How to Write a Seminary Paper, Part 4: Research as Conversation
- How to Write a Seminary Paper: Part 1, The Thesis
- How to Write a Seminary Paper: Part 2, Researching (And Perfecting) Your Thesis
- How to Write a Seminary Paper: Part 3. The Argument
- How to Write a Seminary Paper, Part 4: Research as Conversation
You’ve got a thesis (or hypothesis), which is the most important thing. You’ve also started your research. Then it all gets a bit overwhelming. There’s so much to read, so many issues to discuss, and it often feels like you’ve got so little to contribute. Once you start to your research you realize that the issue isn’t “where to begin?” but rather “when will it all end?”
The short and discouraging answer to that question is: “it doesn’t.” There will always be more to do. You can’t be exhaustive and you shouldn’t try. This is why your seminary professor will likely roll their eyes when you ask something like “how many sources do I need?” It’s a fair enough question on one level, but it betrays a task oriented approach to the matter that actually misunderstands the point of research. The presupposition behind this kind of approach is everywhere: research is about gathering data. If that is what research is, then there’s always going to be more data, and you will never be done.
I prefer a different model for thinking about research. It’s not “gathering data” or collecting evidence but rather “engaging in conversation.” Especially in the humanities, “conversation” is a better model for thinking about research than “data” because it provides a set of values that helps answer certain kinds of practical writing questions. How do I know when a conversation is “done?” When both parties in the conversation are understood and satisfied with their contribution to the whole. How do I know who I should introduce into the conversation? I should vector in anyone interested, paying special respect to those who might be able to further the discussion (expertise) or those who would benefit from it (experience). What is my role in the conversation? Not to provide the final word–the One True Answer–but to moderate the discussion, and hopefully make a modest contribution.
Why do we research?
If research is a conversation, then we do not research in order to “gather data” or “win the argument.” We are trying to further the discussion. That means, on the one hand, that we do not want to be the kind of conversationalist that grumbles their way through the dinner party, griping about how we are never understood and everyone else with opinions on a topic is hopelessly wrong or an impossible bore. On the other, we don’t monopolize the room, talking on and on about our own thoughts and ideas without interacting or engaging those around us.
We research because we believe that other people have similar interests and ideas, but different perspectives and levels of expertise. As such, they can contribute something to the conversation that I cannot. We yield the floor to other voices in conversation because we want to learn from them, or laugh with them, or nod in agreement. As we listen, we grow; we nuance our own views and better appreciate those areas where we disagree. Research is similar; it involves us in an ongoing dialog in which we have chosen to participate. If that dialog is going to continue to be healthy and helpful, it means that I must respect all the parties thus far engaged, and I do that by honoring the voices of the other while also adding my own expertise and opinions to the discussion.
What should we research?
Continuing with our “conversation” model of research, we should remember that behind every blog post, article, monograph, or book there exists a person. That person does not view themselves as shouting into the void, but rather talking with and trying to persuade other persons. You are that person, dear reader! Reading and research means being the hearer in an on-going conversation.
But now you are the writer, which means your roll has shifted. You are now the moderator of a new conversation, and you have the priveledge and opportunity of including in that conversation the voices you think will move the conversation forward. That’s the heart of the answer to the question “what should I research?” Read, appropriate, and give a platform to those voices that will most efficiently bring the conversation to a new high point.
That will mean different things for different kinds of writing. Here we are dealing with academic writing in the theological sphere, and so the conversation partners you won’t to engage with are varied.
- Engage contemporary voices. Some seminary students think the only voices worth listening to are ancient voices. “There’s nothing new under the sun,” they say, and that’s true from a certain point of view. In most cases, though, when you write you are entering into a conversation that is presently ongoing. The present state of the conversation matters. New discoveries have been made. New insights are under debate. What is more, the present state of the conversation is usually your most accessible entry point. You are the guy or gall at the party that sees a group in a huddle talking and you think to yourself, “I want to be in that group.” How does that work? It means you approach the huddle, listen for a while, maybe say something interesting, then suddenly the circle expands a bit and you find yourself inside rather than outside. When researching, look for that group of people already talking about what you want to talk about, in the present moment, and listen to their questions and insights. Your paper is your “something interesting” contribution to that discussion.
- Engage ancient voices. Another group of seminary students think the ancients have nothing to contribute, but this is an example of “historical prejudice.” The Bible has been a topic of discussion since it was written, and if you engage the conversation as if no one prior to your generation had anything valuable to contribute, your engagement will inevitably be shallow.
- Engage diverse voices. It’s always fun to sit around a campfire with “your people” and share the same old stories and pat each other on the back. There’s value to that. But it doesn’t move the conversation forward, and that’s our goal. Academic papers shouldn’t reinforce preexisting “clicks” and prejudices. They should expand our knowledge. Introduce your readers (and yourself!) to different conversation partners. Read outside of your group. Engage with different denominations, different perspectives, different cultures, and do so with a willingness to hear and to learn.
- Engage voices at or above your “level.” This one sounds a bit elitist, I know, but it’s not meant to be. I’m not trying to nullify the value of talking about the Bible with kids, or unbelievers, or new Christians, or non-academics. I’ve argued for the value of those kinds of conversations here. It’s just that they don’t ordinarily “fit” in an academic paper. Remember who you are talking with and also to whom you are talking. The “genre” of academic paper is “academic conversation,” which means your primary conversation partners should be your intellectual peers. No more Study Bibles, Wikipedia entries, casual blogs, etc. Sermons are not replacements for exegetical commentaries; tweets are not evidence; blogs and websites are usually not as carefully vetted. Keep casual pop-cultural references to a minimum (ie, use them when they advance the discussion). You’re talking with other professionals and dedicated amateurs. You may not feel like these women and men are your peers, but this is the group you are speaking with, so meet them at their level.
When are we done researching?
So how do I know that my research is “done?” Well, in one sense, it’s never done, but unlike the data/evidence model of research, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. That’s the beauty of the conversational model. The story goes ever on and on, and so does the discussion. There is no topic on this green earth about which the last word has been said. But of course, at some point this particular conversation has to conclude. At some point we need to all go home. The beauty of conversation is that you can leave it, and then come back to it at a later point, and the coming back to it later is beautified by the fact that we have all had time to ruminate on what has already been said, develop our thoughts a bit, pick up where we left off, and then move forward.
So how do I know that this conversation has come to a conclusion? I don’t want to be over-simplistic, but the answer is pretty simple: when there’s nothing left to be said. I think that’s actually pretty helpful. There’s an old joke about committees: “everything that needs to be said has been said, but not everyone has said it.” When it comes to conversations, the same rule applies. Give space for every voice that furthers the conversation, making sure that no insight or objection remains unconsidered, and then be done.
“Enough of the metaphors! How many sources should I cite in my paper?” OK, I get that, but it really depends. How many different ideas and perspectives contribute to your thesis? They should also find representation–not every particular person, but those that best contribute to the dialog you are trying to have. What are you trying to contribute to the conversation? If your voice is discordant with those around you, more research and evidence will be required; by contrast, if you’re trying to harmonize with other voices, a few representative figures will suffice. The goal, remember, is to move the conversation forward. Do as much research as necessary to do that with honor and integrity, then be done.
This “guide” might be disappointing because it does not give concrete rules for research, but I hope that what it lacks in specificity it makes up for in ethos and values.