Philip Jenkins

Institute for Studies of Religion

History Department

Baylor University




Choosing a Topic


Both Dr. Kidd and myself blog a great deal, and both of us have written at some length on the way in which historians work, how they choose topics, etc. You should check out some of our columns on this issue, as they do offer useful guidelines that should be helpful as you think about your own work for this coming semester. Do especially look at my piece here:


and also


Other posts you might find useful include:


Together, these posts – and plenty by my Baylor colleagues – summarize a great deal of the introductory material I would otherwise be going over verbally in class, so do please take the time to look at them.


All these suggestions of course are very broad, and the question then arises of how you can say something useful and interesting within a very small space, which is what a seminar paper actually is.


Also, critically, I want you to be using some kind of primary sources, loosely defined. Depending on the topic, these might include popular culture materials. Do be aware of the very rich resources to be found in visual evidence – paintings, prints, leaflets, films…. Music can also be a rich historical source.


You might for instance choose a particular individual, a movement, an episode, a controversy, or a region. In any of these cases, you would be trying to say something that no scholar has said before, which might mean focusing on some theme that has not been picked up before. (That does of course getting to know exactly what has been said on the topic).


Comparative study is one promising area. Just as one example of many, see Dana Robert’s comparison between St. Patrick and Bernard Mizeki – enlightening, surprising, and rewarding. That also benefits enormously from having documents actually written by one of the subjects.


Always intriguing are unexpected contacts and interactions, for instance how different cultures or churches interacted in surprising ways, especially in earlier times when we might not think that such links would be possible or commonplace.


I am also interested in issues of memory, commemoration and reputation – why some peoiple or movements change in historical esteem (or popular esteem) over time.


This gets to the critical issue of historiography. Suppose for instance that historical attitudes to topic X have changed enormously over time. Why has that happened? Is it a consequence of new evidence, of shifting ideologies, or what? Does the history of a past era largely reflect the concerns and preoccupations of the present in which the historian is writing? Do historians simply trend to ignore certain evidence if it does not fit in with their preconceptions? Just how do historians argue, how do they handle evidence, how do they come to the conclusions they do? Just as an example, I think of debates about the early Spanish missions in California: a hundred years ago, they were seen as heroic Christian ventures, while many modern observers would see them as paternalistic and exploitative. Throughout, the key question is, how do we know what we think we know? In that case, you would be writing not an exhaustive history of the particular topic, but rather tracing the major themes and issues in the historiography.


Those are the sort of criteria I want you to be thinking about.


One suggestion: take a moment to look at one of the major journals, eg Church History, and see the sort of things that opeople have been publishing on in the past few years. That gives you a asense of how wide or narrow such publishable topics turn out to be.


A Note on Presentations


Each participant will make a presentation based on the paper to the whole group towards the end of term, in either the meeting on April 18 or 25. Unless you have VERY strong reasons for preferring one date rather than the other, I will be assigning you to a particular time slot on one of those days.


Each of the presentations will take 30 minutes, which corresponds nicely to the kind of time allocation you can expect presenting in a major academic conference. I expect you to speak for about 20-25 minutes, leaving a few minutes for questions. That time-length will be strictly enforced. Please let me know in advance if you will need any audio-visual resources.


We can talk in detail about how exactly such a presentation should proceed, but a couple of basic guidelines include:


*Begin by saying what the presentation is about, and give the title.


*Tell us up front why you chose the subject, what you expected to find from the research, and (maybe here, maybe later) tell us how that corresponded to your actual findings. Tell us how and why that topic fits in with the announced goals of the course.


*Be sure to address the “so what” question, about why other people should care about this area.


*That gets to the critical matter of audience. Who exactly are you speaking to, and what background knowledge of this area can you assume? How much do you need to tell people? The other members of the seminar are all educated people with a strong interest in history, and specifically the history of religion. But even they may not know the minutiae required to follow or understand your topic. As always, think exactly who you are speaking (or writing) to.


*If you need maps, handouts, visuals or supplementary materials, use them.


*Tell us how you went about finding sources and resources.


*Develop your argument.


*Summarize your conclusions.


I’m certainly not operating a checklist as to whether you hit most or all of these issues, leave alone cover them in any particular order, but experience has shown that this is a good general model.