Referencing

It’s been a while since I’ve done any teaching.  Some days I miss it; some days I don’t.  I especially don’t miss teaching when I recall some of the truly awful things that people studying for Christian ministry say under cover of anonymity in the form of student evaluations.

I do want to say, especially in the context of very small classes, even the most mentally obtuse instructor can pretty much pinpoint exactly what was said by whom.  If the instructor is the tiniest bit sharp, s/he can figure out exactly the conversation, class session, incident, or written comment triggered the vitriol.  I doubt that any instructor meant to  insult the student or hurt his or her feelings–mainly the trigger was meant to inform the student where s/he was going wrong with an assignment, or tell them what was needed to make it better, or to correct a wrong but dearly-held assumption or prejudice.

Because I worked with (mainly) second-career students, who were working toward public pastoral ministry, I found myself not only dumbfounded but personally hurt by some of the comments.  It was a good thing (more for the students than for me) that they had cover of at least a pretense of  anonymity afforded them by the fiction of student evaluation.  Had they said such things to my face, I would have documented it, and used it in my decision to recommend or not for ordination or licensing to lay ministry. What some of them said should never have issued from the mouth or pen of a decent person, let alone a leader in a Christian congregation.

I’m fine with people not liking me–I was a smart kid in school, and that gives you practice for not being popular later in life. But when I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing (which, in the case of teaching people, often means challenging them to engage ideas and methods that are unfamiliar and uncomfortable), and working for their benefit, and they trash that, it’s not acceptable.

I was there to help you reach your goals.  I was making sure you met the academic and ecclesiastical requirements that you must achieve before you can exercise your vocation.  Why do you hate me for that?

I didn’t set those standards.  The Church, in saying you had to have an academic qualification, set it.  The University set the requirements for you to have that qualification.  And yet, students often behaved as though it was my doing that they had to do this.

The most ridiculous was an evaluation that flamed “my” requirement for adequate referencing in essays.  It wasn’t “my” requirement–the university has its standards for academic honesty, and I had external examiners looking over every piece of work I marked to make sure it met the university’s demands.  I explained this to students (most of whom were over 30; many of whom were older than I).  The comments ran to “in my day, we had to have substance, and now she wants nothing but proper referencing to show where we’ve taken things from.  She doesn’t trust us that we know what we’re talking about.  The Church doesn’t care, this does not matter for my ministry.”

Well, as I’ve said, it wasn’t about me.  And maybe the Church doesn’t care about which particular system of referencing you use (neither did I, my only requirement was to pick one that worked for the subject matter, and use it consistently), and you may never use it again after you leave training.

But referencing, and your willingness to use it properly, does matter.  Because it is not just a matter of academic technique.  It’s a matter of character.  And if the Church doesn’t care about the character of its prospective ministers, the Church is in bad shape.  Here are a few reasons why it matters, whether you ever write another essay after you’ve done your theological/ministry study again, or you never write anything more than a shopping list.

1.  Referencing is about conventions, and if the Church is nothing else, it is a community of conventions.  You may be called to public ministry in some form of “emergent church”, but you still have to know, and be able to function within, conventions.  One great way of demonstrating your ability to do this is by showing your willingness and ability to choose and use an appropriate and recognized style of referencing for your research work.

2.  Referencing acknowledges that you didn’t invent everything you say.  We talk ad nauseum about the Church as a “community”, and the “communion of saints”, “great cloud of witnesses.”  We’re not alone in this enterprise called theology, or church, or faith.  Saying whose ideas you’re working with acknowledges that you understand you’re part of something that went before you.

3.  Referencing shows that you’re not a thief.  Taking other people’s words and ideas–even dead peoples’ words and ideas–without their knowledge or permission, and without crediting the source, is a form of intellectual (and in the case of theology, spiritual) theft.  Pay for what you use.  Don’t pretend something is yours when it isn’t.  The Church doesn’t need any further dishonesty than it already has.

4.  Referencing shows your originality. That sounds counter-intuitive.  After all, if you’re showing that your ideas come from someone else, you’d think it shows exactly how un-original you are, right?  Precisely the opposite.  You show you know the range of ideas with which you’re working, you choose which ones you find more convining.  And then, you show how you develop it to something new.  You show where those ideas have new applications.  You explain why the ideas have to be recombined in ways that have not been tried to solve problems that could not have been imagined by the people who originated those concepts.

By doing that, you set yourself within your tradition, and at the same time, you distinguish yourself as an original contributor to the tradition.

Nobody is being mean, or trying to stifle you, when they require you to reference your work properly.  Your instructor is helping you to show how truly brilliant you are.

Why do you want to fight that?

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