Thursday, October 22, 2015

October 22 dissertation notes (Week 10): Unfamiliar ground

It might not be hopeless.

The problem with being asked to reorient my project around contemporary rhetoric in late antiquity is that I feel I need a degree in classics in order to understand it. This is why I’ve always steered clear of focusing too closely on the topic—I know I can’t really do it justice. This week I looked a bit at some speeches of Himerius and some of Themistius, both roughly contemporaneous with Gregory. They are, unsurprisingly, packed with classical references I’m too shallowly versed to understand. I know a little about the broader context of rhetorical education in this period; I reviewed its basic structure and content today with the help of a very useful, just-published Companion to Ancient Education. (Thanks, university eBook access!) However, I’ve simply studied too little of the pre- and non-Christian literature to grasp the import of the myriad allusions found in any writing of the period. Kevin was classically educated; I've barely read snippets of Homer. :-( So I'm uneasy about writing a historically, literarily naive dissertation.

But I said it might not be hopeless. The only thing I read this week that made me think that way was an oration by Themistius, “On Speaking, or How the Philosopher Should Speak,” which contains some intriguing lines on the power of speech, and in defense of speaking on philosophy to the masses. Interesting, but enough to start building substantial revisions around? It’s too early to tell.

So next week I’ll pick up with more of Themistius, and also look at the work of another contemporary, Libanius.

In other news, my anxiety level has been a bit higher than normal this week (not just because of academics). Mercifully, it hasn’t been like this for a good while, but for the past few nights, I’ve had some physical symptoms that have made it difficult to fall asleep. It’s mildly distressing to feel that your body is attempting to sabotage you in this way, even when your thoughts seem calm and under control. However, I’m feeling somewhat better today, so I hope that sticks.

Next week, I have some things going on which might make it difficult to post an update; however, you can look for one, as usual, the first week of November.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

October 15 dissertation notes (Week 9): This one has pictures!

I admit it, y'all -- I spoiled myself a little bit today.

This morning I had to take care of some errands I was dreading, and when close to Forest Park on the way home, I obeyed the impulse to wander through the park for an hour before returning home. Because I knew it would restore some of the energy I'd just expended, and it's the sort of thing I always think about doing, but rarely actually take the opportunity to do. And because, well, Forest Park. And it's fall, and a particularly beautiful day.

And now that I've turned my attention back to my work, I do feel more content and hopeful than I likely would have without the detour. Still . . . things aren't awesome, following on last week's discussion.

I did send the follow-up email I mentioned in the previous post. That, and the response, was helpful, in that I know what I'm supposed to be doing next, and it seems I diagnosed the points of conflict more or less successfully. Still, even now, I don't feel as if the theological interest of the dissertation has ever been fully understood and accurately reflected back to me, and I'm being told to revisit things, once again, that I thought I'd demonstrated my grasp of several times over. Which is demoralizing, to say the least. But for a few reasons, I don't think that pushing back against those things would be very fruitful. There isn't much to do, at this point, besides pursue the track that's been suggested to me, and try to do it as best I can.

I was given the goal of submitting a revised statement of my topic, argument, and outline by December. So this week I've started pulling out material on rhetoric, particularly speeches by some of Gregory Nazianzen's contemporaries, such as Themistius and Himerius (both non-Christian rhetors who wrote and taught in the fourth century). I'm also supposed to look at progymnasmata, which are rhetorical exercise books of the kind Gregory himself would have studied in school. It's honestly not very interesting so far -- Kevin referred to it as eating one's academic spinach. I don't mind spinach in moderation, but I'd feel better about consuming so much if I were confident it's leading somewhere and isn't just a rabbit trail. But there's no way to determine that except by committing myself to seeing it through. So next week I'm going to have to hit this stuff really hard and see if I can begin to see any tenable comparisons taking shape. Maybe it wouldn't be a bad idea to mix in some of what I actually enjoy reading -- i.e. Gregory -- not only to keep up motivation, but to help get my mind into more of a comparative gear. Kind of like mixing some bacon in with the spinach, if you will. :-)

Thursday, October 8, 2015

October 8 dissertation notes (Week 8): Meeting

Was I saying that last week was rough for the dissertation? This week was worse...

Within a week of each other, and quite independently, my husband and one of my best friends made the following analogies (paraphrased): "It sounds like you're writing blank verse and being criticized for using improper sonnet structure," and "You're trying to write Chopin and being forced to turn it into a Sousa march." Clearly I surround myself with excellent people :) And the latter gives way too much credit to my writing... Still, that's kind of what it's felt like, at various moments throughout this process.

A lot of it seems to come down to simple difficulty in communication. When I met with my adviser this week, I often felt, from the reactions I got, as if I were answering different questions than I was being asked; or, at least, that we had opposite ideas about where the real heart and interest of my project lay. The more I've thought about it this week, the more I've wondered if that's the key to why none of my revisions have passed muster.

Here's what I mean. The main takeaway from this week's meeting is that my argument about Gregory's preaching is still not sufficiently analytical; it's too descriptive; there isn't a clear sense of a narrative in my dissertation. That is, the fact that Gregory understood preaching to be a means of God's grace (this is shorthand for my argument, but it's the gist), is not, by itself, interesting, no matter how neglected it's been in others' scholarship. It's describing something about Gregory's writings that presumably anyone could glean if they tried. What's interesting is why that's the case.

