Tag Archives: academic writing

Of end notes and Endnote

And also Zotero, Mendeley, footnotes, referencing, and citation styles, although they don’t begin with E!

Accurate referencing, in the style required by the situation, is a great help to many readers and a cause of anxiety for many academic writers. The reasons for wanting to get it right range for the moral – it is right that we acknowledge our sources, for their sakes, for the sake of transparency, and so that future researchers can trace our steps – to the practical – it’s easier to read and easier to get something published. However, there are several major referencing styles in use and also every academic journal or university department has their own ideas. These can range from the opinions of an individual with which you can disagree if necessary to strict rules which can lose you marks or a significant career opportunity.

When I was studying a joint honours degree as an undergraduate, each of my two departments, philosophy and theology, had a home-grown set of guidelines. They were, of course, completely different. (It might have been even harder if they were similar and slightly different!) I had to learn to use both. I also developed an opinion about which was best!

Actually, my opinion about referencing styles isn’t so much a matter of which I prefer to use in writing. I find that inline citations and footnotes are about the same difficulty level in the writing process, even entered manually into a word processing programme (both are quicker if you can get a computerised system set up well). End notes are slightly to write harder because they just are further away from the text they reference. It’s more a matter of what I prefer to read. I find inline citations, usually a version of the Chicago author-date system, visually annoying. I think they disturb the flow of the text and make it harder to grasp a whole sentence or paragraph quickly. I also find that author-date systems where the date is the publication referenced drive me up the wall when historical authors are in play; how does it make sense to write (Plato, 2009) or something like that? (I’m well aware that there are chains of logic and it does, at some level, make sense, but I find it hard to process as a reader, and although the Plato example might be obvious, some nineteenth or early twentieth century authors produce very confusing references under that system.)

Instead, I prefer footnotes. In an academic book – and even in other nonfiction – I like to see the references on the page as I read. I can skip them if I’m not that interested, but I can see whether there’s a sensible-looking reference even if I don’t look it up. (Have you ever read a dodgy book which is apparently full of Science with References but when you actually read some of the end notes, the evidence for ‘snails self-medicate by eating mint’ turns out to be someone’s Instagram post of a snail on a mint plant? This is a fictional example but similar experiences can be had in the popular science or self-help aisles of most bookshops.)

Perhaps I read too much Pratchett at an impressionable age, but I am also fond of the footnote as a device for including extra information, asides, tangents, jokes, understatement, sarcasm, and other bonus content. It is possible to separate these out, using footnotes for comments and inline citations or end notes for references, but the advantage of doing both is that readers are able to see everything in the same place. As a reader, I can judge whether a footnote needs detailed attention by the length and shape, so I don’t find it annoying to have both right there on the page.

Do you have a preference? Are you one of the many academics who has grumbled about having to change referencing styles in order to submit to a journal? Are there advantages to end notes which I’ve missed?

Dictionaries

I have a love-hate relationship with dictionaries. Dictionaries can be an amazing tool, and they can be a great read, but sometimes they also seem to stifle creatively, foster errors about how language works, and generally get very badly used.

What is a dictionary? It’s a list of words with their meanings – the dictionaries I’m interested in here are mainly same-language, where the words are described (people often say defined, and I’ll come back to that) in their own language. Cross-language or translation dictionaries are tools for a different purpose and have their own benefits and misuses. How does a word get into a dictionary? Some people decide to put it there. How do they decide? They look at examples of how the word is being used. There are dictionaries which claim to tell you what use is right and what is wrong, and this can be helpful when it prevents miscommunication. But the rightness and wrongness of the use of a specific word rests on how other people have used it in the past. A word is correctly used when it follows the pattern of use within a specific community, so that it can be understood.

What a dictionary is not is absolute – dictionaries are updated all the time, and can’t keep up with the latest changes. (Have you ever bought a new road atlas and found that it didn’t have an even newer section of motorway marked? Like that.) A dictionary is also not an authority. It’s a source of evidence, and there are cases where you can use an appropriate dictionary to give evidence for your argument that, for example, the phrase ‘shagging machine’ existed as slang for the vagina in 1885. (That’s Jonathan Green’s timeline of vagina slang, based on his Dictionary of Slang.) There are also cases where the wrong dictionary provides no help whatsoever, or even actively undermines an argument. For example, if in a philosophy essay someone refers to an ordinary dictionary (like the OED) for a definition of a technical term, it tends to suggest not only that the author of the essay hasn’t understood the term from other sources, but that they’ve missed the fact that this might be a word with a different use in the philosophical community. (Actually, ‘argument‘ is a case where this sort of misunderstanding might occur!)

