Characteristics of a Good Theme


* Every student should already know something about the theme on the first day. They will all have a sense of what questions/problems/controversies surround the theme, and provisional answers and opinions about them. (Remember that not all of your students have grown up in the U.S.)
* The theme is a topic about which you are still learning. Teaching your dissertation, or some other topic about which you are an expert, is likely to frustrate both you and your students.
* The theme can be developed through a variety of readings. Students should learn to gather ideas and evidence from different kinds of writing (not all websites, for example, or not all articles from scholarly journals). Similarly, students should learn to write a range of academic pieces (not just literary criticism, and not just policy papers). Be especially careful with film/TV/literary themes, so that students learn to read more than just short stories and learn to write more than just movie reviews.
* The theme raises complex problems. That is, the problems involved must present questions that students can't answer with a simple yes or no, or by making a choice between two mutually exclusive options.
* Students can branch out and develop their own interests within the theme. Spend a few minutes imagining a variety of student talents and obsessions: science, sports, the arts, math/economics. Try to choose a theme that will allow for choices on papers that let students pursue these interests (in a class on rock and roll, for example, students could write about the impact of MP3s on the CD market;
* The theme asks students to explore some aspect of the world outside themselves and their lives at the University. Courses that "go meta"—that ask students, for example, to reflect upon what it means to be a student or an 18 year old or to rehearse the history of composition theory—risk becoming too angsty or just too hard to gather or judge evidence about.