Saturday, November 2, 2013


"Strong scholars and successful professors experience bumpy roads in graduate school and after. Learn how to fall on your face and pick yourself up. Learn how to turn the train around. Learn how to glean good lessons from bad teachers in an effort to be a good teacher to those undergraduates under your care. Learn to look up, act on faith that the Big Principle has purpose: failing an exam does not mean that you don’t belong here. The only people who don’t belong in the classroom, library, laboratory, or lecturing from the podium are those who fear confrontation of incommensurable truth-claims, and who seek safety over the production and excavation of ideas—even scary ideas. [. . .] If you remember the Big Questions and claim them in your heart as your Big Questions, you will find that there are more ways to succeed than to fail and you will be connected to something that matters. Don’t fret because your path to those Big Questions doesn’t look like somebody else’s journey. Don’t fret when the path is lonely or treacherous. Look up." --Rosaria Butterfield, in The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert

As I mentioned last time, I didn't pass my prospectus defense at the end of September. I was fully expecting to have to endure a second defense sometime this winter (and, if that wasn't successful, of possibly being asked to leave the program); but, after submitting revisions to my advisor early last week, I was thrilled to learn that he and my committee members not only approved of them, but thought they were excellent, and had given me clearance to begin writing my dissertation. I could hardly believe it, in fact. I am so thankful to have ABD status and to be moving forward at last!

This past year has been a truly awful experience in many respects. I never quite reached the point of wanting to walk away, but my confidence in my academic vocation was nearly shattered on more than one occasion. I'm not sure I could give a clear and consistent explanation for why the past 15 months were such a mess for me. I think there are multiple factors, and I'm not too inclined to delineate them here. While I still have questions about my long-term suitedness for academia (and, unfortunately, I don't entirely have the luxury of putting those on the shelf while I work on the dissertation--there's the matter of the job market, for one), I am more confident that I have a place here for the time being. It is such a relief to be on the other side of this long year of waiting and ambiguity!

Some of my classmates have suggested that the prospectus is the toughest obstacle in the Ph.D. program, and that it will become easier from here. I don't know whether that will prove true for me, but I am betting that, as difficult as it's sure to be, researching and writing the actual dissertation will turn out to be a much more pleasant (or at least tolerable) experience than writing 6 or 7 drafts of a 30-page proposal. Either way, as other friends have pointed out, I've been confirmed in the hunch that getting through a dissertation is as much about persistence and stubbornness as it is about particular intellectual gifts.

I have a tentative goal of finishing in the spring of 2015, but I am still discerning how feasible that really is, especially if I am teaching next year, etc. For now, I'm thankful for the privilege of getting to focus exclusively on writing until next May. And of getting to spend a little longer in school, with the time and resources to pursue questions that are of interest to me, and that I hope are important to the church.

Thanks for loving me and being patient with me through this process (you all know who you are)--for not letting me lose sight of my Big Questions, or lose perspective on where my lasting joy and identity lie. More than anything, the past year has given me greater trust in God's faithfulness in bringing me through difficult circumstances, even when the significance of what I'm enduring feels like a mystery at best and useless at worst. I'm going to need a lot more gumption to get me through the rest, so please keep me in your prayers.

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