Category Archives: Academics

The Grueling Crawl to the Finish

I’ve had a workable draft of my PhD thesis finished since this past summer.  All the basic ideas were in place.  I had to cut down some words, clean up some errors, and make some of the language more consistent.  But the essence of the argument was in place.

I found the process of formulating the argument to be an exciting, fun experience.  I was grappling with new ideas, thinking things through to their logical conclusion, and trying to draw connections between ideas.  That’s the fun part of working on original research.

The less fun part comes at the final stages of the PhD.  Since this summer, I have worked through my thesis over and over and over.  That’s probably not enough ‘overs’.  Each time I’m making things a little more precise, trying to remove every element that reflects fuzzy thinking.  Then I take what I have to my supervisor, and he points out a few more places where I can make things just a little bit better.

Realistically, all of these revisions are the difference between low def and hi def, DVD vs BLURAY.  The story is going to be the same, but hopefully everything is just a little more clear.  At least that’s what I hope.  Sometimes it feels like I have been buried in this work for so long that it has become impossible to tell how it would come across to someone picking it up for the first time.

I’m incredibly grateful for Dr Gathercole’s dedication and attentiveness to my work, and all of his feedback is definitely helping me take my work to a new level.  It’s sort of like working with a personal trainer.  He’s pushing me to a level of critical writing that I probably would not push myself.

At the same time, this work is not especially exhilarating.  It’s the grueling process of figuring out how to state each and every little idea in the clearest way possible.  For the first time in the course of my PhD, I just want this book to be over and done with.  I have other things I’d like to think about; there are new ideas I’d like to explore and develop.

When is a book ever really done?  You could work on revisions forever.    At some point, though, the revisions have to stop.

I think that the end of the PhD process is about refining your critical thinking and writing, on the one hand, and learning to make peace with the provisional nature of all human reflection, on the other.  I know that in 5 years there will be things about this thesis that I would definitely state differently.  Still, I’m going to be happy with what I produce whenever I submit this thesis in April, and it will stand as a record of this stage in my growth as a writer and theologian.  That has its own value, and I’ll leave it to someone else to carry on the discussion after me.


British New Testament Conference 2012

Just got back from the annual British New Testament Conference.  Every year, a small army of Bible nerds descends upon a university campus somewhere in the UK, reading academic papers to each other and awkwardly mingling amidst book stalls and cafeteria meals.  This year the conference was at King’s College in London.  As a Bible geek myself, the conference is a good chance to exchange ideas, make new friends, and have some interesting conversations about the New Testament.

This year I presented a paper in the Acts seminar.  My essay was about the use of Scripture in the various references to Jesus’ death in Acts.  Thankfully, in the Acts seminar, we distribute the papers beforehand, so there’s no need to stand up in front of the group and read your essay.  Instead, the presenter makes a few introductory remarks, and then the bulk of the session is spent discussing the paper.

I feel like my presentation went okay.  Most of the feedback to the paper seemed positive, or at least not negative.  On the other hand, the feedback was also rather general and not really directly connected to what I actually stated in my paper.  This was different from many of the other papers in the seminar, so I left feeling a bit disappointed about the lack of engagement with my work.

Now that I’ve had a couple days to think about it, here’s what I think happened:  The study of Acts in the UK has been occupied primarily with historical and literary questions.  My work, on the other hand, addresses theological issues that are much more popular in German and American scholarship on the book of Acts.  As a result, I’m not sure that the seminar really knew what to do with my work.  Discussion felt somewhat forced, like discussing baseball with a bunch of cricket players, or talking about American football with people who only really watch soccer.

Reflecting on it now, I think going forward I will be more careful to seek the right dialogue partners for my work.  If I’m going to spend time preparing something for a conference, I want it to lead to a good discussion.  I’ve presented this same research to senior scholars at Cambridge, and it has prompted engaging conversation.  Lesson learned:  know your audience!

While I feel like my own paper could have gone better, the conference overall was a lot of fun.  The rest of the Acts seminar had papers and discussions much more engaging than my own, and I had fun meeting fellow PhD students and scholars from other institutions around the UK.  I also slept on the lumpiest bed I have ever tried to lay on.  It was like trying to go to sleep on a sack filled with slinkies.

