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.

No comments:

Post a Comment