Colloquially, the terms Subject(s) as well as Topic(s) may be used interchangeably to mean
- what a message is about, the subject matter of a text
- a branch of knowledge; the categories dictionaries and encyclopedias use to sort information.
However, in the discipline of Writing Studies and other academic settings, these terms may be differentiated from one another: the term Subject(s) may be reserved to identify the most general concepts in a category. For instance, in academe the most general subjects are Humanities, Social Sciences, Natural Sciences, Formal Sciences, and Applied Sciences. Then, within those academic fields, there are innumerable topics—i.e., scholarly conversations—being discussed. In Writing Studies a student’s subject matter may be Rhetoric while the student’s topic could be a rhetorical analysis of a politician’s speech.
Academic fields, academic disciplines, and scholarly conversations are organized around Subjects. For instance, Writing Commons is organized around the following Subjects:
Writing with Sources
Subjects and Topics have histories, genealogies, intellectual traditions. Discourse communities and Communities of Practitioners develop intellectual traditions and research methodologies for discussing topics or conducting research on topics.
Subjects and Topics are a rhetorical construct. Audiences and discourse communities perceive topics through the filter of anecdotal experience, textual research, and empirical research.
Different readers have different exposures to past scholarly conversations on a topic. And the rhetorical stances of readers and rhetors impinge on their openness to a topic, their willingness to view it critically and unemotionally. Our rhetorical stances as rhetors—our experiences with families, schools, religions, cultures, ethnicities, gender—shape how we define, talk about, and research topics.