All in all, it was a good conference, and I’m glad I went.  Still, it’s always nice to come home to Rachael and our nice soft bed!

Editing my Academic Writing

Lately I’ve been trying to polish up some of my academic writing.  Truth be told, this is a first for me.  My approach to most of my academic career prior to the PhD had been to write a draft and then turn it in for a grade.  I haven’t worried too much about putting my writing into print, and when I was balancing the demands of a home life, school, church, and work, it just didn’t make sense for me to spend too much time revising essays that I felt comfortable with for a grade.

I’ve actually spent a lot of time revising the writing of others over the years, but this is the first time I’ve really focused on my own work.  The big challenge, of course, is to read my own work with the sort of critical eye that I bring to the work of others.  Objectivity – that’s the challenge.  It took a few days to get into the editing groove, but now I’m enjoying it.  Here are some of the things I’ve learned from the process:

  • Stephen King, in his memoir On Writing, gives a little equation:  a final draft = a first draft – 10%.  I’ve tried to keep that in the back of my mind as I edit.  It’s tempting to add, but clarity usually comes through subtraction.  Less is more.
  • Sometimes a simple physical change can reinforce a change in thinking.  To shift from writer to editor, I’ve found that it is helpful to work in a different environment.  Instead of working from my usual workspace, I’ve been going to a different library or sitting at the kitchen table as I read my work.  For some reason, I find that the change in setting helps me to put on my editor’s cap.
  • Working with a hard copy is key for me.  I’ve tried to edit my work from the computer screen, but for some reason I find that I’m a much more focused and successful editor when I’ve got a physical text in front of me.
  • Sometimes I try to focus on one particular thing as I read through a draft.  I’ll go through an essay once and try to remove every prepositional phrase that isn’t necessary, then I’ll go through another time and focus on the footnotes, and then I’ll go through and focus on shortening long sentences, and so on and so forth.  For some reason I find this to be a helpful process.
  • When I have a sentence that feels awkward or unclear, I like to write out a few alternatives by hand in the margin.  Eventually I come up with something that works.  Just writing ‘rework’ and then waiting until I’m in front of a computer doesn’t work as well.
  • You can distance yourself from your writing by making your questions of the text impersonal:  ‘is this clear?  Is this structured correctly?’ rather than ‘Do I state this clearly?  Do I structure this correctly?’
  • The single most important factor for me when it comes to editing is time.  When I have been away from a piece of writing long enough to forget all of the intricacies of my arguments and all of the intricacies of the arguments that I am responding to – that’s when I’m ready to edit.  A week between writing and editing is helpful.  A month or more is much better.

What am I doing here, anyway?

It just dawned on me that I haven’t given a work update in a long time.  Oops.  I know we haven’t mentioned it in ages, but the reason we moved to Cambridge was to work on a PhD.  So, I’ve been studying the New Testament, Monday to Friday, 8 to 5, for the past two years.  Here’s a little update on what I’ve been up to:

My research is focused on the death of Jesus in Luke and Acts,  and basically I am trying to demonstrate that the cross is central to Luke’s understanding of (1) what it means for Jesus to be the messiah, and (2) how it is that we experience salvation.  Hence, the title I’ve come up with for my thesis is “The Christ who Suffers, the Cross that Saves:  The Death of Jesus in Lukan Thought.”  I’m a sucker for alliteration.

If you haven’t read what other people say about Jesus’ death in Luke’s gospel, it might seem like my thesis is simply stating the obvious.  Of course Jesus’ death matters to Luke, just like it does for every other New Testament author.  But actually, not everybody who has looked at this topic sees it that way, really for a variety of reasons that I try to trace through modern biblical scholarship all the way back to German critical scholarship in the mid-1800’s.

In the past year, I’ve managed to finish writing a first draft of my thesis.  I spent most of the Fall, Winter, and Spring this year methodically working through the books of Luke and Acts, studying every passage which might allude to Jesus’ rejection, suffering, and/or death in some way.  As I went, I wrote up my thoughts about how it all fits together, and in the end I feel like I’ve got 80,000 words (about 200 pages) that more or less work as a sustained and reasonably plausible thesis about the place of Jesus’ death in Luke’s thought.  Actually, I had more like 88,000 words, and I’m having to cut it down.