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A close up of the word ‘dictionary’ in a dictionary, by PDPics from Pixabay.

So, what are good and bad ways to use dictionaries? In my opinion, a dictionary is great for browsing. It’s great for inspiration (especially if you were, for whatever reason, determined to write two blog posts for each letter of the alphabet, or something dotty like that). It’s great for some kinds of information: how is this word used most often? what is the history of this word? what grammatical patterns does this word usually follow?

It’s not so good when a dictionary shuts down options. There is, Michael Rosen once said, not a noun in English which can’t be verbed – but of course such new coinages, while following perfectly cromulent English rules, do not appear in dictionaries unless they catch on and lots of people start using them. (Cromulent, having caught on from the Simpsons, probably will appear eventually.) If you only use words as they have already been used, there can be a loss of playfulness and creativity, and of course no space to say anything new. We invent new things and start talking about different experiences all the time, so we need to create and establish new patterns of use or entirely new words. Mouse, gay, television, asexual, Brexit, woke… words grow and change as the conceptual needs of the language using community develop.

And a dictionary needs to be a tool. It should be used to build confidence and aid understanding, not overrule instinct or add confusion. Using tools appropriately is part of learning any skill, and the right dictionary at the right time is as important as the right screwdriver for the screw: dictionaries which give history, or current use, or grammatical tips for formal settings, or the use within a particular community, or help to check a spelling, are all very good in the right place. Getting the wrong one, or assuming that they are interchangeable, or that words always have to mean the same thing regardless of context, or that the origin of a word tells you what it means now, can all lead to serious mistakes.

how to write a paper on liberal quakerism religion

The title of this blog post, “how to write a paper on liberal quakerism religion” appeared in my search terms recently. It was too good a prompt to resist. I periodically get emails from people who have decided to write an essay/paper/dissertation/similar about Quakers and want to know how to get going. Obviously this varies depending on your level of study and exact topic, but here are some starting points with links to more resources.

Be clear about which Quakers you’re going to study – when and where are they?

Are you interested in the formation of the movement in the seventeenth century? Do you want to look at how Quakers spread from Britain to America and Africa? Do you want to look at Quakers local to where you are or internationally? Sometimes you’ll be able to generalise about all Quakers, but usually it will be better to focus on some – or perhaps pick two or three groups to compare, if there’s room for that in your project. If you’re not sure or you don’t know what your options are, you might want to start with an overview textbook and narrow it down later.

Think about whether you are looking for material from inside the Quaker community, or about it.

This isn’t always a clear distinction – some authors, like me, write both for the community we belong to and about the community for other people to read, as well as for both general and academic audiences – but the intended audience of a piece of writing will affect how you approach it. For example, if the Quakers write a history of their movement and it sounds like they only ever did good things, is that because Quakers are always good or because Quakers wrote the history? If you can, compare multiple sources.

Work out why you want to write about Quakers.

Is it because you are a Quaker, or because you know someone who is a Quaker? Is it because you think the Quakers are interesting, or a good example of a point you want to make, or because Quakers are different or similar to another group you know about? All of these are good reasons to want to do some research and write about a community, but your reasons for writing about Quakers might affect what you need to do. If you already know a lot about Quakers, you might need to find evidence and sources for things which seem obvious to you – or challenge your assumptions and try to find out where you can improve your knowledge. If you’ve picked Quakers because of something you’ve been told about the community, you might need to start by thinking about that source. Is it reliable? Could someone (like this journalist) have been exaggerating or have misunderstood the situation?

There’s been lots of work in the academic field of Quaker studies recently, and some of it is free online.

