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How to destroy your own research paper in one simple step

Some words should never find their way into research papers. Wikipedia is pretty high on that last. So is anything that is not technically a word (e.g. IMHO). Fortunately, though I’ve heard from others who’ve experienced the terror of encountering these in papers, I have not yet experienced it myself. That’s a good thing. (Note to my students: for your sake, please keep it that way.) But, there are some other student favorites that I’d like to see disappear forever.

“So, I would like to try to explore the possibility of….”

Just stop.

This sentence and its ilk taint the beginnings of far too many otherwise good papers. Using a sentence like this to describe your paper is like building a solid table and then ripping one of its legs off. It may still be standing, but no one will want to use it. With one sentence, you’ve cut the legs out from under your own research paper.

Here’s why.

1. Explore (investigate, consider, etc.): Really? You’re handing in a 20-page research paper and the only thing you’ve done is “explore” something? I’m going to assume that you didn’t actually find anything interesting, otherwise you would tell me. Right? You wouldn’t keep that a secret, would you? Because if I thought that you found something cool and were just keeping it from me, I’d be pretty upset. And that wouldn’t be good. So, as your reader, I only have to options here: (1) you didn’t find anything interesting and I shouldn’t bother reading your paper; (2) you found something interesting that you’re hiding from me, and I should be angry with you. Neither option ends well for you.

So, I’d suggest that you go ahead and tell me what you found. If Indiana Jones goes on an expedition and finds some ancient and extremely valuable treasure. He doesn’t come back and tell people that he just explored for a while. He tells them what he found! So, start with that. And, by the way, not finding something is still a discovery. If you went looking for X and didn’t find it, that’s worth reporting. If nothing else, you’ve demonstrated that it’s not there.

2. Try to (attempt to, seek to, etc.): This just makes it worse. With “explore” you’re telling me that you just wandered around for a while exploring without actually finding anything. Now you’re telling me that you’re not even sure you accomplished that! You didn’t explore, you just tried to. Was it hard? Did you encounter monsters along the way that made it difficult for you to complete your expedition? Whatever the obstacles were, I appreciate that you put further the effort. But, your paper would make much more compelling reading if you gave me some reason to believe, especially here at the beginning, that you may have actually succeeded. Otherwise, I think I’ll just stop here.

3. Possibility: This just keeps getting better. Now we’re not even sure that this thing you’re going to try to explore even exists. And, what’s worse, I’m reading this after you’ve supposedly tried to explore it. So, all I can conclude is that even though you’ve already tried to explore it, you’re still not sure whether it exists. I don’t know about you, but I have better things to do with my time that read about somebody who tried to explore some non-existent thing.

So, with one sentence, you’ve completely undermined my confidence in your argument. And, you’ve done it by making it exceptionally clear that you don’t have any confidence in your own argument.

Nonetheless, I find sentences like this in papers all the time. Why is that? Why are so many students eager to destroy their own papers at the very beginning?

1. Fear: Students use language like this as a shield they can hide behind. If I say, “I am going to argue that X is true or not true,” I’ve backed myself into a corner and I’d better make my argument. But, if I just say that I’m going to “explore” something, I’ve left an open door for escape. I haven’t really committed to anything, so there’s nothing to worry about. Fear is a powerful motivator for creating weak beginnings.

2. Beginning with the beginning: This introduction reads like the student wrote it first and then never came back to revise it later. I can understand how you might think at the beginning of the journey that you’ll just be exploring some issue. That makes sense. You don’t know yet how things will end. So, if you want to sketch an introduction from that perspective at the beginning to clarify in your own mind what your purposes are, fine. But that’s not the end of the story. When your paper is done, you should have something more interesting to report. And, since I’m obviously reading the paper after it’s all done, why not go ahead and tell me what that is? Revise your introduction!

3. No argument: Of course, it’s entirely possible that the problem is with the paper, not the introduction. Maybe you don’t have anything more interesting to report. If your paper just wanders around and “explores” or “summarizes” a lot of information, there’s not much your introduction can do to jazz that up. Unfortunately, if this is your problem, you’ve got some work to do. Simply re-writing your introduction won’t be enough.

