Thursday, September 24, 2015

September 24 dissertation notes (Week 5)

This week I'm tired and unfocused. Part of this, I suspect, is because we've been slightly off our usual routine lately, with Kevin having maybe the craziest on-call weekend he's ever had, followed by out-of-town training. (All of which he's handled admirably, I should note.) I also might still be recovering from some of the stress of last week. Regardless of the cause, energy and mental clarity have been escaping me.

At last week's meeting, my advisor suggested that, as a mental exercise, I should think about what a pagan contemporary of Gregory's would have written about what is involved in delivering a persuasive speech, and then think about what Gregory himself would say, and not say, about giving a Christian sermon -- the point being that this will get me thinking about the differences between them, and thus help me refine what I am arguing about Gregory's understanding of preaching within his context. This is actually one of the more helpful suggestions I've received. In beginning to tackle it this week, I've felt rather daunted, because the topic of classical Greco-Roman rhetoric is huge and easy to get bogged down in. (Not to mention, not really my area.) But I suspect I'm making it too hard for myself by trying to locate a perfect fourth century example of rhetorical theory. If really pressed, I could probably list some of the distinctions off the top of my head. (I have trouble trusting myself to know things off the top of my head.) So maybe next week I should start there, then look to other sources as needed. Then, hopefully, it will still be possible to submit some clearer ideas to my advisor by the end of next week.

Right now, I mostly feel like reading Kristen Lavransdatter for the third time. Because what, I ask you, is a better escape than medieval Norwegian historical epic?

Friday, September 18, 2015

Week 4 follow-up

In a comment on my last post, my excellent friend Chubbic has pretty much nailed my (our) mental process, if anyone's curious. I have my reservations about the way MBTI typing sometimes gets used, but this is as clear a description of the way my thinking works as any I've read.

In light of some exchanges with classmates since yesterday, I was prompted to open a running file of research ideas I have kept since fall 2011. In this file I've jotted any topic I've come across that struck me as something I might enjoy researching someday, when I had the freedom to pursue it. The idea is that some of these might germinate into articles, or even popular-level books. I've ignored this list for long stretches, while trudging through valleys of academic ennui. But glancing over it today (it's a little over a page long, at this point), I felt a little more encouraged than disillusioned, which itself is a hopeful sign. Even if most of these never come to fruition, much less publication, it's heartening to think that they haven't totally lost interest for me. Even if I don't go the route of the traditional academic job, there are still some neat things I could do after graduation. And just because my interest and creativity and drive have been at a fairly low ebb over the past few years, that doesn't mean it will always be this way.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

September 17 dissertation notes (week 4: scrutiny)

Thanks for the encouraging comments last week; they helped a lot.

Tonight was the feedback session with my advisor and Early Church colleagues. It wasn't so bad. The last three times we did this, I was so nervous beforehand that I didn't eat. (Which, trust me, doesn't happen that often.) Tonight Kevin took me out for dinner beforehand, which was helpful in multiple ways. I came in feeling more sane, more settled, and less likely to faint, which is always good.

In case you're wondering, I went with my instinct and submitted my material from over the summer, rather than trying to cobble together something more "respectable"-looking at the last minute. It was the right decision. The consensus was that it's in many ways an improvement over what I've submitted in the past. However, there still isn't absolute clarity about what the core focus of the dissertation is, so I need to put some more work into that before I resume chapters. It's really frustrating to me that I struggle to express my thoughts in the concise and crystal-clear form my advisor wants to see. Why is this??? It isn't about writing ability; it's something about my thought processes, I guess, and that's tougher to pin down. The discussion was whether my dissertation is about preaching, or the Holy Spirit, or the role of the Holy Spirit in preaching, or the role of the Holy Spirit in the sacramental life of the church; and my response is pretty much, "...All of the above?" Which doesn't seem to be working for anyone. So, I don't know. My advisor wants to see a revised outline in two weeks (which, I have to remind myself, sounds like a long time, but probably amounts to 32 hours of work if I'm being super optimistic), so I'll nail it down one way or another.

