Possible Paper Topics

The following is a list of possible paper topics I have suggested to my students over the past two years. Please note that they were also free to develop their own topic if they chose.

  • How do the accounts of the fall of humanity differ in Genesis and the Qur’an? What do those differences and similarities tell you about the different theological goals of the texts?
  • Does God’s answer to Job constitute a real answer? How do you interpret Job’s response?
  • Why does God “harden Pharoah’s heart,” and what does that tell us about views of moral responsibility and agency in the Book of Exodus?
  • How does Antony compare to the figure of Jesus or Job? What can you deduce about Athanasius’s goal in setting up such comparisons?
  • Why doesn’t Jesus dispute the devil’s claim to be able to give him all the kingdoms of the world in Matthew and Luke?
  • What is God referring to when he talks about the Leviathan and Behemoth in his answer to Job?
  • How does the portrayal of Pilate in the Gospel of John compare to historical accounts about Pilate? (You could also do a similar approach with Nebuchadnezzar or Antiochus.)
  • What is the relationship of the framing narrative of Job (chs. 1-2 and most of 42—i.e., the parts that are written in prose instead of poetic monologue) to the rest of the text? Is it necessary? Does it contribute to or detract from the text’s literary value?
  • How do the legal materials in Exodus fit into the narrative? Are they just random interruptions, or is there some logic behind where they are inserted?
  • According to Aristotle’s definition, does Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus count as a tragedy? If not, why do you think Marlowe still called it a “tragical history”?
  • What is the role of the comic relief sections in relation to the main plot of the play?
  • Why does Faustus not repent?
  • If this play were the only information you had about God and the devil, what would you conclude about their role and power in the world?
  • According to Aristotle’s definition, does Goethe’s Faust (either Part 1 alone or Part 1 plus the ending to Part 2) count as a tragedy? If not, why do you think that Goethe still called it a tragedy?
  • Compare and contrast Faust and Gretchen’s character arcs in Part 1—has Goethe intentionally set up parallels, and if so, what message does he seem to be trying to send?
  • Argue that Gretchen is the true hero of Faust Part 1.
  • How do you assess Gretchen from a feminist perspective? Is she a stereotype, a hero, or something in between? (It would be helpful to find actual feminist scholarship on Gretchen for this topic.)
  • What is the role of Walpurgis Night in relation to the main plot of the play?
  • Does the ending of Part 2 add to or detract from Part 1? Does Part 1 make more sense as a stand-alone piece, or is Part 2 necessary in some way?
  • Take inventory of the changes that Marlowe or Goethe made to the original “Faust Legend” (you probably don’t have space to do both). What patterns emerge? What do those patterns suggest about the author’s goals in adapting the story?
  • Compare and contrast Marlowe and Goethe’s presentation of either Faust(us) or Mephistopheles (you probably don’t have space to do both). What do the differences tell you about the authors’ differing goals in adapting the story?
  • Compare and contrast the Joseph story as it appears in Genesis and in the Qur’an. Is there a pattern in the changes? What does that pattern tell you about the goals of the biblical author and the Qur’an in relating this story?
  • Compare and contrast the creation narrative(s) in Genesis with those in Ovid’s Metamorphoses? Is there a pattern in the differences? What does this pattern tell you about the goals of the biblical author and Ovid? (Assume “Is there a pattern in the differences?” appears in all subsequent items…)
  • Compare and contrast the three lovers of Odysseus (Circe, Calypso, and Penelope) with the three lovers of Janie (Logan, Jody, and Tea Cake), in the context of their respective journeys. What do the differences between their experiences say about the differing goals of Homer and Hurston?
  • Compare and contrast the biblical story of Joseph with our selections from the Tale of Genji? What do the similarities and differences tell us about the differing goals and values of the biblical author and Shikibu?
  • Compare and contrast Homer’s use of extended metaphors to similar examples from Hurston (e.g., the peach tree, the yellow mule). How do they fit into their respective moments in their plots, and how do they reflect on the characters? What light does Homer and Hurston’s differing approach to extended metaphors shed on their artistic goals?