My work isn’t comprehensive, and there are plenty of questions about my topic that I still have.  I’ve become pretty convinced of quite a few things and less convinced of plenty of others.  I came to abandon the main idea I had for an argument after my first year in the PhD, because as I studied the text I found that I had been asking questions that the text wasn’t addressing.  Once I let the text speak for itself, I realized that I had inherited an agenda and set of questions that really didn’t match up with the agenda of the biblical author.  The whole debate had been framed on the wrong questions.  Getting the questions right was really half the battle.  Once that happened for me, everything kind of fell into place.

I’ve still got plenty of work left to do.  I’ll hand my draft over to my primary supervisor, Dr Simon Gathercole, when he returns from his sabbatical in October.  Dr James Carleton Paget has been an incredibly attentive supervisor in Dr Gathercole’s absence, and I have learned a lot from him as we have discussed my work over the course of this past year.  Still, I’m looking forward to Dr Gathercole’s input, and I feel very blessed that I will have had two top flight NT scholars give me critical feedback on my whole thesis.

In my third year, I’m planning to work on a few articles that relate tangentially to my thesis but don’t really fit into my main argument.  I’m also going to be busy looking for a job, and I’m presenting some papers at different conferences.  I’ll also be doing some tutorial supervising here at the university, and of course our church work keeps me busy.

Thank you to all those who have supported me during my work at Cambridge.  It’s unbelievable that almost two years have passed since we moved here, and I know this third year will go by quickly.  We’re very grateful for the prayer and encouragement we have received from our friends and family back home.  Thanks!

Year One Lesson #1 – Process over Product

It’s hard to believe, but we’ve now been in Cambridge for almost a year.  In honor of this momentous occasion, I think I’ll do a series of posts on lessons learned since moving here.  Some lessons have been personal, some have been professional.  This has been a period of major change for us, so there’s a lot that we’ve learned in the past year.

Lesson number 1  – in the grand scheme of things, the process is often more important than the product.  Rachael and I have been trying to learn how to cook recently.  We’ve been doing a lot of new recipes.  I’ve been focusing especially on some chinese dishes and some pasta sauces.  Sometimes things turn out good.  Other times they don’t.  What I’ve noticed, though, is that I learn something new every time I make something from scratch.  Even when the finished product doesn’t turn out well, I am able to figure out what went wrong since I know the whole process that went into making the dish.  Looking at the big picture, I don’t mind if one meal isn’t too good, as long as I can take something from it to make a better meal next time.

That really applies to a lot more than just cooking.  ‘Process over product’ has been my mantra during this first year of my PhD.  Here at Cambridge, there’s only one real requirement for a PhD student:  Produce an 80,000 word book by the end of your time here.  That’s the product, and it’s hard not to allow that one end goal to become all-consuming.  You can become so focused on production that all of your decisions about how you manage your time are dictated by the need to be productive.  Decisions end up getting made based on questions like:  Will this help me get to my word count?  Or, will this look good on my resume?

When I started working on my thesis, I discovered that there was a tension between cranking out as much as possible versus developing skills and acquiring foundational knowledge that won’t necessary contribute directly to my word count.  Ultimately, I’m here not just to write a book or a few journal articles but also to pick up tools that will be useful for a lifetime.  So, I’ve tried to focus on the process, especially early in my PhD, and I guess I’m just hoping that in the long run it will result in a better product.  Maybe that’s a mistake – it might make for a stressful third year!  Still, I feel comfortable about where I’m at, and I have tried to make decisions about how I manage my time based upon questions like:  How much will I learn?  Will I gain any new skills doing this?  Will this actually be helpful to somebody?  I’ve always been very results-oriented as a worker, so I see this as a healthy balancing for me.

I’ve tried not to spend too much time worrying about long-term stuff.  For those of you who have known me for a long time, you’ll know that that’s a big change.  I’ve been learning to live in the present moment, to focus on what I can do today, and to leave the end result to God.  This is a lesson that I’ve been learning for the last several years of my life, but the process of working on this PhD has really driven the point home.  In the solitude and monotony of writing a thesis, I’ve been confronted with my own vanity, my impatience, my desire for control, and my inability to see the end from the beginning.  ‘Process over product’ will definitely be one of the big lessons I take from this first year in Cambridge.

