The Issue or Topic
What is it? What makes it so important? What disagreements are there in its regard? How many sides are there? What makes an issue or topic acceptable? What grounds do you have for building an argument? Can you argue about anything, so long as it is in some way related to the coursework? All good questions: to help define the context of the issue or topic, consider the following.
Notes & Class Discussions
Notes & class discussions will reveal a great deal about what's important in your discipline or field of inquiry. What are the burning questions? What has your instructor explored in lectures and class discussions? What have you been asked to think about most often? Chances are these are the current questions in which the professionals in your field are most interested.
Library research will turn up specialized professional articles not meant for the general public. Ask your professor for journal recommendations and look closely at the introductions, searching for position statements. What issues do the writers take on? What are their positions? Although you probably aren't expected to be quite so extensive, these articles can give you a good idea about what matters and what some of the acceptable questions are regarding your issue or topic.
Asking Your Instructor
Asking your instructor will unearth examples of the issues and topics former students have explored and argued about in previous years. Ask to see their papers--particularly "A" grade papers--and look for what turned them into convincing arguments. Take advantage of regularly posted office hours to visit and discuss the ideas about which you are most interested. If you can, talk to fellow students who have already taken the class and ask to see their papers; pay attention to the margin comments for what impacted or impressed the instructor most.
Note: Be especially aware that-just as much as books and journal articles-another student's work is considered an outside source and, if referenced or quoted in any way, must be documented according to the conventions of your discipline. Avoiding plagiarism is of the utmost importance.
Issue or Topic Examples
Issue or topic examples in which to build an argument for a Vietnam War-Era Literature class follow, along with explanations about what makes them acceptable or not.
Issue Example: Whether the United States should have been involved in Vietnam.
Unacceptable: In a literature class, issues have to be focused on literary texts. If a relevant question arose in the text itself, then the context of this issue fits and an argument can be made, otherwise, it's more appropriate for political science or history.
Topic Example: How the music of the 1960's represents the same issues as three Vietnam War-era novels.
Acceptable: Yes, though not perfect. Although there is a focus on literary texts, it seems contextually weighted on the music side. A better topic would be how music reflected the literature of the Vietnam War era.
Issue Example: Why previous critics' interpretation of a given Vietnam War-era novel is wrong, and what the correct interpretation is.
Acceptable: Arguing about matters of interpretation is one of the central issues in literary studies.
Issue Example: A certain Vietnam War-era novel is great literature because it made the best-seller list back then and everyone you've talked to from that time loved it.
Unacceptable: Although issues of popularity may work their way into literary analyses, an argument based on that alone lacks credible evidence. It is both insubstantial and unsustainable.