How I Wrote My Dissertation

Vision and Revision Part I

By spring 2008, the second half of my first year as a Ph.D. student in historical theology at Saint Louis University, it was clear that I would attempt to write my dissertation about the Evangelical Sisterhood of Mary. I would analyze the relationship between the practices and beliefs of this community of Protestant nuns in Germany and their historical context. That much I knew. But which practices? Which beliefs? And which aspects of their context? A dissertation needs to be a focused work, ideally attempting to answer one precise question of the author’s determining. I had some digging to do.

I learned the basics from the sisters’ website. On the night of September 11, 1944, Allied bombers decimated the city of Darmstadt, Germany. Tens of thousands of people died. Most of the city’s residents were homeless by morning. Among them were the members of a Lutheran girls Bible study. They prayed that night for God’s forgiveness in light of his manifest judgment and soon decided to dedicate their lives to him as a formal sisterhood. I later learned that this account was a simplification, but at least it was a start. Even in their most basic account, the sisters connected their origins to their experience of the Third Reich.

I dug as deeply as I could in the library and in book databases. I found a handful of works treating the broader phenomenon of Protestant religious orders in post-World War II Europe. There were in fact a few dozen such communities, many of which survive today. The literature, much of it from the 1950s and 1960s, mostly concerned the question of whether or not Protestant religious orders should exist. From a historical standpoint, this is not a relevant question. Such communities do exist. But why?

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How to Write Your Dissertation

Remembering to Stay Human and Stay Sane

I recently had a former student approach me for advice about applying to doctoral programs in the humanities. What follows is an expansion of that advice (apart from warning about the job market) for a general audience. If you come to me, asking about grad school, these are the core essentials of what I would say. This is what you need to know up front.

Doctoral studies will instigate a personal crisis. This is inevitable. This is especially true of the writing of your dissertation. Nearly half of all doctoral students in the humanities never complete their degrees and the dissertation is the usual reason why. Only rarely would coursework pose a hurdle because, frankly, courses are what you’re good at; otherwise, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.

Hopefully you have already overcome a significant personal crisis. It is not that I hope you have suffered; but we must all face our own struggles and my hope is that you have already developed the habits necessary to overcome one crisis. If not, the dissertation will be a crisis indeed.

You must face the austere horror of the blank page. You must sit down and create something from nothing; or, at least, you must sit down and fashion something functional and whole from a mass of raw material.

Yes, you must sit down and write. But in order to do so without losing perspective, burning out, and/or freezing in the paralysis that perfectionism can induce, you must achieve a certain balanced discipline.

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How “Mothering the Fatherland” Transformed from a Dissertation into a Book: A Timeline

People wonder. I defended my dissertation not that long ago. I know that I was eager to know the timeframe of such things. The waiting could be agonizing. From the submission of my first complete dissertation draft to the release of the monograph based on it, here is the timeline of what happened to me and when.

 

05-2011                     I submitted my completed dissertation draft (1.0) to my committee

07-2011                     I submitted my final draft of the dissertation (2.0) to my committee

09-2011                     Dissertation defense

01-2012                     Book proposal and abstract submission to Oxford University Press (OUP)

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Publishing Your Dissertation

When and How (Much)

At the faculty lunch room (which isn’t as glamorous as it sounds, but it’s still pretty nice), years after the fact many of my colleagues continue to talk about what they wish that had done publication-wise after finishing their dissertations.

There are basically two schools of thought:

A. The Piecemeal (a.k.a. Maximum-Quantity-of-Articles) Approach

Publish as many chapters as you can before signing a contract to publish the whole, because you are not allowed to excerpt chapters once the full manuscript is under contract. This has the benefit of maximizing how much you can beef up your C.V. on the basis of that one document. Plus nothing counts toward tenure until you’re hired in a tenure-track job, so if you have confidence that you can get such a position without the full MS being published, then it might make sense to wait.

B. The Giant Step (a.k.a. Book-Sooner-Is-Better) Approach

Assume that this is the MS that will get you the job you want, that you’ll need ample new material to get tenure anyway, and that you will be able to produce such material expeditiously.

I subscribe to the latter. There are a number of reasons for this:

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How I Chose My Dissertation Topic

A Series of Fortunate Events

After pontificating in my previous post about the process for selecting a dissertation topic in the humanities, I should clarify that my own process was far from straightforward. It was full of detours and unexpected surprises nothing short of serendipitous. At the same time, I had some significant work to do along the way.

“Serendipity doesn’t just happen,” a mentor once encouraged me. “You have to work for it.” I have been blessed beyond what I deserve. I don’t want to downplay that. But I have consistently striven to make the most of the opportunities I have been given – although in a few cases, opportunity had to knock a few times before I answered. I can’t take all the credit. I have received much help along the way.

I never would have written the book if I hadn’t known German. And I kept having more opportunities to learn German in spite of myself. In high school my language goal was to be proficient at French, but the exchange students I befriended happened to be German. Eager to travel, I couldn’t resist when they offered me a free place to stay for a few weeks and my parents offered to cover the airfare as a graduation gift. (I should add that this wasn’t really official until I received a generous college scholarship.) In preparation, as a senior in high school in the fall of 1996, I began learning German. I had space in my schedule. My high school did not offer it, but I got the green light to take courses at a nearby college for free.

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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.

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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.

I take for granted that we should work in the classroom to cultivate self-knowledge. No community of faith, liberal arts educational institution, democracy, or marriage can thrive without individuals who understand themselves. This is not the only thing that matters in such contexts. But a reflective attitude towards ourselves is a useful tool and a helpful curb against hubris. True self-knowledge is the antithesis of self-worship, for it imbues its possessors with a keen awareness of their own limitations, including their fragility and fallibility.

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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.

I don’t want to sound ungrateful. This is a boon to my fledgling career. But I need to be honest about its impact on my soul. I have had the book in my possession for a few days and already I can see some of the ways that it will challenge my character. I contend that these issues threaten virtually all published authors, as well as many public artists, performers, and other creatives.

The struggle can go in one of two directions, with the option of frequent vacillation between the two: insecurity and vanity.

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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.

A college mentor told me of a white Southern family that hired a historian, who was to research the family history and share his findings at the family reunion the next year. He did as he was told, reporting nothing until the foreordained moment. After the picnic lunch, he nonchalantly told the gathered family members how their descendants included not one but several African-American fathers and Anglo-American (or, apparently, mixed) mothers. The parents quickly told their children to go play on the playground and demanded their money back. They were not who they thought they were.

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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.)

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