Jean Jacques Rousseau and the Enlightenment


Last year, I was invited by Veritas Press to participate in the production of a video curriculum for its Omnibus program, geared toward middle and high school students that focused on the history of Western thought. It was a lot of fun, and the best part was that one of my favorite people in the world, my good friend Bruce Etter, was the host of the program. We had a lot of fun doing the interviews on Rousseau–and we also got together for some round table discussions with John Fea of Messiah College. He posted one of the videos on his blog a few months ago.

My students in History of Philosophy are studying Rousseau, and these videos are also for them to watch and review as they gear up for their final exam. Enjoy guys! Study hard! :)

*Correction from the first video: I mentioned that John Locke’s conception of justice was that it existed only in the presence of civil law. As the politicians say, I misspoke. I was thinking about Thomas Hobbes, while I was saying John Locke’s name. Sorry!

Lecturing in Fort Worth on American Exceptionalism


Spent the day today at the main campus of my institution, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, in Fort Worth. As some of you know, while I am an elected faculty member at Southwestern Seminary, I teach full time at Southwestern’s campus in Houston: the J. Dalton Havard School of Theological Studies. As a result, I don’t get to the main campus of SWBTS in Fort Worth very much, but I always enjoy being on campus and seeing good friends the few times I am there during the academic year.

Recently, I was named Associate Director of the Land Center for Cultural Engagement. It’s going to be a lot of fun working with Evan Lenow, an ethicist and the director of the Land Center as well as Trey Dimsdale, a PhD student in ethics as well as a fellow Associate Director. Together, we plan to implement the mission of the Land Center, which is (in partnership with the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention) “to awaken, inform, energize, equip, and mobilize Christians to be the catalysts for the Biblically–based transformation of their families, churches, communities, and the nation.”

What on earth can I bring to the table, especially since I am not an ethicist (is it that obvious?). I will attempt to bring historical perspective to issues related to American identity and Christian engagement with culture in the public square, as well as religious freedom and the historic Baptist role in articulating and defending it.

I had the pleasure of giving a lecture today at a lunch hosted by the Land Center in the beautiful Naylor Student Center dining room today. My lecture was entitled “American Exceptionalism and Cultural Engagement.” I drew a distinction between closed and open exceptionalism, and attempted to define a model for an open exceptionalist engagement with the culture that draws on the work of Justin Martyr (d. 165) and W. E. B. Du Bois (d. 1963).

In his First Apology, Justin wrote to Emperor Antoninus Pius and the Roman Senate, pleading for justice for the persecuted community of Christians. He eloquently distinguished the Christian churches from the Roman state, while simultaneously situating the churches within the Roman state. Justin said that no one was more loyal to Rome than the Christians, but they would not render to Caesar those things which belonged to God alone.

Du Bois, in his Dusk of Dawn (1940), differentiated and retrieved the Christian ethic from Americanism, which, he wrote, leads ultimately to white supremacy. In doing so, Du Bois showed how nationalism and white supremacy were a betrayal of the Christian conception of justice articulated in the gospels and summed up in the Golden Rule: do unto others as you would have them do to you.

Justin and Du Bois were both members of persecuted minorities. Both disspelled rumours about Christians; both advocated for human dignity and justice; both called on the leaders of their societies to respect and protect their people. Justin is an example of how Christians can see themselves as both distinct from, and a part of, the nation. Du Bois is an example of how Christians can employ the prophetic voice to call the nation back to its stated principles. Both of these figures present us with a model for cultural engagement that is true to the best ethical and political traditions of American ideals on the one hand, and consistent with the teachings of Christ on the other.

This open exceptionalist model is unlike the closed exceptionalism which idealizes and idolizes the nation by asserting that America can do no wrong. America is made up of Americans, who are flawed human beings prone to selfishness and hubris. At the same time, Americans hold out those ideals of equality, justice, individual freedom, and human dignity based on the imago Dei–ideals on which the American republic was founded. America is not God’s chosen nation. America is not morally regenerate. But America is a nation that, historically, is never content with the status quo of human flourishing–Americans, as a uniquely self-examining people, continually look for ways to expand human flourishing, albeit imperfectly and by fits and starts.

Christian people have a special responsibility, as articulated in the New Testament, to demonstrate loyalty to the nation and to be a preserving agent of culture. They do this by 1) submitting to God, 2) submitting to civic leaders, 3) contending for truth and justice by their actions and their words, and 4) confronting injustice with boldness tempered by patience and love when it is manifested in the culture. In these actions, Christians are consistent with the highest ideals of the American republic and the sublime teachings entailed in the gospel of Christ.


