The senior comprehensive project consists of a research paper of 35-50 pages and an oral presentation.
While courses in the major are intended to introduce students to a range of religious traditions and to orient students to a variety of approaches to the study of religion, the comprehensive project gives students the opportunity to select a research topic of particular interest to them and to pursue that topic in much greater depth than coursework allows. Work on the comprehensive project will further cultivate and assess the skills that ground the discipline: inventiveness, research and methodological abilities, critical reading, analytical thinking, and effective writing and oral communication.
Through the process of researching and writing the comprehensive paper, Religious Studies majors will develop a research question, locate appropriate sources, identify the key issues related to your topic, make interesting and significant contributions to the current scholarly discussion, and communicate your ideas (in written and oral formats) clearly and persuasively. Below is a list of the tasks you will undertake throughout the comps process. RELS majors should refer back to this page repeatedly throughout the research and writing phases of your work. The best comprehensive papers are those that continually reflect on and refine their thesis, methodology, sources, and organization.
Choose a topic.
- Interest. Carefully choose a topic in religious studies that matters to you and that can sustain your interest over several months of work. Although your topic choice should be driven by your personal interests and investments, be sure that you will be able to engage the topic analytically and critically (and that you will be able to avoid being hindered by your own personal convictions about the topic).
- Background. Choose a topic with which you already have some familiarity. Review the classes you have taken, note the key ideas, issues, themes, topics that were presented, and consider how what you have already learned could set up and/or strengthen your comps topic and/or analysis.
Focus your topic.
- Identify sources. Spend time searching religious studies databases (e.g., ATLA) to see what sorts of research has already been done on your topic. This initial search will show you how scholars have already addressed the topic and might help you to focus your interest to a specific aspect of the topic.
- Develop a research question. Once you are exposed to possible perspectives through which to study your topic, you should pose a specific research question that you hope your paper will answer. (The best research questions are those that can have several different answers!) Decide what key issue, debate, practice, idea, etc. interests you most about your topic. Then, choose a context or set of sources through which that narrowly-defined topic can be studied.
- Identify sources (again). Once you have settled on your research question, return to the databases and collect sources—primary and secondary—that help you to answer your research question. Reference librarians and Religious Studies faculty also can be useful in identifying sources. Once you begin to read the scholarship on your topic, the footnotes/endnotes and bibliographies also can lead you to even more relevant sources.
- Consider methodology. Religious Studies scholars study religious phenomena from a variety of different perspectives (e.g., many sociologists are interested in the relationships between religion and broader social structures and concerns; many historians are interested in tracing religious ideas and traditions within historical trajectories; many literary critics are focused on the formation, revision, and reception of particular texts; etc.) You should identify and implement a methodology that will best help you to answer your research question. By thinking carefully about your approach to your topic, you will be able to focus your study and, in the end, achieve a higher level of analytical sophistication.
Researching and Writing.
- Refine your thesis. All comps papers must have an identifiable, clear, and complex thesis. As you conduct research you will find that your arguments and outlook on your topic might change. This is to be expected as you encounter more scholarship and evidence and you should be willing and flexible enough to allow this to happen. Make sure, however, that by the time you finish the paper your thesis is refined and clearly corresponds to what you have learned and written.
- Think sections. Dividing your paper into sections can make the project more manageable (in terms of both dividing up your work and your psychological endurance), and can help to ensure that your ideas and argument is clearly organized. With sections you will have more flexibility in your writing schedule, finishing this or that part while it’s fresh in your mind and saving another part for later. Of course, you should be sure that transitions between sections guide your readers through the logic of your presentation.
- Revising and Editing. The work you turn in should be polished in terms of grammar, syntax, spelling, and punctuation, as well as careful, articulate, and reasoned thinking. For this reason, in addition to spell- and grammar-checking your work, be sure to give due attention to revisions that will hone your ideas and present them logically and clearly. We urge you have at least one person read a draft and provide you with feedback on how to tighten and clarify your arguments—the Center for Academic Excellence tutors provide excellent service in this regard.
- Consult your comps advisor. Regular contact with your Senior Seminar professor is a good way to get feedback on your work, to generate new ideas, and to be reassured that you’re on the right track. Your comps advisor also should be a major source of intellectual and personal assistance. Remember that all RELS faculty have not only read and reviewed past comps papers, but have also written long papers and survived, so be sure to take advantage of their expertise and experience!
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