Some of it isn’t – consult your library about the Brill Research Perspectives in Quaker Studies series – but the journal, Quaker Studies, is now entirely open access and you can search it online (the archive and more recent editions). There are multiple handbooks which will give you introductions to important topics. Some older books can be accessed for free via Project Gutenberg, or if you want to look at originals check if your library has access to Early English Books Online. For what Quakers say about themselves, you might want to look at the websites of their organisations (here’s Quakers in Britain, for example), watch some videos from QuakerSpeak, or check out the Quaker.org directory for more links. In some places, you might be able to consult a specialist library (for example, if you can get to London or Birmingham in the UK, Pennsylvania or Indiana in the USA, or Kaimosi in Kenya). If you’ve heard of a book and want to know which libraries keep it, you can try WorldCat.

…plus all the normal advice about good research and writing.

Check the bibliography of everything you read. What sources were used and might they be useful to you? Can you and should you double-check what you’re read?

Consider your assumptions. You might turn out to be right, but it’s best to know why you’re right!

Answer the question your school/college/university actually asked you, the one you’re being marked/graded on. (Unless you’re not being assessed, in which case, have at it and try to answer whatever question you want to know the answer to!)

Think about what matters and what doesn’t. Does your reader need lots of details, or just enough of the evidence to move on, and a citation so they can follow up for themselves?

Show how your argument progresses. What is your starting point? Where will your reader start? What are the connections between the things you want to say?

Remember to leave it for a little while and proofread to find your typos. Good luck!

What is an argument?

Argument is a word I use a lot, but I’m very aware of the ways in which it might be confusing. I like to ask students – and colleagues, and myself, anyone writing academically – to describe the structure of their argument, or to tell me the conclusion which their argument supports, or to show me the steps in their argument. But the kind of argument which I’m asking about in those enquires follows a different pattern of use for the word ‘argument’ to the most common way of using the word. Here an argument is a collection of points which are logically connected in such a way as to build from premises to a conclusion, rather than a quarrel, row, barney, ding-dong, verbal fight, debate, or shouting match.

Sometimes it can help to use other images as well. I might think of a piece of writing, even nonfiction writing, as having a story: a beginning, middle, and end, through which the writer leads the reader. One difficulty with that is that academic writing loves spoilers and hates surprises: academic readers, unlike film viewers, want to know exactly what to expect at the end, right from the beginning. They want to know what conclusion you are going to reach before you lay out the steps by which you got there.

Further away from writing, we might imagine the process of constructing an argument as akin to another creative project. I’ve sometimes used the image of a building, so that one builds the argument from a set of foundations, up through different layers, to a (hopefully well-supported) conclusion. (I used this image, complete with silly MS Paint diagram, in a post last year about the book I was writing.) I find this image helpful because it gives a sense of how the later pieces of an argument depend on the earlier ones – everyone can imagine the house built on sand, or the castle built in a bog, which just sinks. The lesson for the academic writer is obvious – pay attention to the foundations!

The image of an argument as a building can also help us see how we can use the same foundations for different conclusions. Starting from the same base – picture a LEGO board, for example – and using the same set of building blocks, it’s possible to produce a wide range of different buildings. Which you want will depend on your assessment criteria: a cosy house, a stylish block of flats, or (given that LEGO can be very flexible!) maybe you’ll end up with a rather blocky self-portrait or a banana.

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Margaret Fell greets George Fox at LEGO Swarthmoor Hall. She found his argument convincing!

This metaphor might not draw enough attention to other parts of the process, though. At the risk of confusing the philosophical use of the word ‘argument’ – the structure of connected claims leading to a conclusion – with the ordinary sense of ‘argument’ – where two people are in a more or less angry debate – we might prefer to think of the process of constructing an argument as more like having a conversation than erecting a building. Rather than building blocks, we have dialogue partners. These might not be people we know personally (although some of them could be), but they are the people who produced or improved the ideas that we’re working with.

In writing an academic text, we cite the people who have worked on the question before us, both anyone who agrees and a range of people who don’t. Previous work becomes the foundation, and then new materials can be brought in – perhaps from related disciplines, but maybe from further afield – to help with the creation of new ideas and approaches. We might have source material which is new, data or texts or whatever, and we need to show how we’ve produced this. All of these forms of material are referenced and become part of an ongoing discussion process, a conversation between texts and people as we, as a community of scholars, try to work out what’s going on.

In this post, my argument is that we need to think about what an argument is before we try and give one. What’s your argument?