Evan Lenow’s funny token of appreciation for my coming to speak today at the Land Center Luncheon. Thanks, Evan–I guess.

W. E. B. Du Bois’ “Lesson for Americans”


W. E. B. Du Bois’ 1896 monograph entitled The Suppression of the African Slave-Trade to the United States of America: 1638-1870 was based on his Ph.D. dissertation which he produced as Rogers Memorial Fellow at Harvard University. The work is, as Du Bois described it, “a small contribution to the scientific study of slavery and the American Negro.”

To close his work, Du Bois presented a short section he called “A Lesson for Americans.” In this little section, Du Bois reminded his readers that as great as the founders were, they were flawed human beings seeking to achieve Union of the colonies at the expense of leaving the monster of slavery in its cradle to thrive, flourish, and grow to ultimately turn on the new nation and tear it apart.

Du Bois warned Americans that it was their habit to deny or dismiss the presence of real social ills in their country. He observed that Americans were loathe to admit that their nation had deep flaws and sins, and the result of this denial was that they continually delayed the honest addressing of those flaws to later generations. The failure of the founders to adequately and decisively solve the question of the slave trade, and by extension the institution of slavery, at the Constitutional Convention exacerbated the problem. The grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the founding generation plunged into the tragedy of the Civil War because of the failure of 1787. The lesson for Americans of his own day was, therefore, to avoid the kind of failure the founders perpetrated at the birth of the nation. Don’t believe the lying words, “America is a pristine nation, pure and innocent of social ills.” Americans must identify injustices in its society and rather than put off those injustices for another day, they must deal with them when they ought to be dealt with, that is, in the present moment.

Here is an excerpt of Du Bois’ admonition to those who would accept the myth of America as an innocent nation, that they would cease believing in myths and take responsibility for pursuing justice in the here and now.

With the faith of the nation broken at the very outset, the system of slavery untouched, and twenty years’ respite given to the slave-trade to feed and foster it, there began, with 1787, that system of bargaining, truckling, and compromising with a moral, political, and economic monstrosity, which makes the history of our dealing with slavery in the first half of the nineteenth century so discreditable to a great people. Each generation sought to shift its load upon the next, and the burden rolled on, until a generation came which was both too weak and too strong to bear it longer. One cannot, to be sure, demand of whole nations exceptional moral foresight and heroism; but a certain hard common-sense in facing the complicated phenomena of political life must be expected in every progressive people. In some respects we as a nation seem to lack this; we have the somewhat inchoate idea that we are not destined to be harassed with great social questions, and that even if we are, and fail to answer them, the fault is with the question and not with us. Consequently we often congratulate ourselves more on getting rid of a problem than on solving it. Such an attitude is dangerous; we have and shall have, as other peoples have had, critical, momentous, and pressing questions to answer. The riddle of the Sphinx may be postponed, it may be evasively answered now; sometime it must be fully answered.

It behooves the United States, therefore, in the interest both of scientific truth and of future social reform, carefully to study such chapters of her history as that of the suppression of the slave-trade. The most obvious question which this study suggests is: How far in a State can a recognized moral wrong safely be compromised? And although this chapter of history can give us no definite answer suited to the ever-varying aspects of political life, yet it would seem to warn any nation from allowing, through carelessness and moral cowardice, and social evil to grow. No persons would have seen the Civil War with more surprise and horror than the Revolutionists of 1776; yet from the small and apparently dying institution of their day arose the walled and castled Slave-Power. From this we may conclude that it behooves nations as well as men to do things at the very moment when they ought to be done.

Racism, Exceptionalism, and the Confession of a Southern WASP


Black folk start with the raw history, the raw reality and the mortality denied by most of American culture and civilization: that we are a people who have been on intimate terms with forms of death in the most death denying, death ducking, and death dodging of all modern civilizations. The mainstream may go sentimental and talk about purity and he or she who is pristine and for the happy ending but we start with slavery as a form of social death in the midst of this death denying civilization.
-Cornel West, University of Washington, Jessie and John Danz Lecture, April 27, 2001

This is such a fascinating statement from West, who was reflecting on the black experience in America from slavery to Jim Crow to the Civil Rights Movement.

