posted by Amy on May 24
I handed in my last take-home final on Thursday, May 14 at 5 p.m. As expected, the last three weeks of school were extremely intense. Yet, once it was finally over, I felt let down. It seemed strange not to have any externally-imposed deadlines. I should have been happy, but instead I felt disoriented and disconnected, and I was depressed for a few days. Of course, I was exhausted, mentally and physically. In the last 10 days I’ve been sleeping a lot, and reading novels, and watching movies. I’m starting to get re-oriented.
My strategy for handling the work for six classes had been to keep plugging relentlessly, all semester. I was always behind on reading, and I tended to use a “just in time” strategy for tests and papers. I didn’t even have assignments “docketed” until after Easter. Then I sat down with the syllabus for each course, and wrote a list of what was due, and when. Or so I thought. On May 4, at 5:15 p.m., I was almost done with the reading for the second half of the Holistic Ministry class when I got online to check the point value for the “reading log” that was due at 6:30. There were “sample book reviews” posted on Blackboard. I wondered why. Then I checked the syllabus, and saw that a two-page review of any one of the books for the class was also due that day at 6:30. That was not on my “master list,” and it had completely slipped my mind. I grabbed a book from the stack, wrote up a review, and got to class on time.
The good thing about that is it didn’t take much time. I’m not sure it was the best possible book review. (It probably wasn’t), but it came and went without disrupting my schedule very much. In another class, Greek Exegesis, I had not left enough writing time for the first paper, and had resolved to put in more time and be more organized for the second one. About a month before the due date I got books from the library and started reading and taking notes. But I got stuck in research mode, and could not get myself to start writing. Finally, on Saturday night, three days before the paper was due, I put down all the books and notes, made myself sit at the computer, and started free writing, without footnoting, just so I’d have a starting place. I had another paper due one day after the Greek paper, and, apart from checking out some library books, I had not even started that one. That had me worried.
The “free writing” strategy worked to get me to stop researching and start writing. It also helped me uncover what I thought of the subject, rather than simply reporting what the published commentators thought. It helped me find a personal point of view. The teacher had said to translate the passage first, read closely, then write what I thought it meant. It was OK to read background sources, but I was not to consult any commentaries before forming my own opinion. I used that preliminary written “thesis” as the basis for the free writing.
That was interesting, and it was a good learning experience (which, as my daughter Lily has pointed out to me, should be my main reason for being in school.) But the paper took forever to finish, and the specter of the Old Testament Historical Books paper that was due next haunted me. I started to worry about running out of time, especially since I also had to finish a take-home final that was due the same day as the Greek paper. The Greek paper was supposed to have a May 12 postmark. I mailed it at about 2:00 on May 11, after first handing in the take-home test that was due by 9:15 that night. Then I cleared the decks for the OT paper, due the next day.
I had done about 8 hours of reading and research for the OT paper over the weekend, but most of the work was still ahead of me Monday afternoon. I decided to finish taking notes (and running to the library to copy journal articles) before going to bed Monday night. I think I spent about 8 hours at it. The next day I got up early, after four hours of sleep, and started writing. First I wrote the bibliography, and then I made a separate Word document with the footnote form for each reference. I had attempted to follow the advice to come up with my own thesis before reading commentaries, but I don’t think I had one written down. It had been cumbersome and inefficient to add footnotes later to the first draft of the Greek paper. I did not have the luxury of time for this paper, so I put them in as I went. Having the footnote form ready to cut and paste (right font size, right format) was very helpful.
The paper was due by 9:15 Tuesday night. I got a first draft written by about 4:00 (in 11 hours), and it was in pretty good shape. I knew it wouldn’t take long to finalize it. I took a shower, had something to eat, printed out the draft and edited it. Part of that process was to check footnotes against the first draft of the bibliography, and cross off any references that I didn’t end up using. I had it finished by 6:30. Ten pages–almost twice as long as the Greek paper (though both papers were within their respective prescribed page limits)–in much less than half the time.
After that I still had to write a spiritual autobiography for Spritual Formation class by 6:30 Wednesday night, and a take-home final for Introduction to Pastoral care, due at 5:00 on Thursday. During the last lecture time, on May 7, I had drawn up a calendar of the next seven days, mapping out when I would be doing what. I based it on an estimate of how many hours I needed to complete the five things that were due during finals week. The next morning I made a color-coded chart, and taped it to the wall next to my computer monitor. I had to revise it a bit as the week went on, but it ended up being a pretty accurate road map.
Sometime towards the end of the week, I got an email from my writing and Greek teacher, Debbie Watson. She asked me if I’d like to be a writing tutor in the fall. I said yes. A week or so later, the Admissions Director called me, and asked me to start working with a new student who will be starting at Palmer in the fall. I had expected to have all summer to consider a strategy for being a writing coach, but I didn’t mind. It’s great to have something new to learn, and to think about.
I know I write well. I have spent almost 30 years in a profession that requires clear, precise thinking and writing. That has come in quite handy in seminary. The main difference between legal research and writing, and seminary research and writing, is that in seminary they want to know what I think. In fact, there is a unique type of writing in seminary called the “reflection paper.” The paper is supposed to show that the writer actually read the assigned text, but, more importantly, it is supposed to demonstrate how the writer interacted with the text and responded to it personally. After the objective and dispassionate world of legal writing, this took a bit of adjustment. It’s not that lawyers don’t feel strongly about their subject matter. Passion is essential to any pursuit. But the primary purpose of legal writing is to persuade, and in order to persuade, there must be evidence, and, in the law, the evidence is prior legal decisions. My personal opinion, and my feelings, were never relevant.
The fact that I’m a good writer doesn’t necessarily mean I’ll be able to teach it. As I think about how to teach, I have been going back over the texts from the seminary writing class, and I’ve been reading articles about teaching composition. After one very intensive year in seminary, I understand what students need to be able to do in order to succeed, and I have started thinking about how to get them there. With this first client, I will have the luxury of time. Before all the confusion and newness and busyness of fall semester, we will have some time to get to know each other, and I will be able to personalize a program for that particular writer.
The Admissions Director, Steve Hutchison, told me my client was never advised of any problems with writing before now. Steve said he’s seeing more and more applicants with good grades whose “personal statements” demonstrate writing skills that do not come up to graduate level standards. I’m sure that writing can be taught, and I’m wondering why no one ever bothered to work with this student (and others) before. However, I also believe it is never too late.