Last Day of 2019

It’s the last day of 2019, the last day of the year and (depending on your counting system, possibly) the last day of the decade. I haven’t been blogging as regularly over the last few months – my energy has been taken up elsewhere – but it seems like as good a time as any for a quick review of the year, the last ten years, and some thoughts about what’s coming in 2020. I’m going to split my review into four themes: reading, writing, teaching, and personal.

Reading

In the last decade, I’ve read a lot. I’ve always read a lot, but what I read has shifted over that time. It was probably about ten years ago that I got a kindle for the first time, and that opened up two worlds for me: downloading fanfiction from AO3 (rather than reading it on my laptop), and buying cheap ebooks from Amazon. The latter especially has been a big shift in the publishing market and probably affects the next section, too, because when it’s easier to self-publish or to run a small press, because it’s easier to create and sell ebook-only editions, it becomes possible to cater to niche audiences (like people who want to read LGBTQ+ romances) in a way which was previously… well, which was previously happening mainly in fanfic.

I’ve also made extensive use of libraries, second-hand bookshops, and new bookshops throughout that time. The horrified book-shop running friend who almost refused to speak to me after seeing my ebook reader can relax: as far as I can tell, being able to read in more ways just means I read even more, it doesn’t mean I’m buying fewer physical books.

In 2014, I had a bookshelf full of ought-to-read-that books which I hadn’t had time for, and to encourage me to get through them I started tracking my to-read and read numbers. In 2017 I moved my record keeping into the public domain on Goodreads. These two things mean that I can now offer you a graph of my reading habits and a link to find out what all those books were. Mainly due to taking twelve weeks of study leave (see also the next section), I have read 257 books this year.

reading graph 2019

Graph of number of books read, by month, since 2014, with an average line and some notes about events during that time.

Writing

Some writing which I began long ago came to fruition in 2019 as two of my books were published. Telling the Truth about God, based on my earlier academic book British Quakers and Religious Language, which in turned was based on my PhD thesis, came out in 2019 and we held a book launch at CLC in Birmingham.

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With the bookshop manager at CLC at the launch of ‘Telling the Truth about God’.

I also began January 2019 asking questions about this novel manuscript I’d accidentally written in some spare time. (No, really, I had a gap between other books and wanted to maintain a writing habit… it isn’t the first time this sort of thing has happened to me, just the first time I’ve had something good enough to show other people at the end.) Manifold Press picked it up and it was published in the summer of 2019: Between Boat and Shore. In a genre which clearly exists, and seems extensive for those in it, but is small enough that people outside laugh and think I’m joking when I call it a genre, this is probably one of those things which wouldn’t be possible without the internet.

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‘Between Boat and Shore’, a lesbian romance set in Neolithic Orkney, was published in 2019 by Manifold Press. It can be purchased from https://manifoldpress.co.uk/book/between-boat-and-shore/.

My main writing project in 2019, and the reason for my study leave, has been my next academic book – currently called Theology from Listening and due with my editor in January 2020. (One reason why I haven’t been blogging so much!)

Next year’s writing projects include a novel which I don’t really have spare time for, another Quaker Quicks book based on this year’s research, and who knows what else. Hopefully some blog posts and poems! I’m reducing my hours at Woodbrooke a bit to make room for more writing, so there will definitely be something. If you want to watch this space for news, why not sign up to get blog posts by email? (There’s a form in the sidebar on the right.)

Teaching

I did various forms of teaching in 2019. (Back in 2009 I was watching lots of my graduating classmates going into secondary school teaching and promising myself I’d never teach at all… universities and adult education are very different to schools! I’m still sure I couldn’t cope with that, and massive respect to everyone who does teach in schools.) I ‘m now co-supervising more research students, which is always interesting and one of my favourite jobs, and have been glad to be involved in various conferences, events for researchers, and academic processes like PhD vivas.

Five courses I taught for Woodbrooke stand out as highlights of 2019. Early in the year I co-taught a course called ‘The Changing Shape of Eldership and Oversight’ with Zélie Gross. We looked at the ways Quaker communities can provide spiritual and practical pastoral support, exploring a range of options and how things are changing in general. Some of this is about the wider changes in the Quaker community – more smaller meetings, for example – and some about changes in society as a whole – like the fact that there are fewer people retiring with time and energy to spare for voluntary work.