  • Compare the role of the storm in The Tale of Genji and Their Eyes Were Watching God. How does it affect the characters differently? How does it influence the plot? What does their differing use of a similar plot point tell us about the differing goals of Shikibu and Hurston?
  • Compare the stories about women from The Metamorphoses with the affairs recounted in The Tale of Genji. To what extent do the authors show sympathy with the women involved? What might the similarities and differences between their literary treatment of women say about Ovid and Shikibu’s attitudes toward the gender hierarchy in their respective societies?
  • Assess Aristotle’s critique of Plato, or Locke’s critique of Hobbes. How would the author being critiqued respond if they had the chance?
  • Choose two authors and compare the role of the family in their theories.
  • Compare Wollstonecraft’s defense of women’s rights and need for an education to Plato’s discussion of the same topic in Book V of The Republic.
  • Interpret Wollstonecraft’s arguments in light of Plato’s allegory of the cave.
  • Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau all claim that there is a moment when a political community initially unites, before setting up a government. Compare at least two of their views on the role of this moment: for example, is it a one-time thing, or can it be revisited?
  • Is Machiavelli’s Prince a how-to manual for Hobbes’s absolute ruler? How might Machiavelli critique Hobbes’s theory?
  • Compare the role of the people in two modern theorists.
  • Compare two thinkers’ account of the forms of government—a topic that would be especially interesting if you compared two thinkers who had some account of how the different forms grow out of each other.
  • One distinctive feature of Rousseau’s political theory is the concept of the general will. Does a similar idea or pattern of thought appear in any of the other readings (such as Locke, perhaps)?
  • De Tocqueville highlights the importance of relative economic equality for democracy. In recent decades, economic inequality has increased sharply, according to most sources. Has democratic participation decreased in tandem?
  • De Tocqueville seems to view social homogeneity as both a cause and effect of American democracy. The early settlers were able to establish democratic societies because they held so much in common, while the force of public opinion produces social conformity. Does the latter dynamic seem to hold today? If not, does that affect the functioning of democracy?
  • De Tocqueville mentions that state-level constitutions are much more one-sidedly democratic than the federal constitution. Review the constitution for Illinois or some other state at the time de Tocqueville was writing and today—has that trend continued? If it has diminished, does it correlate with a decline in democratic participation at the state level?
  • Assess de Tocqueville’s predictions about the future of African Americans or Native Americans. What did he get wrong, and what did he get right? What does that tell us about the strengths and weaknesses of his thought?
  • Given de Tocqueville’s description of American democracy prior to the Civil War, which is to say during the first generation after the Founders, did American democracy turn out the way the Founders intended, as shown in their deliberations on the Constitution and the Federalist Papers?
  • How would Machiavelli, Locke, or Rousseau assess American society as described by de Tocqueville?
  • Which political theorist do de Tocqueville’s ideas of democracy most closely match?
  • Pascal highlights his disproof of Aristotle’s claim that there cannot be a void or vacuum in nature. Are there other aspects of Aristotle’s physics that he disproves as well?
  • Bacon makes what turns out to be an amazing guess about the nature of heat, defining it as a type of motion. But most subsequent chemists, including Lavoisier, reject this notion and think of heat as a kind of substance. What reasons do they give for this view?
  • Compare and contrast the phlogiston and caloric theories of heat.
  • Analyze how the study of gasses and their combinations helped to support the theory of atomism, using at least two different chemists.
  • Show how chemists built on the work of their predecessors—for instance, how Gay-Lussac and Avogadro were able to take up and refine key ideas from Dalton.
  • Discuss the increasing importance of quantification and mathematical proportion in two of the chemists who came after Lavoisier.
  • Berzelius views himself as part of the “antiphlogistic revolution,” which really got started with Lavoisier. How does Berzelius’s approach to scientific terminology fit with Lavoisier’s? (You could do a similar comparison between Cannizzaro and Lavoisier.)
  • Track the growing importance of the notion of “analogy” in chemists such as Avogadro, Berzelius, or Cannizzaro. As a bonus subtopic, how does the focus on “analogy” fit with other priorities such as quantification?
  • Describe the contribution of a chemist prior to Meier and Mendeleev to the development of the periodic table, using specific evidence from the texts of M&M.
