Program of Study: Comprehensive Exams
The M.A. exams are designed to allow students to explore specific theological issues in more depth than may have been possible during course work. The M.A. exams are based on five topics developed by the student, in light of her or his unique theological interests. Each topic is phrased as a topic that is then used as the criterion by which to choose four books and one recent article that most directly address and explore each topical topic. No more than three topics should be in your area of concentration.
Choosing Your Topic
The best way to approach the formulation of your exam topics is to think about the theological issues that have most engaged you during your time in the master’s program, and then to think of the theologians who most directly address these issues. The topics can address either theological topics or specific theologians.
For instance, one topic might address the way the doctrine of the Trinity influences our understanding of the relational nature of human life, looking at Augustine, Juergen Moltmann, Catherine Tanner, and Catherine LaCugna; whereas another topic might look at the relationship between men and women in the Church, looking at the writings of Hans Urs von Balthasar.
One topic might look at the theological understanding of symbols, looking at Augustine, Louis Marie Chauvet, Karl Rahner, and Roger Haight; whereas another topic might look at the relationship between spirituality and liberation in the writings of Gustavo Gutierrez. One topic might examine the understanding of contemplative prayer in Bernard of Clairvaux, Julian of Norwich, Theresa of Avila, and Thomas Merton, while another topic might examine the understanding of theological language in the writings of Elizabeth Johnson.
Topics might also compare the positions of two theologians on a specific theological topic, such as the understanding of the redemptive death of Christ in Rahner and von Balthasar, or of the role of the historical Jesus in the writings of E. P. Sanders and Luke Timothy Johnson.
Example of a Final Form of a Topic
Since the revelatory nature of the text is experienced in and through human language, how can a better understanding and appreciation of how human language works (particularly its metaphorical capacity) enhance our ability to interpret and appropriate scripture in a way that takes it seriously but not literally with regard to revelation?
Sandra M. Schneiders—The Revelatory Text: Interpreting the New Testament as Sacred Scripture (2nd ed.)
Paul Ricoeur—Interpretation Theory: Discourse and the Surplus of Meaning
Walter Brueggemann—Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy (parts one and two—pp. 115-403)
Janet Martin Soskice—Metaphor and Religious Language
Diane Bergant, “The Challenge of Hermeneutics: Lamentations 1:1-11: A Test Case,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly, 64, no.1 (2002): 1-16.
All of these examples are meant to be suggestive, not prescriptive. Your own theological interests should generate the formulation of the topics, which will be unique to you. These examples are given simply to stimulate your own thinking, and to show the different ways that topics and bibliographies may be formulated.
You are encouraged to begin the process of formulating your topics and bibliographies as early as possible. The topics and bibliographies should be clearly formulated during your final year of course work. You may certainly consult with your area advisor during the formulation of these topics, as well as with faculty who have expertise in the issues you are exploring. However, the formulation of the topics, and the development of the bibliography of four books and one recent article related to each topic, is entirely your responsibility.
The bibliographies must be approved by the area advisor (and/or the Summer M.A. Director) no later than one month before the student hopes to take exams. M.A. exams are given in the first week of November and April, and in the last week of July. Students must be enrolled and registered for a Comprehensive Review class during the session or semester in which they plan to take their exam. It is a very good idea for students to sit in on the Comprehensive Review class in their area of concentration the summer before they are scheduled to take their exams, to gain a clearer idea of the exam process.
The exam board, to be chosen by the advisor (and/or the M.A. Director), will be made up of two faculty from the area of concentration, and one faculty from another area. Students pursuing the general M.A. degree may have an exam board chosen from three different areas. The student may confidentially choose the inclusion of one member of the board (subject to availability), and the exclusion of one faculty member. Each member of the exam board will submit three questions, framed in light of the five topics proposed by the student, to the area advisor, who will then formulate five questions.
Written and Oral Exams
The comprehensive exams themselves are made up of written and oral exams. The student will be asked to answer three of the five questions during the four-hour written exams, given on the Monday of exam week. These written answers will then be distributed to the board, and will form the basis of the forty-minute oral exam on Wednesday or Thursday of the same week. During the oral exams, questions not answered by the student on the written exams may be addressed, as may books on the bibliography and courses taken by the student. Evaluation of the student’s performance will be made on the basis of both the written and oral exams.
If you are planning to complete the degree program, please keep in mind the basic process for preparing for comprehensive exams. You may find it helpful to note interesting issues, books or articles while pursuing coursework but do not have time to pursue. The exam process allows you the opportunity to read such books or articles.
Some of you are non-degree students. If you are planning to become a degree-seeking student, then please complete the proper paperwork in a timely manner to become a degree-seeking student. Further, please keep track of how many credits you accumulate.