So you’re writing a dissertation, Part 7…The End

The Religion Graduate Student (RGS) passed her dissertation defense and graduated “with distinction”. In the lead-up to her oral defense she reread her dissertation twice, came up with potential questions, and then performed a mock defense with some of her graduate student colleagues. It was a bit hectic bringing her committee members together on November 14, 2012 and one member skyped in, but in the end everything proceeded smoothly and at the conclusion attendees raised glasses of champagne mimosas to toast the newly minted PhD.

In our (bittersweet) concluding interview on February 22, 2013, RGS had just graduated and I had read her dissertation beginning to end. First she filled me in on the details of her big defense day. Then we discussed the content of her dissertation, the writing process, her thoughts about graduate education, and her immediate post-graduation life. In contrast to my medieval notions, the defense did not resemble an inquisition. RGS was satisfied with what she had accomplished but identified a few areas of her dissertation that needed work. She had some trouble describing the writing process and she mourned the many dozens of pages she had written that never made it into her dissertation. The routine she tried to establish at the start never quite came together. In the end it was “tasty treats” that helped her to the finish line. Graduate education is definitely not sustainable and RGS was still struggling to balance her monthly budget, now on an adjunct’s wages. It’s tough to be a scholar in the twenty-first century.  

This interview occurred almost three years to the day from the first time RGS and I spoke about the journey awaiting her. In my first blog post of this series, I described the dissertation as a “ritual initiation in which the student is dropped deep into an unfamiliar wilderness area with nothing but a compass and asked to find her way out.” Having now completed my seventh and final interview with RGS, I am thrilled to know that RGS found her way out of the wilderness. She has now entered the world of scholars. I congratulate RGS on her achievement and thank her for allowing me to share in the journey.     

(Listen to previous interviews: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6

—Fred Rowland  

So you’re writing a dissertation, Part 6

Good news! The Religion Graduate Student (RGS) handed her committee the final rough draft of her dissertation! We met on October 17, 2012 for our sixth interview (and, boy, was I relieved to hear about this). Her defense was set for November 14. I was surprised to learn that she felt “one part relieved and nine parts nervous” because she was not exactly sure as to what constitutes a dissertation. Hers contained some personal narrative and first-person usage and she wondered whether this was consistent with the stereotyped notion of scholarly objectivity. This highlighted the ambiguous and solitary nature of dissertation research and writing.

Since we met in February, she explained that she had been doing nothing but writing. Her reader-friend, Susan, kept telling her to stop working on the introduction! You’re stalling! Plough ahead, write, write, write. In addition to the archival sources from the AFSC’s Nationwide Women’s Program (NWP), most of her other sources came from previous course readings and recommendations from advisors and committee members. With the exception of family life, she emphasized that she had ZERO social life during this latest interval. Did I mention that she had ZERO social life? 

Surprisingly, RGS wrote her chapter 4 on religion, which had been causing her the most anxiety, faster than any other chapter. She argues that Quaker positions on authority and personal testimony infused the NWP long after its early Quaker members had been succeeded by more secular feminist ones. This Quaker perspective allowed the NWP to register the voices of women in far off places (South Korea, South Africa, Taiwan, Mexico, Philippines) who were subjected to the early phases of globalization.

Finally entering the last mile of her dissertation run, we talked about the alchemical nature of the writing process and the fragile nature of memory as one moves through the confusing and foggy middle part of the journey.

(Listen to previous interviews: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5

—Fred Rowland

So you’re writing a dissertation, Part 5

The Religion Graduate Student (RGS) and I got together on February 24, 2012 for our fifth interview. She was now entering the third year of her project and she appeared a bit more upbeat than the last time we met. During the fall break she had written productively every day and she subsequently sent advisor John Raines some work that he liked. RGS spent a lot of time reworking her introduction so she could properly frame her second chapter on globalization and her third on the sources at the Nationwide Women’s Program (NWP). She worried that this might not be the best way to go about writing (according to some advice that had filtered through to her) but she now accepted that this was the way that she worked.

Among her sources RGS was struck by the disconnect between masculinist and feminist narratives of globalization. From a masculinist (economic) perspective, it’s all about corporations, institutions, trade agreements, and finance, while the feminist perspective produces primarily ethnographies, highlighting the effects of globalization on women’s bodies. The NWP, as RGS was now seeing, served to bring together these universal and local perspectives, functioning as a clearinghouse of sorts. It’s a reminder that international communications did not start with the Internet. She would be handing in her third chapter a few days after our interview.

As is inevitable, life intervened as RGS was writing in the fall. The Occupy movement broke out spontaneously in September 2011 and Occupy Philly grew up around Dilworth Plaza. When RGS attended a few Occupy Philly general assemblies, she was surprised by the ahistorical nature of the conversations. She realized that her work provided historical context to the issues discussed at Occupy Philly and this strengthened her sense of purpose. References to Occupy Philly would find their way into her dissertation.

