Conquering the Dreaded Monografía: Ten ways teachers can help their students

October 15th, 20141:47 pm @


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by Jon Dahlager, D.Min.

San José played host to ISUM Seminar III in the month of May 2014, and I got to teach the dreaded monografía—research paper writing—class during the whole month. We used SEC’s excellent new Guía de estilo de monografías y tesis (the Guía) as a text, and tried to keep the spirit light by playing off of Mona Shields’ monkey theme, where everyone’s topic was their “mono,” and the students had to catch their monkey, tame him, feed him, groom him, and get him ready to turn in for inspection. This analogy made the professor the veterinarian or zookeeper, although with the amount of pain and worry in the process this teacher felt more like an obstetrician delivering babies.

Research paper writing, a staple of higher education everywhere, poses a number of challenges for our advanced theological students in Latin America. ISUM students have to write an investigation project after every seminar, while Facultad de Teología students write one for each class, and too many students don’t get credit for their classwork because they simply never turn in their papers. Some Bible Institutes are implementing graduation projects or small papers for individual classes. Students who find the paper writing task too daunting may simply not return to the classroom, possibly stunting their academic development and ministry growth.

Our goal for the 2014 Costa Rica ISUM group was for everyone to finish their 4-6,000 word post-seminar investigation project during the month. In spite of the professor’s gentle assurances that we would all take it one step at a time together, many students were terrified with the size of the task, some got physically sick with the stress, and at least two seriously contemplated quitting after the first week. However, by graduation day each student had accomplished his or her objective. On the last class day the students debriefed about the experience and compiled a list of suggestions for the students and teachers of future paper-writing classes. Their keen observations may help theological educators better understand their students in the paper-writing process.

These are ten areas where our advanced theological students say they need paper-writing help:

1. Word processing skills. The first and most emphatic recommendation was that everyone entering the research paper class should first receive a basic introduction to the Microsoft Word functions necessary for the task. When the student writer has no clue how to adjust margins, format line spacing, indent a whole paragraph, insert a footnote, or create a section break, even the most beautifully written style guide might as well be in Chinese.

2. Computer access. I don’t know anyone who believes that ministry training should be limited to those with enough money to own a laptop. However, gone are the days of handwritten papers, and writing research projects requires a significant amount of computer time. In our Costa Rica ISUM group well over half of the students brought their own portable computers, and those who did not had to borrow a machine or take turns on the two outdated and internet-limited computers in the library. A computer lab with several functioning machines would help those who were not able to bring their own.

3. Individual student guidance.  Most writing classes will have a handful of students with solid academic skills, but some who have not written anything academic in many years, if ever. Handing them the style guide and telling them to make it look like the example paper in the back is not enough; they really do need someone to personally walk and talk them through the steps one at a time. The Turabian Instructor Guide, a very helpful tool, insists that writing is a lonely business, and teachers need to “create occasions and obligations for students to talk about what they are studying, why it matters, what they are finding, and what they still want to know.”1

For the ISUM class we broke the process up into five steps, with individual student guidance available at each step: choosing and narrowing a workable topic, writing the paper proposal—propuesta monográfica, sculpting their information into a workable outline, filling out the outline into a rough draft, and polishing the content and format into a final draft. What did this “individual student guidance” look like? The professor and a couple of experienced students literally set up shop in the library and took student appointments like a doctor’s office. With larger class groups the task of offering individual help is daunting, but there is no substitute for face-to-face assistance.

4. Choosing a productive topic. A poor topic choice leads to misery, both for the student writing and the professor reading the paper. A novice writer’s topic choice may sound something like this: “I want to write about why Christians in our churches don’t move in spiritual gifts any more.” The teacher can help the student start with this problem statement and determine what they really want to learn, and come up with a productive topic such as “Characteristics of Pentecostal churches that develop the believer’s spiritual gifts.” The Guía has a very helpful section on choosing and narrowing the investigation’s topic, but there is no substitute for personal help in this matter.

5. Finding usable resources. Students need help navigating three major sources of usable resources: the paper library, articles published on the Internet, and electronic Bible study resources on the computer. The first is the paper library. Many of our Bible Institutes have a good collection, but the library still needs a well-trained teacher or librarian to point students to helpful books, chapters, journals, and reference materials related to both the main topic and side issues that may not be obvious.