Now, I've made a point of discussing elements of Gregory's context in my dissertation. You can't talk about ideas, or their proponents, without seeking to understand them in terms of the period and environment in which they stood. But, to me, the fact that Gregory's ministry was framed by controversies over the Holy Spirit, and that he was trying to establish his authority as spokesman for orthodoxy, are the "well, duh," part of this. Undoubtedly those things were in the air, and as such probably shaped the way he talked about the effects of preaching and the role of the preacher. They don't make the theological ideas all that much more or less interesting. Moreover, assuming too much explanatory significance for them seems at best speculative, and at worst, painfully reductionistic. (As Kevin put it, "as if theology was a strategic game or a wax nose.") So I've held back from making them too explicit a part of my argument.

So, what I'm wondering is, is my argument coming across as a primarily theological argument and not a sufficiently historical one? Could that really explain all the obstacles in pushing this project forward? That the way I've framed the project is inappropriate for the methodology I need to be following? Is that what could be meant by descriptive vs. analytical? I don't want to make a faith-based claim and then spackle in some historical context to make it look as legit as possible. That's not sound scholarship...

A way around the problem of context could be to return to more of a comparative project, which is what my adviser is suggesting. He said that if I'm really wanting to argue that Gregory saw preaching as doing something more than the Greco-Roman rhetoric of his day, then I really need to be doing a comparison of his writings with contemporary rhetorical handbooks. And once we were on the same page that this is more or less what I've been trying to argue, he said that although it might be a good hunch, he doubts it's ultimately provable -- Christian and pagan language about persuasive speaking was largely similar, even if they used different language, like invocation of the Spirit instead of the muses, for instance. (It would've been useful to have realized the apparent uselessness of my argument a long time ago, but...what can you do.)

So I'm supposed to go back to my sources again, particularly spending more time with ancient rhetorical treatises, and see if I can find a fresh way of framing the project. My concern is to salvage as much of the work I've already done as possible. I don't have time to start from scratch. I want to be done by the end of 2016. (That's already a year and a half longer than I meant to take for this degree program.) But in the meantime, I guess I don't have much to lose. If this is what it will take to be allowed to defend and graduate,'s worth a shot.

Another comment I got was that the project, as it currently stands, wouldn't be publishable, because it's not clear why someone would need to read it in order to learn anything new. I guess it depends on who "somebody" is, and how much their assessment matters to me.

Anyway--most of this week was spent preparing for that meeting and then processing afterward. I've sent a follow-up email summarizing the main takeaways from it and raising some of the things I've mentioned here. The response will govern how I approach my next steps. I was terribly discouraged by this conversation because I'm so tired of writing, re-writing, and still feeling I've not been understood. I don't know if I've successfully diagnosed the reasons for all the disconnects -- or if having done so will ultimately help anything. I guess it's worth something that I still haven't given up.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

October 1 dissertation notes (Week 6)

At the meeting with my advisor two weeks ago, he suggested some areas where he wants me to sharpen my thinking, and we're meeting this coming Tuesday to discuss those. So, this week I've continued thinking about how Gregory of Nazianzus thought about the act of preaching as a distinctly Christian event, and how that was different from the (largely pagan) rhetorical education he'd received. It's very interesting at points. For instance, as important as rhetoric was to the Greco-Roman culture of late antiquity, that culture didn't have a concept of the "sermon"--of rhetorical practices being used to explain sacred texts and teachings in a context of worship. Certainly there were speeches on religious topics, but these wouldn't have been delivered in a liturgical setting. It was Jewish synagogue worship that developed that practice, and early Christianity which, naturally, picked it up and developed it, incorporating aspects of Greco-Roman rhetorical practice as they went. Interesting, right? I think so. There was way more to giving a sermon than just delivering a persuasive speech or lecture. As a Reformed Christian, I know this instinctively, and I've been trying to show that it's something Gregory and his contemporaries took for granted, too.

When I looked over the written comments from that meeting two weeks ago, though, I felt really discouraged. I still seem to be struggling to articulate ideas I thought I had made clear a long time ago.

When I read back through the dissertation chapters I've worked on over the past two years, I thought there was some solid material there. I also felt discouraged when I thought about how quickly I churned out much of that material. If it were simply a matter of producing pages on a steady basis, I would probably have finished and graduated by now. I don't have much trouble with the writing aspect of this task. It comes quite easily to me, in fact, when I have my research and ideas laid out. If I felt clear about all of that, I could have this thing written within the next few months. That has never been in doubt for me.

But most of 2015 has been spent not on writing, but on meta-issues -- trying to prove that I really do have a viable argument that is not merely common sense, and that my writing really is building toward an analytical argument, not just paraphrasing Gregory's sermons. In other words, rehashing things I believed had been settled by October 2013. And by now, I've restructured this project more times than I can keep track of, which leaves me feeling confused about how to deploy the material I already have, how much more research I need to do, and where I really stand with it all. It's so frustrating and discouraging. And as I went through my material yet again this week, I had a hard time resisting feelings of futility. I've tried over and over and taken several different approaches in managing my time, organizing my research, and presenting my material -- and it doesn't seem to be getting me very far. I don't know if it's a matter of not trying hard enough, not seeing eye to eye with those who are evaluating my work, or not having a sufficiently analytical mind -- or all of those things.

Anyway, I guess we'll see what comes of yet another meeting. Taking classes had its own stresses, but it was so much more fun than this, guys.