Wednesday, March 23, 2016

The Final "Dissertation Notes."

When I last updated about ten weeks ago, I was coming to grips with my advisor’s rejection of my dissertation drafts and the dilemma this presented. It was the beginning of a slow, stressful, at times surprisingly gracious process of figuring out what to do next—both what was possible and what I actually wanted.

To simplify the story: I felt it worthwhile to try to find common ground with my advisor, but we couldn’t come to an agreement about the way the past year or two have unfolded, much less the advisability (…in more than one sense) of my trying to forge ahead. I spoke with various people both inside and outside the department, trying to determine if there was a way around the impasse, but also just wanting others to hear what happened. (I’m aware of a couple instances of greater injustice my colleagues have experienced, and it doesn’t seem there’s been much help for them.) While I hope these conversations won’t prove entirely unfruitful, they didn’t yield a clear fix for my situation. This was largely what I had expected. While I could have gone through a review process that didn’t include my advisor, it became clear that this wouldn’t solve much, and that I was unlikely to receive much guidance toward finishing my dissertation, even if I somehow won approval to keep going. By March, it looked like my options were to withdraw from the program “voluntarily” or be dismissed. At the last minute, I asked if I could at least wrangle a Master’s degree out of the deal, which met with a surprisingly positive response, and let me avoid the pain of officially dropping out. So I am graduating, just not with the degree I wanted. It’s certainly a better outcome than I had come to expect, and I am grateful for that. Leaving with a diploma is so much better than walking away with nothing to show for my time at this university.

I am almost unbearably conflict-averse, so facing this ordeal was really, really difficult, even when parts of it were conducted over email. (Seriously, I've never felt so physically ill over hitting "Send" before.) A few years ago, I would likely have let myself be strung along indefinitely, or pushed out without a fight. I certainly don't think I would have asked for the Master's. So I hope my overall handling of the situation is itself a positive.

I do not want to suggest that I was faultless in the way this mess unfolded. There are numerous things I could have done differently and better, dating back to the spring of 2012. I’m also certain that, in his mind, my advisor did everything he reasonably could to support and motivate me toward finishing. I suspect it was a glaring mismatch from the beginning—something I couldn’t have known when I moved here to work with him in 2010. If I could have found a way to get a different advisor (something that faculty turnover made virtually impossible), things might have turned out very differently. There were unwise choices, as well as a series of unhelpful developments that just happen in graduate programs.

Not all of those were without unintended blessings. In 2014 a (different) department chair had made a unilateral decision, based on his classroom interactions with me, that I shouldn’t work as an adjunct instructor or even a Teaching Assistant. Regardless of the rightness or wrongness of his assessment, perhaps God used that disappointment to prepare me for later ones. At that point, I started detaching myself from the fantasy of becoming a college professor; I settled into my library job and didn’t really look back. So when it became clear that I wasn’t going to graduate with a Ph.D., it was easier to accept the closing of the door on one avenue of employment. It was even a bit of a relief—the academic job market is terrifying! Still, I might have made a good teacher, or learned to be one—will I ever have the opportunity to find out for sure?

Similarly, I probably won’t have the opportunity to publish a book in my favorite series of academic monographs, Oxford Studies in Historical Theology. Whatever my advisor’s estimation of my abilities, I think perhaps I could have done it. These are the kinds of things that are especially painful to reflect upon, and make me wonder if I will ever be able to think back on the failed dissertation and doctorate without sadness. It isn’t so much about the loss of the title and status of “Dr.”

Some of this ties into the way that graduate school and the academic vocation colonize your identity. I was always adamant that this would not happen to me, but it’s quite difficult to resist assimilation into that mindset, and to extricate yourself from it when it proves necessary. People have often lost jobs and/or changed careers by the time they are my age (multiple times, even). But somehow, after sinking your entire young adulthood into academics, you become convinced that it’s the only thing you can do, and you reach a point where it’s hard to say which is the more horrible prospect: prolonging the struggle in the slim hope of landing that teaching position, or breaking free into the unknown. The latter takes on an aspect of existential failure that is absurd on its face, yet so difficult to shake.

I can say that I am feeling more hopeful than bitter or ungrateful. The dream was to pursue a Ph.D., and I got to do that, and gain much in the process. It brought us to a life in St. Louis in which we are content. There are disquieting moments when I ponder that I am 33 years old, yet my sense of what I am truly good at, and what I genuinely like doing, is possibly more clouded than it was in my youth, not less. But I am trying to be thankful that I am not in charge of the bigger picture; and, in a way, it isn’t even my business how God will ultimately use me. It isn’t about finding an idealized “fit,” or even about me, but about God being glorified in my weakness and failures. And about serving him with thankfulness, even if it doesn’t measure up to the peculiarly overhyped notion of “doing what you love.”

This is not to suggest that I consistently wax philosophical about this. My emotions don’t always reflect what I think—or hope—is the truth of the situation. I’m still struggling with anxiety. But—the Lord is faithful. That means something real, even when it doesn’t feel like much. As my pastor Ben wrote to me awhile back, "Who knows how much satisfaction we'll get out of it in this life, but whatever we may say, we can know this: it will not have been futile.  He is putting futility in the grave and redeeming every last wincing effort on our parts. . . . If that's not true, then none of it is."

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I really enjoyed the weekly dissertation blogging last fall. I always looked forward to it and never found it a burden. From where I sit now, it’s difficult to imagine coming up with enough ideas to sustain a weekly blogging habit. It might be that this season of life just doesn’t lend itself to this particular medium. Still, I hadn’t imagined that writing about my dissertation would temporarily revive my blog, so I guess we will see. I appreciate everyone who took the time to follow along—I’m still kind of amazed that more than three people read those posts!

I do have some lingering thoughts about graduate school in general (what can I say . . . it's hard to let go!), so I will probably write those soon.