Module Essays: Instructions, Expectations, and Guidance
(This is the current version of this policy document, which has been in effect for at least the past complete academic term. See older versions.)
Essays are a key form of expression in rigorous study, and essays form a key part of the basic assessment strategy of the Institute. A good essay demonstrates your awareness of and engagement with a given topic, bringing together the wisdom you have gained from lectures, seminars, reading, discussions and other means of independent study, in the context of your own observation, analysis and criticism.
To succeed in your studies, it is essential that you understand the expectations for all submitted essays for the Institute. This page provides details on those expectations, as well as a goodly amount of general guidance on preparing for and writing a good Orthodox essay. You should also familiarize yourself with the rubrics used by examiners in marking your essays, so you know exactly what your examiners will be looking for in your finished product.
Expectations / Requirements
Orthodox academic expectations and requirements
The education the Institute strives to foster is that of growth in Orthodox understanding and practice, and for this reason we emphasize the virtues of honesty, integrity and rigorous study in all we do, all according to Orthodox practice and expectation. In terms of theological as well as practical expectation, this means that all essays submitted to the Institute must:
- Strive to explore their subject matter in an engaged manner, with the aim of coming to a deeper understanding of Orthodox tradition, history, theology, thought and practice.
- Give evidence of independent study, going beyond the assigned texts and lecture content by seeking out relevant materials that are brought into dialogue with the assigned content.
- Be entirely your own work, wholly free of any plagiarism.
- Be written in clear and expressive English, of a suitable academic style commensurate to the level of study (including proper grammar, spelling, etc.).
- Be within 10% of the assigned word limit (if an essay goes beyond 10% over the word limit without advance approval, examiners may stop reading at that point). Footnotes do count in the essay’s word count; bibliographies do not.
Technical expectations and requirements
On the level of technical specification and submission, all essays must:
- Be typed in Microsoft Word or a compatible word-processor format, and saved in either *.pdf, *.doc or *.pages format (essays that cannot be opened by MS Word or Apple Pages cannot be accepted for Institute assessment or credit);
- Include, as the first page in your essay’s document file, a covering sheet indicating:
- Your full name
- Module code and cohort number (e.g. ‘Module CS01 (Cohort 7)’)
- The title of your essay exactly as it appears on the assignment list
- The word count (including footnotes but not bibliography), and
- The date of submission;
- Be double-spaced throughout in a font size of 12 or 13, with top, bottom, left and right margins set to at least 1″ (in order to allow ample space for examiners to mark and write notes on your essay);
- Include footnotes (not endnotes) for all references cited and any notes, and a bibliography at the end of the essay (which should constitute a separate page) giving full references for all cited works – thereby demonstrating your engagement with the wealth of resources that help shape understanding;
- Follow, throughout, the Style Guide provided by the Institute, which indicates required standardized formats for footnotes, references, bibliographies, quotations, etc.; and
- Be submitted electronically via the method prescribed in the assignment or by your course instructor (which will generally be as a file upload through the VLE, never via e-mail attachment).
General Guidance on Essay Writing
You will be aware that the standard of writing is important in essays, and that the Institute’s protocols for awarding marks take into account the standard of writing demonstrated. Don’t let yourself down through poor writing and lack of proof reading!
Preparing and Writing Your Essays
When the time comes to start preparing for an essay, there are some points of practice that will help you succeed:
a) Begin with prayer, end with prayer
All Orthodox studies should begin with prayer, and this includes your work on assigned essays. Prayer should be offered at the outset of an essay assignment, as well as at the beginning and end of every session in which you work on your essay. In this way one seeks the blessing of God upon the work performed, that the end result may be more than just a scholarly document and become a fruitful venue for growth in the life in Christ.
b) Read primary and source texts with care
To write well you need to read well. You cannot write a good essay about a topic without beginning your preparation with a careful reading of the relevant texts. As you read, select passages to which you intend to return. Read with a pen or pencil in your hand (or, if you are reading an on-line text, be prepared to cut-and-paste relevant passages into a notes file), determined to make frequent notes. Insight seldom steals upon the dormant mind. Ensure that your notes are not mere paraphrase; recording your own thoughts about the significance of a passage in relation to a particular line of enquiry will prove far more helpful. The questions that occur to you are likely to be the beginnings of developing ideas.
c) Investigate, locate and read secondary material
Read some relevant background material, and seek out additional texts beyond the assigned reading lists, engaging in independent study to find additional materials that you can bring into dialogue with the assigned reading. Remember: it is good practice to read more than one critical account of any texts you are studying for the purpose of writing an essay. Be alert to the premises about the theme which the critic assumes: what kind of reader, for instance, does the critic assume? Note how one critic differs from another, not just in opinion, but in method, and in selecting significant aspects from a text for consideration. Notice when a critical article or book was first published; this will help you to place its contribution to critical debate. Recent criticism has a particular value: it is useful to know what issues are currently a focus for investigation or debate. However, Orthodoxy does not favour the current over the ancient, and modern discussion must always be put in dialogue with the past.
