The first suggestion I can make is to be willing to ask for help. The general guidelines can be personalized to the needs and interests of individual students. It is a good thing that those needs and interests are diverse. In addition to email, I am always willing to make appointments in my office, on the phone, or even video conference if you use Skype. The librarians can also be useful. The reference librarian who specializes in Theology is Diane Duesterhoeft. Also, help each other. A peer voice is always helpful, and some of you have more experience with writing graduate research papers.
For what it’s worth, I also recommend taking a moment to think of the paper as an opportunity, not just another requirement. The topic should be an expression of individual curiosity, perhaps something you wish the course had covered. The research should be practice for a lifetime of inquiry and learning, after you no longer have guides to tell you what pages to read. The writing should be the first foray into taking personal knowledge and applying it to the common good. Even if you don’t plan a life of academic writing, the basic skills of communicating ideas clearly and persuasively should benefit you and the communities we are trying to serve.
The topic should be rooted in the course, and explore in a direction of personal interest. That could mean looking in depth at a single crucial passage, or a theme of motif in one book or spanning several books. We will be covering in class major motifs such as wisdom personified, fear of the lord, theodicy, revealed vs. studied wisdom, and universalism. A more modest motif could make for a good paper. You don't want the paper topic to overlap completely with class readings and discussion, but if there is partial overlap the paper should account for the course material. You could also focus on a particular method, such as history of (premodern) interpretation, feminist criticism, literary criticism, social-scientific criticism, liberation theology, etc.
The first step is to think about any personal interests, questions, or prior study that might touch on the wisdom literature. The second step is to read ahead for topics later in the course that might interest you more than what we already touched on. You could look ahead on the course webpage and skim through the tables of contents and indexes of the course books. When thinking about a topic you could survey the issues using tertiary sources such as the Encyclopedia Judaica or even Wikipedia. That brings us to the next section. Before the topic can really be settled you will want to confirm that you can do research on it. That will require that scholars have already addressed the issue, that the scholarship is not too broad or overwhelming (in which case you could narrow your focus), and that the scholarship is accessible. Once you have identified a handful of topics that you think you would enjoy it might be wise to ask the instructor if one of your candidates stands out as particularly promising.
Tertiary sources (encyclopedias, textbooks) can be a good way of understanding secondary sources. Secondary sources (scholarly books and articles) can be a good way of understanding primary sources. Typically, a good paper will use secondary sources to explicate primary sources. Sometimes a paper can focus more on the history of scholarship with less emphasis on the primary sources about which the secondary sources are arguing. Generally, I would expect a good research paper to directly engage with three secondary sources (or else it is a book review, or a comparative book review). By “engage” I mean to understand the main argument and show how it supports or does not support the thesis you plan to discuss; citing a work for a tangential fact is not enough. The main sources should also be good and used critically. “Good” can mean recent and widely regarded as significant (hence year and publisher are important parts of a citation). Even among well-regarded scholars there are significant differences, so critical reading will require being aware of biases and tendencies in a scholar’s perspective, and of other perspectives. This sounds hard, and can be hard, but often it all falls into place once you find one good, recent source that directly addresses the topic. If it is a good source it will have footnotes that refer to previous works, even if the author disagrees. The author may dismiss the other viewpoint, but if you read the other viewpoint for yourself you might conclude otherwise. Also, once you identify a list of scholars concerned with a topic you can search for more recent (or more brief, or more accessible) works they produced.
Some research can be done online, but it is a bad sign if everything is done online. Some journal articles, reference works, and books are available online through the St. Mary’s library, particularly the Library Resource Page for Theology. Searching the databases will lead you to articles, some of which you can print out right away, others will have to be ordered or looked up in a library. Google and Google Books can be good ways to search for key terms, but generally are better for pointing you toward books and articles to acquire by other means. Whatever the St. Mary’s library does not have can be found through Worldcat and acquired through Inter-Library Loan. You could also visit other libraries, or even check out materials using Tex-Share. In San Antonio the Oblate School of Theology has a good collection that is open to visitors. The reference librarians may be better equipped to help you identify and locate books and resources. Our library can mail resources to distance learning students.
Good research and good writing are inseparable. Writing is easy if the research was done with a clear sense of focus, with proper filters for relevance, and with critical engagement. For some the challenge is to unpack and explain issues to make the research fill enough pages. For others the challenge is to filter out (or move to footnotes and appendices) the points that are not immediately relevant to the argument. I think 15 pages should be a good target length. If you are having trouble writing that much you may need to do more research. If you are having trouble limiting it to that you may need to focus your topic or maintain a stricter standard of relevance.
A research paper should have a clear thesis. The thesis might start off as more of a question, and the research may take the form of surveying what different ancient and modern sources say on that question. Even then, some pattern can be observed about the survey, which becomes the thesis. The introduction should state and explain the thesis. One good structure for an introduction is to state a problem, how you propose to go about solving the problem, and the solution you propose to defend. The introduction should also explain the structure of the argument and the sections that follow. Don’t be reluctant to give away the ending. State from the beginning what you plan to conclude. I feel the same way about paragraphs. I like the topic sentence to be first in the paragraph, and I try to choose a subject and verb that most directly convey the point, right at the beginning of the sentence. You should always be able to tell yourself why a sentence is necessary for the paragraph, why a paragraph is necessary for the section, and why a section is necessary for the thesis. Don’t be shy about telling the reader why a point is necessary if it is not completely obvious. Clarity is the first priority.
It is usually helpful to imagine an audience of peers rather than the instructor. You will be more clear and make fewer unsubstantiated leaps and bad assumptions if you imagine yourself presenting to other people in the class or even an audience that did not take the class. Talking to a friend about your topic is also a good way to overcome writer’s block.
Also, I have a strong opinion about block quotations. They can be helpful to the reader, but do not mistake them for your own writing. Your job is not to assemble excerpts of the ideas and words of others, but to argue your own ideas. Do not end a section or even a paragraph with a quotation. Even if it seems obvious, restate how the quotation supports or relates to your argument. Also, when I say 15 pages, I mean of your own writing. If you use a significant number of block quotations adjust your conception of how many pages you wrote accordingly.
Editing matters. Really. Ask someone else to read it. Even (especially) someone with no knowledge of the subject matter will find errors and unclear sentences.
I try not to dwell on details, but I prefer 12 point Times New Roman double spaced with one-inch margins. Footnotes are better than parenthetical citations except for biblical references. Don’t use end notes. Personally I use the Chicago Manual of Style, but you can use MLA, Turabian or your own preference as long as the information is cited. If you are curious the Society of Biblical Literature has a handbook of style that deals with a thousand details you never thought could matter.
The exam is December 10. Even if you are done earlier, I recommend submitting the paper after the exam because studying and writing the exam may cause you to think of something worth including. I would like to have the papers by December 14. The hard deadline is when grades are due on December 16. Later than that would require an incomplete. I am not opposed to incompletes, but I do think they are a bad idea more often than not. There are good reasons, but even then it is important to finish as soon as possible. Picking up a topic after letting it fall off the radar just makes it harder.
I suggest sending the paper as a Microsoft Word document in an email attachment.
If this seems overwhelming all at once, don’t worry. Take it one step at a time. Remember the part about asking for help. St. Mary’s is into this whole “helping students” business and meeting students where they are and guiding them to the next level. Kinda makes me think I paid too much for my hazing-based education...