© Damen, 2002

23. Narrow Themes.

In a recent class of mine where students were allowed to choose their own paper topics, one essay launched off with the claim that "the role of women has been important in Western Civilization all throughout its history." My initial reaction was—to quote your own generation—"Well, duh!" After all, without women where would any of us be? Who doesn't have a female relative who's made that point at least once? But that's not the real problem at hand here. The trouble is the general importance of women in history is such a huge theme I doubt sixty volumes, much less one paper, could even begin to do it justice.

The lesson is: choose a narrow theme! If you think women are important, fine! Just don't try to encompass the entirety of such an enormous issue in one paper. Instead, explore a single facet of their importance, for example, their contributions to politics, or economics, or industry. Then, evaluate what history tells you about the development of their role in this one area. End by asserting that, although the paper has addressed only one aspect of the situation, it's representative of all areas, suggesting the general centrality of women in history.

Moreover, a narrow approach offers another advantage. When you opt to focus on a particular aspect of an issue, it says a great deal about your priorities and intellect, the way you see the world. That alone is important information, and not just for your reader to know but you, too. By exploring a narrow theme, you learn what interests you, what seems to you compelling and worth investigating. According to the ancient Greeks, to "know yourself" is the beginning of all knowledge. So, make yourself choose a narrow topic and you will learn something valuable about not just the world but who you are.

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