Wednesday, December 30, 2015

A Happier, Non-Dissertation Post.

I know I said I wasn’t planning to do dissertation blogging this week, and I’ve gone back and forth as to whether I felt like blogging anything at all. This is an introspective time of year, and there is, if anything, too much introspection in my life these days. A little break from that has been nice. And I’m never much for New Year’s sentimentality.

However, 2015 was a good year in our household, and I wanted to mention a couple of those positive things which have had nothing to do with my dissertation.

First, we were thrilled to be able to do some traveling earlier in the year, making it to California not once, but twice—first to visit family at the start of the year (the first time we’d seen my in-laws in almost three years), and later to Berkeley so that Kevin could receive his M.A. from the Graduate Theological Union.  It was our first time back in five years. 

I have often thought back on the Berkeley years as being remarkably difficult, dislocated ones, and while I don’t doubt the accuracy of those memories, I was surprised how many positive associations I felt . . . Looking at the familiar vendors along Telegraph, eating at Bongo Burger ( . . .possibly more than once), finally making the steep hike into the Hills to see the Rose Garden—something I’d wanted to do when we lived there, but probably wasn’t in good enough shape to manage at the time, or confident enough to venture on my own. That was an oddly triumphant moment for me. 

I suppose many of these feelings had to do with coming back a little different and a little older. Certainly our life doesn’t look the way I imagined it would back then—we didn’t guess, for instance, that Kevin would be walking for an M.A. instead of a Ph.D. after making a dramatic career switch—but I don’t think I would trade any of the experiences.

The other major development, of course, was our house—speaking of things I didn’t expect. I had hoped for a home of our own someday, but the possibility was hardly on my radar screen a year ago. We began looking at homes shortly after returning from Berkeley in mid-May (very much on a whim, initially), ultimately placed three different offers, and had an offer accepted on June 29. Not even six weeks later, we moved into our very own little place. Thanks to our wonderful realtors, as well as the surprisingly happy-go-lucky attitude with which we approached the thing, we enjoyed the process more often than not. We had been content in our city apartment (though we’d frankly outgrown it), and the house-hunting was marked by a vague sense of wonder at finding ourselves grown-up enough for such a step. I think the combination of those things helped us feel fairly peaceful about whatever happened. Even now, it all feels a bit dreamlike to me. 

I don’t think the decision to buy this house was a strongly emotional one for either of us. I didn’t have a feeling of its being The Right House—but once we moved in, it has become that more and more. I’m still surprised how happy it has made me.

Both these things were great blessings for us, and I hope that both—time with family and continuing to set up our home—will be major themes of 2016 as well.

If you’ll pardon a last bit of introspection—I reflected recently that so often, I pray for a deeper walk with God and an assurance of his presence; and yet, when he allows things in my life that force me to depend on him moment by moment (such as attacks of anxiety I can’t really control, or laughably minor aches and pains, or nagging unknowns about the future), I immediately beg for them to be taken away. Kind of ruefully funny at times, but a certain mark of the Fall all the same. Not that it’s wrong in itself to ask for His rescue—but I hope I won’t be so quick to overlook the opportunities the Lord gives to deepen my delight in Him, and not in my circumstances. He is so very gracious to do that, and to give comfort through the fellowship of His people, as I’ve found many times through this blog in recent months. Thank you guys, again, for your part in that.

Monday, December 21, 2015

December 21 dissertation notes (Week 17): Well . . . this happened.

My latest conference with my advisor didn’t go well—it went so poorly, in fact, that I didn’t want to face writing this update until January. I thought I was taking the outcome of the meeting in stride; then, the next day, I had some sudden and unmistakable anxiety symptoms (recurrent through the weekend) which made me realize I wasn’t fine. On Kevin’s urging, I am planning to set all this aside—to the extent that I can—and enjoy the Christmas break, giving me a chance to rest and clear my head before taking up the dilemma in earnest. However, I decided to go ahead and write the blog post, for two reasons. First, getting this in writing will actually help me to set it aside temporarily. If I don’t, fragments of this post will be chasing each other through my head for the next ten days, and I’ll become more anxious. The act of writing is a tangible relief and helps me transfer the worries to the backburner of my mind. Second, I wasn’t planning to do my regular Thursday blogging on Christmas Eve or New Year’s Eve (as festive as that would be *cough*), and I simply didn’t want to wait for three weeks before getting this out there.