West never mentioned the civil religious term “American exceptionalism” in this lecture of thirteen years ago, but he captured the collective African American ambivalence to the idea. While closed American exceptionalism (Americolatry) posits a pristine and innocent America, African Americans know better. African Americans encounter closed American exceptionalism from the perspective of having the shared historical and visceral experience of slavery and subsequently what West called the “institutional terrorism” of Jim Crow. No other ethnic group had this particular set of shared historical experiences.

Many of us white folks wonder why African Americans do not seem to be able to overcome slavery and Jim Crow as paradigmatic lenses in their collective interpretation of many of their contemporary social experiences in America. Why, many whites ask, must African Americans seem to always go back to race as the overarching explanation for social ills and injustices? Why, for example, do African Americans so frequently seem to first blame police in incidents such as the one involving Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO?

And why, some whites ask, do African Americans think that something called “white privilege” exists, even in the 21st century? And why is it that closed American exceptionalism is often more of a thing for white people and not as much for black people?

I must admit, I myself have been one of those white folks to ask such questions. For most of my life (and without realizing it), I have been a follower of one of Francis Bacon’s four idols of the mind. Specifically, Bacon’s idol of the cave has subtly enthralled me. This is a pattern of poor thinking that a person follows because his mental habits have been formed by his background, his education, his formative years, etc.

Let me explain: from my childhood, I revered my ancestors who fought with the Confederacy in the Civil War. My great-great-great uncle, Howell Cobb of Georgia, served as Secretary of the Treasury under President James Buchanan, and later represented Georgia in the Confederate Senate. His brother, my great-great-great grandfather Thomas Reade Roots Cobb, was a Georgia attorney who codified the Georgia law code, founded the law school at the University of Georgia, and led the committee that drafted the Confederate Constitution. He served under Lt. Gen. James Longstreet as a Brigadier General at the battle of Fredericksburg in 1862. The units under his command hurled back the main Federal assaults on Marye’s Heights from the Sunken Road, inflicting enormous casualties. Cobb was himself killed during the battle–Cobb County in Georgia is named for him.

My great-great-great grandfather is not only famous for these noteworthy achievements. He was also the leading proslavery spokesman for the Georgia legal community. He wrote An Inquiry Into the Law of Negro Slavery in the United States of America in 1858 in which he argued that slavery was essential to the maintenance of virtue in the American republic.

As I grew into an adult, studied Christian philosophy, theology, and the Bible, and then became a Christian intellectual historian, I grappled with the tension existing between the love and pride I have for my family and the base unrighteousness of the causes for which some of them dedicated their lives–slavery and Southern secession. As a Christian, as a member of my family, as an historian, and as a human person–I still grapple, still struggle.

But even as I have grappled with this great tension, as a white man I found it difficult to understand why race seemed to be one of the most powerful explanatory paradigms of social ills for African Americans. After all, from my perspective as a white man, I could see no racism anywhere near me. I was sure it happened occasionally, but since institutional racism was gone for the most part, what’s the problem, I thought.

This is a sad commentary on myself–not until recently have I begun to understand a bit better the answer to these questions about the role of race as explanatory paradigm for African Americans. As a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant, I have not had the collective, historical experience of my country turning on me, whip or noose in hand. Now it’s true, hardly anyone in the 21st century has experienced this on an individual basis (although some have). But African Americans–as a people group–possess this historical experience of being on the receiving end of mortal persecution in America. And it has only been in the last fifty or so years out of three hundred ninety five years of African presence on this continent that individual African Americans have shared any semblance of equal status with whites in this country. That should be a particularly arresting fact for any honest person, white or black. It certainly has been for me.

Many white Southerners continue to embrace the heritage of their Confederate forbears. Some still display the Confederate flag, saying “heritage, not hate,” although those numbers are growing fewer and fewer year by year. Still, many native white Southerners like myself–maybe even the majority–would say that their historical experience as a people shaped their culture, their values, even their religious upbringing. It is normal and natural to make such a claim.

And many African Americans, like Dr. West, see their ethnic/historical/communal experience as defining them, shaping their interpretations of circumstances, forming their value systems, creating their culture, and constructing their cultural presuppositions. It is as normal for African Americans to be shaped by their historical and communal experiences in this country as it is for any ethnic group to be so shaped. If more whites could appreciate this profound fact about African Americans–and the representative legion of differences from their own historical/communal experience–perhaps some misunderstanding existing on the part of many whites could be ameliorated. This does not mean whites should respond with pity toward blacks. It means that whites think more about how to understand where blacks are coming from. It means that whites demonstrate more empathy as they consider how social ills in America often affect African Americans disproportionately. And it means that instead of debating whether or not there is such a thing as “white privilege,” whites could unite in solidarity with black and brown people to search for solutions to social ills before it is too late. We should all know by now, that if one ethnic group among us goes down, we all go down.

