A Student Insight into the Challenges in a Technical Communication Senior Thesis Project: The Big Task of the Tiny Topic

The senior thesis project at New Mexico Tech has been a longstanding part of the Technical Communication program.  While most students, including myself, do not formally start this project until their final year at New Mexico Tech, we do have some idea of the scope of the project, what it entails and we know that it is an intense part of our study that entails six credits worth of work.  As my thesis project proceeds, I hope to encourage other students through these blogs and to offer my perspective to instructors involved in similar processes. I’ll do so by detailing the challenges and successes I experience in what I hope will be the crowning achievement of my undergraduate career.

Those of us going into the senior thesis project in the fall semester usually have some idea of what we want to write about.We may even feel like we know the exact topic we want to cover.  As students, we generally do not have a clear understanding of what is feasible to cover in a two semester project, nor do we know precisely what the department expects of us.  I have been informally discussing my topic with Dr. Julie Dyke Ford, who leads the thesis project in our program, for many months in an attempt to get a head start.
In the first, full month of the project, it becomes painfully clear that we need to narrow our topics down.  That narrowing, in itself, is a daunting task.  The old adage about “seeing the trees and not the forest” is somewhat applicable; however, for those of us settling on a topic, an extreme reverse of the saying is true.  In the forest of topics, we students often see the forest and the trees, but choosing a research topic is more like trying to find the one, perfect leaf somewhere on the top of a specific tree in a rather large forest.

Under the tutelage of Dr. Ford, we spend much of the first month beginning to narrow the topic down.  She listens to our ideas about the topic, and then assigns us to find a specific academic article in a relevant area of study, read it, and focus on potential ideas that may spring from that article.  We are told to pay close attention to the recommendations for further study included in the conclusion.  We report back with our findings, having slightly narrowed our topic down.

This begins the formal process of settling on our topic.  Because of my prior work experience in an international company, I knew at the beginning of the project that I wanted to write a thesis about international communication.  As the process continued, it narrowed to international communication between Eastern and Western cultures.  Later it was further narrowed to focusing on electronic communication between Eastern and Western cultures.  Even later is has been continually narrowed to a focus on optimizing Western web design for readers from an Eastern culture.  The limited, two semester time frame requires that the topic be narrow enough to successfully research, write about, and prepare an oral presentation over.

Keeping an open line of communication with Dr. Ford has been a vital part of the project for me.  Often my ideas for narrowing down the task are encouraged by words like “Good Start,” “This has some potential,” and “More specific.”  Throughout this narrowing process, I am slowly educating myself in the field I am studying, and it becomes more and more obvious how researching a narrow slice of a topic can dominate two semesters worth of classes.  Before our project is “green lighted” by Dr. Ford, we must be absolutely certain we can cover the topic both in time and expertise.  We are encouraged to focus on our strengths as well as our interests.  Since I have solid background in web design and programming, as well as experience and interest in an international company, I am focusing my topic on those interests.

As the first month comes to a close, we may not have completely settled on a topic, but the expectations are made much clearer, our fields of study have been narrowed, and our first bit of library research has given us many sources to critically examine.  Next month I will cover my exploration of past research as well as how I plan to use that exploration to model my research project.  My work up to this point leads me to ask what tools and strategies do other instructors use to aid other students in the development of research topics, and how are students encouraged to utilize their collegiate experience to find a relevant and interesting topic?

Travis Daniel Griffin is pursuing his Bachelor of Science in Technical Communication at New Mexico Tech and plans to graduate in May of 2013.  After working eight years as management in an international restaurant company, with locations and offices in Japan and California, Daniel relocated to New Mexico to attend school at New Mexico Tech and work as a web developer and programmer in the IT department at EMRTC, New Mexico Tech’s premier explosives research and training division.

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