Selecting Your Comps Topic

Choosing a good comps topic is of utmost importance...

You should choose a topic that will not only sustain your interest but also build on the knowledge and skills you have already gleaned from Religious Studies courses. You will be best able to achieve the sophistication required by the RELS faculty when you start from an already-firm foundation. For this reason, we ask that you review the courses you have taken up to this point, noting the key ideas, issues, themes, topics that were presented, and considering how what you learned there could set up and/or strengthen your comps topic and/or analysis. As you complete this exercise, we urge you to be open-minded: willing to discover topics, themes, or issues you had not already identified as possible comps topics.

1. Assessing what you’ve learned—For each Religious Studies course you have taken at Oxy (as well as for non-major courses that most interested you and might inform your comps project), fill out the following chart.

Topics covered  
Most interesting issues  
Most interesting readings  
Possible comp topics  

2. Identifying possible comps topics—Once you have completed the above chart for each of your RELS (and relevant) courses, look for common topics, themes, issues, or questions that interest you most and that provide you with a firm foundation on which to build your comps research. List them below.

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3. Now that you have a list of possible comps topics, you should attempt to select and focus your topic through a preliminary bibliographic search. By searching for primary sources and secondary scholarship, you will be able to see what specific questions, issues, and subtopics are currently being addressed by scholars interested in your topic. These are the possible scholarly conversations you can enter into with your comps research. A preliminary bibliographic search will enable you to identify a more focused topic and to ensure that there are ample sources for you to consult. We urge you to focus your comps topic as early as possible principally because this will make your  research phase simpler: more purposeful and efficient (so that you’re not spinning your wheels and reading more sources than necessary). For each of the possible topics listed above, complete the following steps:

a) Search databases to see what issues & subtopics are currently being discussed by scholars in the field. (For instructions on using databases, go to the Resources page of the RELS department website.) For example, if one’s general topic was religion and violence against women, s/he would find the following subtopics/issues from sources listed on ATLA—biblical support/opposition, pastoral counseling & preaching, overlap with ideologies of gender and sexuality, global religio-cultural norms (in US, Scandinavian, Latin American, African contexts), feminist theologians’ response, etc.…

b) Diagram and/or list the issues and/or subtopics you can distill from the article and book titles in order to identify those that a) capture your interest; and b) have enough sources for you to work with.

c) Now it’s time to identify your focused comps topic and formulate a research question. At this point you should have a notion of the debates and issues pertaining to your chosen topic and now you should pose some potential research questions that you hope your comps will answer. Here are a few examples of how to move from a broad topic to a focused topic to a research question:

Topic: Constantine; Focused topic: the conversion of Constantine;  Research question: To what degree and in what ways did Constantine convert to Christianity and/or maintain pagan practices and ideas?  How did stories of his conversion function to bolster the stability/prestige of early Christianity?

Topic: Euthanasia;  Focused topic: legalized euthanasia in Oregon;  Research question: How was the legalization of euthanasia debate in Oregon influenced by theological understandings of life/death, humans’ dominion, and God’s providence?

          d) Collect sources; create a bibliography. After you have focused your topic and crafted a research question, you should compile a preliminary bibliography. I suggest using the Chicago Manual of Style (15th) since it is the style guide commonly used by scholars in the Humanities, but feel free to use any style guide with which you are already familiar. We are most concerned that your citations be complete and consistent throughout. For more on formatting your bibliography, see Diana Hacker’s A Writer’s Reference (which you used in your first year seminar) and/or the Oxy's webpage on Citing Sources.


4. Interest—As you narrow in on a topic, make sure that it's a topic that matters to you and that can sustain your interest over several months of work. That said, be sure that you will be able to engage the topic analytically and critically. Be careful selecting a topic to which you are so personally attached that you will be unable to think about it critically and anlytically.