If I may, let me tell you about another relative of mine of whom I am very proud. My great uncle, the late Charles Weltner, served as U.S. Congressman representing the 5th district of Georgia (Fulton County). He was elected in 1962 and was the only representative from the Georgia delegation to the House to vote in favor of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. He lost his seat in the ’64 election because he took that stand. But he didn’t care, because he knew that he was doing the right thing, and that knowledge sustained him.

That brings me back to the civil religious belief of American exceptionalism (what doesn’t, these days?). Closed American exceptionalism–the exceptionalism that leads to idolatry of the nation, because it sees the nation as innocent–refuses to engage in any form of critical self examination. In closed American exceptionalism, it’s “America, love it or leave it,” or “my country, right or wrong.” The problem here is that when the country is wrong, closed exceptionalists remain with the status quo and they hesitate to deal with genuine injustices. Rather, they diminish or deny those injustices. Those injustices fester, and ultimately create crises that tear the country apart (see War, Civil).

But open exceptionalism–that idea that calls on the unique ability of Americans to critically assess the morality of their actions–animates the advances America has made in the direction of justice for all.  Dissent makes America genuinely unique–exceptional–as a civilization. Open exceptionalists, like my Uncle Charles, find their dissenting voices and even though they may go down to defeat in the short term for taking their stands, even though some of them may even sacrifice their lives, they ultimately make invaluable contributions to the restoring of the beautiful ideals that make America truly wonderful–equality, human dignity, and God-given individual human rights.

Closed American exceptionalism shuts out the possibility of critical national self reflection. Therefore, as long as closed American exceptionalism abides as a dominant form of American self-identification, there will be little hope for racial reconciliation and understanding.

In 1915, W. E. B. Du Bois wrote in reply to the question, “What is Americanism?” these words–

Americans in the immediate future should place most stress upon the abolition of the color line. Just so long as the majority of men are treated as inhuman, and legitimate objects of commercial exploitation, religious damnation, and social ostracism, just so long will democracy be impossible in the world. Without democracy we must have continual attempts at despotism and oligarchy, with their resultant failure through the ignorance of those who attempt to rule their fellow men without knowing their fellow men.

May we all, white and black, in the authentically patriotic tradition of open American exceptionalism, join hands in mutual and sincere friendship, respect, admiration, understanding, forgiveness, justice, and love.

Cultivate Collegiality to Build Your Blog Readership

geschäftsleute geben sich die hand

If you are reading this, please accept my sincere “thank you” for visiting the blog. We’re coming up on three years of blogging here at To Breathe Your Free Air, and I consider it a real honor whenever someone drops by for a visit.

Here is a helpful article on building a readership for your own blog. One of the suggestions listed on how to build a consistent readership is to link to other blogs in your field. I can certainly vouch for that–in fact, one of the most enjoyable aspects of blogging is meeting others in my field who maintain an online presence. If you take a look over at the column on the right, you’ll see a list of blogs I visit frequently (The Yarn). You’ll find links to online publications and group blogs, but there are many personal blogs as well. For example, Phil Sinitiere (Baldblogger) is an American religious historian at the College of Biblical Studies. Rich Holland (Befriending Wisdom) teaches philosophy and theology at Liberty University, specializing in the relationship between God and time. Josh Bush (Delivered to the Saints) is a chemical engineer, and is the son of one of the greatest American Christian philosophers of the late twentieth century, L. Russ Bush, III.

Evan Lenow, a colleague of mine here at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary (Ethics as Worship), teaches ethics and serves as the director of our seminary’s Land Center for Cultural Engagement. Robert Tracy McKenzie (Faith and History) is an American historian and serves as chair of the history department at Wheaton College. Chris Armstrong (Grateful to the Dead) is a church historian and director of Wheaton College’s vocation institute, Opus: The Art of Work. Jonathan Den Hartog (Historical Conversations) is an early Americanist at the University of Northwestern-St. Paul.

