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.

During my freshman year at Wake Forest University, my freshman German professor insisted that I apply for a scholarship for a summer language study. I balked. “I was just there!” I explained. She insisted. I applied and received the scholarship. With four semesters of college German already under my belt, after two months of full-time study in Mannheim, I could speak German fluidly if not perfectly and credit-wise I was half way to a German major. And from a classmate at the Goethe-Institut, I heard about a nearby community of Protestant nuns. I couldn’t believe it. As someone interested in religious history, I had to see the community. I made a brief weekend visit to the Evangelical Sisterhood of Mary. They existed. That was enough to make me happy. And for a long time in terms of my appreciation of the sisterhood that was it.

For many years, I treated the existence of the sisterhood as a theological cocktail joke. “Did you hear about the Protestant nuns?” I’d ask. “They exist.” Not much of a punch-line, but certainly food for conversation.

Fast-forward to the fall of 2007. As a first-year Ph.D. student in historical theology at Saint Louis University, I was desperate for a dissertation topic. Some students had entered the program with clear research agendas in mind. I had not. So every three weeks for about four months, I met with my advisor, Michael McClymond, an expert on religious revivals whose interests are as wide-ranging as my own. We would take turns. I would have an idea and he would show me what might be problematic with it, and offer three or four alternatives; or he would have an idea and I would have reasons why it would not work for me. I had at least narrowed down the era: something modern or early modern. One early topic was the Puritan patriarch Cotton Mather, but that did not involve enough foreign language work to keep me interested. German hymn writer Paul Gerhardt was also a contender, but there was too much work on him already, just not in English.

During one of these troubleshooting sessions, my advisor asked me to consider the Gemeinschaftsbewegung (literally the “community movement”) a semi-obscure 19th-century revival movement within Germany’s Protestant regional churches. I didn’t know that yet, so I asked, “Does that have anything to do with the Evangelical Sisterhood of Mary?” My advisor jumped on WorldCat and within a few minutes we realized that the sisters themselves had published literally hundreds of books and tracts, especially the work of their founding theologian, Mother Basilea Schlink, while no one had published anything substantial about them. The hunt was on.

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