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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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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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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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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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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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.
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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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A Professor’s Letter to First-Year College Students
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.
Those of you who are my students, you are likely to hear parts of this from me in person. Enjoy this condensed version. Those of you who are not in my classroom, I hope you may benefit from these insights regardless. (And dear parents of my students, if you are listening in, this is a glimpse of what your children are in for.)
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