Patrick Connelly (Pilgrims and Wayfarers) is a historian and director of the Honors College at Montreat College. Paul Putz (Putz Blog) is a PhD student in American history at Baylor University. Stephen O. Presley, another SWBTS colleague, is a patristics scholar focusing on Irenaeus. Jay Case (The Circuit Reader) is an American historian at Malone University. Gerald McDermott (Northampton Seminar) is a Jonathan Edwards scholar at Roanoke College. Chris Gehrz (Pietist Schoolman) is a European historian and history department chair at Bethel College. Eddie Carson (The Professor) teaches history at Brooks School, a prestigious New England boarding school. Devin C. Manzullo-Thomas (Search for Piety and Obedience) is a historian of American evangelicalism and the director of the Sider Institute for Anabaptist, Pietist, and Wesleyan Studies at Messiah College. John Fea (The Way of Improvement Leads Home), an American religious historian, chairs the history deparment at Messiah. And Liz Covart (Uncommonplace Book) is an early American historian in Boston, MA.

I have enjoyed collegial relationships with each of these bloggers, and I have benefited immensely from their writings and wisdom. And because each of these thinkers and writers enjoy trust and credibility in their fields, my including their writings on my own blog only helps me look good!

For more good advice on building a consistent audience, go to this article. Here is a small taste:

A projected 128 million people in America read blogs. That’s a massive readership – and one you’re missing out on if you don’t have a blog or aren’t optimizing the one you currently produce. As a marketing technique, blogs are the best way to develop a strong, authentic voice for your brand, to communicate news and updates, and to connect with other like-minded individuals or organizations. With high-quality, dynamic content, your blog will be the best ambassador for your brand.

But all the great content in the world won’t make a difference if you aren’t able to attract readers. There are a variety of techniques, both internal (optimizations you make to your blogging) and external (ways to make your blog more visible) that will ensure you get more readers and keep them loyal.

Simple Steps to Avoid Plagiarism: Guest Post from Richard A. Holland

noplagiarismSince I began my teaching career in 2008, it has been surprisingly often that one of my students submits a paper or other assignment that contains plagiarism. Many times, students plead ignorance – claiming that they didn’t know what plagiarism is or what they could do to avoid it. In response to this, I have continued to develop guidelines that I can present to students to help them. Usually, I present these guidelines before a major assignment is due, in hopes of avoiding uncomfortable confrontations after it is too late.

What follows is the kind of guidance that I typically present to my students; and this guidance has been shaped by my interaction with students, as they have asked questions and sought to have good understanding of the issue. If you are a student in an academic program, I hope you find this helpful.

Plagiarism occurs when someone presents the words or ideas of another author such that the reader of the paper may be misled to believe that those words or ideas are original to the student. Plagiarism includes (but is not limited to):

  • Insufficient attribution to the original source of any words or ideas from that source that are included in the student’s work.
  • Failing to enclose in quotation marks a sequence of exact words from another author.
  • Improper paraphrase that follows the exact (or nearly exact) structure, flow of thought, and ideas of another author.

Plagiarism can be either intentional or unintentional. Some students may not be aware of requirements for source attribution, and thus may be ignorant of what constitutes plagiarism. In such cases, the student may have inadvertently used another author’s words or ideas inappropriately, and thus may be guilty of unintentional plagiarism.

However, in most cases, unintentional plagiarism will be subject to the same academic penalties as intentional plagiarism. When it comes to plagiarism, you will be judged on what you have written, not on what you were thinking or what you intended.

What can you do to avoid plagiarism? Here are five simple guidelines…

  1. Always use an attributing phrase.

Whether paraphrasing or directly quoting an author, an “attributing phrase” is required in the text of the paper. The attributing phrase is the standard accepted method of giving credit to the person whose words and ideas are used in your paper. For a proper attributing phrase, you must name the person you are quoting / paraphrasing, and you must tell your reader what you are doing, using commonly accepted phrases. Some of the more common attributing phrases are…

“According to Jane Smith…”

“John Doe writes, …”

As you grow in your skill as a writer, you will be able to do this more creatively and fluidly. But until then, keep it simple. The most important consideration is making sure your reader knows that the words and / or ideas you are about to present come from another author’s work.

  1. Use quotation marks to enclose any exact sequence of another author’s words.

This is probably the most common-sense tip. It should be obvious that if you reproduce phrases or sentences from another author, you must enclose those phrases or sentences in quotation marks.

  1. Paraphrase only for concision or to increase clarity. Otherwise, quote.

The old advice, “Just put it in your own words,” is surely the WORST advice ever given to students. Let me be clear: If you take another author’s work and you simply restate it in your own words, you have committed plagiarism.