Directly relevant to this blog, Gil Skidmore and I ran a course called ‘Spiritual Blogging’. We looked at the Quaker tradition of spiritual journals and how that might relate to modern ways of communicating. We identified some differences but also lots of interesting similarities and cross-cutting themes, like issues around editing your life, choosing what to say and what to keep to yourself.  Ben Wood and I collaborated on a course called ‘Truth is What Works’, in which Ben brought a whole load of interesting philosophy and we spent time as a group playing with those ideas.

I taught a full online course on my own for the first time. In ‘Multiple Religious Belonging’, course participants explored their many complex experiences of religion and read (or watched videos) about different perspectives of, and opinions on, situations where one person might be participating in more than one religious tradition or community. And right at the end of the year, Jon Martin and I worked together on a course called ‘Speaking to That of God’, which was about finding new audiences and building Quaker presences online. This is something that I’ve worked on in various ways over the years, but usually for myself and my own purposes – to network with people, to get new perspectives, to form different communities within the wider Quaker world, to learn, to share ideas and practice writing – rather than on behalf of a meeting. I learned a lot from our participants and their questions, and sharpened up some of my own thoughts about what is or isn’t possible or desirable online.

In 2020 I’ll be continuing to work on some of these topics – search Woodbrooke’s online brochure or order a paper copy if you’re interested.

Personal

Outside work, I continued to settle in to living in Birmingham. I visited Belfast twice to spend time with my partner, who’s studying there, and she came to Birmingham several times as well. We went on holiday in the Republic of Ireland with my parents, and had a good time including seeing puffins and stone circles.

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By the shore of an Irish lake, my parents pose for my partner’s camera – she’s standing with her back to me while I take a picture of the photographer at work. 😀

Having resigned at the end of 2018 after volunteering with GirlgudingUK for over a decade, because of their partnership with the armed forces, and stepped back from some other tasks, I started 2019 without much by way of voluntary work. During the year, the Book of Discipline Revision Committee started our work, and I got involved with the Society of Authors including starting a local branch. I kept up my allotment, having some successes (tomatillos, cherry tomatoes, raspberries, broad beans, a couple of good squashes), and some failures (lettuce seeds that never germinated, leeks which… went weird?, some seedlings I thought I’d sown which turned out to be weeds!).

In 2020, my main aim is to let things in my life happen as they happen. I want to enjoy the opportunities I have – some funding to keep writing, an exciting holiday, a big work trip, potential new directions for my research, and all the usual hopes allotment holders have in spring – and I’m not setting big or dramatic goals. I’m aware that’s the opposite of what I want to see in the world (governments setting ambitious targets for fossil fuel reduction, electoral reform, a welcoming rather than a hostile environment, etc.), but I also need to give myself some space. The last few months have been very crowded with stuff, and seeds (mostly metaphorical but also literal!) which have been planted need time to grow.

Book structure

or, what have you been doing on your study leave?

I often ask research students about the structure of their paper, thesis, or argument. I ask this and sometimes people are ready to answer, but it also sometimes happens that people look at me blankly as if they aren’t entirely sure what the question means. That’s a shame, because I find it a really useful way to think about my own writing – and so, in order to show that I am willing to do the things I ask other people to do, I thought I’d take some time today to describe the structure of the book I’m writing.

The project is an overview of liberal Quaker theology (for, eventually, Brill’s Research Perspectives in Quaker Studies series). The aim of the book is to show that liberal Quaker theology exists, that it’s coherent, that it might sometimes seem vague or diffuse but is actually a single tradition – admittedly with multiple sub-traditions and complexities – which can usefully be analysed and discussed together. In order to show this, I look for places where liberal Quaker theology can be found and try to gauge their unity and diversity in different areas.

I start off in my introduction with an assessment of what has been said so far about liberal Quaker theology, and by clarifying how I’m using those terms. I make sure everyone knows what will count as Quaker or not, what it means to say that something in the Quaker tradition is part of the liberal sub-tradition, and what I think I’m looking for when I say that I’m looking for theology. I don’t, for example, think that theology can only be done if you have a university degree in theology – so it’s important to make sure readers know what I’m on about. Having set the scene in this way, and thereby laid the foundations on which I’m going to build a tower, I start looking at my three bodies of evidence.

