Dr Philip Satterthwaite
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Why academic papers? Much of your time as a student is spent in largely passive activities: listening to lectures; reading books, etc. Your assignments, though they may seem burdensome, are also an opportunity for you to take a more active part in the learning process. Here is the chance for you to respond to some of the ideas you have encountered in your courses; to be creative and imaginative; to collect data and formulate arguments; to extend your understanding of an issue; to try out an idea that you have had for a long time; and so on.
Why these Guidelines? It is our impression that, while some BGST students find the process of producing academic papers quite easy, others, for a variety of reasons, are daunted by the prospect. The following guidelines aim to provide some basic advice on how to set about two types of academic papers: (a) critique/review assignments; (b) essay assignments.
Any comments on the usefulness of these Guidelines would be welcome, and should be communicated to Dr. Satterthwaite.
Some colleges issue lengthy guidelines on formatting, specifying paper size, size of margins and headers/footers, layout of title and contents pages, etc. In our opinion detailed rules on these and related topics are inappropriate for most BGST papers. The only criterion is that the layout and appearance of your paper be clear and attractive to the eye.
Clarity and pleasing appearance are aided by:
- leaving reasonable margins
- leaving a one-line gap between paragraphs
- using 1.5 spacing
- avoiding silly or gimmicky fonts, and using 12-point size or above
- using footnotes rather than endnotes
- numbering your pages
Title and contents pages may be added at your discretion. We do not feel they are necessary for most BGST essays. They are certainly not necessary for critiques.
A critique involves (i) summarising and (ii) responding to a piece of writing, typically an article, an essay or a chapter of a book. Both aspects of the task are important.
Summary: You need to summarise the piece you are critiquing in order (i) to show the lecturer that you understand its main arguments (ii) to provide a basis for your own response.
Imagine you are writing your critique for someone who will not have access to the piece: you will need to summarise the piece as clearly as possible simply so that your reader will know why you respond to it as you do. There is also the question of fairness: you will want to represent the author’s arguments as clearly as you can.
Response: It is likely that you will find yourself disagreeing with some aspect of the piece. If that is the case, your task is relatively easy: you have only to state what you disagree with, or are otherwise dissatisfied with, and why.
Reasons for disagreement/dissatisfaction might include the following:
• The topic is totally trivial: why is the author writing about this topic at all? Is it worth writing about? Has the author justified the choice of topic?
• The topic, or point at issue, is not clearly defined: what is the author writing about?
• The style is poor: the author has not written clearly.
• The terminology is poor: the author has not offered an adequate definition of key terms which are crucial to the discussion. The argument is unclear: the author has not made it plain how the conclusions follow from the evidence presented.
• The argument is clear but unsound: the conclusions do not necessarily follow from the evidence presented.
• The author’s arguments have some merit, but the case has been overstated.
• The author has omitted to consider some of the evidence.
• The author has been selective in presenting the evidence.
• The author has only presented one possible interpretation of the evidence, whereas other interpretations, equally convincing or more convincing, are also possible.
• The author’s initial assumptions (or: presuppositions) are questionable.
• The author’s world-view is questionable.
In disagreeing, try always to be fair-minded. Do not overstate or mis-state the author’s arguments in order to refute them. Try to imagine yourself speaking to the author face-to-face, and attempting to offer constructive criticism.
If you find yourself largely in agreement with the author’s arguments, you will have to work a little harder in order to respond adequately to the piece (NB: it is unlikely that your lecturer will consider ‘I agree totally with all the author’s points’ an adequate response).
Points to consider in this case might include:
Can the author’s approach be applied to other texts or topics which are not considered in this piece? (E.g., one way of conveying to the reader how good an essay on Mark’s Gospel is may be to say ‘the author’s approach could also fruitfully be applied to the other Gospels.’)
Does the author have any practical suggestions as to how to implement the proposals made in the essay? Is the essay all theory and no practice?
Is the piece relevant to C20 Singapore? (E.g., an essay on the challenges faced by Christians in Europe, no matter how well-researched and clearly argued, may not have a great deal to say to Singaporean Christians.)
