Monday, March 30, 2009

Summery? No, SUMMARY!

Summery? . . . I saw daffodil and crocus leaves popping through the wet soil . . . Summer is green and warm . . . very different than the past few months . . .

That was a thought digression, prompted by my initially mis-spelled title. It shows what can happen if you change one letter in a word. If you mis-spell summary with an "e" instead of an "a," you get summery. I made myself think about swimming and vacation and green leaves. Sigh. Enough about spelling – this post is really about the importance of a good summary.

OK, then. A good summary restates what the author was trying to say in a brief form. It does not include a critique, opinion, analysis or any emotional words that reveal what you think about the ideas. It is coldly and cleanly objective. The author of the piece you are summarizing (should they read your summary) would say, “Yup, that is exactly what I meant. You got it!”

You include all of the main points, reconstructing the outline of the argument. You do not twist the author’s meaning in any way. You need to gain the perspective of the author, so you can restate what they are saying fairly and accurately. This does not imply that the summarizer (you) is on board with the argument. You do not need to believe it or agree with their ideas. Your critique or analysis of what the author said may or may not come later.

So, to summarize, spell words correctly to help avoid reader-mind-wandering. Summarize your sources like a reporter, objectively and without prejudice. Even if you think they are dead-on wrong.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Detachment Can Be a Good Thing

Detachment is usually not a good thing. It is bad for a friendship or a marriage. Christianity is centered on God’s relentless attachment to us, and our familial ties as brothers and sisters in the body of Christ. To be detached can imply not caring, not invested, ambivalent or peripheral.

So in what way can detachment be good?
  • It is good if we are not so “attached” to our work that we can’t see its (sometimes glaring) weaknesses.
  • It is good if it gives us enough objectivity to understand a different/new perspective without excess emotion.
  • It is good if it means we can examine an idea with no other goal than understanding the argument behind it.
  • It is good if we can analyze and critique concepts without having to embrace or reject them wholesale.
  • It is good if it helps us to examine logical fallacies (false arguments) in some of our own assumptions and beliefs.
If you really care about something, use your passion to understand it in all of its subtleties. You will be better able to persuade others if you are willing to examine your ideas and beliefs with a critical objective eye.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Deconstructing Mid-Term Exams

You have been reading and listening to lectures. You have a syllabus and a stack of books.

You can control this befuddling content. You are not its victim. You can conquer it, dissect it, and break it into its component parts. (Does a three-part list remind you of the trinity? You are starting to "get" seminary!)

Before you get to that chair and blue book on exam day, you can lower your anxiety by outsmarting your test. But how, you ask? By remembering the following:

1. What did the syllabus say about the focus of this test? Is it your lectures? Readings? All of it? Some of it? Essay? Objective?
2. What did the professor say about the test? Pay close attention to this. Did you receive a study guide? USE IT. (Trust me, many people don't, no matter how smart they are)
3. Create a study guide as you read. Your book may have a table of contents that makes a great start to an outline. Your syllabus may give you an outline in the form of your weekly lectures.
4. Don't forget details. Include 2-3 descriptors for each name, date, or main point. You will use them in your answers on the test.
5. Once you are in the chair, staring at the test, READ THE DIRECTIONS CAREFULLY AND DO EXACTLY WHAT THEY SAY. I put that in caps because it is the most important.
6. Make a plan. Include the time you will devote to each question, which you will do first (start with the "easiest") and quick notes on what you remember about each question.

Take the test apart, in order to properly put it back together. Get a good night's sleep, eat breakfast, and go in with confidence.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Wordy?

Some sentences don't have enough words. On the other hand, some sentences have surplus, extra and unnecessary words.

Here is an example: When reading seminary textbooks and articles, one discovers that many times the author, whoever he or she may be, uses needless clauses and modifiers, that is, descriptive and parenthetical words and phrases, to try to communicate with you the reader, perhaps thinking that such a tactic sounds more sophisticated or academic or maybe just to see if you can plow through all the verbiage to get to the point they may (or may not) be making.

WHEW! Try to read that without taking a breath.

The Apostle Paul uses such sentences, but he is not the only one. The written world of theological and biblical studies is full of long, run-on, dense and hard-to-read texts. When reading them, do your best to skim and scan for the main point. You can't change the authors you are assigned to read, or their enabling editors.

When YOU write, it is not an asset to be wordy. You can be clear, and have a precise point to each sentence and paragraph. You can communicate with a variety of sentences, changing the length and the structure to suit the flow of your argument. Your professor will thank you. And you will become, through practice, a fluid writer.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

"Building" a Paper

Let’s say a paper is a house – new construction. The owner is the professor. He or she determines the basic scope of the project, the size and shape. The professor tells you what to write: a two page reflection paper, or a 600-word prĂ©cis or an exegetical paper with three specific sections.

Some professors (owners) are more involved in the details of the paper than others. Some choose every fixture and paint color while others leave most choices to the architect/builder.

The architect/builder is you, the student/writer. You take the owner’s instructions, and create the design. You choose a topic (floor plan) and organize the ideas (plumbing and wiring systems). You do the research (hire sub-contractors) and shape it into its final form, attending to all of the details. You revise and copy edit (go back and clean up the site), so every mistake is made right.

The architect is not the owner. She can't design a ranch house when the owner asked for a cape cod. She will get fired if she does that. Similarly, a summary is not equivalent to a reflection paper. You have to do what the professor asks.

The architect is also not merely a collector of subcontractors (sources). He has control. He shapes and crafts the plan (argument). He is in charge of how the details are arranged and executed. He is making a new thing.

The paper/house must conform to the specs (specifications) of the professor/owner, but the writer has freedom to design and shape within those boundaries. Not unlike the relationship between God and human beings in the garden. (No, I do not think professors are equivalent to God.)

Accept the boundaries, and go for it: design a functional, beautiful space/a creative paper, just what the professor ordered.