felt like it was slowly going around in smaller and smaller circles, getting closer and closer to my topic. The more I read about my topic, the more interesting it became. Instead of being confused and afraid every week when I met with my adviser, I was excited to discuss my findings and progress with her. Much to my surprise, I found I was having fun with my project.

When you write what you want to write about, the process of writing becomes less about “doing it right” and more about discovery. I’m still working on my research project and for what seems like the first time, I actually feel like a scholar contributing to a field of study as opposed to a student looking for the right answer.  The ability to direct your writing, to produce something unique that is completely your own in academia, can be the sweetest experience you have as a student. Enjoy your treat. ;D



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1 Comment »

  • Vanessa says:

    Tricia– this was really engaging, and I love that it read like a narrative. I’ve wondered how independent projects worked at the graduate level, and your post really articulates a lot of the fears I had about doing one– but also makes me regret not taking advantage of it! I’d love to read a follow-up about it.


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