Do you find the piece personally relevant? Did you find it gave you answers to questions that had been puzzling you? Did it suggest new ways of looking at a topic, or new topics for you to think about?
(NB: this is not the first question you should ask about the piece, as it is unlikely that it was written with you specifically in mind; but at some point in your response it may be reasonable to raise the issue of personal relevance.)
You will find it helpful to look at the review sections of some periodicals in BGST Library: Anvil, Catholic Biblical Quarterly, Evangelical Quarterly, Journal of Biblical Literature, Trinity Journal, all of which contain lengthy, high-quality book reviews. Try to read a selection of such reviews: this will give you some idea of the different ways in which one can set about the task of critiquing someone else’s work.
The task of essay-writing may be broken down as follows:
Understanding the assignment; defining the task
Collecting the data; doing some reading
Reflecting: working out your argument
Writing the essay
(a) Understanding the Assignment/Defining the Task
Essay assignments fall into two main categories: (i) those in which the topic is defined by the lecturer, typically in the form of an essay title which you must write upon; (ii) those in which it is more or less up to you to define the topic (‘reflection papers’ to some extent fall into this second category).
(i) In the first case, make sure you know what you are being asked to do. If necessary, clarify your understanding of the essay title with the lecturer. Please bear in mind, however, that sometimes the lecturer expects you to work out for yourself what is involved in answering a particular question: what issues are and are not relevant to a particular question, and so on. Do not expect the lecturer to provide you with an essay plan.
(ii) In the second case, pick a topic which interests you and which seems to be manageable. Most topics can be expressed either in the form of a question (e.g., What does the book of Ezekiel have to say to 20th century Singaporean Christians?) or a statement along the lines: ‘whereas people have said A, B, C about Topic X, I now wish to say D, E, F.’ Try to formulate your topic into such a question or statement, and then reflect briefly upon it: Does it seem worth writing about? Do you think you can deal with it within the word-limit given? Do you need to narrow your topic down somewhat? If necessary, check whether your lecturer thinks the topic is appropriate.
(b) Data Collection/Reading
The following provide data for research:
(i) Primary Texts: These are, in effect, the texts you are being asked to write about, or which are relevant to the essay topic. If the essay is on OT prophecy, your primary texts are the OT prophetic books; if it is about Luther, then your primary texts will include some of Luther’s writings. Newspaper articles, government statistics, and the texts of interviews could also fall into the category of primary texts. Do not neglect the study of primary texts: you are entitled to form your own opinions on the basis of the primary texts.
(ii) Data gathered in the course of Field Research: The issues raised by field research in all its forms lie beyond the scope of these Guidelines
(iii) Secondary Literature: In addition to reading primary texts, doing your own field research, etc., you will usually have the opportunity to read what others have written on the texts or topic in question (= ‘secondary literature’, ‘secondary reading’).
Please note: you should not feel that you need to search through the secondary literature in order to find someone who supports each one of your points. As noted above, you are entitled to form opinions in your own right, provided you can justify them.
In particular, try to avoid using secondary literature simply to give a superficial appearance of scholarship to your work: perhaps by referring briefly to a number of writers, or quoting brief phrases from them, without really interacting with their ideas. Lecturers can easily tell when students are merely quoting in order to show that they have looked at books. As a general rule, do not refer to other writers unless what they say (whether you agree or disagree with it) is important for your chosen topic.
If the lecturer has specified certain items of secondary literature for the essay, you should read those. Even if no secondary reading has been specified, you are usually at liberty to read as much as you like: the resources of BGST Library (and other libraries in Singapore) are at your disposal! Your lecturer can also advise you.
It is a good idea to read a simple (brief, introductory) text before reading a more detailed study: try a brief, up-to-date biblical commentary before working through a larger-scale one; try an introductory survey to a field of study before attempting a long monograph on one aspect of that field.