  • The ultimate template for a single-poem analysis is: “This is the emotional effect of the poem, and this is how the content and formal elements (rhyme, rhythm, etc.) contribute to it.” You could apply that to any poem (although haikus and other very short poems will likely not give you enough to work with).
  • The ultimate template for a comparative analysis: “Choose any two poems with similar subject matter and differing emotional effects, or differing subject matter and similar emotional effects, and describe how the poets make that happen.”
  • Compare selected poems of Basho and Richard Wright—how do they use the similar technique of haiku to produce different emotional effects? (This topic will likely be most effective if you choose example poems that have similar subject-matter.)
  • Choose two or more sonnets with unusual rhyme schemes or otherwise non-standard rhyming techniques (such as the use of near-rhymes or eye-rhymes, as in Gwendolyn Brooks’ “my dreams, work, must wait till after hell”). Is there any pattern in the way this technique contributes to the effect of the poems (for instance, by producing effects of alienation, confusion, etc.)?
  • Compare “I, Being a Woman Born” by Edna St. Vincent Mallay to one of Shakespeare’s love poems. What difference does the male vs. female perspective make?
  • Compare Claude McKay’s “The Harlem Dancer” to Langston Hughes’ “Harlem Sweeties”—how do they take similar subject matter (the appreciation of Black women’s beauty) and create different emotional effects?
  • The ultimate template for a single-poem analysis is: “This is the emotional effect of the poem, and these are the musical elements (rhythm, instrumentation, major/minor feel, use of dissonance, use of theme and variation, lyrical content if applicable) that contribute to it.” This would work for any piece—though you should probably focus on just one section or movement of the larger-scale classical pieces (Pictures at an Exhibition, Enigma Variations, Orpheus operas).
  • For a comparative paper, choose two pieces with a similar emotional effect that use very similar techniques, or two pieces with similar techniques that arrive at very different emotional effects, and describe how the composers/performers make that happen.
  • Compare John Coltrane’s rendition of “My Favorite Things” to Julie Andrews’ original. What emotional aspects of the song come through especially clearly in Coltrane’s version? Are there new emotional effects he introduces? Is anything lost compared to the original?
  • Choose a flamenco and jazz piece that illustrate Ellison’s claim that the two artforms create very similar emotional effects. (For this one, you would need to provide direct quotations from Ellison.)
  • Analyze an aria or other musical sequence from Gluck’s opera and talk about how the shifts in musical tone fit with the plot—both at the time the aria occurs and overall. Do the emotions expressed in the music seem incongruous at the moment? Do they foreshadow later developments? Etc. (Identify the arias by timestamp and the first line of the lyrics.)
  • Discuss the role of music in Black Orpheus, focusing in particular on the song that plays over the opening sequence and is repeated several times later (it is called “A felicidade,” or in English, “Happiness”). What is the emotional effect of the song taken in isolation? When it is played in the movie, does its tone seem to match up with what’s on screen or contrast with it? What is the effect of the repetition itself?
  • Assess any of the dramas (including operas and musicals) other than Oedipus to see if they fit with Aristotle’s definition of tragedy. If not, does the problem seem to be in the play itself or in Aristotle’s definition?
  • Review Aristotle or Nietzsche’s complaints about Euripides. Does Medea seem to support or contradict their complaints?
  • Aristotle’s view of tragedy focuses primarily on plot, to the point where he says you can get the full effect just from reading it. Choose a drama and show how the elements Aristotle leaves aside (poetic language, music, role of chorus, etc.) are essential to the emotional effect.
  • Compare Aristotle and Nietzsche’s views of tragedy.
  • Compare Nietzsche’s view of the history and development of tragedy with Ellison’s view of the history and development of jazz.
  • Discuss one of the dramas in terms of Nietzsche’s categories of the Dionysian and Apollonian—does his account of an Apollonian element (characters, plot, dialogue) growing out of a more fundamental Dionysian experience make sense of this particular work?
  • Compare and contrast two of the dramas (I am having trouble thinking of specific ideas for this one right now, but we will talk about possibilities in class over the next couple weeks).