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...

Thursday, November 5, 2015

November 5 dissertation notes (week 12): In quest of a new topic

This week I've been back at it, feeling the pressure of needing to effectively reimagine my whole dissertation by December. Looking back on the past three years, it seems clear to me that trying to write a dissertation on homiletic theory (theology of preaching) was never likely to fly, and that I've consistently been pushed in the direction of doing something more technical (in terms of rhetorical technique), and less...ephemeral? More concrete?

Anyway, in light of that, I've spent my time these past two weeks doing three things: reviewing the rhetorical exercises that were the foundation of education in late antiquity, reading some orations of Themistius, a fourth-century non-Christian orator, and reviewing some less familiar orations of Gregory himself.

The rhetorical exercise that drew my attention the most has been the encomium, which is an exposition of the good qualities of a person, typically biographical in shape, using every detail (whether their family of origin, education, deeds, or manner of death) to showcase how awesome they are, and how others are less awesome by comparison. In school Gregory would have been trained in how to compose and deliver an encomium, and we find him doing so at several points throughout his career: for his brother Caesarius, his sister Gorgonia, and his dad Gregory, all of whom predeceased him; for Athanasius, who was of the generation before Gregory and probably not known to him personally; and for Basil, whom he certainly knew and with whom he shared churchly ambitions and a rather fraught friendship. There might be a couple of others which would fall under this category and will take slightly more effort to track down.

What's somewhat interesting is that, as you might expect, Christian encomia take some different tacks than those written by pagans would. For instance, stories of earthly suffering or lack of worldly position are opportunities to showcase Christian virtues. And Gregory's encomium of Caesarius is less a remembrance of his brother than a primer in how to grieve as a Christian -- i.e., according to him, we shouldn't grieve for the one who has gone on to glory so much as for our own sins and how much less holy we are.

On the other hand, I admit that I've spent less time reading these particular orations of Gregory's because they can become off-putting and just tiresome. I mean:

...[S]he was seen to surpass not only women, but the most devoted of men, by her intelligent chanting of the psalter, her converse with, and unfolding and apposite recollection of [Scripture], her bending of her knees which had grown hard and almost taken root in the ground, her tears to cleanse her stains with contrite heart and spirit of lowliness, her prayer rising heavenward, her mind freed from wandering in rapture; in all these, or in any one of them, is there man or woman who can boast of having surpassed her? . . . And if in some single particular she was rivaled, her superiority consists in her complete grasp of all. . . . O untended body, and squalid garments, whose only flower is virtue! O soul, clinging to the body, when reduced almost to an immaterial state through lack of food; or rather, when the body had been mortified by force, even before dissolution, that the soul might attain to freedom, and escape the entanglement of the senses! O nights of vigil, and psalmody, and standing which lasts from one day to another! . . . O nature of woman overcoming that of man in the common struggle for salvation, and demonstrating that the distinction between male and female is one of body and not of soul...
Taken by themselves, some details of the portrayal are interesting, but it's like this for pages, literally. And that's kind of the point: the rhetorical culture is foreign, the sensibilities about sanctity aren't exactly mine, it's a different context. I have to take all that into account when reading it.

 In any case, there might be something worth pursuing in a comparison of the themes of Christian encomia versus pagan ones of the same period, what was considered an ideal life and a good death, etc. There would be at least some overlap with material I've already written on Gregory's view of the character necessary for a good preacher.

Still, it takes me further away from preaching per se, which is what I found valuable and interesting in a patristics dissertation.

Next week I'll keep reading Gregory, try to identify some good comparative material in non-Christian sources, and hopefully ascertain whether there's potential for a topic. In some ways, conceding that there's need of a fresh topic feels energizing, and in other ways, it's just totally depressing.

As always, I'm glad to hear others' thoughts, and am thankful for your prayers and support!