Topic Ideas and Thesis Statements: Review and Critique

Generating and critiquing topic ideas

Undergrad students tend toward the following:
  • Topics too broad, vague, or unspecific
  • Topics impressionistic or subjective in content; impossible to “prove”
  • Topics expressed as “surveys” or “review” or even “compare & contrast”, versus a specific argumentative or interpretive thesis

Generally speaking, feedback which looks first to correct the above three problems will go a long way toward reducing total numbers of errors.

You can further help undergrads to generate interesting, individual, and specific topics by encouraging them to think in terms of the following parameters, or combinations thereof:
  • Specific composer
  • Specific composition
  • Genre (as specific as possible)
  • Specific time period (in the Modern Period, no great than 1 decade)
  • Specific geographic location (in the Modern Period, a particular city)
  • Particular context (“salon,” “opera theater,” “church denomination,” “concert hall”, “private home”, etc)
  • Particular “Ism”
  • Particular compositional “problem”, as perceived and articulated by composers in the period
  • Particular musical function (“dance”, “celebration”, “mourning”, other life-cycle events, etc)
  • Particular contextual or socio-economic-political events

You can further help students by identifying, from their preliminary submissions—especially if unsuccessful—the kind of study the student might find intriguing, even if s/he cannot.

For example, students often seek to find reflections of composer biography in a certain composition: that is, they tend to read the autobiographical/programmatic elements of compositions very literally. This does not usually yield a good paper topic, because such papers tend to be too selective, subjective, and literal. Instead, recognize that such students tend to be interested in the impact of not only biography but also context upon a given work. In such cases, consider directing the

Conversely, other students will tend to presume that “research” is simply the aggregation of random factual information from other sources. In its most extreme manifestation, this leads to copy-and-paste plagiarism, but even when within the bounds of academic ethics, this was of thinking fundamentally misunderstands “original” research.

To correct for this, insist that the students develop a true, interpretive thesis statement expressed in the form of an argument. If the student is unable to articulate as an argument, 1 of 2 syndromes tend to be at play: (1) the topic is too broad; (2) the student has insufficient background knowledge of the topic to understand which theses are debatable and which are self-evident.

Students also tend to select topics, or even author thesis statements, based on insufficient fundamental background knowledge. It is always a good idea to suggest that the student begin by reading the Grove Online article on the topic in question, before settling on the topic or the thesis statement. This can avert a good deal of uninformed and erroneous presumption—or correct for them if they have already happened.