Since I spent most of this week reading my classmates' excerpts in order to give them feedback (I ultimately have to read each draft about 4 times in order to come up with good comments/questions; it isn't something I can cram in the night before), I don't have anything else to report productivity-wise. That's okay. It's always an interesting and worthwhile exercise reading others' work. I don't even mind, much, that I am nearly the farthest behind at this point. They're a good group of guys (and women -- we've been slowly gaining some).

Anyway. That's done. I don't have to worry about another meeting until January. Maybe I'll be in better form by then.

Friday, September 11, 2015

September 11 dissertation notes (week 3)

This week, I’m back to feeling how little I know what I’m doing, and how little energy I have to fake it.

Following an enjoyable Labor Day weekend, I lost the earlier part of the workweek to sickness, to one of those colds that often hits once campus fills up with people again, then retreats as quickly as it struck. I more or less sleepwalked through working in the library on Tuesday and Wednesday (though I avoided knocking over any priceless manuscript displays as far as I know), then was able to sleep more than 12 hours on Wednesday night into Thursday, which helped a great deal! I’ll probably be feeling back to normal by the time the weekend is through.

The thing that really made the bottom fall out of this week, though, was my advisor’s call to submit excerpts of our work for a group feedback session next week. We do this three times a year, and it has a history of going rather poorly for me, filling the previous two weeks with anticipatory dread. I’m supposed to submit something by the end of today, so I’ve been cobbling together a section on Gregory’s preaching in the context of baptism…mostly culling portions from older drafts and trying to make them fit into the restructured format I worked on over the summer. But I’ve realized it feels like such a waste of everyone’s time to ask for feedback on a slapped-together ten pages when I don’t know if the new structure/refined focus (what I sent to my professor a week ago Tuesday) is in good shape. It would probably feel less shameful to say that although I should have written a bunch more pages over the summer anyway, I don’t feel comfortable moving forward until I know if the outline is on the right track. That's mostly an excuse, though.

So, I don’t know what to do. When I have to deal with the dissertation itself and talk about it (instead of busying myself with slowpoke research), there’s such a sense of shame, dread, and confusion—of knowing that I’m quite capable of writing a publishable dissertation, but that I somehow keep failing to follow through on the steps needed to make that happen.

Well, that’s what’s happening this week.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

A Sermon on Calling

Even though I studiously take notes on most sermons, I’m honestly not that good at revisiting them, and I want to make sure I remember parts of today’s—possibly they’ll be useful for someone else, too.

Our guest preacher’s text was 1 Corinthians 7:17-24, and he taught about work and calling. I would really encourage you to listen to the sermon itself, once it is posted, rather than hearing it filtered through me. However, here were some of the major points, as I heard them:

  • God calls us first to Himself and secondly to particular places and roles. (See, e.g., Romans 1:6, “called to belong to Jesus Christ.”) And we all have multiple callings in our lives; "calling" is not reducible to our employment.

  • The meaning of our work is often hidden from us. Not being able to see the significance of our work can drive us to despair. But God sees it, and He knows why He puts us in a particular place of service. It’s our job to strive to be faithful in that place.

  • We struggle with this because we get stuck in a place we don’t like or that doesn’t feel quite right and are tempted to think, “If I could just escape, then I’d be happy.” But as v. 17 shows, there is in Scripture a bias toward staying in the place where God has placed you.

  • This is not fatalistic; it does not mean, for instance, that if you are in a bad or unhealthy situation, it wouldn’t be right for you to look for opportunities to get out of it. Like anything, situations like this call for much wisdom and discernment. (An example might be my husband’s decision last year to change careers rather than trying to salvage a career in academia/ministry.)

  • However, it does mean that you aren’t always looking for “the next thing” or for advancement or change for its own sake. This ties into a challenge many of us experience, where Christian and secular ideas about calling are banging around in our heads, to the point that what we’re espousing is really a secular idea baptized: namely, that “my work should be fulfilling.” We are prone to exaggerate the range of options we have and to act like there’s a perfect situation out there for us, if only we could find it, or set ourselves up for it in just the right way. (And, realistically, it’s a relatively privileged few who have this kind of flexibility open to them, much less the ability to take advantage of it.) Biblically speaking, though, we’re called instead to serve God based on the abilities He has given us.