In my previous post, I was preparing to suggest that I revert to my earlier topic rather than scrapping it altogether, in the hope that I could power through the rest of the writing and still graduate in good time. After reviewing my existing material (around 110 pages), although I could see that it would take a lot of effort, I was reasonably hopeful that this plan could work. So I did propose it to my adviser, sending along all the writing I had done. However, when we met last Thursday, his assessment of my work was very different. He said that it is still unsatisfactory, lacking the conventions of doctoral-level research, and that he doesn’t see how a dissertation could emerge from what I have. At this point, his recommendation is that I voluntarily withdraw from the doctoral program. I don’t have to act on this immediately, but he wants to reconvene by mid-January to hear my thoughts on the situation. While he would be willing to listen to an impassioned case for staying put, he was clearly decided in his read of things, and I think it would take something tremendous to get him to reconsider. 

I can’t help feeling blindsided by this. Even though I’d been warned about running out of time before, I did not expect the option of dropping out to be raised until the end of spring semester, if my intended revisions went poorly. (Indeed, I’d said as much—that if I couldn’t pull it together over the next few months, I’d be prepared to move on with my life.) My attitude was, “What’s another four months? I’ll either finish a passable draft or I won’t.” But my adviser’s view is that my material is in too undeveloped a state to be reasonably finished within the next year. Therefore, another semester isn’t going to make much of a difference, and it would be kinder to put me out of my misery now.

He said that I’m clearly a gifted writer, but that it’s become increasingly clear that this type of writing and academic work is not what I was made to do. I think there is some truth in this—heck, just browse this blog, and you’ll find many posts in which I question my long-term suitedness for academia. As far back as 2012, I’ve wondered whether I have the passion to sustain a career in this field, given the toll of stress, and the fact that academia isn’t actually a haven for bookish nerds—the type of research and writing you’re required to do doesn’t generally lend itself to the joys of learning. Even so, I figured I would keep those vocational questions on the shelf—I was still capable of finishing the degree, and I could worry about the rest after that.

The problems with the dissertation are many, judging from the written summary of his comments. Most are things that have come up before: that my writing tends toward the descriptive instead of the analytical, there isn’t a clear flow of argument, my “argument” doesn’t teach the reader anything that isn’t patently obvious in the sources, the literary analysis (including in Greek) is not strong enough, it’s just too incomplete in general. Below I share some thoughts on the manifold ways I screwed up in the way I approached my writing. I think a lot of it comes down to my simply having no idea how to tackle a writing task on this scale, and not getting into a sufficiently steady, consistent research/write/revise cycle. It’s a whole different beast from the 25-page seminar papers I’d gotten down to an art form. I’ve always had a pretty clear picture of what I was trying to do with this project, but I can’t seem to execute it, and that’s something you can’t mask with delightful prose.

I won’t ask that you continue reading the second half of this post unless you’re interested, but the basic situation is: The department is giving me the chance to cut my losses, right when I’d reached a place of optimism about finishing well. I am not sure what it would take to convince my adviser that it’s worth giving me a last shot, but it would need to be unprecedentedly persuasive. And I am not sure what is the best way to respond, given that his critiques have some merit, and I don’t think I will find any support for writing the dissertation as I had envisioned it two years ago.

Further thoughts on how I got to this point:

I think a big fault of mine, besides getting a slow and stumbling start on the prospectus and dissertation itself, was my naiveté about what it was going to take. For example, I had a mistaken view of what was meant by submitting “polished” material. I took this to mean that I needed to circulate writing that was clean and coherent enough for others to read and offer feedback; I didn’t interpret it as needing to have finished sections of my dissertation, but I think that’s what was wanted. 

