The Research Paper
One of the major objectives of taking a course in the Study of Religion, is to provide a forum and context in which you may research a topic of particular interest relating to the history, development, insemination, propagation, realization, success, decline, and/or appearance/disappearance of any religious phenomenon, ritual, symbol, myth, or set of phenomena which pique your interest, raise your curiosity, or strike your fancy. Quite obviously this is an invitation to explore a wide and diverse variety of religious themes and issues, as religion and religious issues intersect at practically every juncture of life. Everything at one time or another has been used for religious purposes or has been interpreted in a religious light. The religions of the world provide, indeed, a vast ground for exploration. The choice of paper topics has a wide range of flexibility in the hopes that students will pursue subjects that command their interests and spark their imaginations. You will want to begin exploring possible topics from practically the beginning of the course and should not only feel free but consider it a necessary step in your preparation to consult the instructor concerning your topic. In a lower division course, students are naturally not expected to write an exhaustively expansive research paper on their subject, but they do need to demonstrate the research skills that will carry them to greater levels of sophistication as they advance through their academic preparation. Upper division students are of course held to much higher standards due to their greater sophistication and preparation.
Various Strategies for Generating a Viable Topic:
Search your heart, mind, and various indexes such as the course textbooks, encyclopedias dedicated to the subject matter, specific facts on file such as found in the humanities index for example, the library catalogue, guides to periodic literature, journal articles held by the library, your particular family history, and/or the bookshelves of esoteric bookstores...
Pick a subject that has some delineated avenues of research, such as a subject you might fine listed in the Encyclopedia of Religion (ed. Mircea Eliade). Look at the bibliography at the end of the article, pay special attention to the titles of the books. See if we have those books in our library. Go up to where the books are stored in the stacks. Look at a particular book's table of contents. Browse. Look at the books on the shelf next to the ones you are looking at. Repeat if necessary...
Hang out at the library till a vision breaks through... make friends with the reference librarians... ask them what they want for Christmas...
Talk to your various professors... think creatively ... confer with fellow students (with the exception of fraternity and sorority members who offer to sell you papers... they will only get you expelled)...
How to research the Paper
In the library...
Recommended Types of Resources:
Encyclopedia Articles: a good encyclopedia article is like a road map to an unfamiliar terrain. It will orient, inform, and direct you to further research, while providing you with a general understanding of its specific subject. Look at the related articles listed in the body of the text. Note the bibliographical information at the end of the article.
Text Books: many text books have sections called "Suggestions for Further Reading." Quite often these will include the most significant or foremost authorities on that particular chapter's subject.
Reference Works: the reference section of the Library has many dedicated reference works that are devoted to particular and discrete areas of study. There are many reference works in religion, such as reader's guides to religious literature and various guides to the journals that are published in particular areas such as theology or church history. Many such reference works have divisions devoted to American Religion.
Journals and Journal Abstracts: Some journals are devoted to the exploration of religious topics and would contain many articles pertinent to the Religious Scene. Other journals provide overlapping areas of interest. Consulting lists of articles published in those journals can be a very fruitful area of research for your paper. In addition the Journal article provides a great model for your own scholarly work in the field.
Monographs: These books written by a single author can yield a great amount of research and scholarly perspective on particular topics of interest. Many such monographs have become the seminal authority on a field of research. Many monographs are attacks on such seminal authorities. Looking at diverse works and scholarly opinions in conflict can provide a richly contextualized research paper.
Computers: There is absolutely no way to avoid the use of computers in the construction of your research paper. Computers are no longer the wave of the future they are increasingly the sine qua non (that without which one cannot do) for scholarly research. Computers will become so much a part of your life that many of you will be candidates for cranial cyber implants (for some, the sooner the better...) Seriously, however, many resources are now accessible only by going "on-line." Library catalogues are only the tip of the iceberg. Internet searches via various bibliographical data bases (publishers catalogues complete with abstracts for example), dedicated Web-pages, and scholarly bulletin boards are increasingly common sources of inspiration and research for academic articles.
The research paper is an act of scholarship. It should cohere generally with the MLA style sheet, or any other such accepted format. This means that you must document your sources with either footnotes, endnotes, or parentheticals, and, include a comprehensive bibliography. Length for this paper is really a very relative matter but it is difficult to conceive of a decent treatment in less than four or five pages.
I am basically looking for two things in your research paper: Research and Thought. I want to see well-organized, well-researched, and well-presented papers on topics that are personally engaging for you. Ideally, you will take this opportunity to explore areas that you have always wanted to discover, answer questions that have always plagued you, raise questions that have always been begging to be posed , plunge into worlds that have seemed either esoteric or mysterious, and/or to uncover new dimensions of religiosity that have hitherto seemed camouflaged by custom and culture. Were I writing such a paper, I might explore such topics as:
"The Hidden Religious Significance of American Baseball,"
"The Super-Bowl and Trials by Combat as the Will of God,"
"Olympic Gladiatorial Herculean Tasks and the Warrior,"
"The New Mythology of the High Church of Upward Mobility"
"Meditation in the Yogic Traditions,"
"Meditation and its Popularity in California,"
"Tantra as a Metaphysical Metaphor,"
"Aztec Sacrifice: Can it Work Today?"
"The Advent and Development of American Buddhism,"
"Christian Tantra and Monastic Sensibilities?"
"Environmentalism: A Metaphysical Metaphor for Our Generation?"
"Sacrifice: Symbol Transformation in Two Traditions,"
"The Epic of Gilgamesh and the Cult of Youth,"
"Dionysian Revelry and Fraternity Antics"
"Mythology of the Super Hero as seen in James Bond,"
"Meditation in the Yogic Traditions and its Portrayal in Literature,"
"Tantra in the context of Pornographic Literature,"
"Aztec Sacrifice and the Literature of Violence,"
"The Taoist Novel,"
The possibilities are wide open. The only limit is your imagination. May the Force be with you