Wednesday, November 15, 2017

On Dissertating

An old acquaintance, seeing my blog post from yesterday, emailed me this morning. He, too, is enrolled in a doctoral program and he was shocked to read how much progress I had made on my own project since July. He asked if I would offer him some tips which I'm glad to do. Of course, these are not the musings of an expert: I'm still in the throes of writing, although I am glad to see I have far more pages behind me than before me. So instead of this being advice about what worked let me frame it as some thoughts about what is working.

  1. Treat writing like your job. Theology students in Boston College's doctoral program have their whole fourth year to write without any teaching obligations. Accordingly, I have treated the task of writing as my full-time job. Monday-Friday, usually 6:50 in the morning until 5:00 in the afternoon. Lunch breaks, workout time, and a nap are built into this schedule. 
  2. Think, and write, in sections. So I apportion in my mind how long a section should be, make a preliminary sketch of the argumentative moves I need to make, and I execute the section. Each night before I go to bed, I look over my outline and cast my eyes over the relevant texts in order to refresh my memory. 
  3. Don't be frivolous. I often see Twitter posts or Facebook updates from students writing their dissertations and I am shocked at how much time and energy they waste "curating" some type of public image. Every minute you spend thinking about a clever Tweet, or making a meme, is one less minute for you to focus on your project. Frankly, I'm aghast at how many inane tweets I come upon when, after dinner each night, I scroll through social media to see what I've missed throughout the course of the day. 
  4. Learn to say no. Sure, it'd be fun to accept an invitation to review a book that tangentially touches upon your research, but is it going to make a significant contribution? Of course you have a brilliant article idea when you're eye-deep in your central argument, but this does not mean you should undertake writing it. I would apply this to blogging or online contributions: if it is not peer-reviewed and if it is not going to get you a job, the benefit simply doesn't seem to outweigh the cost in time and energy. 
  5. Edit daily and Don't Be Afraid to Kill Your Darlings. This is my practice: each night I re-read the day's writing. On Friday afternoon or, if I'm traveling, I re-read the week's work and edit the hell out of it. Even your most beautifully crafted sentences, not germane to your thesis, should be summarily executed on the charge of treason to thought. 
  6. Know Your Advisor. I have, perhaps, the greatest advisor imaginable: he's kind, brilliant, has a great sense of humor, and knows how to temper criticism with copious encouragement. He is a mentor and a friend, a cheerleader and coach. I'm lucky. But having an open channel of communication has been so helpful. 
  7. Find Balance.  I have found it helpful to balance priestly ministry (on weekends) and musical performance (on weekends) with my writing. Between July and mid-November, I have traveled on about 75% of the weekends and I celebrated Mass 100% of the weekends. This means I work really hard during the week (no drinking, not much television) in order to allow me the time to do things I love on the weekend. 
  8. Buy a Whiteboard. I have a big whiteboard next to my desk with a bunch of dry-erase markers. Sometimes when I'm in the shower, or exercising, something "clicks" in my mind and I need to write it down: whiteboard! Each morning, I put up key words or concepts I need to keep in mind that day: whiteboard! I can then cross these out at the day's end. Not for nothing, there is no feeling more satisfying than being able to erase it at the end of a day, or a chapter, and start all over again. It's downright cathartic. 
  9. You Can't Read Everything. I think I have read just about every word my figure - William Desmond - has written. The secondary literature is also pretty manageable, although it continues to grow. Yet my secondary figures - Pierre Hadot, Charles Taylor, Richard Kearney, John Caputo, Merold Westphal - are vast on their own. So how did I engage? I read and engaged them in a very focused manner. I guess one lesson I've learned is how to discern the value of a given text and assess whether, and how, it might advance my own work. 
  10. Own Feeling Like a Fraud.  Throughout this process, I have swung between feelings of mastery and competence and feelings of being an utter fraud on the verge of being discovered. It's chastening and humbling. Then again, as a theologian, I'm trying to speak of a Mystery beyond human concept. Cool comfort, to be sure, but comfort nonetheless. So I own being a fraud and rest content that I'm not alone in feeling this way. 
So, yeah, there's ten little ideas. As I've said, they are things that are working for me. I think, as of this morning, I've written ~270 pages and I've got, maybe, 50 left to go. Well, I need to do an intro (8-pages) and a conclusion (12-page). In the end, I'm aiming at a 350-page project. Longer than I'd imagined at first but needfully so. At my current pace, from start to finish writing will have taken six months. Prior to this, I read intensively for about six months and I've read, and re-read, many of those works during this time.

Truth be told, I've enjoyed writing. It can be tedious, daunting, and it's a true marathon. But it has been a true privilege to think along with great minds and to try, feebly as I might, to make a contribution to a field.  

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

A Glimpse of Light

Every now and again, I feel a pang of guilt for not updating the blog. Just a year ago, I took my PhD comprehensive exams and began preparing to write my dissertation. I then moved to Cleveland - I now live at John Carroll University  - and began writing in July. As of today, I have submitted three chapters to my committee and I'll finish the fourth this week. I'm hoping to have a solid draft of the fifth chapter finished around Christmas and I should get the Intro and Conclusion written in January. With a bit of luck, I'll defend in the Spring and receive my diploma in May.

I say this in order to share one reason for my relative absence from blogging. I treat writing as I would treat a job. Blogging will neither get me my degree nor will it ever get me tenure, so it's not as high on my priority list.

Then again, I'm sort of glad to be out of the blogging loop. I've become dismayed not only by the political rhetoric within the United State but, more acutely, with the way fellow Christians speak to, and about, one another. Years ago, I had the stomach for wading into online debates. I no longer do. In fact, I don't see much point in commenting on blogs/sites and I seldom read the comments boxes on sites because I find them disheartening.

Anyway, the next few weeks are rife with travel. I'm off to Boston tomorrow, then on to Hartford for the New England Oireachtas. I'll spend a week reading and writing in Boston followed by a wedding and then I return to Cleveland for three days. I'll then be off to Orlando for the Southern Region Oireachtas (for Mass). Things should quiet down come December, so I'll be locked away in my room trying to finish my project.

At some point I'm sure I'll share more about my dissertation. The title, for those interested, is "Spiritual Exercises for a Secular Age: William Desmond's Theological Achievement." It's an essay exploring how the metaxological metaphysics of William Desmond can be read as a series of spiritual exercises (Pierre Hadot in the background here) capable of reawakening the question of the Transcendent.

Heady stuff with lots of pretentious foreign words. I dig it, but it's certainly an acquired taste.

For anyone who still looks at this blog: thanks for hanging in there! I'll try to make it back someday.

Flute playing priest finds YouTube fame