I suppose I already posted about the time I made an absolute veto of a topic, saying "Ok, you can write about absolutely any popular culture topic you want, but I don't want to get the legalizing pot paper. It's boring and it often becomes 'dude, but I really liiiiiiike it,' which is not a viable academic argument."
All the students laughed but then one student I kinda had forgotten was in the class raised his hand and said, "but really I wouldn't make that argument! No, really! I want to convince you! We just had some important elections and there are new developments."
Arrrgh, no! I forgot I'm now in a place where people actually are part of a pot culture. Back where I did the postdoc there was a serious anti-drug culture with the exception of people on the absolute margins of society. People in the area might cook meth or make moonshine, but you didn't really find active users in a college classroom. But ahhhh, now I'm at a community college, which means you can just walk in and start taking classes, and I live in a much more mellow state. Dude.
The student and I did a little back-and-forth over it and I relented by saying, "I want a topic about the culture of pot-smoking, you understand? How has that changed our understanding of American culture? I don't want the 'legalize it!' essay." Student said fine, and since from my perspective as a cultural studies scholar, I can see how to make that a pretty good, interesting essay. I actually think that is a useful subject to study.
Of course, the student hasn't ever written a big cultural studies essay and done scholarly research before, so on our first library research day, he calls me over while we are all working on individual projects and says, "Ok I see what you mean. There isn't anything good that isn't about legalization or science and I want to change my topic. I found this book and thought it seemed interesting." He had the lib catalog open to a book something like Why We Hate.
"Ok," I say. "What was the librarian just showing us about emailing the citation to yourself? Be sure to write down this --- it's the call number --- and at the end of class she is going to help us find books in the stacks." He does everything and I see him walking out at the end with a book under his arm. Great, right?
Fast forward to our second library session, where we go over the article databases. After being walked through how to search, everyone is trying to locate an article on their own. Student calls me over and says, "I'm having trouble again." The book is on the desk next to him.
"Ok," I say. "Do you need more search terms or synonyms? What about legal terms, or 'hate crime' or 'hate speech' or 'anti-hate crime legislation'?" I was thinking this was the direction this topic was going.
"Oh wow!" He is stung, absolutely stung, like tears in the eyes for a second stung. "Why you gotta say something like that! Like, wow! Really? That topic's so, like, harsh!"
"Ok, ok, ok!" I say reassuringly. "Is that not the direction you are looking? Why don't you tell me a little more about what you'd like to argue?"
I told this story to my colleague today, who laughed and said, "you think maybe he didn't understand what those terms meant? I wonder what sort of direction he thought you were going in?"
That hadn't occurred to me, I admitted. "What do you want to bet though that this student's thesis ends up as 'why people gotta hate, man? People need to mellow out and not be so harsh!' "
My colleague nodded. "Kid found a way to bring the topic in by the back door," then he added, philosophically, "duuuuuuuuuuuuuuude."
Easy for him to say. He's not going to have to grade it.