Kibbe, Michael. From Topic to Thesis: A Guide to Theological Research. Downer’s Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2016, pp. 152, $12, paperback.
As I have taught classes at both the undergraduate and graduate/seminary level one of the things that I have noticed that students struggle with most is academic writing. The struggle in writing is nearly universal among students. Kibbe’s From Topic to Thesis is a very helpful tool that will help students through the beginning stages of the writing process, stages that are often ignored by students and under taught by faculty.
Kibbe starts his guide for students with an introduction. He starts the introduction with a discussion of process by noting that students should move from topic to thesis and not from topic to paper, which students often do. Kibbe also briefly outlines the history of theological research and gives a discussion of how theological research is similar and distinct from other areas of research. He ends the introduction with a discussion of key terms and a discussion of bibliography.
Chapter one is focused on finding direction. In this chapter Kibbe brings out a number of important points when writing. Kibbe starts this chapter with a discussion of four keys that students need to know: 1) students should not already have decided what their paper is going to argue at the outset; 2) research takes time; 3) at the beginning of research students should not use secondary sources; 4) that while they are a student is the only time when students will depend upon tertiary or secondary sources. In this chapter Kibbe has several questions that should be asked of primary and tertiary sources as well as different ways to find direction. There is a section in each chapter where he discusses questions to ask of the topic at hand. Kibbe also gives examples of finding direction in two research areas, which he repeats in later chapters. At the end of this chapter, and other chapters, he supplies a short list of main points that students should focus on that were discussed within the chapter.
In chapter two Kibbe discusses gathering sources. He has helpful discussion throughout this chapter on keys to gathering sources and on questions to ask, but one of the more helpful points that he makes, that I often find myself reiterating to students is that it “is rarely a good idea to cite an online source” (p.61).
Chapter three focuses on understanding issues. This chapter hits on several important concepts like an excurses on common research mistakes where he notes things like the importance of using too many quotes.
The fourth chapter focuses on entering into the discussion. Here the focus is on the student beginning to speak into the issue/topic that they are engaged in researching. Important points like when to enter into the discussion happen and the importance of being able to articulate how one’s thesis fits into the overall discussion of a topic.
The final chapter of the book discusses establishing a position. Here he notes that the thesis statement is the heart of the paper and that students should not being the writing process too soon.
After the final chapter Kibbe provides six appendices on the following topics: 1) things a student should never do in theological research; 2) helpful theological research tools like the SBL Handbook of Style and others; 3) scholarly resources for theological research with a focus on primary sources and a list of commonly used tertiary sources including things like major publishers and commentary series; 4) how to navigate ATLA, a scholarly database found in most theological online libraries; 5) an introduction and guide through Zotero bibliography software; 6) a suggested timeline for research papers.
Kibbe makes some very helpful points throughout his work. In fact, almost everything he writes within his work should prove helpful to students in either the undergraduate or graduate space within theological education. One of the more helpful things that he writes to students is that when they research students need to understand that they are not going to produce new knowledge or original research, but that the goal of a student’s research should be new knowledge to them (p. 24). His appendix on things that should never be done by students within papers will certainly have everyone who has ever had to read student papers smiling and nodding with knowing approval of how egregious these things are.
I only have two minor critiques of this work. First, I fear that his interaction with tertiary sources and his discussion of Zotero, might become too quickly dated (because updates inevitably happen) and require a revision, which is not necessarily a bad thing, but something to be observed. Second, his timeline assumes a traditional semester and many students find themselves in accelerated courses that fall in an eight-week format, especially in the online format. It would be helpful to have an adjusted timeline for those students, but I supposed it could just be cut in half with the assumption that the student is not taking as heavy of a load and can commit more time in a shorter amount of time.
I would also add a few suggestions to Kibbe’s helpful work, some of which Kibbe discusses briefly in his work but are worth rearticulating here. First, students should know what their professor expects from them with their writing. Every professor is slightly different and will expect slightly different things from students when it comes to writing. Most professors are quite transparent as to what they are looking for in this regard. Second, the way that students learn to write in an English composition class is helpful, but biblical and theological research argues in a different way than in an English class. Third, read Kibbe’s appendix on things to avoid doing in writing and realize that this is only the beginning of writing taboos. For instance, I find it exceptionally difficult to read papers where students overuse first person (especially first person plural) and where students use second person. Some faculty do not mind the use of first and second person as much as I do, but many do, especially in regards to the use of second person. Fourth, take plagiarism very seriously because professors do.
I would also add a couple suggestions to any professors that might be reading. First, none of us enjoy reading poor theology papers. I have found that a bit of work up front makes students writing significantly better. One thing that I always do is give a one hour lecture to every class that I teach about how to write a paper and how to research. We only scratch the surface, but it is a good start and students then feel free to ask me questions. In this lecture I also discuss plagiarism. I have found that student writing is vastly improved, their research is more solid, and plagiarism is almost completely eliminated after this lecture. Second, it is easy to blame poor writing on other departments or on poor college-level training (from a seminary perspective) or poor high school training (from an undergraduate perspective), but this is only part of the story. It is our job to help them write while they are in our classes. Instead of blaming others it is important for us to be faithful.
Kibbe’s book will make a welcome addition to any and every student’s library and would be a helpful required book at the beginning of both undergraduate and graduate theological degree programs.
Daniel S. Diffey
Grand Canyon University