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.


  1. Sarah, you have been torturing yourself with this for years. It's okay to let it go. Sometimes "failing" isn't actually stopping when something makes sense, but failing to take care of one's self and torturing one's self far longer than reasonable. If you do something else with your life, whether it is teacher or construction worker or pastor or wife, do you feel relief at the thought of letting this go? Praying for peace...

    1. I do feel relief . . . and, having watched Kevin go through it, I know it's not the end of the world.

  2. Sarah, I am so sorry. This sounds so crushing, especially after a post that was the most hopeful you've sounded in a long time. We are praying for you and Kevin.

    1. Thank you so much! So grateful for your support and prayers through our ups and downs these past few years.