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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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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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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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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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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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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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.
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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.
Bees were marvelous creatures. As a child, I learned to fear them. They were insects slightly larger than flies and without any of flies’ ugliness. Like butterflies, they began as eggs and hatched, worm-like, only to cocoon and hatch again as winged adults; but unlike butterflies, bees had the semblance of ferocity and toughness. They could soar and hover, humming ominously as they went. They could impale those they deemed threats, for each possessed a sharp barb behind her legs. One sting could ache and swell or even kill, for an unlucky, vulnerable few. Even though a stinging bee would lose her own life, she would do so gladly in order to protect her community, for bees were creatures of service and self-sacrifice.
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There is no substitute for individual meetings with students. This semester I teach three sections of an all-freshmen introductory philosophy/theology course. My students wrote passable papers last year, when I taught the course under similar circumstances , but I realized that most of them consistently made the same mistakes: lack of cohesion; a tendency to summarize the texts rather than use them to illustrate points in their own arguments (something which I am especially keen to point out, knowing that I, too, struggle with this in my own writing); and, generally, lack of a clear and well-structured plan.
This semester, I retained the same the final paper assignment. My standards of grading have not lessened. I have the same high expectations for the finished product; but I have taken preventative measures for helping the students meet them. I told them the common pitfalls, both in print and as a class; I required them to produce an outline and draft of their thesis statement a week in advance of the paper’s deadline; and I required each of them to meet with me in person to discuss his or her outline.
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(In response to student requests that I provide them with my own answer to a reflection essay on the topic.)
I have no simple answers to the simple questions.
Alaska. Michigan. Ohio. Wyoming. Oregon. That is where I am from.
My father is African-American, apart from some Cherokee and traces of Thomas Jefferson on his mother’s side, and either Quakers or Puritans on his father’s side (hence the last name). He spent twenty years in the Air Force before working for the State of Ohio and retiring again. My mother is Irish-German, probably Jewish-German given her maiden name, but the family secret for a while was that a few generations back there was some Blackfoot, too. She works in early child education. They divorced the year after I graduated college. I have a younger sister who is an Air Force captain. Who they are is a part of who I am.
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