I think this explains why I was mystified by some of the critiques I got—it isn’t that I even substantially disagreed with them (e.g., this terminology needs to be clarified; there needs to be more engagement with other scholarship; there’s too little explanation of Gregory’s context here, etc.); it’s that I assumed it was obvious those things would make it into the final product, and I assumed it was obvious to readers, too. So where my professor was seeing a somewhat messy and unevenly developed section and pointing out, with some alarm, all that was missing, I was thinking, “Why waste time pointing out obvious things? I’m a fifth-year candidate in Historical Theology; I know that stuff needs to be added. But this is a draft! Of course stuff is missing.” Looking back, it seems clear that I should have submitted more completed sections, because why bother taking the time to critique one another’s writing otherwise? But I guess I looked at the quarterly dissertation workshops more as checkpoints, making sure we had hard deadlines for page counts, and didn’t take the fullest advantage of them by submitting substantially completed excerpts that could be more usefully critiqued.

This also relates to what I mentioned last time, about my drafting process. Since the spring of 2014, my strategy for completing the dissertation has been “Words on Paper”—i.e., just get my ideas down, even though this initial layer will need lots of cutting and revision, and worry in subsequent rounds (layers two and three) about shaping the whole thing into a concise, scholarly narrative. This seems to have been a serious mistake. Because my initial round of drafting is relatively bare bones, it provoked the kinds of critiques described above, which led to my getting stalled on layers one and two while my adviser urged me to rethink the entire project, since it appeared that I wasn’t getting far enough or deep enough with my topic. I took for granted that we were on the same page about what I was arguing—after all, my prospectus had gotten approved before I started the dissertation.  But you can’t assume such things, even in a draft—you need to make the connections explicit each step of the way, rather than leaving them implied.

What I should have done from the beginning was to take my first workshopped draft and revise it immediately and thoroughly, addressing every detail of every critique I was given, and submit the polished re-write, rather than moving on to the next section of the dissertation and hoping that next time, my adviser would “get it.” Seems pretty clear, right? It should have been as simple as that. Then, we might have skipped some of these headaches altogether, and I might have avoided some methodological roadblocks for myself later on. But in the midst of things, it wasn’t obvious to me why my process wasn’t serving me well, and why my perception of my progress was different from my adviser’s.

Instead, it just felt like I couldn’t do anything right: When my first submission in 2014 didn’t contain enough analysis of Gregory’s texts, I devoted the next submission to explicating his texts. When told that that section wasn’t sufficiently grounded in the historical context, I decided to write the next section connecting Gregory’s theology of preaching to contemporary debates on the Holy Spirit—and then got the response, “Why are you changing your argument?” I was so confused and frustrated, because I thought it was patently obvious that I was providing background and context for Gregory’s ideas about preaching, as I’d been asked to do—not changing my topic. But, again, I seemed to habitually assume clarity where connections were not explicit.

I don’t know if this is clear or not. It’s not that my writing hasn’t needed any critique; far from it—it’s that, apparently, I haven’t been taking the right steps to get the level of critique I really need. And there seem to have been serious disconnects at every step. (I should add that some of my peers/colleagues did seem to understand my argument and its significance, so I don’t think my writing was so enigmatic and opaque…)

There have also been many issues with the advising process that would be inappropriate to get into here, and that made each step of the dissertation harder than it needed to be. As some of these emerged, I tried reaching out for guidance, but most of my attempts at advocating for myself have not gotten me far. I’m not sure why this is, except that what felt like bold steps to me might have come across as too discreet and self-deprecating to others (though I find this slightly hard to believe). At one point, when I expressed that something needed to be addressed in order to move forward successfully, I got a response thanking me for my “forthrightness and honesty,” and then . . . nothing. And when I’ve tried to push back against things that didn’t seem quite right, I’ve most often met with dismissal or exasperation, to the point that I’ve wondered if I’m simply crazy, or a squeaky wheel at best. In short, you might see why I don’t feel confident of having any recourse within the department.