Dictionary articles, or articles in a book like The Complete Book of Everyday Christianity (ed. R. Banks and R.P. Stevens) are a good starting point, giving a helpful summary of the topic and suggesting further items of reading. Of all the books in BGST library, dictionaries are the ones which have been written with your needs as a student most clearly in mind.
More generally, you should get into the habit of occasionally browsing through the shelves of BGST Library, and looking at some of the recent journals. Do not rely solely on your lecturer’s advice: take an active role in the learning process.
• DO NOT spend so much time reading secondary literature that you neglect to spend adequate time on planning and writing the essay. As a rough guide, you should not need to spend more than 10 hours on secondary reading for a BGST essay.
• DO acknowledge any ideas and opinions derived from secondary reading in a properly documented footnote (see below, under ‘Plagiarism’).
c. Reflecting: Working out your Argument
If you do this stage properly, the essay writing should be relatively painless. Plan to spend at least an hour on this, preferably when you are fresh.
Think (You may find it helpful to jot down words on a pad as a spur to thought):
What are the key issues, the main points, the most important ideas, the questions that get to the heart of the matter? How do they relate to each other? (If you like, use a flow-chart to show the relationships between issues/points/questions.)
What are the important pieces of evidence, the texts that must be discussed? Why are these pieces of evidence or texts important?
Formulate an argument:
What is/are the main point(s) you feel you should make? What are your main reasons for taking the line you do?
What is your answer to the question(s) you are trying to address? Again, what are your main reasons?
Are there any pieces of evidence, or texts, that do not fit easily into the argument you are trying to make? How do you account for them? Do you need to modify your argument in the light of them?
Perhaps there are two competing views on the question you are addressing: what are the strong and weak points of each view? (NB: in responding to the secondary literature on your chosen topic you can apply the approaches suggested under ‘Critique Assignments’)
Can you rank the points for and against the case you are trying to make in order of importance? Are some points clearly decisive and others not?
Are some issues or arguments (perhaps those you have encountered in the secondary literature) clearly irrelevant to the point at issue? On what grounds?
Are there some key terms relating to the point you are discussing which need to be carefully defined? Does a difference of viewpoint between two scholars arise from the fact that they each define certain key terms differently?
Draw up an essay plan:
This might take the form:
INTRODUCTION: briefly states what the essay is about, introduces the topic.2
MAIN POINT A
Supporting Argument 13
Supporting Argument 2
Supporting Argument 3, etc.
Response to possible counter-arguments to point A; necessary qualifications to point A
MAIN POINTS B, C, D, E.......
(organised as for Main Point A)
CONCLUSION: brief statement of the conclusion(s) to which your arguments point.
In drawing up your plan, you should go into some detail, or you are not really thinking through what you are going to say. Imagine a ‘Main Point A’ which runs as follows:
MAIN POINT A: The OT prophets attack Israelite worship
Supporting Argument 1: Amos
Supporting Argument 2: Hosea
Supporting Argument 3: Isaiah
If you don’t go beyond that in drawing up your essay plan, you have still left yourself with all the work to do when you come to write your essay. How are you going to use Amos, Hosea and Isaiah to support your main point? Which texts in Amos, Hosea and Isaiah attack Israelite worship? On what basis do they attack this worship? Is there more than one way of interpreting these texts? And so on.
A better version of this ‘Main Point A’ might be as follows:
MAIN POINT A: The OT prophets attack Israelite worship
Supporting Argument 1: Amos (North): 4:4f; 5:4-15; focus on worshippers’ unjust practices
Supporting Argument 2: Hosea (North): ch. 4; 9:1-9; focus on worshippers’ idolatry
Supporting Argument 3: Isaiah (South): 1:10-26: attacks same things as Amos and Hosea in North
Qualification: NB, not so much worship in itself which is attacked, but worship which is not matched by life-style.
This may not be perfect, but at least if you’ve got this far, you’ve done some of the necessary thinking for this part of your essay.
If possible, put the plan aside and come back to it next day. Are you still convinced by your arguments? Do you think you have presented them in the right way? Do you need to re-arrange aspects of the plan?
d. Writing the Essay
Again, try and do this when you are fresh.
