Confessions of a Perfectionist Ph.D. Student: Love and Scholarship

Confession: Forgive me reader, for I have sinned. I thought scholarship was only about my whit and intelligence–not my love for others.

At the heart of perfectionism lay both fear and pride. On the one hand, there is fear that you will make a mistake, lead people astray, or look bad. It is the last one that reveals the pride in perfectionism. In hoping not to look bad you want others to look well upon you and your work. In fact, at least for me, I wanted people to see a great body of work that settled many issues. You want to write the perfect paper, express the right ideas, in a way where everyone will be persuaded by your whit or logic–maybe even think that you have put to rest all other arguments.

Displaying our whit should not be a goal of our scholarship. Avoiding this is one of the goals I have for my “2nd Chance Ph.D.” In On Christian Doctrine, Augustine says this:

Whoever, then, thinks that he understands the Holy Scriptures, or any part of them, but puts such an interpretation upon them as does not tend to build up this twofold love of God and our neighbor, does not yet understand them as he ought.

The goal of any work done by the scholar is to express love for God and love for man. If the work of a Christian scholar does not center around this love then they have missed the whole point of why they do what they do. In fact, if the Christian scholar who desires for people to marvel at their intellectual musings actually proves that they are ignorant of the true purpose of the scriptures; if Augustine is correct in his statement.

Even if we don’t agree with Augustine that we must have this love to interpret scripture (for what do we do with non-Christian interpretation…is there any merit to it?) we can at least say for the Christian scholar that this love of God and man should be present in his/her work.

That, was something I did not do well before. I hope to be better about it this time around. Bear with me as it will be a process.


Confessions of a Perfectionist Ph.D. Student: Desiring the Comfortable

As I stated in my blog post about my return to the Ph.D. program, the perfectionist in me must die. But I think that is a bit of an oversimplification of what overwhelmed me the first time around. To be completely candid, there are many other emotions, misconceptions, and thoughts that go into perfectionism. This series will go on as long as I need it to. I do have a plan for more than one.

Confession: Forgive me readers, for I thought research and writing should be free from anxiety.

Let’s face it, we all think that experienced authors are in a class of their own. The muses love them more than us.They wake up in the morning and beautifully constructed prose just flow from their pens. It’s almost effortless. All they need is pen an paper.They know what they are going to say and they say it perfectly. Our writing feels more like Odysseus trying to get home–full of difficulties.

But, talk to an experienced author about some new project they are writing and you’ll find out the real difference between you and them (that is, if you struggle with this….or even care about writing). They feel anxiety every time they begin a new writing project. Maybe not crippling anxiety like I did. But, anxiety in some form. They learned to manage it and work through it.

The anxiety for some, like myself, can be overwhelming.  We have a desire to write, but we don’t write anything because we are anxious. Even if it concerns subjects that we have studied for years. We are ultimately afraid of being wrong, not expressing things well, being disagreed with, or being called a bad writer.

Now, how do we manage that anxiety?

Use your anxiety to improve…not perfect: Go ahead and set aside the unreachable goal of being perfect in writing. However, our anxiety may not be completely without warrant. If we are worried about our grammatical correctness, or flow of prose, we may have a good reason for being anxious. So use that anxiety to improve! Pick up a book, or read a blog post about writing well. Pick one or two achievable goals and work on it during the next writing project. Work to become better, not perfect. Becoming a good writer is about becoming. It is a process.

Write in Community: I’m telling you this now, if you want to be successful in anything, bring the right people along with you. Most people who are labelled as successful usually aren’t alone. They have a good team. Your friends, family, or professors/colleagues, can give you good constructive feedback. If you are writing a book for a publisher, the editor will give you good feedback (please understand the editor wants the book to be a success so it will sell…therefore he is on your side). For example, I am a blunt man. But when writing a review of a book my bluntness may not be received well, especially for those authors I am critiquing. I will always bounce my writing off of someone else to help me express what I want to say in a way that won’t be off-putting. Bluntness between friends is a gift. But between strangers….its usually considered rude.

Write all the time: If we want to manage the anxiety of writing, we’ve got to work it in often. I keep a reading journal now, reviewing everything I’ve read and organizing my reactions to the reading.  It puts me in the habit of writing. It also gives me the chance to write in an atmosphere free from anyone’s evaluation except my own. Placing my thoughts about what I am reading helps my ideas mature and weakens some of the anxiety. When I go to officially write, my ideas have already had some written expression before the first draft. This removes some of the anxiety and speeds up the process of writing (which helps with the pressure of a deadline).

Until next time…

I’m Back! (Or Why I’m Eating Crow)

There is something to that ole saying, “Never say never.” There was a time when I said that I would never go back into any Ph.D. program. But, due to a curious turn of events, close counsel, and encouragement from many, I decided to look into my options last Fall. Of course, it wouldn’t be as simple as expressing interest in returning to the program. I would have to reapply and sit for the entrance exam. On Wednesday I received my notification that I was accepted into the Ph.D. program for Old Testament Studies.