4. A “student” mentality: I think this lies at the heart of the problem for many. Growing up, we’re told that the student’s job is to learn. So, we create papers from the perspective of the learner, writing tentatively and cautiously rather than confidently and authoritatively. That may be fine earlier in our academic careers (though I’d question that as well), but not in graduate or postgraduate research papers. If you haven’t already, it’s time to give yourself permission to be a teacher. You’ve done the research. You’ve (hopefully) constructed an argument and drawn a conclusion. Now, you’re the teacher. Inform me.

Let the words of the master guide you here:

Do or do not. There is no try.

Yoda was a very wise man…person…goblin…thing.

[This post is part of our Tips for the Th.M. series, offering suggestions on how to survive and thrive in a postgraduate program.]

The student’s most neglected resource

One of the most difficult things for me as a father is watching one of my daughters struggle with something that doesn’t need to be that difficult. One of my girls got a present the other day, and, after I’d removed the bullet-proof packaging they put on toys these days, I sat back and let her figure out how to make it work.

She’s ten. And, she’s quite smart. She can do this.

Or, she would have been able to except for one small problem. She wouldn’t read the directions. I know she had the directions because I handed them to her. Twice. But it didn’t help. She’d take a quick look, read a line or two at the most, and then try again. It didn’t take long for her to get pretty frustrated.

I wasn’t far behind.

Few things are more frustrating than watching somebody struggle with something that could be so much easier if only they’d use what’s right in front of them.

You’d think that college and grad students would be smarter than my fifth grader. But time and again I see students struggle because they won’t use what’s right in front of them. And, there’s one resource in particular that students constantly neglect. Every school has at least one. But it’s like students don’t even know they exist. Sometimes I wonder if they’ve decided that their classes are just too easy. So, they need to make things harder.

That’s like deciding to scale a cliff without any ropes. Sure, it’s more challenging. But it’s also a good way to get yourself killed.

So, what is that most neglected resource? The librarian.

Now, before all you digital natives begin to scoff and explain how outdated libraries and librarians are in this modern world, hear me out.

If you had asked me a few years ago what a librarian did, I think I would have mumbled something about keeping track of books, maintaining silence, and keeping me from drinking coffee while I studied (which, by the way, is why I stopped using libraries). I’ve learned better since then.

At the very least, a good librarian can do two things that every student desperately needs. First, the librarian knows the best ways to find information. That information may be stored in the library’s physical books, its digital archives, or just out there on the internet. Regardless, it’s still information. And, information is only useful if you can find it. That’s what a librarian has been trained to do. I’m continually surprised by students who are frustrated that they can’t find enough good resources on their topic, but they haven’t bothered to consult a librarian. That’s like the guy who’s angry that he can’t find the pickles in a grocery store, but hasn’t bothered to ask someone who actually works there.

Second, a good librarian knows how to assess the quality of your information and its sources. Do a Google search on something. Anything. How many hits did your search return? I’m guessing it was more than three. Now what are you going to do? How do you know if any of them are any good? Like most students, you’ll probably just stick with the ones that came up first. After all, they’re on top so they must be good. Um, no. You’ll need to do better than that. And, for that, you’ll sometimes need help.

Good, reliable information. That’s what the student needs. And, that’s what the librarian is all about. Seems like a match made in heaven. If only they’d meet more often.

Sadly, that’s not how it often works out. According to a recent study, “when it comes to finding and evaluating sources in the Internet age, students are downright lousy.” As “digital natives,” they use Google frequently, but they don’t know how to use it effectively. And, even when they find information, they don’t know how to assess it. Today’s students desperately need good librarians, but they don’t know it.

Be smarter than a fifth grader. If you want to be a good researcher, especially at the beginning of your journey, get to know your librarians. Ask them questions. Take their advice. Bring them cookies. It will pay off in the end.

Flotsam and jetsam (the very overdue edition)

Darwin speculated that life began in a warm pond on the primordial Earth. Lately other scientists have suggested that the magic joining of molecules that could go on replicating might have happened in an undersea hot spring, on another planet or inside an asteroid. Some astronomers wonder if it could be happening right now underneath the ice of Europa or in the methane seas of Titan.

Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa prove — not contend — that students are not learning what they should, professors are not doing all they could, administrators are not focused on education enough and, as if that weren’t a glassful, society is and will continue to suffer is something isn’t done about it.

Three hit songs in the last few months have pushed the same message: You are awesome. You’re awesome just the way you are, even –no, especially– if you don’t fit in.

My take on the passage is that it refers to our meeting Christ in the air to welcome him to his earthly rule. If this is a “rapture”, fine, as long as it is not confused with the popular idea.

  • Rod has started what looks like a fascinating series on Firefly & Theology. (If you’re not familiar with Firefly, it was an outstanding scifi series on Fox that sadly only made it through one season, though it was later made into a movie.)

Flotsam and jetsam (1/19)

I’ve noticed in the last few years a real bandwagon of anti-leadership sentiment in some circles. I think it started as a push-back to the “CEO” model/mentality in some, and as such, I’m sympathetic. But from there, it has progressed to where we now have many arguing that any concept of leadership in the church should be avoided.

I’ve noticed that people who do not read the original languages of the Bible sometimes think of those languages as somehow magical, as the key that can open any mystery and answer any question about the Bible. While reading the original languages is tremendously important and helpful and useful, such a reading by itself does not always magically result in clear and simple answers to controversial religious questions. There are limitations inherent in an appeal to an original language for determining the meaning of a text.

As the article indicates, countless PhD students spend years dedicated towards research that will perhaps never posit an actual job in their field. Supply is greater than demand as the article suggets. The future seems depressingly bleak then for doctoral students: They are treated as indentured servants by their superiors. They spend meaningful years that could have been put towards savings, retirement, and even more important—nurturing families.

  • Roger Olson and Michael Horton have had an interesting exchange on the nature of Arminianism (read the comments). In the process, Olson made a very good comment about fairly representing other perspectives:

I urge you, and all non-Arminians who describe our theology, to describe it as we describe it and then go on to explain why you disagree….Fairness is the issue here.

Flotsam and jetsam (11/26)

In my judgment, however, the claim that Wright has changed his view on justification is misguided and results from the misreading of Wright that has been rampant in the Reformed world for quite some time.

  • John Byron offers a good thought on celebrity-ism and the academy.

What are we doing? Our scholarship has become, in some ways, a celebrity sport. We stand in awe of speakers who are introduced as the author of twenty books, over one hundred articles and three video series. Bart Ehrman and NT Wright appear on the Colbert report, and while I admit I found their performance entertaining, I wonder why it is that these people are held up as the representatives of scholarship in our field?

it is worth wondering if Christians (or anyone for that matter) might be attracted to artwork that portrays a world “without the Fall,” a sweet, shiny, untroubled and Disneyesque existence.

Advice on applying for a teaching position

In a recent Inside Higher Ed article, Thomas Wright offers some job-search advice based on some of the mistakes he made when applying for a teaching position. Let me summarize his main points and offer some of my own thoughts.

  1. Get to know the school. This just makes good sense. You can’t even put together a compelling application without getting to know the school, and you’ll look like an idiot in your interview if you don’t have some sense of its mission, purpose, history, student body, denominational ties, etc. You don’t have to spend months on this, but at least familiarize yourself with what’s on their website and in the school’s catalog.
  2. Don’t be afraid to apply for a position. I’ve made this mistake. You see the description of the position and you don’t think you really have a chance. Now, sometimes you’re right. If the description calls for 10 years of higher ed experience and you’re just getting started, don’t bother. But, sometimes you’re fully qualified for the position, but for some reason you don’t think you’ve got a shot (e.g., the school is too “prestigious.” Don’t sell yourself short. If you’re qualified for the position and you think you’d like to teach there, go for it. The worst that can happen is that you’ll contribute to the growing deforestation problem and global warming.
  3. Don’t be too humble. I hate this one, but it’s true. When you’re applying and interviewing for a job, this is not the time to reveal your tendency to turn everything in late, mock student questions, or dress as Little Miss Muffet every Halloween. It is the time to highlight everything that you do well. You’ll have to come up with at least a couple of “weaknesses” so you don’t sound too arrogant (e.g., I work too hard, I care about my students too much, etc.), but your main focus is to sell yourself. Usually, no one is going to do it for you.
  4. Proofread everything. Seriously, if you send in a CV or application with typos, you deserve not to get the job.
  5. Personalize your letters. This goes along with the first point. Take the time to find out who will be receiving your application and address your cover letter to them. It shows that you’ve done your homework and you’re not just blanketing the academic world with random applications.