In this first chapter, I look at one place where I expect to find liberal Quaker theology represented in a formal way, in statements which have the approval of the whole community. Quakers don’t write creeds but do have books, books of discipline or books of faith and practice, which try to bring together the important things they think they need to record and teach people within the community. They typically revise these books from time to time, when they seem outdated or something has changed in their community. Each Yearly Meeting might have its own, and can split up the material in various ways – but they all include the sorts of theological thinking I’m looking for. In order to get a really broad picture, I picked eight different examples of these books. I describe each one and analyse some key passages from it to look for the theological material. This is the evidence: if I find theology in liberal Quaker books of discipline, it’s evidence that there is liberal Quaker theology; if it’s coherent, or I can at least trace a continuity within the change through time and around the world, it’s evidence that there is a single liberal Quaker theological tradition. I was able to find both of those, so that’s brick 1 laid on my foundation.

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A rough diagram of the book structure I describe – with a black line for my introduction/foundation, a nice solid rectangle for chapter 1, a square-ish shape at a bit of an angle balancing on top for chapter 2, a small but firm square for chapter 3, and a arching grey line down the left hand side to take it all in and be my conclusion: tower!

In the second chapter, I look at some works by individual Quakers or small groups which might be expected to be more diverse. They might be working outside an institutional context, or in a situation where a group has been specifically gathered to try and represent the theological diversity present within a Quaker community. I do find more diversity of theology, but I’m also able to show that everyone involved in engaged with some core liberal Quaker theological themes (as identified in the previous chapter). The tower is now taller and more likely to wobble, but I’ve got brick 2 balanced.

In the third and final major chapter, I extent the argument in one way – aiming to show that as well as ordinary theology, there is also academic liberal Quaker theology – and in order to do so within the space available, I compromise a bit. I let go of trying to show the full diversity and range of this area of work, and instead pick four examples which showcase some of the relevant ways of doing theology – not all, and without much spread in time or geography – and look at how each of these four examples relates to the picture of a coherent single tradition of liberal Quaker theology which I’ve been trying to build through the previous chapters. With brick 3 on, I’ve narrowed the tower a little bit, and that helps it to stay upright.

In the conclusion, I say… well, among other things, I make the structure of the book clear. I comment on how my new tower relates to other people’s towers and also talk about how it could be improved: what future work could build it taller or make it stronger? Among other things, I point out a brick I missed out on using. It’s only in the final chapter, when I look at a committee-produced document, that I bring in all the things which sit between the levels of chapter 1 and chapter 2 – things like minutes and epistles, things which might be written by individuals or small groups but are approved by large Quaker bodies without making it into a book of discipline. That could have been another brick. I left it out because I suspect it’s a difficult brick to get together – the documents aren’t necessarily easily available, they’d be in lots of places and understanding the context of each one would be time consuming – and even if I did, I wouldn’t expect it to show much that was different to both the books of discipline (which include that kind of material if it stands the test of time), and the books and other works by individuals and small groups (who are, at least at some level, the same individuals and small groups who participate in the meetings for worship for business which also produce the minutes and epistles. Differences between the highly tested books of discipline and the highly personal individual statements seemed much more likely (and indeed, I found some but none which were too damaging to my argument…!)

If I’d done the reading and found something different, I would have built a different structure. I had a fair idea going into this project that I was going to find something like this, but I was also already broadly familiar with all three areas of investigation. What did change was the order and the emphasis; looking back through my research journal, I can see that I considered and rejected structures based on history (so probably these kinds of materials, but in chronological order rather than themed by type) or topic (again, these materials but themed around issues which frequently arise in liberal Quaker theology) before working out this approach. The big emphasis it places on the books of discipline came from a comment made when I gave a conference paper on the project, and although I might have got there by another route I think it proves the effort of writing a paper was worth it!

Another way to think about the structure would be as a story – this kind of investigation is like a missing-person story, or maybe actually like three lost cats. The detective first establishes what cats she needs to look for (in the introduction), then hunts down cat one (surprise! it was at home by the fire, but it’s a striped cat and is almost completed hidden on the stripy rug), then looks for cat two (which has been all over but comes home for a favourite food), doesn’t spend that long looking for cat three (but shows that it has been seen chasing a laser pointer in next-door’s living room), and concludes that the cats, although thought to be lost, weren’t actually very lost at all.

So, there’s mine. What’s the structure of your project?