There are only two legitimate reasons to paraphrase another author: to present that author’s ideas in a more concise manner, so that you can be more efficient and judicious with your use of space; or to make a complex, complicated idea more clear to your reader. If you find yourself paraphrasing an author, and your paraphrase is not either much more concise or much more clear than the original, you are in the danger zone. Stop what you are doing and directly quote the author instead of trying to paraphrase.

Because the “put it in your own words” advice is so pervasive, I have had some push-back over the years on this one. If you are having a hard time believing me that paraphrasing can be plagiarism, and you need a “second opinion,” see the 8th edition of the Turabian style manual, sections 7.4 and 7.9; especially paragraph 7.9.2.

  1. Provide a proper source citation.

In addition to an attributing phrase, and quotation marks in the case of a quotation, you must cite your source. Whether your institution requires footnotes, endnotes, or parenthetical references, use them wisely. Whatever formatting style you are following, make sure you include all the information necessary in your source citation for your reader to locate the original.

At a minimum, this will include the author’s name, the title of the work, the facts of publication, and a page number. If you are citing an electronic source that doesn’t have a traditional page number, then you must reference the location in a way that is stable – such as section headings.

  1. Use your outside sources for support, not for substance.

This one is a little more complicated, so I’ll devote more space for this one than I did with the previous four tips.

When you write a research paper, you should not simply report on what others have said about the topic. At the college level and beyond, you are expected to conduct your own original analysis of the topic, and then support your analysis through the judicious use of quotations and paraphrases from authoritative scholarly sources. The distinction is between using outside sources to support your own original analysis (which is what you should do), and using them to provide substance to your paper (which is what you should not do).

Another way to say it is this: 100% of the substantive content of every paper you write must be unique and original to you, and must not come from any outside source. Each paper you write should have an original thesis (main claim about the topic) that you developed based on your own ideas, and a unique arrangement of ideas and arguments.

Since a student is not an expert on the subject, they will quote authoritative experts for the purposes of providing “back up” – additional justification – on the main points being made in the paper. But the student should be writing the substance of the paper – not other authors. This has the obvious implication that there should be relatively few quotations (or paraphrases) from outside sources in the paper.

Here are some specific tips on using your sources for support (rather than substance) in your paper:

5.a. Do not weave another author’s sentence into the structure of your paragraph.

The following example is what NOT to do:

Academic honesty is a very important subject. “It is essential for students to avoid plagiarism.” [followed by source citation]

This is a very poor style (at best) because the second sentence is used as a substitute for the student’s own original sentence.  To make this correct, the student would need to revise the paragraph to include the appropriate introduction for the quotation (the following is the RIGHT WAY):

Academic honesty is a very important subject. Discussing this topic, John Smith highlights plagiarism. Smith writes, “It is essential for students to avoid plagiarism.” [followed by source citation]

The corrected version is appropriate, because it makes clear to the reader that the material used originates with John Smith, and because the student is the original author of each sentence.

5.b. Never present a ‘collection of quotations.’ 

Sometimes students have the urge to simply collect as many quotations as possible on the topic of their paper, and then join them all so that it all flows together. Assembling a collection of quotations is always inappropriate. Here is a “rule of thumb” given to me by the first Seminary professor I ever had: Your paper should be clear and coherent, even if you remove every quotation or paraphrase that you got from an outside source.

A footnote at the end of every sentence indicates that you are just collecting and assembling information from your sources. You should avoid this practice, and instead focus on offering your own original substance, supported with the judicious reference to authoritative soruces.

5.c. Do not depend on only one source for any substantive segment of your paper.    

The key sign of making this mistake is a long series of footnotes to the same author. This indicates that you are simply reporting to your reader what that one author has said. If you have several “Ibid’s” in a row, you need to change your approach. When you are presenting your own arguments designed to support your own original thesis, you will quite naturally avoid this mistake.

With those 5 guidelines in mind, I want to give you a suggested method for writing a paper that is 100% guaranteed to avoid the charge of plagiarism. If you follow these three easy steps to writing a paper, you will never be accused of committing plagiarism. This is just a suggestion; but it works!

STEP 1: Read as much as you can to learn about your topic. Find many authoritative, scholarly sources, read them carefully, and take good notes on the main ideas – but do not confuse your own notes with words or ideas that come directly from other authors. If you want to make note of an especially important quotation from a source you are reading, make sure you name the author, the title of the work, and the page number – and be sure to enclose the author’s words in quotation marks. As you read, begin to think through the most important issues related to your topic; and try to arrive at your thesis: Now that you have identified the issue, what claim will you make about the topic? How will you support your main claim? What points of argument should you use to make your case?

