Progress Report

I’m at the halfway point in my PhD program.

I’ve completed seven quarters of coursework. These included (1) a directed reading (guided independent study) in philosophical hermeneutics, (2) a seminar on theological method, (3) a seminar on biblical theology and theological hermeneutics, (4) a seminar on research methods in New Testament study, (5) a seminar on theological anthropology, (6) a seminar on methods for observing and interpreting culture, (7) a seminar on the doctrine of the atonement. If  you can’t see the common thread, no worries; I can.

Fuller is unlike most US programs both in the quarter (instead of semester) system and in that a second round of coursework follows comprehensive exams—seven more quarters. The latter courses aim at the dissertation specifically, so Fuller’s is effectively a more guided writing process than those programs that cut candidates loose to write after comps.

I passed comprehensive exams. The name “comprehensive exam” is absurd. But two things became clear during my preparation for these tests. One, though I didn’t expect to have any new learning experiences at this point in my student career, I had in fact never attempted to absorb so much information at once and hold it all in short-term memory. It did indeed produce a more comprehensive view of things than I had experienced before. But, that’s of limited value since very little made it into long-term memory. Still, the experience was interesting, and I spotted some worthwhile problems that I wouldn’t have seen otherwise (fodder for later research). Two, I realized that the point of comprehensive exams was to make me finally and definitively conclude that comprehensive knowledge of even one subject area is impossible and that even those things about which I know the most are still far beyond my ability to capture with a “view from above.” I guess they let you become a doctoral candidate once you give up delusions of grandeur and accept the role of a researcher working on limited problems from a limited perspective. That’s what I got from it anyway.

Before comps, I had to finish my research languages. I did German and Latin at the same time last summer. Learning two new languages in ten weeks helped me discover the ragged edge of my ability (read: I was overconfident). I can’t say I crushed those two exams, but I passed, which means I can adequately read theological Latin and German for scholarly purposes. Since Spanish is my third research language, I got to pass one exam with relative ease.

Another requirement of the program is that I submit three demo syllabuses, so I’m working on those between quarters. It’s sort of just an additional hoop, but the exercise is helpful at the halfway point, because it forces me to organize what I’ve learned so far from a disciplinary and pedagogical viewpoint, identify gaps to fill in during the remainder of the program, and think about job applications in the near future. I’m enjoying it, but choosing what to include and exclude in a given course at a given level is just another way to realize how challenging it is to represent a field of study comprehensively or even just fairly, much less to lead students profitably through it.

My next course will be a directed reading on the notion of “participation” in God, which has become the keystone of my dissertation idea. I’ll be working over the next couple of quarters to draft a dissertation proposal. After that is approved, drafting chapters becomes the main focus of my coursework.

Ever on and on.