Mapping a Controversy: Background Information

What to know about choosing a controversy

Choosing a controversy is not something that is done before researching - it is research. And it does not come naturally for early researchers. Expect students to:
1) choose topics that are very broad (gun control in Austin)
2) choose topics that are difficult to research because they are obscure and there isn't much written on it, or because they have a markedly unpopular opposing viewpoint

Where can they find background information?

Students will want to go to the Web for this information and it is good to encourage them to investigate local news sources such as the Austin American Statesman, The Austin Chronicle, The Texas Observer, and Texas Monthly - all of which have websites. 

When they need to contextualize this controversy - maybe learn more about Austin (demographics, history, politics) or the broad issue they are researching (gun control, transgender rights, Black Lives Matter), they will need to consult reference sources such as:

Gale Virtual Reference Library - encyclopedia articles from hundreds of subject areas

Sage Knowledgeencyclopedia, books, videos and debates from a social sciences perspective

CQ Researcher - current events and hot topics discussed from a variety of viewpoints

Opposing Viewpoints - resource that allows students to search a broad topic and retrieve overviews, articles and viewpoint essays

ProQuest Congressional - current controversies and politics

Questions to ask students in discussion

  • When you start your research on a topic you don’t know a lot about, where is the first place you go? (someone will say Wikipedia, maybe Google)
  • What do you like about Wikipedia? Or, what do you find useful about Wikipedia? Or, how do you use the information you find there?
  • What don't you like about Wikipedia? What can be difficult about searching Google?
  • When in the research process do you use Wikipedia? (Hopefully this will get at the fact that they use it at the beginning and along the way as well.)

Discuss with your students what they should be looking for in their background information searching and why these elements are important (they will inform a solid keyword strategy):

  • Broad overview of your controversy
  • What people are arguing about within your controversy
  • Who is arguing (stakeholders)
  • Related terms, definitions, important people, dates, events

Narrowing a controversy

Explain to your students that after they explore and map their broader controversy, they will need to narrow their topic for their short papers. Gathering background information may help them narrow/focus in on one aspect of the controversy. A student could focus the topic to answer questions such as:

  • Should assisted suicide be legal for terminally ill patients?
  • Should doctors and nurses providing healthcare to a terminally ill patient be allowed or required to assist with suicide if the patient requests it?
  • Should assisted suicide be covered by health insurance?

NOTE: At the point of topic exploration, it's important to intervene if you notice a student working on a topic that is 'unresearchable'. Sometimes topics have marked unpopular viewpoints and students have trouble finding sources to refute a position. Sometimes not a great deal is written on their topic. If you intervene early on and steer your student towards a more feasible topic, the student will have a much smoother research experience as the semester unfolds. 

Assignments, Activities and Resources


This may be the first time students have ever used a library database and they may need to be told that they can access these databases from their dorm or from home with their EIDs. Direct them to the Choose and Develop Your Topic tab on this page:  


  • Background Information Assignment
    • Use this assignment to get students to look for background information on their broader controversies. It contains explanations and instructions which should serve to reinforce your discussion of background information in the classroom. We suggested a link with some resources within the assignment, but AIs can easily make changes. In addition, feel free to change the example. You can assign this as a take home exercise or ask students to complete it in class after discussing background information and showing some databases.