Multigenre Research: Choosing Topics

Note: This is the second in a series of posts about Multigenre Research Projects.  For an introduction, read more here. I am going through this project step-by-step to avoid a really long post. I hope you’ll find some of it interesting and worthwhile!

You might think I would start by telling you exactly what multigenre research and composition is. But, I’m going to hold off, just as I did with my students for the first couple of weeks of the project.  (Organizational note:  We completed the project over the course of seven weeks, meeting once a week during that time period. Much of each class meeting was spent on the fundamental principles of writing pedagogy. About a hour of each class meeting was dedicated to this multigenre research project, including time for explanation, mini-lessons about research and genre, independent writing, peer and teacher conferencing, and sharing.)

There were two main contributing factors to the design of this assignment. First, the instructor who taught the course before me included a multigenre project on diversity. The idea appealed to me, but I didn’t commit until an event happened last semester, when I taught a Children’s Literature and Oral Language course. During that semester, the students in our elementary education program pulled some faculty together to share their views on what was working in their program and what wasn’t.  They taught us a lot that day, but one critique struck me particularly hard. The students said that they heard about diversity a lot in their classes. But, our students told us, when we talked about diversity, we only seemed to talk about racial diversity or students from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds.

In my department, we work to develop anti-racist educators who are also mindful of social class. While we still have a long way to go, we have definitely made this a priority for discussion in many of our classes and we will continue to work on these topics. In spite of all this talk about diversity, though, I knew the students were right. They were not getting nearly enough information about all the other ways people can be diverse, at least not in my classes. When I re-designed the multigenre research project, I thought about this problem, and decided to develop the project to address it.

To begin, I invited the students to select a group of people, different than themselves, that interested them. The group would be their general topic of study. This was a tricky proposition for a number of reasons. Most importantly, I didn’t want my students to become more rigid or monolithic in their thoughts about diversity. So, we talked about the way that any group we chose to study would contain a lot of diversity in itself.  Our work will always be oversimplified.  This does not mean that the work isn’t worth doing, but that we always have to keep this complexity in mind. Thankfully, multigenre research seems to invite complexity. But, more on that later.

For the first week, that was it. The students’ only assignment was to think about what they wanted to study. They could interpret “diversity” however they chose. To my surprise, it did not take long for people to ask me if they could study groups that they belonged to themselves. It turns out that many of my students felt like they were part of cultural groups that were misunderstood. They wanted to research and write about themselves and their cultures to help others (and even themselves) understand. Not really knowing how this would turn out, I agreed to let the students pursue this self-focused kind of research as well. I thought back to my experience conducting an I-Search in my Information Literacy course with Dr. Julie Tallman. As Dr. Tallman used to say, when we do personal research we do not choose our research topics, “our research topics choose us.” With that in mind, I encouraged the students to pursue whatever topic about culture that seemed to pull at them.

Here is a sampling of their topics:


Verbal abuse

Students with gay parents




Perpetrators of school violence



Emotional and Behavioral Disorders



Institutional racism

Students with chronic illnesses


Students who have been incarcerated

Teen mothers

Asian-American identity

Visual Impairments


Victims of sexual abuse

Holocaust survivors

Students with alcoholic parents

Tourette’s Syndrome


Childhood Obesity

Hearing Impairments

and more…

As you can see, the students selected a wide range of topics.  If I had developed a list for them to choose from, I’m quite certain that most of these topics would not have appeared. For many of them, the simple process of choosing a topic was an opportunity to think about what “diversity” means to them. It turned out to be much broader than many of them had considered. This became even more clear when they heard about all the other topics being studied.

Here we are at the end of the post, and many of you may still be wondering what multigenre research is. At this point, so were the students.  I asked the students to trust that I would guide them through the process, and I guess I’m asking that of you as well.

In the next post, we will talk about information sources and the way they managed their research. We welcome your comments!


7 Responses to “Multigenre Research: Choosing Topics”

  1. 1 Fran Bullington 03.04.2010 at 10:04 am

    “Our research topics choose us.” That really resonated with me. What an interesting mix of topics your students choose – and I’m sure they were excited to be able to choose what they really wished to understand.

    Looking forward to the next installment in your series!

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  1. 1 Multigenre Research Projects: Sources and Notetaking « because to why Trackback on 03.09.2010 at 4:44 am
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