Note the following very carefully: whenever you make notes that summarize a critical article, and whenever you copy down an exact quotation, make a full note of the reference: author, title, date, publisher, and page numbers. All this information will be needed in your footnotes and bibliography, and will help you avoid plagiarism.
d) Talk about your work
Students who write lively essays are students who talk about their reading and their writing. As David Pirie has said, ‘Lonely minds get lazy, lose concentration, feel bored’. On the other hand, vague thoughts leap towards clarity when you make the effort to verbalize them.
This means that you should discuss your thoughts, ideas, questions and observations with fellow students. You can do this through the various forums provided by the Institute; or by informal on-line chat sessions using the VLE chat rooms or other Institute chat features; or by setting up independent Google+ Hangouts calls with fellow students. But you should also converse with friends, local clergy, family and others. Even if a friend does not know a particular text well, s/he may yet give you the support you need as you search for new ways of focusing your response to the text.
e) Scrutinise the question
If your essay is an answer to a question set by an instructor or tutor, examine its wording in precise detail. Think about the implications. Ask yourself: what issues are raised, what approaches are suggested?
Even though a good essay may gather momentum and insist that your original plan be modified, nonetheless, it is still a good idea to start with a plan. What argument are you trying to advance? Which issues are you going to explore and in what sequence? What overall view or judgement are you striving to reach (remembering that all essays should work toward presenting a deepening understanding of a dimension of Orthodox history, theology, thought or practice)? Questions such as these may help you find a provisional structure.
As you write, you will discover more about the text and more about your own thinking process, and so, quite rightly, you will wish to adjust the original plan. But keep checking that the new material is relevant and really earns its keep in the logical structure of the whole essay. Some of your shrewdest insights may have to go overboard if your intended logical structure has no place for them. But maybe the plan itself now needs to be modified?
g) Revise, redraft
As you review your materials, ask yourself:
- Is your writing working towards a deepening engagement with the history, theology, life and/or practice of Orthodox Christianity?
- Is the thinking analytical or merely descriptive? Am I just ‘telling the story?’
- Are points substantiated by appropriate evidence?
- Is the material well organised into a coherent structure?
- Does the argument develop logically and persuasively?
- What assumptions underlie your method? How can your understanding of theory and practice support the investigation?
- Are there specific ways in which you need to develop further your knowledge of particular issues by studying the ecclesiastical/socio-cultural context? In what ways can your writing draw effectively from this knowledge?
Jonathan Swift defined style as proper words in proper places, and Matthew Arnold considered that the secret of style is to have something to say and to say it as simply as you can.
i) Remember that your essay is more than self-expression; it has to communicate to a reader. Keep your reader in mind. Read doubtful sentences aloud: this points up weaknesses of syntax and grammar. Strive for precision; you can be assessed only for what your prose manages to say. Long sentences, packed with unwieldy constructions, need more work. Two brief sentences may better hold several ideas in a taut sequence. Aim for a flexible prose that matches style to substance. Never write in the second person (‘You see…’, etc.); avoid the first person (‘I…’) as much as possible.
ii) Remember that good style is a prize to be won by willingness to work hard at the business of revision and editing. It does not matter that a first draft has not attained it; good style emerges like the sculpture from a lump of granite by progressive revision.
Ask yourself: Is the movement of thought clear? Are the ideas and information accurate? Am I helping the reader to grasp the meaning and feel at ease?
iii) Be brief. Ask: does this sentence advance the argument? Does it make the argument more clear, or demonstrate its significance? Does it make the argument more convincing? If you cannot reasonably answer ‘yes’ to one of these questions, then it is likely that you are looking at some padding that needs further questioning, or brisk excision.
iv) Strike directly into your subject. You may need to perform mental warm-up exercises in order to cajole your brain into activity, but do not bore your reader with tedious announcements of your intentions. Get on with the job.
i) Revise critically
Once you have an essay in draft form, it is often helpful to leave it aside for a day or two, before you begin detailed revision. You are likely to be more constructively critical if you have given yourself space to disengage from the initial effort of generating materials and organising them into a coherent structure. A certain detachment helps you to review and thoroughly revise what you have written. Reading your draft aloud to yourself, or to a friend, will show up weak patches where the thread is lost, or the structure clumsy, or the style laboured. Seeing the problem usually brings you more than half way to a solution.
Working with secondary sources
The use of secondary sources is a standard part of essay writing, but these must be used wisely in order to avoid being suspected of poor scholarship or even plagiarism.
A few key points in working with secondary sources:
- If writing about a specific source text (e.g. St Paul’s epistle to the Romans), there should be more quotations from this source text than from critics.
- Overall, there should be much more of your own writing in an essay than the sum length of all your quotations taken together. Never write an essay that is just a stringing together of secondary source quotations.
- Ensure that quotations tie-in to your argument, and engage with them as a thinking student. Introduce the quotation, indicate why you are providing it, and then comment upon and analyse it. Never assume that a quotation explains itself: always explain why you have selected a given quotation, what it means, and how it fits into your broader argument.
- All usage of primary and secondary sources must be properly cited (with footnotes, not endnotes). This includes references where you are simply paraphrasing a source’s or critic’s argument.
- Much more detail on these points is found in the Institute’s document on working with secondary sources, including a complete style guide.