Try to use a simple style:
As far as you can, use simple, familiar vocabulary. If you need to introduce a technical term, it may be appropriate to define it.
Use short sentences wherever possible.
Do not let your paragraphs become over-long. A good general rule is: one idea per paragraph.
Do not be rigidly committed to your essay-plan. Sometimes when writing an essay you find that an argument which looked convincing on paper needs to be re-worked, or that the essay structure needs to be changed. If so, don’t plough on regardless, but take the time to stop and think again. Computers make it easier to re-structure essays than it was 20 years ago!
When you have written the essay, run a spell-check on it if your computer has this facility. Then print the essay out and proof-read it the next day. Make any small corrections by hand, or, if the corrections are major, make the corrections on the computer and reprint the essay.
The above comments obviously presuppose at points that you are not writing this essay to meet an urgent deadline. If you are short of time, at least make sure you set aside time to plan the essay: it may not seem so, but proper planning is the biggest time-saver imaginable!
Plagiarism (and Quotations)
What is Plagiarism?
Plagiarism may be defined as the conscious, unacknowledged use of another person’s words or ideas.
- Worst of all is copying significant phrases, whole sentences or even complete paragraphs from someone else’s writings without acknowledging the source. It makes no difference whether the writings copied are published or unpublished; or whether they are published on paper or in electronic forms. It also makes no difference if you copy someone else’s work and make occasional changes as you do so, perhaps by altering the occasional word, or inverting the order of two phrases: you are still basically using someone else’s work rather than doing your own.
- If someone verbally dictates to you sentences or paragraphs which you incorporate in your work, that is also, in effect, plagiarism. There is a danger of this happening if you ask someone to ‘help me with my English’.
- Also bad is using data that someone else has gathered without acknowledging the source. It makes no difference if you draw your own original conclusions from these data: you should still acknowledge the source of the data.
- Less reprehensible, but still unsatisfactory is using someone else’s ideas or arguments without acknowledging the source. Examples of this would be writing an essay entirely in your own words but using ideas entirely derived from other (secondary) sources; or structuring an essay according to an outline derived from someone else’s work. The sources of ideas or argument structures must also be acknowledged, even if no direct quotation is involved
Of course, most of the ideas we have are acquired from other people: from our parents, our teachers, our pastors, from our own reading, from the media, and so on. It is often not possible for us to say where and when we first heard an idea. In speaking about plagiarism we are not saying that you must give the source for every idea referred to in your essay: otherwise your essay would be nothing but footnotes.
Plagiarism, rather, occurs when someone uses another person’s words or ideas, knowing them to be another person’s, but does not acknowledge the source, thus giving the false impression that the words and ideas are their own.
What is BGST’s Policy towards Plagiarism?
We are not unsympathetic towards students who feel tempted to plagiarise: students whose English is weak, and who feel that ‘this book puts it so much better than I could’; students under pressure who feel they could save time by borrowing arguments or even essay plans from someone else’s work.
HOWEVER, WE ARE ENTIRELY OPPOSED TO THE PRACTICE OF PLAGIARISM IN ALL ITS FORMS.
Why is Plagiarism Wrong?
Plagiarism is deceitful and dishonest, in that you are attempting to pass someone else’s words or ideas off as your own.
Plagiarism also entirely defeats the purpose of written assignments. Written assignments, as noted on p. 1, are intended to help you take a more active role in the learning process, and to encourage you to be creative and develop your own ideas. It is obvious that copying someone else’s ideas shows, in contrast, a passive and entirely uncreative attitude.
It is also extremely difficult to get away with plagiarism: lecturers have generally read quite widely in their fields, and are usually able to recognise wording or even ideas taken from work published in their fields. In particular, if a student’s English is weak, passages which have been copied from elsewhere usually stand out with painful clarity in the essay because of the relatively excellent quality of the English in which they are written.