Study leave progress

I’m coming to the end of a six-week block of study leave – I have twelve to take throughout 2019, and I took three weeks in March and will take three more in October, so this is a significant part of the whole. I’ve been working on my next book for the Brill Research Perspectives in Quaker Studies series – the last one was British Quakers and Religious Language, a middle stage between my PhD thesis and my Quaker Quicks book, Telling the Truth about God. This one is currently called Theology from Listening: an overview of liberal Quaker theology in the long twentieth century. It looks at Quaker documents which have embedded theology – a selection of books of discipline and books of faith and practice, samples of material by individuals and small groups, and work by Quakers with academic training in theology – to form an impression of the core theology of liberal Quakers.

The main argument of the book is that there is such a thing – Quakers do have theology, and while it might not be systemic, it’s clearly recognisable and fairly consistent – and that although it changed through the twentieth century (I use the phrase ‘long twentieth century’ because liberal Quakerism started a little before 1900 and I’m including some examples from after 2000), the changes were slow and did not affect all the core claims. Yes, I include nontheism in that assessment. And evangelical or Christocentric movements within liberal Quakerism – my definition of liberal Yearly Meetings is a broad one, based on history and practice rather than theology. That both prevents my argument from being circular (if I assessed the theological content of material I’d only chosen for specific theological features, I wouldn’t show anything at all except that I can read), and means that my stock of source material includes items which make a lot of liberal Quakers raise their eyebrows and ask whether that’s really liberal. Well, yes, and if I can include it and still show that there are core theological ideas shared between all this material, I’m really saying something.

No, I’m not going to share with you what those core theological ideas actually are! Mainly not yet, because I’m still writing and I might change my mind or want to rephrase some of them. And a little bit because I have to sell books. 🙂 (I do know almost nobody can afford Brill books, and have already put in a proposal to Christian Alternative to write a Quaker Quicks book based on this material – even if they accept and I get on as fast as possible, it won’t have a publication date before 2021, though.)

What I do want to talk about in the process I’m using in writing. The method I’m adopting needs to give a very wide sweep – liberal Quakerism is a broad movement, historically, geographically, and in terms of material: liberal Quakers love to write books and magazine articles and journals and blogs and make videos and podcasts and all kinds of stuff. It also needs to give context to examples, so that the changes over time and between different cultural contexts can be tracked, and pay close attention to what might apparently be small variations. And when I talk about those small variations, it’s not enough to describe them, I need to give evidence of them. So what I’m doing is taking examples – lots of them, it feels like, but actually only a very small percentage of the possible examples – and working them through in detail, with context and a close reading of the parts which seem to me to be most significant. That’s the part which makes me most anxious. Although I think carefully about what’s significant, try to explain why, and give full references so a reader can look it up for themself and see they agree, basically most readers just have to trust me that I’m choosing the parts which are important to focus my discussion.

The advantage of this method once I get into it is that it does give both depth, via the detailed work on examples, and breadth, via a series of comparisons which I can build as I work through a series of examples in a chapter. It wouldn’t work for every topic, and I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it for others, but it does provide good evidence for the kind of argument I’m trying to construct. It lets me look in detail at a specific writer and their theological ideas within the context in which they’re working – so, for example, today I’ve been writing about Rufus Jones and his book Social Law in the Spiritual World. I can take the time to tell the reader a bit about Jones and to describe the overall argument he is making in his book – I’m not just dropping in a quotation to support some wider point and hoping that the reader knows who is he and what he thinks, risking something being misunderstood because it was too far out of its original context – before digging into some of the specific things he says and comparing them with the work of other, later liberal Quaker writers. If you do know who Jones is, it won’t be a surprise that many of the ideas which appear in later liberal Quaker writers are also in Jones, since he was one of the most influential early liberal Quaker writers. But by dealing just with the one book, and not trying to include all of his writing or compare him in detail with many contemporaries, I’m able to look at his specific claims and how he puts himself into the broader picture by referencing psychologists and other scholars active at the time.

I also enjoy it. I like the business of writing anyway – research and reading, taking notes, shaping material into arguments, looking for the thread which will structure my book, and then actually writing it – and I’ve been having a good time on my study leave. I’m going to miss it when I go back into the office on Monday, and I’ll have to give myself a firm pep-talk about how I also enjoy teaching, working with colleagues, having meetings, and all that stuff!