There are a couple of things that I would add to this list if you’re applying for a position at an evangelical college/seminary in America, since that’s the context I know best.

  1. Read the doctrinal statement carefully. This one is probably the most obvious; but it’s important. And, beyond making sure that you could actually sign the doctrinal statement, I would pay particular attention to how the statement is constructed. Are there things in the statement that you don’t think should be there? If so, does that suggest an approach to things that will be narrower and more restrictive than you would prefer? Or, have they excluded things that you think are very important? If so, does that suggest anything about the direction of the school (current or eventual)?
  2. Find out about theological hotspots early. This can be difficult if they don’t make it explicit in their doctrinal statements (and they often won’t), but the best way is usually just to ask around. If a school has really staked out some territory on a theological issue, people usually know about it. You should also check out the list of faculty and do some internet searches to see if any particular issues pop up. And, don’t just do this in your area. Even if you’re a NT specialist, if there’s a hot-button issue among the faculty, they’ll expect you to know about it and have something intelligent to say.
  3. Check out the academic/ministry balance. Every evangelical school worth its salt has to deal with the balance it wants to strike between academics and ministry. Some will lean more toward one or the other, but most try to develop what they think is the best synthesis of the two. You want to identify that mix for two reasons. First, you’ll want to know if you resonate with that approach and will be a good fit for the school. Second, you’ll want to make that the way you present yourself is consistent with that perspective. Again, the best way to do this is to ask around. But, you can also get some good hints by reading between the lines on their website and in the catalog. Pay particular attention to what they’re not saying.

And, of course, the single best way to apply for a teaching position is to have the inside track from the very beginning. Name recognition works in academics every bit as well as it does in politics. The more people you know, the better positioned you’ll be when the time comes. Take advantage of every opportunity to meet people and get your name out there.

Do schools have an obligation to make sure there’s a job market?

I was intrigued by a recent Inside Higher Ed article discussing a Boston College law student with an unusual proposal.

An anonymous Boston College law student has published an open letter asking his dean to let him leave the law school without a diploma this semester (two and a half years into the program) in return for getting his tuition money back. The student writes that he was convinced to go to law school by “empty promises of a fulfilling and remunerative career,” and that now he faces the likely prospect of huge debts and no decent job.

My initial reaction was to think that it’s really the student’s responsibility to check out the job market and understand whether the cost of the education is justified given the education received (which surely has at least some value by itself) and the vocational prospects.

But, as I reflected just  bit further, I started to see it rather differently. I’m not sure how many people graduate every year with their PhDs in Bible or theology, but I do know that they far outstrip the number of teaching positions that are available to them. (That may change in the future with the impending retirements of a large percentage of Bible/theology faculty and the long hoped for economic recovery; but those changes may also be outweighed by technological advances and the changing economic models for many schools.) That means that there are quite a few doctoral programs out there who know full well that the job market cannot sustain the number of graduates that they’re producing. Yet, those same doctoral programs don’t seem to be reducing the number of applicants they accept as a result. Instead, these doctoral programs continue and new ones crop up with some regularity.

What do you think? Do schools have any obligation to adjust their admissions practices based on the likelihood that their graduates will find a job? Or, do they at least have an obligation to make the reality of the job market clear to prospects and/or make job-placement data publicly available? Or, is the responsibility entirely on the student?

Communicating with Academics: A Guide



Flotsam and jetsam (10/13)


Flotsam and jetsam (10/12)

After being distracted by family and work responsibilities for a few days, I had to declare Google Reader bankruptcy. It feels to to click “mark all as read” and then just move on with your life. But, before I gave up and hit the big red button, I came across some links worth checking out.