Another thing that crosses my mind is the frequent, well-meant advice I’ve gotten, that the dissertation is simply a requirement for graduation, that “a good dissertation is a done dissertation,” because it’s probably the worst thing you’ll ever write and only two people will read it, etc. This is fair advice. It is legit. However, I think it only holds true insofar as that is the culture of the Ph.D. program in question. If the gatekeeper(s) want to see a better than crappy dissertation—something that can conceivably find publication with a respected academic press—then those typically helpful truisms go out the window.

That said, it might be that my dissertation is so bad that “crappy” isn’t even on the horizon yet. I don’t exactly have a clear perspective on things at this point.

In summary, as I see it:

  • I still think I could pull through with a passable dissertation, given another semester or two.

  • It probably won’t be possible with the same argument/topic I’ve tried to put forward for the past two years. To get my adviser on board, I’d need to present it in a fresh way, and that has never been successful before. I’ve spent most of 2015 trying.  

  • I’d need to find and implement a much cleaner, more efficient process for getting the dissertation written.

  • Either way, just because it’s possible doesn’t mean it’s the best investment of my time and energy at this point.

  • I’m really tired, my intellectual and vocational confidence are in tatters, and nothing about this has been fun.

So, I really don’t know what to do. But thank you for reading this far (and for all the support up to now), and I’d appreciate prayers for peace of mind over the next few weeks, as much as anything else.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

December 10 dissertation notes (Week 16): A risky proposal?

What ended up happening this week was an interesting exchange of emails, raising the possibility that the dissertation could get back on the track I wanted. It's too early to tell, but...

Yesterday my advisor wrote, wanting to know where my new project outline was. I briefly despaired at this, because (as I've mentioned to you all) I'd come to the conclusion that the suggested new direction was a likely dead end. Finally, I decided to just say that (though I still attached the work I had done). But, I also suggested an alternative way forward. I'd been looking over some of my earliest dissertation work, including my original prospectus, which was approved in October, 2013, and deemed "excellent" by the whole committee. Especially compared to what I have been fiddling around with recently, it's a solid piece of work, and it was encouraging for me to read it again.

Then it occurred to me: Everyone agreed that I had a sound research question and argument at that point in the process -- or else the topic wouldn't have been approved. Granted, my early dissertation drafts are kind of a mess (because . . . they're early drafts?), and my argument isn't coming through as consistently as it needs to. But why are we trying to solve that problem by having me rethink my entire topic, instead of having me revise and polish what I've already written, so that it adheres to what my prospectus laid out (which, let me say again, *everyone liked*)? Does that make sense?

The other advantage of reverting to the earlier outline is that, as Kevin pointed out, it lets me jump back into writing. There will be further research needed, of course, but nowhere near as much as I'd need to do for a newly refocused dissertation.

So I drafted an email explaining all this, ran it by Kevin (to make sure it was clear, sensible, and bold -- i.e. free of self-deprecation and second guessing), and I sent it. And the response didn't entirely shoot me down. There wasn't really a response to the reasoning I presented, but he is willing to look at all the material I've written so far to determine if it's a plausible way forward.

He also reiterated that he'd have to be convinced that there's enough analytical work going on, since my work so far hasn't been persuasive in that regard. I think part of the issue here is the way I draft . . . The only way I figured out how to produce pages at a consistent rate last year was to separate the process into three distinct drafting layers: layer one is simply my interaction with the primary texts; layer two is constructing a scholarly edifice around the first layer, including interaction with secondary texts; and layer three is polishing the whole thing into a consistent narrative, making sure I'm reiterating my argument throughout. The fact is that I didn't get much past layer one in my first year of writing. I don't know if explaining this will really help, or change his assessment of the writing I did last year, but I suppose I need to try. (And if anyone has a better method -- seriously, tell me.)

