Being a Student: Writing for the Course

“He could have written this before ever taking my class!”

Among my rubrics for student writing is the requirement that they rigorously engage the course materials (readings, lectures, discussion) and also engage the methods taught in the course (narrative criticism, form/genre criticism, attention to historical contexts, and so on).

For introductory students, who are still trying to get a handle on just what we are reading/doing/talking about, this can at first feel a bit abstract. Recently, an exasperated colleague at another school made a comment that, in my view, offers an excellent “thumb rule” on this business of writing for the course:

“He could have written this piece before ever taking my class!”

If I had to isolate the single most common complaint that I’ve heard professors utter about student writing, it wouldn’t be about grammar and spelling, or about making deadlines, or even plagiarism. It would be this complaint, that a piece of student writing (often for a final project in the course) could have been written by the student without ever having taken the course in the first place.

So, ask yourself—early in the process of planning, and again early in the writing, and again when approaching completion—could I have written this before I ever took this course? Or am I making concrete use of the readings I’ve read, the lectures offered, the modes of inquiry that have been encouraged, the discussions facilitated in class?

7 Responses

  1. Don’t worry about this happening to me; I knew very little about the OT when I began this class and am absolutely thrilled at the opportunity to spend a semester studying it. Sometimes I feel as though I am at a disadvantage in this class-some students seem to already know scripture very well. On the bright side though ( I tend to be a Pollyanna !), I came to this class with a fairly blank slate, which means that I have few misconceptions to address. Just a note: having been in your OT class for a mere month, it is already easier for me to prepare my sermons. Thanks!

    • (Just a “me, too” comment: when I took Intro to the OT, I was also something of a tabula rasa. My church upbringing was not at all Bible-centric. I don’t think it’s ultimately easier or harder for us than for students raised on Bible, but it is certainly different in some ways.)

    • You’re far from the only student to take OT and feel like you’re miles behind everyone else. It seemed like every other student in my Intro class had a religion/philosophy degree. (this perception was highly exaggerated) and seemed to know not only all the bible stories, but all about Wellhausen and his buddies. I felt so lost, but i just kept writing notes and asking questions (some of which I’m sure exasperated these more knowledgeable students) I survived, and am proud to say much of it has stuck with me.

  2. This is a true challenge for some students. A few of us have graduated from undergrad with degrees in OT or Biblical studies. Some of us are transfer students who have had this class years ago but the credits expired. Probably one of us somewhere may have been raised in a Jewish family. Or, as in my case, have had biblical hermeneutics and done most of this work before. The new stuff is the history (thus the panic), and the work is in the re-disciplining of self to meet academic standards (it’s been a few years).

    I think most seminary professors face this challenge with a student every so often. Not only must they put up with their experiences, but they must also help them to unlearn certain bad habits picked up along the way. I would think it particularly challenging when you have someone who is very well educated in a secular field that relates to what you are teaching, ie. a psychotherapist/psychiatrist who is in Pastoral Care. How do professors manage that one?

    All that said, I have no real excuse. My work should be up to par on interpretation perhaps beyond what I have currently produced. Let’s hope I rise to the occasion.

    • I find myself slightly overwhelmed, but in a good way. I’ve read the OT and I am familiar with many of the stories. It is challenging to read these stories from a critical perspective.

      • It’s a discipline I hope to renew. So much of my work has fallen to theology. I desperately need to strengthen my BI. Otherwise, I may wander off into never never land and forget the real message, imposing my own in its place. BAD BAD BAD. lol

  3. I certainly could not have written many of the things I have written recently had I not taken this OT class. Admittedly, I had great difficulty opening up my mind to new things, especially when it came to things that rocked my faith. There were many times when I could not see a connection between my ministry and what I was learning, and I often hoped for a more practical perspective on OT (after all, I came to seminary to be a more effective minister). Having said that, although OT can rock my faith (and took up most of my study time), I can truly say my beliefs still remain solid. I have come to the conclusion that, yes, we can always look at whether or not the OT class is effective by how we can write about new things we have learned in class but most important, the gauge for me has always been: if it helps my ministry, if my understanding of OT will allow me to reach more people, and if it will allow me to connect the lessons learned with the message of salvation through Jesus Christ, then it is effective. From this perspective, I know that despite all my grunting and complaining, the answer to the question of whether or not the OT class is effective is, after all, “Yes, it has been effective.”

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