Skills to Develop
- Analyze strategies for personalizing an assigned topic
- Analyze strategies for finding a focus for an unassigned topic
- Analyze strategies for moving from general to specific
Analyze topic selection activities
The main character in the movie Misery is a writer named Paul Sheldon, who after a serious car accident is “rescued” by his self-proclaimed “number one fan,” Annie Wilkes. Annie holds him captive, withholding pain medications and torturing him mentally and physically while demanding that he write a novel that brings her favorite character, Misery Chastaine, back to life. The movie trailer for Misery reads, “Now Paul Sheldon must write as if his life depended on it . . . because it does.”
This is no one’s ideal writing scenario, nor is it a common one, but the direct association of writing and suffering will not seem far-fetched to anyone who writes. Based on a Stephen King novella of the same name, Misery suggests that even a prolific writer like King, who has written screenplays, novels, short stories, and essays for the past thirty-five years, finds writing difficult, even painful.
Chances are, if you have ever written a paper, you’ve experienced the uneasiness caused by the combination of a blank page and a looming deadline. Though it may seem counterintuitive, one way to make the process of getting started on a new assignment easier is to look for something that troubles you. Seek out difficulty, find problems. All academic disciplines require students to identify, mull over, and sometimes solve challenging problems.
We all deal with problems of varying complexity on a daily basis. If we are successful in dealing with life’s challenges, it’s likely that we follow a particular process for meeting these challenges, whether we are conscious of it or not. Here is an example of this process:
Problem: My car broke down.
Questions that emerge from this problem: Can I fix it myself? If not, where should I take it to get it fixed? Whom can I trust? Could I get a recommendation from someone?How will I get around while my car is in the shop? In light of the estimate, is it worth getting it fixed or should I trade it in and buy another car?
What is at stake?: If you don’t reflect on these questions and instead take your car to the first dealer you see, you might choose a mechanic who is notorious for overcharging or for sloppy work. Or you might be without wheels for awhile and unable to get to work. Precious time and your hard-earned cash are at stake here. In order to make an informed decision, we must sit with a problem and weigh our options.
Problems are an expected part of life, and our ability to deal with them can help determine our personal and professional success. In fact, recent studies suggest that the ability to wrestle with problems is what makes a successful leader. Successful leaders, according to Roger Martin, Dean of the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto, have one thing in common: the power of “integrative thinking.” Martin borrows the words of F. Scott Fitzgerald, author of The Great Gatsby, to define integrative thinking as “the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” According to Fitzgerald, integrative thinking is a sign of “first-rate intelligence”; according to Martin, who examined 50 successful managers for his book The Opposable Mind: How Successful Leaders Win Through Integrative Thinking, it is the sign of a successful leader. Integrative thinkers embrace complexity. They sit with problems, and don’t accept only the easy answers. They tap into the tension between two opposing ideas to produce a third idea. And, ultimately, they produce new insights and develop new alternatives. This habit of mind can and should be cultivated (Martin 62).
Identifying the right topic, and the right problem, is the first part of this habit of mind.
The Learning Activities for This Outcome Include
- Text: Problems as Process
- Text: Strategies for Narrowing a Topic
- Self Check: Topic Selection
- Try It: Topic Selection