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The difficulty undergraduate students experience in constructing  titles is matched by their enthusiasm for them. In my ENG 101 courses, I tell students not to attempt titles but simply to copy the essay question or task, but many cannot resist the urge to display their title-generating skills; thus instead of “Under what circumstances do online actions have the same moral significance as their offline counterparts?” I get “Right and Wrong”. Sparse and eye-catching, this might make a good title for a Restoration comedy (though even then it would probably have continued “OR The Virgine and the Foppe, A Comedie in Three Acts“). In ENG 102, they have to write a term paper, so there’s no question to copy, and they have to write their own titles, meaning that I have to do something to show them the difference between the title of an academic paper and the title of a novel. It was fine as a title for Stephen King, but an academic paper needs something a bit more informative. (There again, Mr. King wouldn’t have sold many copies if he’d had titles like “Morphogenesis of clown-spider hybrids: an ethnomethodological approach to American small-town hysteria.”)

What I did today was to present them with a list of titles for the kind of papers I might expect to see in this course (which is all about social networks and virtual worlds, by the way) and say whether they were good, bad or indifferent.

  1. My term paper
  2. Portrayal of oriental cultures in online games: a comparison of Guild Wars and Age of Conan
  3. The Matrix has you
  4. “Welcome to the desert of the real”: Baudrillardian themes in The Matrix
  5. Gender-switching in online role-playing games
  6. Effects of social networks on teenagers
  7. Sex as symbolic exchange in Second Life
  8. Celebrity tweeting and viral advertising: social media as self- and brand-promotion
  9. Why you should keep your kids away from online games
  10. The Matrix vs Inception

After a few false starts they got the idea. One thing that came out immediately is that students didn’t realise how long academic titles can be; quite a few students rejected number 2 because it was “too long – more like a sentence than a title.” This was a good opportunity to teach what I call “the academic colon,” which is not indigestion caused by Cambridge banquets but a convenient way of splitting a title into digestible chunks. Frequently, as in example 4, it’s a way to have your cake and eat it, combining the attention-grabbing style of a novel or magazine article title with the serious-sounding detail that tells a potential reader “There is citable content here.” As I told my students, the hard part of academic publishing isn’t getting your work published (that just requires the patience to go through the submission process with enough journals) but getting people to read it once it’s published. With essays submitted for courses, the problem isn’t getting someone to read it (they’re paid to do that); it’s getting them to come out of their grading stupor and really pay attention, but I didn’t add that part.

Categories: Classroom, Writing
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