STEP 2: Put away all the books and articles you have found. Use only your notes – do not use – or even look at – anything written by another author. Write your paper so that it is 100% complete from start to finish. Craft a well-written introduction (which will include your thesis); structure the body of the paper so that it clearly presents the key points that support your thesis; and write a concise conclusion that recaps the main point of your thesis. Your paper needs to be complete, clear, and coherent without any words or ideas from other authors. It may be quite short at this stage of the process; but it should still be complete, clear, and coherent.

STEP 3: After your paper is finished, go through each element of your argument carefully. Go back through your previous research to find authoritative, scholarly sources that address the elements of your argument. Insert into your paper quotations from relevant authors that will provide justification for the points you have made. Make sure you introduce each quotation properly with a good attributing phrase; use quotation marks; and document each source carefully following the requirements of the style manual used by your institution. If you want to paraphrase instead of quote, make sure you introduce the paraphrased material properly, and include proper citation references.

Richard A. Holland, Jr. is Assistant Professor of Apologetics and Theology at Liberty University Baptist Theological Seminary. He is the author of
God, Time, and the Incarnation and blogs at Befriending Wisdom.

How to Write a Research Paper


Panther Creek Trail, Cohutta Wilderness, Georgia

I love hiking in the mountains. But hiking can be a true pain in the neck if my attitude isn’t right. Same thing with a research paper–it can be a beautiful journey, but if your attitude isn’t right, it can be a real drag. A good hike is the result of good planning. And a good experience writing a research paper is birthed from a good plan.

My students in History of Philosophy here at Southwestern are hard at work researching their paper topics, which are due at the end of the semester. Yesterday, I had a nice conversation with one of them–he’s writing on Plato’s and Aristotle’s respective conceptions of the Forms, doing a comparison/contrast from Plato’s Republic and Aristotle’s Metaphysics. So this post is written to my students who are HARD AT WORK (wink, wink), and anyone else engaged in a research project who is looking to make a plan.

The following isn’t the only plan one could make, but it works for me. Here goes:

1. Pick your topic.

What historical idea, event, or thinker has been of particular interest to you as you have proceeded through the course? When you can identify some broad concept that interests you, then come up with a question you would like to explore in your 10-12 page paper.

The question you ultimately frame will be the overarching issue of your paper. The answer to your question is your thesis statement.

You may not know the answer to your question at the beginning of your reading and research. The important thing at the beginning is to frame a question that you will seek to answer in the length of 10-12 pages. But once you begin the outlining process, you’ll want to know how you are going to answer your question.

You may think you know the answer to your question, but be open to adapting your thinking, or even changing your mind as you delve into your research.

2. Pull your sources.

Hit the library! You want to look for primary sources as well as secondary sources. The primary sources are necessary for you to get a first hand account of the issue you are exploring. The secondary sources provide you with a sense of how the conversation is proceeding among historians and philosophers about your issue. You will need to have enough primary sources to show that you are interacting with the historical figures themselves, and you will need to have enough secondary sources to show that you are up on the status of current research.

How many sources should you have for a 10-12 page paper? I get that question all the time. Think quality, not quantity. Your sources should be relevant, balanced between primary and secondary, and you should be engaging with all the sources you place in your bibliography. For this length of a paper, a good rule of thumb is 8-12 sources. But focus mainly on the kind of sources you are pulling, not so much on the number of sources you have included in your bibliography.

3. Read your sources.

Collect your sources into one place, and start reading through them. Take one source at a time. Start with the primary sources, and look at your secondary sources after you’ve worked your way through those primaries.

You are looking for material that is pertinent to the issue of your paper, that is, the question you raised at the beginning of the process. As you go through your sources, put little post-it markers on pages you will return to later. Those are good because they stick well on the pages but don’t do any damage to the pages when you remove them.

Read through your sources, marking them up with post-its, one at a time. When you’ve gone through all your sources, they should be loaded with post-it stickies.

4. Take notes on your sources.

Now that you have read through your sources, you will want to open up your word processor and compile notes from each of those sources. Go back through your stickies and write notes on the pertinent quotes and ideas from each source. I even copy sections from the sources verbatim into my notes–but I’m careful to keep my notes absolutely separate from any drafts that I write later.

