The waters were all about me even to my throat,
the abyss encompassed me.
The seaweed was wrapped about my head
at the roots of the mountains.
I went down into the countries beneath the earth,
unto the peoples of the past.
But you raised up my life from the pit,
Yahweh, my God.
— J. R. R. Tolkien’s translation of Jonah 2:6-7
At some points in the semester, I am sure my students feel like Jonah.
Thrown overboard and weighed down by multiple writing assignments, they find themselves unsure how they are progressing at the graduate level and eager to find rescue from the end of the term lifeboat, though that, too, seems out of reach.
Yet, I am okay for them to feel this way–at points. The key, though, is that they not end there for there is a purpose to the time spent sinking in the depths of academic research and writing. Indeed, I aim to be the one to throw them overboard.
For my Baptist History course, students first write a 1,200 word critical book review on their choice of two volumes I presented to them at the start of the semester. The second writing assignment is a 10 page (minimum) theological biography research paper due at the end of the semester.
While not connected in any way in terms of content or parameters, I have linked these two writing assignments in one specific way, namely, that the first serves the second in helping the student to gain skill in writing.
While the process may feel like “seaweed wrapped around their heads” the end result, if I do my job right, will be a overall improvement (and hopefully enjoyment, though not required) in the writing task for each student.
Why do I do this?
As I explain on the first day of class, one of the side effects of a journey with me as professor is that, whether one hopes for it or not, I use my courses to help improve writing skills. In the ministry assignments to which most of the students in my classes will go, the ability to communicate clearly their thoughts will prove crucial for their own efforts of building trust, strengthening relationships, resolving conflicts, organizing and casting visionary leadership, and, most importantly, communicating the gospel message well (Col 4:4). For those who find themselves set apart for the ministry of the Word in preaching, the ability to convey their message in written word only helps insure they will do even better verbally.
Further, as was the case with me, many seminary students come not having a strong liberal arts undergraduate experience. Many were called to the ministry while they were pursuing medicine, or engineering, or business, and the like. They have not written a paper or a book review since high school, if even then.
However, rather than lower expectations, I aim to raise the bar high and then design my course in such a way as to help the students reach that bar, if not exceed it, by the end of the semester. In order for this plan to work, the high expectations set for the multiple writing assignments play a key part.
Like I said, this approach is not at all what many students signed up for or even expect from a church history course, and truthfully, along the way, many may wonder why they did. But, as with all things worthwhile, this is a part of rigid preparation required for a marathon of ministry service.
Regularly, I try to remind students that the semester is 15 weeks long, and everything we do in the course serves an intentional and specific purpose, and that there are no wasted assignments or lectures. Thus, some things will not make sense and likely appreciation for the challenge will not come until the semester is over. And for, some, it will not come until years after.
While I seek to teach and shepherd students in a gracious and edifying way, I am not concerned with my current or week-to-week approval rating. Indeed, I hope that for some, they will not think about or appreciate some of what I am doing until six or seven years from now when they are serving with their young family on the streets of Moscow or in the wilderness of Africa–for that is when they will need it the most. 
I confess that while I do not want to be known as the hardest professor who teaches the toughest classes, I do want to be in that conversation simply because I want students, especially at the start of the semester, to feel like they cannot take any shortcuts when it comes to my class.
I intentionally start with these high expectations and then as the semester progresses and students are feeling stretched, regularly offer opportunities for grace (as well as a generous but intensive opportunity for extra credit). If I start with low demands that are too laid back, I can never ratchet up the demands to provide correction that will have any lasting effect. Now hopefully, I balance all of this with worthwhile lectures and interpersonal time and attention so that the students know I see my role as an investment in their life and ministry and one that I take equally as serious, if not more so, that what I am asking of them.
The truth is, I have had very few students fail my classes and if someone has done poorly usually it is because they simply failed to do the work or prepare for their quizzes and exams. So while many students, at times during the term, might feel their semester is over and hope for a high grade is lost, the reality is that is the furthest thing from the truth.
For them, in many ways, the semester is just beginning and as they persevere they find they are on their way to dry ground, raised from the pit, and seeing and learning anew the faithfulness of God.
Here are the specifics of how I use the two writing assignments in tandem to affect the class learning experience as a whole:
(1) A directed Book Review with clear expectations.
- I select books I have read and know well and believe will substantially support and supplement the aims and goals of my lectures. Also, I assign books for which I want to read reviews. If the professor enjoys reading the assignment, the professor wins, and the students win as well. No one likes receiving a paper back from an unhappy professor.
- I schedule the due date for the book review assignment during the first half of the semester to get the students writing early before their assignments are due for their other classes. Also, in order for the feedback from this assignment to be of any benefit to aid them in their final writing assignment, they need to get it back sooner rather than later.
- The first assignment gets graded twice. In my larger classes, I use a graduate assistant to grade first all the reviews for style and grammar issues. Then I grade them for content and assign the final grades. This is a significant investment of time, but it is an investment that pays off immediately with regard to in-semester improvement in what the student produces in their final research paper.
(2) As a part of their final research paper, I require a preliminary Prospectus and Bibliography assignment.
- This is a short assignment where the student, well in advance of the due date for the final paper, submits a paragraph summary of what they intend to write, including a draft thesis statement, along with a snapshot bibliography of their research at that point.
- I tell the students that I require this assignment because I needed it required of me. Essentially, this forces the student to engage their paper at an early point in the semester and not at the last minute when resources are scarce and clear thinking is hard to find. Further, it allows me to provide immediate feedback and guide their research to ensure they get on the right track and read the right sources.
(3) A doable and hopefully intriguing research paper.
- Much like the book reviews, I assign the type of research paper that I enjoy writing and reading. In my history classes, this typically is a “theological biography” paper of fixed length and prescribed structure.
By the time I am grading the final paper (like I am finishing this week), I begin to see enjoyable results. Regularly do students rise to the challenge and attempt to write the very best paper they have ever attempted in all their schooling, and it shows. Students who despised history are now spending time in deep research and reading.
Sound too good to be true? Well, this does not happen with every student, but it does regularly happen with many students. This transformation process alone is why the teaching the same courses semester after semester never grows old. The semester long journey with students overboard in the water and back to dry ground makes it new and rewarding, to the glory and praise of God.
 In addition, they read and are quizzed over 1,300 pages of reading and have a cumulative final exam, among other assignments.
 Certainly, there remains much room for improvement in my approach and planning. In the 12 years I have been teaching at this level, I have learned something new each semester and have made many adjustments along the way. Also, I am the product of hopefully the best of my professors. Much of what I do that is profitable can be traced directly or indirectly to Malcolm B. Yarnell, III, David Alan Black, David Puckett, Gregory A. Wills, Keith Harper, Paige Patterson, David P. Nelson, Jason K. Lee, John Hammett, L. Russ Bush, Russell D. Moore, and many more. That said, all shortcomings and inconsistencies in my approach are alone certainly mine.