On Writing Academic Paper Proposals

rungeToday’s guest post is from Dr. Steve Runge, a scholar-in-residence at Logos Bible Software and author of the Lexham Discourse Greek New Testament, the Lexham High Definition New Testament, and the Discourse Grammar of the Greek New Testament: A Practical Introduction for Teaching and Exegesis.

January marks the opening of the academic paper–proposal season for both the ETS and SBL annual meetings. These  proposals play an important role in structuring my year, providing a theme or area of learning that I commit myself to for the year. I try to pick some area that naturally relates to things I already have to do, but also pushes me off the beaten track into new territory.

If you have certain classes to teach or know you’ll be writing about something, these provide natural hedges to narrow down your potential choices. In my case, my 2014 projects will focus on James and Romans. Whatever I pick should somehow enhance my knowledge for these projects. The same would hold true for a thesis on Greco-Roman backgrounds or Pauline theology.

Theory or application?

With these boundaries in place, the next choice I make regards application vs. theory. Both are necessary for solid research, but they need not be done at the same time. One year I decided it was time to really get to know the Greek verb, which led to two more years of follow-up papers. Conceptual topics like this allow me to really drill into one specific area, but they also usually expose weaknesses in my theoretical framework. In other words, my understanding of semantics or aspect or typology proved inadequate.

The paper topic thus forced me to strengthen and deepen my understanding in these areas. This requires me to read outside of NT studies—something I never regret doing. It can be helpful to see how other disciplines have tackled the problem. This interdisciplinary reading can bring a fresh perspective on what otherwise might be a stagnant discussion in my field.

But I cannot pursue theory without some serious application to balance out and test my ideas. Theoretical papers tend to only provide representative examples that may or may not apply more broadly. Field testing proposed ideas in applied exegesis makes the rubber hit the road, allowing me to identify and correct problems with my proposal. My reading into the Greek verb one year made me want to do a deeper analysis of all the perfect indicatives in Luke a few years later. Picking a small corpus to exhaustively describe forced me to deepen my theoretical understanding. Patterns that the theory only suggested were crystallized when I saw the data.

But this kind of application can still be too far removed from application to see the practical payoff. Similarly, understanding the role of shame and honor in the Greco-Roman culture can inform my exegesis of a passage. I might even be able to correctly identify thematically loaded terminology in a given book. However, mastery of a given topic needs to be tested with practical application to specific extended passages.

Will it preach?

A regular conversation I have with friends concerns the most practical of questions: will it preach? So what? Why should we care? How does knowing this theoretical information practically pay off in my preaching or teaching of a passage? Deeper understanding is a good thing, but added depth comes from applying what I have learned to the exposition of a representative or problematic passage.

This doesn’t mean that I teach the congregation about cognitive metaphor or shaming. Instead it requires something far more difficult. I need to know my topic well enough that I can communicate what I have learned in nontechnical language. I need to know it forward and backward, and I need to have colloquial analogies to make it simple. Simplification should not be confused with dumbing something down. The latter omits key details; the former conveys these details in understandable language.

Ongoing process

Real mastery of something entails the ability to explain it to someone who does not share your extensive background. Simplification of the complex does not come overnight. It requires the scholar to so thoroughly know the material that they no longer need notes to explain it. It means moving beyond a mere citation to making that information your own, incorporating it into how you think and exegete.

All of the stages play a necessary role. Continually expanding your theoretical framework not only keeps you learning, but it also forces you to look on old problems from a fresh perspective. Applying a new idea to a limited corpus moves you out of the ivory tower and onto the street. Thorough application is the best way to make what had been someone else’s idea into one that you own. This ownership then enables you to incorporate the ideas into even more specific application. It helps me understand how this piece interacts with the other exegetical pieces. The added depth also facilitates communicating the concepts to nonspecialists.

Ultimately, academic papers are all about ongoing learning. Even though the PhD is considered a terminal degree, earning one does not mean we are done learning. Proposing an academic paper can be a great impetus to dig into some area you have always been interested in. Your paper can convey the things you have learned through the process. Some years, my main takeaway was learning how things don’t work. Nevertheless, it was still valid research to present.

If you have never presented a paper before, submitting a proposal to a regional meeting is a great way to get started. These meetings are much smaller and less formal, lending themselves to constructive feedback. Be sure to also solicit feedback from colleagues and mentors you trust to help guide your research. Bouncing my proposal idea off others has led to incredibly helpful comments about resources or methodologies to consider. I ask for the same kind of feedback while I am writing the paper, getting informal reviews before it is presented. This feedback identifies problem areas and lets others benefit from my research whether they attend the conference or not.

Conference papers can play a much bigger role in your academic life than padding your CV. The key is to pick a topic that you are passionate about, narrow it down, and seek out colleagues and mentors with whom you can interact throughout the process. There is no better way to ensure you continue to grow and sharpen your research skills.

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