Lonely summer days

Now that we’ve been back for a few weeks from our extended vacation in the US, we’ve settled back into our routines.  What that basically means is that Rachael goes off to work every day, and I go across the street to work in the Peterhouse library.

During the school year, the library follows a pretty predictable pattern of patronage.  Early in terms, ambitious students can be found hitting the books, trying to get a jumpstart on the work that lies ahead.  After a week or two, library usage gradually declines throughout the middle of the term.  Then, as the term draws to a close, there’s about one week when library attendance spikes, only to drop off completely by the last week of the term.  The next term comes, and the cycle repeats.  Then, during the third and final term of the academic year, all of a sudden the library is packed.  In the Cambridge system, everything for the student hinges upon their performance on the big exams and essays they submit during this third term.  So naturally the library is filled to the brim with students preparing for tests and piecing together papers.

When school is not in session, the library is still open, but it’s a ghost town.  I still go into work, because I don’t take classes and my work doesn’t really coincide with the school terms.  This summer, on most days in the library, there’s me, a librarian, a janitor, and one other student who always sits at the same table with his computer.  Occasionally a girl comes in for a few hours to work on a computer or read at a desk.  Maybe she works there?  I don’t know.  On most days, at some point someone from the college will bring in a few guests for a quick tour.  Aside from these few distractions, the library is basically my own cavernous workspace.  A couple weeks ago, the librarian gave me an electric fan since it was warm and there is no air-conditioning.  So, I sit at the same spot every day, my fan ready to run if I get overheated, and study in solitude with no noises or even motions around to distract me.

I think of the place as the biggest personal office I will ever have.  The room is light and airy.  The carpet is thick and soft.  The walls lined with shelves of books extend up to a ceiling that must be about 30 feet high.  Everything is polished, clean and in its place.  About 45 degrees to my right, there is a huge portrait of a benefactor of the library, and below the portrait is a bust of another benefactor.  90 degrees to my right, on the second floor, is another bust.  These still faces are the only ones I see many days, so I feel like I’ve gotten to know them well.

Some folks like to have people around whenever they’re working, but I find the solitude relaxing.  I had been renting a desk at Tyndale House, a biblical studies library on the other side of town.  But, this library is much closer.  Plus, the desk was expensive, and I wasn’t really making use of the resources enough to justify the extra cost.  On top of that, the Tyndale desk was in a dark and crowded room that was always either too hot or too cold.  My chair was uncomfortable, and there was more noise to distract me.  I really like the social interaction that you can get at Tyndale, but I find that I’m much more productive closer to home at my college library.

I’ve got another month and a half before school starts back up, then the students will pour back into the library, and I’ll have to start sharing my ‘office’ with other people.  In some ways it will be nice.  Right now, there are days when the first words I speak during the day come whenever Rachael gets home from work.  It will definitely be nice to have people around to interact with.  Still, even though it’s isolated, summer days in the library aren’t driving me crazy just yet, and there’s something about the tranquility of the place that I’ve really come to appreciate.

Managing Information – How to Keep Track of What you Read

In my previous post about research, I rambled in general terms about the nature of the research process.  In this post I’d like to shift the discussion to the nuts and bolts of the research process.  How do I actually do research?  How do I keep track of resources?  How do I organize information?  Those sorts of questions.  If you don’t find a consistent way to keep track of your research, things can quickly get out of control.  It’s always frustrating when you can’t find where you got a quote or when you can’t remember what it was you wanted to say about something.  A good note management system can save you a ton of time and sorrow. 

Having said that, it’s also the case that everyone has their own way of managing information.  I learned this lesson my junior year of college.  I came home one day from class, and something inside me snapped whenever I looked at my room and realized that my roommate Ryan’s half of the room was in total disarray, just as it had been for the past several weeks.  Piles of clothes were everywhere.  There were assorted stacks of paper and books laying all over the place.  There was the usual stack of 24 packs of Diet Dr Pepper, the lone bastion of organization in an otherwise chaotic wasteland.  I decided I’d tidy things up for us, so I just consolidated some of the stacks of papers and piles of clothes.  I thought I was doing Ryan a favor.  I went to dinner, then I came back later at night.  To my surprise, I was greeted by an irate roommate.  Ryan was fuming.  He couldn’t find anything.  What had I done to his meticulously organized heaps of madness?  I had to apologize for cleaning up after Ryan.  That’s when I realized that even seemingly disorganized people have some principle of structure to their lives.  So, here’s how I do it.  My way may not be the best way, but it works for me.  Be sure to click the links to screenshots where I mention them, otherwise I’m not sure that this post will make much sense.

