Choose Wisely

How to Select a Dissertation Topic in the Humanities

Whether you intend for it to or not, your dissertation will define your public identity as a junior scholar. You will devote at least a few years of your life to researching and writing it. You will become known or remain unknown in large measure by virtue of its quality. No pressure… but you do have a lot riding on that one piece of work. It had better be good. Here are some recommendations for setting yourself up for success by choosing the right topic. Continue reading

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Autospection is not Introspection

Helping Students Look Critically Within

This is the Age of the Selfie. We live in an image-obsessed society. A significant slice of the global economy is driven by individuals’ hunger to appear better: better than those around them or at least better than their current selves; better in their own eyes and better in the eyes of others. By definition, “image” and “appearance” are superficial things, as opposed to identity and substance.

Many of my students are rich with self-esteem. They look at themselves. Engaging in this autospection – sorry, nothing to do with looking at cars – and they like what they see. Yet far fewer demonstrate significant evidence of introspection or its fruit, self-knowledge, whether in terms of the strengths and weaknesses of their character or their reasons for believing what they believe about Ultimate Things. Continue reading

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Easy on the Ego, Hard on the Soul

The Release of My First Book as a Crisis of Character

In a month or so, Mothering the Fatherland will hit the shelves. I received my own personal copy in the mail late last week. Despite my erstwhile dreams of becoming a novelist, my first book is a work of academic non-fiction (historical theology, to be precise). As a junior scholar still seeking a tenure-track position, a monograph from the top university press (Oxford) is a feather in my cap… and a thorn in my side. Continue reading

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Writing the History of a Living Community

Outsider Insights

History is a dusty business. One person’s dust is another person’s dirt. This is especially true when the history in question is that of a living community, no less one that venerates its founders’ memory. What you consider an insight others might consider a scandalous impossibility. Continue reading

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“My Mind’s Confused Within Me”

An English translation of “Mein G’müth ist mir verwirret”

The hymn “O Sacred Head Now Wounded” and its English-language variants are translations of 17th-century German Lutheran Paul Gerhardt’s “O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden,” which is, in turn, a translation of a medieval Latin passion poem. My article in the 2013 issue of Church History chronicles the aesthetic and theological reasons for the differences between the various translations. (The later translations have minimized the blood, gore, and erotic overtones.)

Also known as “Passion Chorale,” the melody of the hymn(s) has its own varied history, having been appropriated by J. S. Bach, American folk activist Tom Glazer, and Paul Simon, among others.

What follows is my translation of the melody’s original anonymous German text, which, I might add, is effectively a 16th-century German forerunner of “All Shook Up.” The dividing line between what works melodically for the sacred and the secular is blurry indeed. German commentators suggest that because the first letter of each stanza makes the acronym MARIA, the words may be equally applicable to the mother of Christ. You be the judge. (See also Ethan Hein’s recent reflection on the melody.) Continue reading

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Socratic vs. Confucian Pedagogy

Teaching like the Sages in the Classroom and Online

A friend of mine teaching English in China once shared the insight, no doubt unoriginal, that Socrates serves as the paradigmatic educator in the West, whereas Confucius serves that role in the East. Having long studied and taught Socrates, I have finally studied and taught Confucius. I spent all of my upbringing and most of my young adulthood in the classroom as a student. I have spent the better part of my professional life in the classroom as an educator. I am ready to weigh the relative strengths and weaknesses of both models, as well as the counterfeits of each. Continue reading

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Hatch vs. Gregory

A Comparative Reflection on Nathan Hatch’s The Democratization of American Christianity and Brad Gregory’s The Unintended Reformation

Great books are like great cities: each has a splendor of its own, a distinctiveness that it possesses, whatever similarities it may have with its peers – or with also-rans, for those that seem peerless. Despite such incomparable qualities, anyone hoping to understand the nature of books, as well as cities, would do well to compare the greats. As a scholar of religious history, I am particularly concerned with how books in my field bear the marks of their authors’ own religious backgrounds and historical contexts.

I have recently had the good fortune to read two singular works, as per this post’s subtitle. Each is the magnum opus of its respective author and each possesses a geographical and historical focus, scope, and methods very different from the other. The conclusions that their authors reach are diametrically opposed. Nonetheless, both works demonstrate the viability of diverse genres of scholarly writing, the value of transcending periodization and geography in exploring implications, and the tendency – perhaps inevitability – of scholars writing themselves into their work. Continue reading

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Wonder, Wander, Win

A Professor’s Letter to First-Year College Students

 

Dear Freshmen,

Congratulations! You are embarking on a journey. The people and ideas you encounter and the experiences you have will define you for many years to come. The risks are great, but so are the potential rewards. Some of you have already undertaken great sacrifice to make it this far.

Many students succeed. Others fail academically and some – not necessarily those who fail academically – fail at life. As someone who primarily teaches college freshmen, I have seen what works. I have discerned some general principles to help you increase your odds for success, academically, vocationally, and personally. Continue reading

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There was a Sweetness Once

Imagining a Plausible Future without Bees, Remembering them for Those to Come

There was a sweetness once: rich, pure, and mellow. It flowed golden and sticky. It could cool into a crystalline mass or dissolve in a warm drink. It was the sweetness to which all other sweetnesses compared. When prophets spoke of a land full of blessing, this was the flavor of that blessing. But now those who make it are gone. Continue reading

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Network with Grace

LinkedIn Strategies for Academics

For business professionals, there is one premier place online to post one’s resume and to  look for jobs: LinkedIn. Indeed, those are the primary purposes of the professional social networking site. With our lengthy CVs and specialized job listings elsewhere, we academics have no need for such services. Nonetheless, both junior and established scholars have compelling reasons to use LinkedIn. Continue reading

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