I also said that if I'm able to pull together a mostly completed rough draft by May, then I'll plow ahead; but if I can't, then I'll have to conclude that the project isn't worth salvaging, and move on with my life. Stating that feels like more of a relief than anything. I used to think that I needed to ploddingly persevere no matter what; but I think pretty soon I'll hit a point of diminishing returns, if I haven't already. There comes a point where perseverance might mean finding better uses for my talents.

Anyway, I don't think we're quite at that point yet. I'll keep you posted on how this develops.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

December 3 dissertation notes (Week 15): What to do next?

This week has had all the awkwardness that re-entry following holiday travel typically does. Which is to say that I didn't accomplish a great deal.

I did, as promised, meet with my professor on Monday; but I'm not yet sure what will come of it. He was sympathetic and wants to do what he can to help me finish successfully. He was already scheduled to meet with my adviser the following day on other matters, so he expected that they would discuss my project and present impasse. I . . . hope that's good? I haven't heard anything yet. In any case, I suppose it's good to have brought him into the loop. I probably should have done it much sooner.

After our meeting, too, I sent him, in effect, all the writing I've done so far: about 90 pages' worth written during 2014, plus about 15 pages summarizing research I did over this summer and fall in the attempt to jump-start or revamp the stalled dissertation. Looking over it all, I wasn't sure what to think. On one hand: nearly a hundred pages of dissertation in under a year; that's not too shabby. On the other hand: It's something like 30,000 words in a year, with little new material written since that time. Which is . . . not very impressive at all.

The main reason I haven't produced much in 2015 is because I've been revising existing material, repeatedly, in the hope of shaping the project in accordance with the way I'm being advised. I miss writing... Last December, when I set a modest daily page count in order to meet my 100-page goal before Christmas, I did well with it, and kind of enjoyed it. That was one of the most productive and hopeful phases of the process, and it made the thing seem doable. So I'm wondering if I should set a writing goal of some kind for the next few weeks. Problem is, the last time I took that approach, I was told to quit worrying about page count because the project's structural bones weren't solid enough. So it's a conundrum -- I need to write in order to get my thoughts flowing and stay motivated; but each time I submit some writing, it seems I've moved myself further away from the goal of having a completed dissertation.

I can't expect someone to offer a magic bullet. I wish I could! But I have to do something proactive to keep from wallowing. So, barring other advice from my professor(s), my goal is: write 5 pages of something by next Thursday. Something, even if it's just five more pages of the project as I envisioned it before. Actually, what I should probably do is write five more pages of the new project outline my advisor's hoping to see (even though I'd halfway set it aside, fearing that it's a non-starter in itself and that I'm basically just BSing). Maybe BSing is the key right now, instead of trying to convey some grand idea?

Anyway, I'll write something, if only so that I don't spend another week tied up in knots of confusion, shame, and frustration over it all. If that goes well, I'll aim for 7-10 the following week.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

November 19 dissertation notes (Week 14): I wrote something, at least.

I ended last week unsure what my next steps should be, so I finally decided that this week, I should just write—“write as if you know what you're talking about.” And it turned out to be a pretty good exercise! I can’t tell you how good it felt to just focus on putting ideas into words for a little while, instead of on an apparently never-ending series of tedious preparatory/revision tasks. There was a certain smoothness and freedom of thought I’ve lacked and missed over much of the past year. I guess I should do this more often, or at least figure out how to make it a steadier part of my routine, even if it can’t be my primary task each week. I keep waiting until I’m “allowed” to proceed with writing as my main focus again; but we all know how much good that’s done.

As to whether I know what I’m talking about—it remains to be seen. Six weeks ago, or whenever it was, I was asked to come up with a new 10-page summary of my project—topic, argument, and outline (like I spent last summer doing). I’ve written something like five pages this week, basically presenting what I’ve mentioned to you guys over the past several weeks. Because that’s what I have. I really do not think it’s going to cut it as a new dissertation topic, for reasons I’ve also mentioned. Even as I enjoyed writing it, I was conscious that I was mainly covering ground Rosemary Ruether had already covered almost 50 years ago. I could write a dissertation that’s something like, “Commending the Christian Life in the Encomia of Gregory of Nazianzus,” and have chapters like “Speaking as a Christian,” “Grieving as a Christian,” and so forth, arguing that he adapts certain Greco-Roman rhetorical norms to put forward distinctively Christian modes of living. But that’s the thing—it’s not really an argument! No one would dispute it. Even if no one has presented it in quite this way, it’s not really contributing anything new.