  • So, in other words, try not to think of life as a series of choices; ask yourself instead, “How can I find myself within the web of relationships and circumstances in which God has placed me?” Instead of, “What do you want to do?” or “What will make me happy?”, ask “Where has God put me?” Trust Him with the gifts, experiences, opportunities, and relationships He’s given you, and don’t worry about the tangible results, which are not up to you and not even, necessarily, the point.
[To be clear, the rest are my own extrapolations/reflections.]

One thing I like about this is that it’s affirming of the goodness of ordinary pursuits. I know I’ve heard a lot of messages, whether explicit or implicit, trying to stir up Christians to make a big impact in the world for Jesus; but I’ve wondered lately how much this might be shaped by worldly thinking, or, dare I say it, a “theologian of glory” mindset. It presumes a lot, both about the uniqueness of our gifts and about God’s intentions in using them. It certainly seems to rest on me knowing what I’m doing, which is a potentially crushing thought—because what if I miss that one thing I’m apparently uniquely equipped to do? And who is to say that the more obviously visible impacts are the most important or most pleasing to God?

I also think this is an especially challenging word to my generation. I’m probably not alone in having grown up imbibing the message that I have a unique calling and a very specific niche I’m called to carve out, and not only that, I can expect to be "fulfilled" in the pursuit of my passion. Talk about soul-crushing—and how discouraging to reach a point where you’ve followed all the “right” steps and discover that you’ve “failed” because you just don’t love it enough! Again, how much of this is a function of privilege, of the illusion that our choices are unlimited and that we really can be anything we want to be? I know for a fact this isn’t how Christians have thought about vocation and calling for the vast majority of history; and I doubt it’s a mindset that would even make sense to most Christians in the broader world.

Looking at calling this way can be liberating when the purpose and impact of my work is not transparent to me and might never be in this life. It lifts the burden of needing to have things figured out, and to be constantly in pursuit of the next goal instead of learning contentment here and now—which, let’s face it, is a hard enough task.

It’s not easy to figure out how this translates into specific circumstances, or to unlearn a lifetime’s worth of false messages about one’s purpose and value, but, as Kevin put it, it’s about gradually habituating oneself to a different (biblical) way of thinking.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

September 3 dissertation notes (week 2)

Things done this week:

  • Submitted my outline, along with the 9-page project summary I’d written earlier in the summer. On Tuesday I came to the conclusion that I could spend another couple of weeks trying to perfect the outline, but that what I actually need right now is feedback on the dissertation’s current state. So I sent everything off without much further ado.
  • Finished typing notes on the two books I mentioned last week—John Chrysostom on Divine Pedagogy and The Art of Listening in the Early Church.
  • Read/skimmed five journal articles of potential relevance. The impressive thing here is that I did skim, as this is an academic skill which I have generally balked at mastering. Even though I know it’s necessary and expected, it always leaves me feeling a bit yucky. I see the point, though—of these five articles, only one (on Gregory’s preaching on festal occasions) is likely going to be cited much, so it would have been a waste of time to read each of them closely. I guess.
My intent for next week is to begin working on one of my chapters—on the doctrine of the Holy Spirit—in earnest. But that’s sort of pending my advisor’s response.

Other stuff

One thing I’ve learned about myself over the last few years is that I process new material fairly slowly. I don’t feel I’ve actually read something until I’ve written about it, or, at minimum, taken some notes on it. So going through a highly pertinent secondary source (book/monograph) takes me a long time, because I first have to read it carefully, mark important passages with Post-Its, then type up my notes in a Word document. I’m not very quick about any of it. I’ve thought many times that my colleagues must have more efficient ways of doing research, but I haven’t stumbled upon an alternative that works for me. I don’t like reading on or in front of the computer—when I’m reading a book, I really prefer to read a book—and while I have no objection to handwritten notes, I don’t have a system for keeping track of them, and it’s easier to have notes in a searchable format for a project on this scale. So I just keep plodding through everything. I guess you can see why I’ve been kind of a slowpoke about this. And why I have a hard time with skimming.

It’s worth noting that I found a route for a good 30-minute walk through the neighborhood this week—on the days I’m working at home, this is as important for my mental well-being as anything else.