For the past five or six years, since we switched the curriculum toward making the Comp I & II classes more specifically aimed at teaching the students academic writing (rather than, say, the writing process in general), I have been running my classes more or less the same way. That is, in the first semester, students do field research on and write ethnographic papers about a sociological group (it can be a work group, a church group, any sort of subgroup in the society as a whole -- I've had papers about soybean farmers in the Delta, BASE jumpers, roller derby teams, Pentecostal choirs), and then write expository papers and argumentative papers on problems in those groups; in the second semester, students write one big paper about a problem in their own lives, with attached smaller papers that summarize and evaluate sources for that paper, and explain attempts to solve the problem, and attempts to research solutions to the problem.
My point here -- and I do have one -- is that for all of this work, I have been compelling students to find their own research topics. That is, they have to go out and find, on their own, the group they want to study for their ethnographic field work.
And in the second semester, they have to find their own problem -- ideally some problem in their own lives -- that they want to solve.
I designed the class this way in order to force the students to write about topics that are (a) things they actually care about and (b) small, manageable topics.
That is, by making them write ethnographies on groups they had actually researched, in person, themselves, and then write about problems attached to those groups; and by making them write about problems in their own lives, I hoped to avoid those horrible, useless, impossible papers that are the bane of every English professor's existence: Why Euthanasia is Bad. Should the Death Penalty Be Overturned? ABORTION: SHOULD IT BE BANNED?
These papers are horrible not just because students have nothing new to say about them; but also because it is seriously impossible for a freshman at a university to describe and solve these problems in a 10 page paper, no matter how many brilliant sources he or she uses.
On the other hand! A paper on what sort of physical training you need to be a competent BASE jumper? That paper a freshman at a university can write most brilliantly in 7-10 pages.
So what's the problem?
The problem is these papers keep making (some of) my students sad.
They don't want to find their own topics. They want me to provide topics for them. (I suspect they would also like the topics to be things like Why Euthanasia is Bad and Why Abortion Should Be Banned.)
I have been resisting this. But now. Lately. I've been wondering whether it wouldn't make everyone's life simpler if I didn't just divide the class into five groups and give them five different topics. And give each group a dozen different sources. Maybe even an outline of the paper.