5. Go through your notes and organize them by theme.

Once you’ve gone through all your sources, taken notes from each of them, go ahead and print off those notes. Leave room for yourself in the margins to take notes on your document.

Read through all your notes. As you are reading those notes, write little one to five word descriptions in the margins that encapsulate the ideas being expressed in each of your sources. Underline quotations that you might be able to use in your draft.

Go through your notes with a fine-toothed comb, and you will find yourself backing your key ideas for your paper into a corner.

6. Write a detailed outline of your paper.

Using your notes–and your notes of your notes–you are now ready to write your outline. Your outline will be divided into three sections: your introduction, your body, and your conclusion.

In your introduction, you are aiming to do three things: tell your audience what issue you are going to tackle, tell them what your conclusion is going to be, and tell them how you are going to explain your conclusion. So, the question you came up with at the beginning of the process is your issue. The answer to that question is your thesis statement. And your explanation of how you are going to explain/justify your answer is your methodology.

Each of these three aspects of an introduction are essential. You must address each of these aspects in the first paragraph of your paper.

Your body–the guts of the paper–will be divided into the reasons you have for arriving at your conclusion, your thesis. These reasons should be broad, and you are going to explain each reason in course of your paper’s body. You might have three reasons, or five–not much more than this in a 10-12 page paper. But in your body, locate three to five reasons why you are drawing the conclusion you stated in your thesis.

Your conclusion should be concise–you restate your issue and your thesis. You restate the reasons you came to your conclusion. And you can find a way to bring your paper to an end with a little rhetorical flourish–but keep it short and simple.

So, here is the basic structure of your outline:

I. Introduction

A. Issue: Question you are raising

B. Conclusion: Your thesis statement

C. Methodology: How you arrive at your conclusion (your reasons justifying your conclusion)

II. Reason One

A. Explanation

B. Explanation

C. Explanation

III. Reason Two

A. Explanation

B. Explanation

C. Explanation

III. Reason Three

A. Explanation

B. Explanation

C. Explanation

IV. Conclusion

A. Restate Issue

B. Restate Conclusion

C. Restate Methodology

Throughout the paper, you will need to be interacting with your primary and secondary sources. Number the pages of your notes document so you can quickly move around in your notes as you write the paper.

Writing the outline is the most important part of the process. If you have an organized, logical, and detailed outline, then writing your first draft is easy-peasy. But if your outline reflects fuzzy thinking, is not detailed enough, or is missing some key elements, your draft is going to look awful. Spend time on the outline, and make it right no matter how long it takes (within reason).

7. Write your first draft.

Now that you have a tightly organized, detailed, logical outline, you are ready to write your first draft! At this point, your ideas should be sufficiently developed and organized so that your writing of your draft is as natural as can be. You just follow the yellow-brick road you have laid down in your outline.

Use your sources to support your observations, your insights, and your ideas. Don’t let your sources carry your water for you. When you reference your sources, those references should never stand alone. You should always use them to support your own thoughts and ideas.

Writing the first draft is the fun part. The hard work of reading, research, organization, and framing the intellectual structure of the paper is all done. Writing the draft is like bringing the furniture into the new house. Be creative and have fun.

8. Edit/rewrite.

Go back through your first draft and eliminate form, grammar, spelling, punctuation errors. Clean up fuzzy and illogical thinking. Tidy up sloppy prose. Break up run-on sentences. Make sure you’ve cited all your sources properly (Turabian form, 8th edition as of this writing).

Get someone to read your draft for you–someone who will be honest with you, but someone who has your best interests at heart.

Does your paper address the issue you stated at the beginning?

Does your thesis answer the issue you stated at the beginning?

Do your reasons and explanations flow logically to the thesis? In other words, do your reasons follow one from the next to the next, all the way to the thesis?

Are you interacting with the pertinent primary sources?

Are you also engaging the secondary sources? Are you secondary sources up to date? Are they reputable and respected in the field?

Are you expressing your own voice in your paper, or is your paper just a litany of who-said-what? Do your sources support your conclusion, or are you letting your sources speak for you? Make sure your voice is distinguishable from those of your sources.

Is your prose clean and clear? Are you using active voice? Are you avoiding logical and historical fallacies?

A research project is like putting the pieces together in a puzzle. It’s also like building something from the ground up. And it’s like cooking a dish from scratch. It’s fun, intellectually engaging, and deeply fulfilling. I hope you enjoy the journey. As you read, research, and write, remember to stop and smell the roses and make memories for yourself as you proceed down the path.