So I’m looking at this as a helpful writing exercise and little more. I’m going to work on it a bit more tomorrow as I have opportunity, but I’m really looking toward my meeting with my favorite committee member after Thanksgiving, talking through everything with him, and seeing if he has any fresh perspective on this. Then my advisor wants to see the project summary in December. I don’t know what I’m going to be able to tell him. Really, no idea. At this point I could only say, “I pretty much did what you suggested and am convinced it’s a dead end.” But I’m not panicking, yet.

I don’t plan on posting next week (Thanksgiving and all), but hope to have some better news to share the first week of December. Thanks to everyone who’s been following along—it means a great deal to me.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

November 12 dissertation notes (week 13): Mind games & such

Earlier in this process, I remember feeling rebuked for seeking advice that was too directive—e.g. when first trying to decide whether my topic would be comparative or not, I asked, “What would you advise?” and got an exasperated response, to the effect that the decision needed to be all mine. And another time, I was told that it sounded like I wanted to be given a topic, but then it wouldn’t really be my project.

But now, having gone around and around on this several times, I’ve come to the realization that I do need to hew as closely as possible to what my committee wants, and that, for all the insistence on its being “my project,” it doesn’t really belong to me, ultimately. It feels like this process has been an elaborate mind game, where the rules keep changing. (To be fair, I’ve gotten frustrated with people for not being able to read my mind when they don’t understand my writing.)

This is rather challenging for me, as someone who takes what authority figures say at face value (because they’re teachers, see, so they must be right). For example: during that brief, happy window of time after my prospectus was approved and I advanced to candidacy and believed I was on the same page as my committee, my prof told me, “Congratulations—email me when you have a chapter completed.” I heard this as, “Don’t contact me until you have a chapter completed.” So, when I fell into a slump after writing ten pages and spent weeks struggling to pull myself together, I didn’t reach out to my advisor or anyone because I thought . . . come to think of it, I don’t know what I thought; that I’d get in trouble for needing help? Instead, I got criticized for not asking for help sooner. 

Does that help explain why this process has been bewildering and frustrating? I don’t do mind games, with anyone. Life is too difficult already to not say what you mean.

But it would probably behoove me to learn to take others less literally. Or not to over-interpret their words? GAHHH I DON’T KNOW. It’s a form of graciousness, I guess.

I wish I’d had a list of the “rules” a few years ago. Then again . . . I probably did; I just chose to ignore them because they sounded too cynical to my ears (“but it’ll be different for me!”). Instead, I’ve spent much of the past three years bleating in protest that the dissertation has turned out to be, well, a dissertation.

Anyway, water under the bridge. How am I moving forward with this?

  • After last week’s tentative brainstorm of comparing Christian and pagan encomia, I looked at Rosemary Radford Ruether’s 1969 dissertation on Gregory’s use of rhetoric and was forced to conclude that what needs to be written on this subject has already been written.
  • While there are some interesting parallels between Gregory’s and Themistius’ approaches to rhetoric and philosophy, I’m not convinced that there’s enough to fill a chapter, much less a sustained comparison. Maybe a chapter is enough?
  • Part of me wants to bail and do something altogether different, e.g. Gregory’s poetry is delightful, and the scholarship on this part of his corpus doesn’t seem to be as extensive. But then I think of having to remain in this Ph.D. program beyond next year, and I can’t bear the thought…
  • After Thanksgiving I’m meeting with a professor I’ve always gotten along with well, in hopes that he can help me out of this impasse.
I’m honestly not sure what to do next week. I want to head into the holiday feeling more settled about things...