When I think about the challenges of managing information, there are really a few big things I’m concerned about.  First, I want some way of keeping track of all the resources that I’ve read and the notes that I’ve taken on my reading.  Second, I want to be able to access all of my notes at once, but I don’t want all my notes to be on one page.  In other words, I don’t want to have to open ten different Word documents to look at the notes I’ve taken from articles on a given topic, nor do I want to look up and down a super long document to find my notes on a particular article.  Third, I really can’t bear the idea of inputing every footnote on a paper manually, so I’ve got to have some software that will do that for me.  Fourth, I want a system that is searchable, so that I can access my notes and thoughts weeks, months, and years after I’ve read a book or article.  Those are the things I really try to accomplish through my information management system.

There are two programs that I use to keep track of my research:  Microsoft OneNote , which is a part of Microsoft Office, and EndNote.  EndNote is a bibliographic reference management system, and I use it for precisely that.  Endnote allows me to download bibliographic information for resources through online databases (e.g., ATLA, New Testament Abstracts, WorldCat) or library catalogues.  Then, it cooperates with Microsoft Word to produce properly formatted footnote entries and bibliographies according to the bibliographic style of my choice.  Now, I could also call Endnote my daily disappointment, because I am continually running into limitations in the software.  However, for a reliable bibliographic management tool, it does what I need it to do. 

Perhaps the best way for me to describe my research process would be to follow the process for a single set of resources from beginning to end.  Suppose I need to research an issue related to my thesis topic.  I already know of a few resources I need, so my research would start by downloading the bibliographic information for the resources I know I need to read into Endnote.  Then, I would place those resources that I haven’t read into a folder in Endnote so that I know where they are and I don’t have to search through all of my Endnote references to find them.  If I had access to PDF’s of the full text of any of the articles, I would attach them to the EndNote entries.  Here’s a snapshot of my EndNote setup.

Once I’ve got my list of resources in my Endnote folder, I would open up Microsoft OneNote.  OneNote is where I manage every aspect of my academic work.  In OneNote, you create Notebooks, which you can then divide with tabs, which you can then fill with pages.  It’s all searchable, and it’s essentially like having a three ring binder with limitless tabs and pages for your research.  I have a PhD Notebook, a Reading Notebook, and a Personal Notebook.  All of these are simultaneously accessible.  In my PhD Notebook, I have the following tabs:  ‘Meetings’, ‘Training Workshops’, ‘Lectures’, ‘Seminars’, ‘Progress Log’, ‘Book Reviews’, ‘Thesis Project’, ‘Ideas’, and ‘Planning and Progress’.  Whenever I go to a new meeting or workshop or seminar, I simply add a new page under the appropriate tab and take my notes on that page.  Here’s an example of a page in my OneNote notebook. 

My Reading Notebook is where I keep all of my notes for my reading organized.  Whenever I have a new topic, I create a new tab.  Then, I create a new page for each new work I read.  If I’m reading a book, I create a new page of notes for each chapter, and I keep all of the note pages within a tab organized by alphabet on the right side of the page.  Here’s a screenshot of that. 

So, I go to my Endnote folder, select a resource to read, then create a note page in my OneNote Reading Notebook.  As I read, I take notes, using OneNote’s highlighting tools and tags to make whatever notations I would like on my note page.  When I’m done, I try to make myself write my own evaluation of the article at the bottom of my note page.  Then, I go over to the ‘Thesis Project’ tab of my PhD Notebook and put down any ideas I have about my writing as a result of my reading, and I make sure to put a link back to my reading note page.  This way, as I read multiple resources, I am gradually putting my thoughts together and organizing them in an easily accessible format.  Here’s an example of what one of those pages looks like for me.  It’s basically the place where I put down all the ideas that I want to make it into my writing on a given topic.  When the time comes to write, I use the ideas and links I’ve compiled in my ‘Thesis Project’ tab to quickly and easily find the quotes and citations I need as I write.

