In my last post I started to resume my recollections of my mentor, the great textual scholar Bruce Metzger. In this post I recall when he first showed me I was a lousy writer.
In graduate school different professors have different approaches to evaluating and grading term papers. Some professors are completely anal about it and insist on correcting every mistake, rewriting every sentence, and reformulating every idea. Not many are that way, thankfully, since doing all this takes an enormous chunk of time (and a very large ego). I never had a professor like that, but I have known some over the years. Others make extremely judicious and helpful comments, sometimes at great length. My teacher Paul Meyer was like that at Princeton Seminary. The comments he made on our papers were in depth, always on target, and superior in quality to any of the scholarship we read all semester in the class. Meyer never published much himself – he threw himself into his students instead; we used to threaten to extract his comments from our papers and to publish them as articles for him.
Other professors (at the other extreme) say almost nothing on the papers – just give it a grade, with maybe a remark on the front page. I have a friend who did graduate work at Yale in the early 1980s; one of his New Testament professors turned back an exegesis paper of his, on which he had worked very hard for weeks, with a grade and a single comment: “Not an altogether pedestrian attempt.” (!)
Metzger was not someone who spent a lot of time writing comments on papers. He would make some kind of compliment on the front page and give it a grade. This made it very hard to know what, exactly, he really thought about it. The one thing he would do is correct grammar and punctuation. He was a real stickler for the correct placement of adverbs and for the proper use of commas and semi-colons. But one always wished for a bit more substance.
The one time he really worked over something I had written was on my dissertation proposal. It was my first semester in my PhD program, and at the time he was the chairman of the Graduate Studies Committee that was responsible for passing all proposals. A proposal is a written exposition of what the dissertation is going to be about. In the proposal (I think ours were only 5-7 pages; where I teach at UNC they are more commonly 20 pages or so), we were supposed to indicate what we were planning to do in the dissertation, how we were going to proceed in doing it, and why it needed to be done. A dissertation is supposed to advance scholarship – meaning, among other things, that you cannot write a dissertation that is on a topic and that takes a position that can already be found in someone else’s dissertation or in a published book. It has to be genuine, new research that provides insights not otherwise known before. It’s hard. And in effect, it is (for almost everyone) your first book.
The dissertation advisor has to guide the student through the procedure both of writing the proposal and of producing the dissertation. So I consulted with Metzger about what I would be doing in my dissertation on the Gospel text of Didymus the Blind (I’ll explain more about that in a subsequent post) and wrote up my proposal.
The tricky thing in my case was this. Princeton Theological Seminary is, of course, a Christian denominational school (Presbyterian), and is intent in training future ministers of the church (in the Masters of Divinity program) and in developing theological disciplines (e.g., among the PhD students). Any dissertation that does not deal with theology is widely frowned upon and discouraged. But I was not interested in writing about theology. I was interested in the Greek manuscript tradition of the New Testament and with how to establish both what the original New Testament said and how the text had been changed over the years. I was not interested in the theological importance of this information. I was interested in the historical aspects of the study.
Metzger was completely in support of the project and its agenda, and he too saw it as highly important. But as chair of the committee that had to approve dissertations, he knew that mine would come under very careful scrutiny by professors who were loath to accept anything that did not advance a theological agenda. Several dissertations in the past had had problems, when, like mine, they were more interested in history than theology.
And that’s why Metzger really worked over my proposal for style and substance. He did not want it to fail the committee – especially when he was both chairing the committee and directing the dissertation. When I turned in my proposal to him in advance of submitting it to the committee, I expected him to do his typical thing of correcting my adverbs and commas. But not this time. He found me in the library, said he wanted to talk to me, and took me into a small private room. He worked me over for about half an hour (it seemed like hours). It was painful. He went line by line through my proposal, showing why what I said was problematic or stylistically flawed. And then he told me to go do it again.
I was absolutely devastated. But at the same time, I was also honored he had gone to all the trouble, impressed by how brilliantly he could read and dissect a paper when he really wanted to, and determined never to make those kinds of mistakes again. It was one of the factors in my decision that I really wanted to learn how to write well – something that is learned and earned, not something you are born with.