I feel like I have a second chance on pursuing a Ph.D. I hope to correct some errors, misconceptions, and practices that I had the first go round. Here are some things that I hope will be (or will be) different this time. We’ll start with the most obvious:

  1. I’ll be in a different program…sort of: In the fall of 2015 SEBTS is launching a new program solely dedicated to Old Testament studies. I know, you thought I was doing Old Testament before. However, I was technically in the Biblical Studies program with a concentration in Old Testament. Now, I’m focused on Old Testament studies. I’ll still be studying a similar dissertation topic that I had before (fingers crossed), but I’ll be expanding it to other Semitic languages. That is if my advisers agree, which have changed as well.
  2. I know my writing and research process: The first time around I didn’t have my research and writing process worked out. This was tough for me in the program because every semester I had to write a paper on a different topic that I knew nothing about. I rarely was able to write on a more comfortable topic, like say, something related to my dissertation interests. This was exhausting for me. Mainly because I had no method for research and writing. Full disclosure: most of the time the paper I turned in was my first draft. Those who have heard me speak in library workshops have just gasped! They know I tell them to start their writing early, even if it is just summarizing what they are reading. That’s part of my process now. Starting to write early and often in the process helps my thought to mature. I’m not going to go over my entire process here. All I can say is that I have a streamlined process now that works with my personality. It was put to the test this past summer when Logos contacted me to write four articles for their Lexham Theological Wordbook. They were in a bind and I only had ten days to write all four (I had done previous work for them). Without my process, I would not have been able to do it. It showed me that the process is beneficial for my personality type and it helps me to deliver under a deadline.
  3. I no longer feel like a charlatan: There is only one person who ever heard me call myself this during the program. Why did I think this about myself? I thought this because I was a Ph.D. student focusing on Hebrew and Old Testament studies and I couldn’t read Hebrew that well. While most people would tell you I could read Hebrew equal to (or better) than my peers, I knew that I could only keep this up but for a few verses. But since my time out of the program I’ve been reading a lot of Hebrew. In 2012 I began reading the Old Testament in Hebrew for my scripture reading. I made a plan to read the bible through every two years in the original languages.  I’ve completed it once and I’m working through for my second time. What used to be a time consuming process (1 to 1 & 1/2 hours) now only takes a short time (15-20 minutes) in the OT. The prophets still give me some trouble…but not as much as they used to.
  4. The perfectionist in me must die: While the main reason writing was so exhaustive before was due to the fact that I had no process, it wasn’t helped by my perfectionism. Logos also gave me the chance to put that to death when I did my work for them. Editors have a way of doing that for you, really. I’m not looking to write my magnum opus or be the best Ph.D. student this time around. In truth, that’s what I was trying to do before. Now, I hope to do my best and I know that my best will be flawed. If I seek to be perfect, I’ll never attain it. I’ll be afraid to contribute anything to scholarly world for fear of failure. I don’t want to end up being just a brain trust that never benefits anyone with what he is studying. So this puppy must die.
  5. It is about community, not competition: I probably wouldn’t have admitted this years ago, but I viewed my fellow Ph.D. students, especially those in my field, as my competition. In some regards, they were. They were my competition for jobs. But this time, I want to go in with the right perspective about my peers. The true competition is not between me and them. The true competition is between truth and error. In order to compete against error, you have to have a team concept going in. My peers are my teammates not my competition in this. We work together to seek the truth and then winsomely communicate it. My goal is to encourage their scholarship, gently direct their work if I think it is veering from good scholarship, help them to communicate it well, and be willing to receive the same type of constructive criticism to keep me on course. The success of our futures depends on how well we push and encourage one another, not on who gets the job in the end.
  6. It is not about me: There were many reasons why I began the Ph.d. last time and a lot of them centered around me. I felt that I had worked hard to get there (which I had) and therefore, I deserved to be there. I spent a lot of time trying to prove it. This time around, I feel like I have been charged with a greater responsibility that goes beyond myself. The charge is that my work (whether publication, teaching, or things that I learn) will benefit my family, friends, job, school, peers, and church.
  7. Change comes inside out: One of the reasons that I left the Ph.D program was due to little book entitled, Enemies of Promise: Publishing, Perishing, and The Eclipse of Scholarship. The ideas in that book were magnified when I attended a conference where everyone seemed to be promoting themselves and stepping on others to do it. It disgusted me a little. Both the  book and the conference made me think that I didn’t want that life for myself. But, in the end I realized three things. The first, is that not everyone in the world of scholarship was like the people I met at the conference (in fact, not everyone I met there was like that). Second, not every institution was like the ones described in the book (e.g. SEBTS). Finally, those who changed the way a sport was played didn’t do it by creating a different sport. They just played their sport differently. Some of them fell flat on their face. Some of them changed the game. I may not change the game, but I’ve resolved to play differently (e.g. #5 in this list).

Well those are seven of the differences I hope to see during my “second chance” Ph.D. Some of them I will have to be the catalyst in order to see those changes. I think SEBTS will be the best place for me to make these changes. The environment among professors, administration, and my peers, will be an excellent place for me to improve my scholastic efforts, and work on the changes mentioned above.