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What To Do When You Don't Have A Prompt

One of the most challenging processes in college writing is coming up with a question around which to frame an essay. Often, professors will write up an explicit prompt that students are expected to address—in which case most of the work is done for you. But, other times, especially in the humanities, students are expected to create a unique analytic question to frame their writing. Here’s some advice for how to deal with prompts in the humanities that look like this:

1.      Write a crtitical analysis of one or more thinkers we’ve studied in this class.

2.      Write a 5-7 page paper on  a topic from the first half of the course.

These open-ended questions can leave students feeling like they have no clue where to start. Here I have listed some analytic questions intended to help you use the texts you study in class to find an interesting and contentious paper topic.

What do I think about the texts I’ve encountered?

  • Was the text inspiring, challenging, illuminating, disenchanting, convoluted, radical, reactionary?
  • Did this text change me? If it did, why? If it did not, why not?
  • Did this text remind me of other texts I’ve encountered? Or was it wholly disparate?

What is the context of the text I’ve encountered?

  • In what language was the text originally configured?
  • When was the text created?
  • How does the text make sense of the world? What is its ideology?
  • Who is present in the text? Who is absent? What perspectives are included/excluded?
  • Who is the audience? Who is addressed? Who is not addressed?

What is the author’s role?

  • Does the author work within the confines of language? Does the author destroy language? Does the author reinvent language?
  • Does the author know that the world is round?
  • Is the author clear or tricky? Cynical or optimistic? Dry or elaborate? Serious or ironic? Is the author all of these things at once?
  • Is the author more important than the reader? Is the author less imporant than the reader? Who is resposible for the impact of the text? Who is the artist: the writer or the reader?

What should I write about?

  • How does this text envision Truth, God, Religion, Ethics, Evil, Goodness, Sex, Sexuality, Freedom, Power, Hope, the Future, the Past, the Present, Race, Gender, Class, Poverty, Wealth, Capitalism, War, Peace, Death, Self-consciousness?
  • What are the merits of the text? What are the drawbacks?
  • Do I agree with the secondary literature?
  • How does this text interact with the status quo?
  • Is this text still relevant today?

Is my introduction clear?

  • Do I indicate the texts with which I am working?
  • Do I describe my topic?
  • Do I clearly state the astute observation I am making?
  • Do I clearly state why it is that my astute observation is relevant and relevatory?

Happy thinking and writing!

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