Anyway, once I’ve read a resource and done all the note-taking and linking that I want to do with it, I remove that resource from my reading list folders, so that it just hangs around in the unclassified section of Endnote.  This way I know that if something is in a reading list folder, I haven’t read it yet.  I don’t need Endnote to have any additional organization, because I’ve got all of my reading and information organized in OneNote. 

If a resource is a journal article or book chapter in an edited volume, I almost always scan the article and save it as a PDF attachment to its EndNote entry.  This way I can access it later on.  Because of copyright laws, you can’t just scan a whole book.  But, if there’s one chapter of a book that I feel is really important or interesting, I’ll scan that and attach it to my EndNote library.  I use Fox It Reader to read and take notes on PDF’s.  It’s free and allows you to highlight, add comments, and search OCR-scanned PDF’s.  Speaking of OCR (Optical Character Recognition), if you use an OCR reader to save PDF’s, you can search the text of the PDF or cut and paste from the text of the PDF.  I do this with ABBYY FineReader 6.0 Sprint

Finally, there are also programs you can use to search your computer for a quote or keyword or phrase if you really don’t know where you stored something.  I use Agent Ransack.

So that’s my process of doing research and keeping it organized.  I highly recommend Microsoft OneNote.  It’s search function is incredibly useful, and it’s note-taking and organizational tools are intuitive and quite easy to use.  Way, way better than trying to keep track of things with Word documents.  Also better than my previous system, which was Zotero on Mozilla Firefox.  If anything that I said above didn’t make sense, or if you have any questions about any part of the process I just described, feel free to ask questions in the comments section.  Also, if you have any ideas that have worked well for you, please do share – I could use the help!

Below I’ve described my switch from Zotero to Endnote and Onenote for those who are interested, since Zotero is an all-in-one alternative to the system I just described.

When I was in seminary, I started using a program called zotero.  Zotero is a free program that works as an add-in within Mozilla Firefox (a web browser).  Through Zotero, you can download bibliographic information to books, book chapters, journal articles, dissertations, etc.  In fact, to download information from a database or library catalogue, all you have to do is click a little icon on your web browser whenever you come across something you want to add to your zotero library.  You can also create folders to organize your references, and you can attach notes, pdf’s, documents, and whatever else you like to each reference.  Zotero is a great resource.  It’s easy to use.  It can help you stay organized, and it can save you a ton of time with references.   Also, your zotero library gets backed up on zotero’s server, and you can load it easily onto another computer or access it from anywhere. 

During my ThM thesis, I really liked almost everything about Zotero.  However, there were a couple limitations to Zotero that became increasingly annoying over the course of my research project.  First, the note-taking interface for Zotero references is relatively rudimentary.  You can’t do a whole lot in your notes on resources.  So, while it is convenient to have all your references in one place with notes attached to each reference, zotero kind of forces you to be a lousy note-taker.  Still, I liked that I didn’t have to save and open a separate word document with my notes for each resource that I read, or else place all my notes in a single mega-document that would have been a nightmare to navigate.  Zotero made my notes manageable but plain.  An upgrade over Microsoft Word all by itself, but still not optimal. 

My second frustration with Zotero was its footnote output limitations.  The bibliographic information that Zotero downloaded was nice, but it also needed quite a bit of cleaning up.  Also, Zotero’s integration with Microsoft Word for things like footnotes and bibliographies just wasn’t very convenient.  If you wanted to add anything in between two references in a single footnote, you were basically out of luck.  I got pretty frustrated with trying to get my footnotes to look right and stay as I wanted them with Zotero.

So, searching for better Word integration and a more flexible note-taking apparatus, I thought about switching away from Zotero after my ThM thesis.  Then, this summer my friend Aaron, who is working on a PhD in education at Ediburgh, showed me how he keeps track of his PhD work through Microsoft OneNote.  Since I already had OneNote on my computer, I decided to play around with it a little bit, and I really liked what it could do.  That took care of the note-taking problems with Zotero.  Then, I decided that I would get EndNote to take care of my bibliographic references.  That’s how I went from Zotero for everything to OneNote and EndNote.  The end.