Last month my Facebook newsfeed was filled with weeping, wailing, and gnashing of teeth. I have many friends who teach undergraduate and graduate courses. December was the “grading season.” It has been said by many professors, “I teach for free; they pay me to grade.” I, too, was a frustrated participant in the grading drudgery. I was reminded of a rant I made about the same time the year before. I’ve pasted it below. Many of these things could be taken to the next level and directed to authors of the manuscripts I encounter on a daily basis.
To all seminary students:
I realize most of you will spend your professional lives speaking to and for a lay audience. But please do keep in mind the generic difference between a talk to a church group and a graduate-level term paper. Also, it is OK to have an actual thesis statement in a paper on a biblical theme. Don’t just report what the biblical texts say. Make an argument and support it!
Other things to do or avoid:
1. Look back through the paper. If you have phrases like “I think…” or “I believe…,” then you better have some support for your thoughts or beliefs. Saying these things in passing is what you do in a journal not a term paper.
2. Don’t rehearse your research. If you have phrases like, “In my research I discovered…,” rewrite! Just write about the topic and cite your sources. Your readers do not need to be told that you discovered these things in your research. They know it was discovered through research because you will have written it and cited it.
3. Do not use second-person pronouns. Who is the “you”?
4. Let your conclusions come from your research. Do not use research to simply support your predispositions. In papers on biblical texts all you end up with is a bunch of prooftexting. This is not research and it is not a supported thesis.
5. Vines and Matthew Henry are not acceptable sources for graduate-level papers.
6. Become familiar with a style guide. If your institution does not require a certain bibliographic style (e.g., Turabian, MLA, APA), then pick one and follow it. Sloppy footnotes and bibliographies upset me, and you don’t want an upset reader grading your paper.
7. Remember the English language and its rules of grammar and punctuation. Sure, mistakes will be made. I make them all the time. But there is a difference between a few mistakes and a gross mishandling of normal writing conventions. This (and others above) spawn off a couple of other pointers: a) review your paper before submitting it; b) if you have doubts, have someone else read it and give feedback. If you or another cannot understand what you’ve written, don’t expect me to understand it.
The points, no doubt, came from particular frustrations I had with a stack of papers at the time. Many more things could be added. What writing advice would you give to graduate-level students of theology?