Plagiarism, in short, is not the way forward. If your English is weak, take English lessons. If you are consistently short of time, register for fewer courses, or make other necessary adjustments to your schedule.
Do not plagiarise: it is wrong, indeed, sinful from a Christian perspective; in the long run it can only harm your own intellectual development and prospects as a student.
ANY STUDENT FOUND ENGAGING IN PLAGIARISM WILL WITHOUT EXCEPTION BE PENALISED.
Penalties may include:
- being required to do the work again
- being given a reduced grade for the piece of work
- being given a ‘Fail’ grade for the piece of work
- being given a ‘Fail’ grade for the entire course
- re-evaluation of work previously submitted for other courses, and possible lowering of grades previously awarded for these courses (in extreme cases)
- being expelled from BGST
The lecturer concerned will deal with first-offenders, and inform faculty. If there are any subsequent offenses, the student is liable to fail the course, and will be referred to the relevant Dean for counselling and discipline.
How do you avoid Plagiarising?
You should always acknowledge the source of words or ideas which you take from someone else’s work.
Phrases, sentences or paragraphs taken from someone else’s work should always be presented as quotations: either by the use of quotation marks (‘ ’, “ ”); or (in the case of longer excerpts) by indenting the material quoted as a separate block of text. In addition the source should be indicated in a footnote, with correct bibliographic documentation (see p. 9)
In general, you should aim to write as much as you can of your essay in your own words: quotations should preferably be few and short. An essay which consists largely of quotations from other people’s work (even if these are all correctly acknowledged and documented) will be marked down. Such a method of writing essays is honest but uncreative.
Ideas, or even the structure of an argument, which you have taken from someone else’s work should be acknowledged, and the source indicated in footnote with bibliographic documentation. (The appropriate way to acknowledge that you are borrowing someone else’s argument structure is with words such as: ‘My argument in the following paragraphs is indebted to G. von Rad’s treatment of this passage in his Genesis commentary.’)
Examples of quotations and sources of ideas properly acknowledged can be found in my essay ‘David in the Books of Samuel: A Messianic Expectation’ in P.E. Satterthwaite, R.S. Hess, G.J. Wenham (eds.), The Lord’s Anointed: Interpretation of Old Testament Messianic Texts (Grand Rapids/Carlisle: Baker/Paternoster, 1995) pp. 41-65 (in BGST Library).
What is Correct Bibliographic Documentation?
For books you must specify:
the book’s author(s)
the book’s title
the series of which the book is a part (if appropriate)
place of publication;
- date of publication;
- the page(s) cited
e.g.: S.J.L. Croft, The Identity of the Individual in the Psalms (JSOTS 44; Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1987), p. 85.
For essays in a book which is an edited collection of essays you must specify:
- the essay’s author(s)
- the essay’s title
- the book’s editor(s)
- the book’s title
- the series of which the book is a part (if appropriate)
- place of publication;
- date of publication;
- the page(s) cited
e.g.: J. Blenkinsopp, ‘Temple and Society in Achaemenid Judah’ in P.R. Davies (ed.), Second Temple Studies 1. Persian Period (JSOTS 117; Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1991), pp. 22-26.
For journal articles you must specify:
- the article’s author(s)
- the article’s title
- the volume number of the journal in which the article appeared;
- the year of publication;
- the page(s) cited
e.g.: W. Brueggemann, ‘2 Samuel 21-24: An Appendix of Deconstruction?’, CBQ 50 (1988), pp. 383-97
For unpublished papers you must specify:
- the paper’s author
- the paper’s title
- the venue at which the paper was given (if the paper is the text of a spoken address)
- the date on which the paper was given (ditto)
e.g.: P.E. Satterthwaite, ‘Can These Dry Bones Live? Reading the Old Testament Today’ (unpublished paper given at BGST, Singapore, November 1998)
2 You may find it appropriate to introduce a definition of a key term at this point (e.g., in an essay on ‘Justification by Faith’ it might be helpful to state at the outset how you understand the term).
3 It enhances the clarity of your argument if these supporting arguments are presented in order of importance.