The second area of needed resource guidance is the Internet. Whereas just a few years ago the theological school’s library may have been the primary or only source of research material for students, now a Google topic search can yield thousands of potential sources. The overwhelmed student may settle on Wikipedia or the first blog post they read. Students often get hung up on only using their exact topic’s wording in the searches, and they often need help zooming out to see other related topics that will enrich their study. A great first place to send students for ministry topics is the Assemblies of God USA page in Spanish, with a powerful topical search bar opens the door to all the AG resource center documents in Spanish, including hundreds of articles in Spanish in the Enrichment Journal,. Our own Revista Conozca site has some great content, but the search capacity is more limited. The Guía includes a helpful list of recommended internet resources.

Students also need help understanding the electronic libraries on their own computers. More and more students have Bible study software on their computers, such as E-Sword, Logos, or collections of PDF books, but the hundreds of unfamiliar resources may be as confusing as an internet search, especially when many are in English. A student who has never used a paper copy of Kittel’s Theological Dictionary of the New Testament may not be able to use it productively on the laptop. This is another instance where a few experienced students may help the others find helpful materials.

6. Critical thinking. The traditional Latin American education system trains students to unquestioningly accept the authority of “experts,” including their teachers and almost anything written. Because of the sea of information now available, however, students desperately need to develop critical thinking skills when choosing and evaluating resources for their projects. Dr. Paul Alexander, president of the World Alliance for Pentecostal Theological Education (WAPTE), recently explained that critical thinking, not just term paper writing, is the primary goal of Christian higher education, and writing is a good method, although certainly not the only method, to develop this skill.2 Teachers must help students understand the context, purpose, and relative value of what they are reading.

For example, reading about the Azusa Street Revival on Wikipedia (a tertiary source) is very different than reading Gary McGee and Stanley Burgess’ scholarly and avowedly Pentecostal account in the Dictionary of Charismatic and Pentecostal Movements (a secondary source) or Frank Bartleman’s colorful first-hand account in Azusa Street (a primary source). Our students need help learning to determine the philosophical point of view or theological agenda of the author, to see the bigger issues surrounding their focused topic, and consult multiple resources.

7. Transparent use of sources. At the end of the monografía course one seasoned pastor and teacher said that his biggest takeaway from the class was understanding the need to cite his sources, whether teaching, writing, or preaching, as opposed to just using published information and letting his listeners believe he is brilliant. When he understood that citing good sources could build his trustworthiness and help other people find great reading material he was hooked. This is the easiest critical thinking skill that can be taught starting in the first year of Bible Institute: teachers can assign small written projects and help students use their sources correctly. Chapter Five in the Guía helps the writer cite almost any kind of source from books to web articles to personal interviews.

8. Demystifying the SEC style guide. Our SEC style guide is a great piece of work, and even though it aims to simplify the thick Turabian style guide it is still over 100 pages long and intimidating for the first-time writer. The students need their teacher to walk them through the process and format, helping them practice citing different kinds of sources, and giving a tour through the example paper at the end of the manual, helping them face the task with courage.

9. God’s call to write. During the final evaluation on the last day of the ISUM class, pastor Henry, a church planter and presbyter, told the group, “I always believed my calling was to be an evangelist and pastor, but in this process God has shown me that He is also calling me to write.” Writing is just as spiritual as preaching or teaching, and we can help students understand that God is at work giving them investigation topics that will define their ministries and help their disciples for years to come. More than just helping students build and flesh out good outlines to complete an assignment, when we teach writing we believe that God is at work and will use our students to touch countless others as they write.

10. An offering to the Lord. When the ISUM students turned in their final drafts, we lifted up the whole stack and prayed, offering them, and the time, pain and effort they represented, as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God, a true and proper act of worship (Rom. 12:1). Tears streamed down all of our faces. One pastor from the banana plantation region had no previous computer experience at all and had to ask his teen daughters to type his paper when he went home for the weekend, but his extraordinary effort resulted in a good paper full of scriptural truth and good solid research that will serve him well.

At the end of the ISUM course I felt like a midwife, helping the men and women of God in the classroom bring to life not just an assignment, but the courage to write what God puts in their heart. May the Lord use all of us raise up the next generation of Pentecostal writers and thinkers for Latin America.

1 Gregory G. Colomb and Joseph M. Williams, Instructor’s Guide for A Manual for Writers of Research Papers, Theses, and Dissertations by Kate L. Turabian (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, n.d.), 12. This helpful guide includes many teacher tips and classroom exercises.

2 Paul Alexander, interview with the author, Nairobi, Kenya. April 13, 2014.