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One of the great joys of my work at Western Theological Seminary is meeting with students to talk about their writing. Students can send me their papers anytime, and I get to be a conversation partner as they wrestle with the professor’s prompt, construct their arguments, and attend to the finer details of grammar, punctuation, and footnotes. What fun!

In these early days of the semester, most students have yet to tackle their major writing assignments. Before they encounter research papers and book reviews, first semester in-residence students must face the weekly assignment for their Church History class, the AAA (pronounced “triple A”).

Ah, the AAA. A 250-word response to the day’s reading constructed in three movements: Analyze (describe a key theme from what you’ve read), Assess (interrogate and evaluate that key theme), and Apply (relate the key theme to the current ministry context).

Friends, I *love* the AAA. I think it’s the best assignment in the world. And you might be surprised to learn that the task proves difficult for many students.

First, it’s very short. While that might seem a boon, I can tell you, it makes the writing tricky. In this blog post I’ve already reached 200 words, and I’ve hardly told you anything! If you are a theologian or keep company with theologians, you know we tend toward verbosity. AAAs teach conciseness.

Second, AAAs force a separation of description and evaluation. Often, when I read the first draft of a AAA paper, I notice students using value-laden language in their descriptions. “Athanasius’s most important contribution is…”; “I think we need to look closer at…”. Phrases like these move beyond summarizing and describing as an observer to evaluating the strength or weakness in one’s ideas. 

Frankly, I don’t think many of us notice the distinction. Much of what I read these days, especially at the popular level, is highly reactive. We assume that we understand what we read and our first instinct is to evaluate — to “like,” “share,” or comment with our own affirmation or disagreement. 

Don’t misunderstand me; communal exchange of ideas is important, but if we conflate description and assessment, if we miss the moment of careful observation, we risk misunderstanding another’s perspective, and our ability to have healthy dialogue breaks down. AAAs teach the discipline of separating description and evaluation.

Third, and on a related note, AAAs prioritize description as the first movement. When I talk with students about their AAA papers, they sometimes ask me how they can know where to start. They can’t possibly summarize the entire reading in 250 words, so how do they decide what to write about?

I tell them they may find that the theme of their AAAs comes from a sense of reaction. As we read, we might feel a response. An “aha” moment of clarity; “I never thought about it like that before!” A feeling of excitement or energy; “Yes, I totally agree!” A feeling of anger or frustration, “How could Luther say something like that?!” Or confusion; “Wait, I don’t understand” or “But wouldn’t that imply this other problematic thing?”

I counsel students to notice that moment of reaction in themselves. It signals a place they might want to explore further. But the beauty of the AAA assignment is that the writing doesn’t start there. Once we’ve recognized our reactivity, the task is to take a step back, read the passage again with an observer’s eye, and write about what we notice. Instead of “I don’t like Iraneaus,” we might say, “In Against Heresies, Irenaeus writes…”

The skill here is not dissimilar to the pastoral skill of active listening. In essence, we’re listening to the text and responding with “What I hear you saying is…” If Irenaeus was in the room we’d want him to respond, “Yes, that’s what I was getting at,” regardless of our ultimate agreement or disagreement.

Why am I telling you this, dear reader, who is likely not a first-semester student at Western Theological Seminary?

Because I’ve been wondering: can I apply the disciplines of the AAA to other interactions?

When I receive an email from a coworker and feel threatened (“How dare they imply I dropped the ball on this!? It’s their fault anyway!”), do I have the wherewithal to take a step back and make the descriptive move (“What she said was…”)? This doesn’t mean I don’t respond; it may be that I am justified in my reaction. But the descriptive move helps me check myself and ask for clarification where I need it.

What would happen if our social media posts took the form of AAAs? What if we had to write AAAs for every book we read, podcast we listen to, advertisement we encounter?

I wonder if we’d be more aware of the messages we’re receiving. We’d certainly be challenged to check our reactions, to seek clarity, to provide thoughtful, cogent, and concise responses.

Maybe I’ll write some AAAs of my own this week. What about you?

Katlyn DeVries

Katlyn DeVries lives in Holland, Michigan with her husband and two children. She is an ordained minister in the Reformed Church in America and works as a writing tutor and in the Girod Chair at Western Theological Seminary.

One Comment

  • Barbara J. Hampton says:

    I was trained in and still always use the inductive style of Bible study, asking the text, “What does it say? What does it mean? What does it mean to me/us?” in that order. I love your reframing of the first question as active listening!

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