"Help!!! I Can't Write About This Topic"
While it is possible that you will be assigned a topic in some course that you cannot write for moral or ethical reasons, that is highly unlikely*. The "cannot write about that topic" problems are much more likely to be practical than ethical.
"I didn't experience that"
I often get this objection.
- I asked one group to read an article about teenagers working in fast food restaurants. The author's point was that the poor wages were not worth the sacrifice. The assignment was to discuss whether the article was persuasive. One student wrote that he could not fulfill the assignment because he had never had a job in a fast food restaurant.
- I got a similar objection when the assignment was to assess whether an article about animal cruelty at Sea World was persuasive. Obviously, to these students, only Sea World employees would know whether the article was clear and persuasive.
- I asked another group to read an article in which the author compared the work ethic of today's students to the work ethic of students in the 1960s. One student objected that he could not write about the article because he was not a student in the 1960s.
Consider what that means. If you can only write about things you have experienced directly, you cannot do much writing.
- Most students in this classroom were born between 2000 and 2002. Most children are somewhat unaware of current events and world history until they are about eight years old, so you cannot write about anything that happened before 2010. You cannot write about the American Revolution, World War II, the presidency of John Kennedy, or the September 11 attack in New York City. You have no idea why we get excited about July 4.
- Events outside Ohio are pretty much closed off to you as well. There is no way you can write about effects of climate change on coastal cities, economic problems of Kansas farmers, or European politics.
- Topics which you cannot observe directly are also off-limits, so you won't be writing about anything related to astronomy, chemistry, or economic theory.
College writing is not the same as high school writing
Apparently many high school students write a lot of brief papers about how they feel—and these papers did not require any real thought or reading. Pretty much anybody can pop out 350 words on "How do you feel about recycling?" in an hour or so.
College writing is different—get used to it.
- The shortest college paper is likely to be longer than the longest paper you had to write in high school. This means you cannot depend on banging out a paper at 1 a.m. the night before it's due. You will have to give the paper more preparation time.
- Most college writing assignments assume that you do not already have all the necessary information inside your head. They require reading. In fact, many college assignments ask you to respond to a piece of reading you have done.
- Very few college writing assignments ask you whether you like a piece of reading or approve of it. You will almost never be asked to express the opinion that a piece of reading is stupid.
- In this context, a student paper which says something like "Einstein expressed the Theory of Relativity as E = mc² and I approve" is just arrogant and juvenile.
- Very few college writing assignments ask you to produce a sermon that will enable your instructor to change his or her life. Teachers are not desperately reading student papers looking for the key to happiness.
- Very few college writing assignments ask you to decode some document with a hidden meaning. These courses are not much like Indiana Jones movies.
One big assumption: You don't know everything yet
This is an enormous difference between high school and college: in university courses, we assume that you still need to learn things. College courses are not focused on what is already inside your head; we assume you should gain knowledge and skills. One of the key ways you can learn things (so you can discuss, for example, events that happened 100 years ago) is through reading.
Two key words: "Reading" and "Explaining"
If reading an extended text (four or five pages of textbook print) is a problem for you:
- Get glasses if you need them.
- Buy and use a dictionary.
- Take notes on your reading.
- Get used to the idea that you can't do the reading for a course in ten minutes per day.
- Use the University's tutoring resources.
* Many professors, however, have restrictions about topics which are off limits. Examples would be papers advocating hate crimes, blatant homophobia or sexism, denial of historic events such as Hitler's Holocaust, or advocating practices which are legally defined as "crimes against humanity."