Though tempted to do more reading — always more reading — she was now focused on writing, writing, writing. We talked about emotional blocks, the struggle to establish a routine, the messy details of life, and the way the dissertation just hangs around her neck and, according to a friend, is like an abusive relationship. Sounds like fun, huh?

(Listen to previous interviews: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4

—Fred Rowland

 

So you’re writing a dissertation, Part 3

 

On Feb 24 2011 I spoke to the Religion Graduate Student (RGS) for the third time. She has now been working on her dissertation for approximately one year. She explained that it was going well but in “fits and starts,” more than she had anticipated. Though it was a little unconventional, she began writing the introduction first because, as she explained, she was having trouble with the overall argument. When she received feedback from her women’s studies group, it was clear that her introduction was not a genuine introduction but different pieces of the chapters she intended to write.

When I asked her to define her topic, it was interesting to hear her say that this used to cause her anxiety. Now she is comfortable in explaining that she is working with an archive, focusing on Nationwide Women’s Program (at the American Friends Service Committee) during 1970 and 1980s. These primary sources will tell us things about blending of the religious and secular in the women’s and the anti-globalization movements.

We talked about the major challenges she was facing, which can be summed up as “time and money.” Struggling to support herself, find time (and mental focus) for her research, while at the same time squeezing some enjoyment out of life takes great effort. We also talked about her various support networks and the roles they play in facilitating her research process and keeping her sane.

This was a fun interview. We laughed a lot. Unfortunately I had to cut some of the laughter due to static…I laugh loudly.

(Listen to previous interviews: Part 1, Part 2

—Fred Rowland

So you’re writing a dissertation, Part 2

So, the Religion Graduate Student (RGS) has had about seven months to dig into the archival materials of the Nationwide Women’s Program at the American Friends Service Committee. In addition to reading through the corpus of newsletters from the Nationwide Women’s Program, RGS spent much of the summer studying the secondary literature including a number of scholarly works that she plans to model in her writing.

Conscious of her physical and psychological health, RGS’s weekly routine includes running, biking, yoga, and meditation. Despite this level of physical activity, some anxiety creeped in and butterflies fluttered as she looked up at the road in front of her. As she began writing she had to “conjure up all the powers of the universe” just to punch out a few words on the keyboard.

One thing RGS thinks a lot about is identifying a unifying strand that runs through her story. A good story is not sufficient for a dissertation. On top of the story she has to tease out its meaning within the larger context of religious and women’s studies. That’s the challenge she faces and there is no clear road map. She has got to draw her own.

My first interview with RGS was on February 19, 2010. This second interview took place on September 10, 2010. Listen to what RGS has to say on her progress so far.

(Listen to previous interview: Part 1

—Fred Rowland

So you’re writing a dissertation, Part 1

 

In early 2010 I began interviewing a graduate student in the Religion Department about her PhD dissertation. I thought it would be interesting to listen to a graduate student as she navigated the dissertation process – which demands autonomy, originality, and a strong work ethic – from beginning to end. The dissertation is like a ritual initiation in which the student is dropped deep into an unfamiliar wilderness area with nothing but a compass and asked to find her way out. Though graduate departments, writing centers, colleagues, and friends lend whatever support they can, it is still an individual process and different from anything the emerging scholar has ever done before: produce an original contribution to her area of study and thus demonstrate that she is qualified to enter the academic profession. Likewise, the many hundreds of how-to books on completing the dissertation can only go so far. It is not surprising that many graduate students never make it all the way through. Perhaps interest in their topic wanes, or anxiety induces writer’s block, financial support vanishes, or other life opportunities arise.

In this first interview with my Religion Graduate Student (a.k.a. RGS), about two months have passed since she passed her preliminary exams. She is preparing herself emotionally, intellectually, and financially for the challenge ahead and has set herself an ambitious goal of completing her dissertation within one to one and a half years. She is working on a group of feminists from the American Friends Services Committee (AFSC) in Philadelphia in the 1970s that developed transnational networks to resist what later came to be known as globalization. She has to figure out how to tell this story, why it is important, how it relates to religion, and what it means.

I spoke with RGS for this interview on February 19, 2010.

—Fred Rowland

The Priest and the Prophetess, Part 2

Professor Terr Rey

Professor Terry Rey

 

In the second part of my interview with Professor Terry Rey on his new book, The Priest and the Prophetess: Abbe Ouviere, Romaine Riviere, and the Revolutionary Atlantic World, we leave Haiti and the Haitian Revolution behind. Romaine la Prophetess has disappeared and will soon perish in the flames of the revolution. That terrible conflict will continue alongside its European cousin, the French Revolution, until the early years of the next century. A hemisphere away, an exhausted Felix Alexander Pascalis Ouviere washes up on Philadelphia’s shores, having survived an attack on the British brig Catherine by a French privateer in Delaware Bay. Among his few possessions is a letter of introduction addressed to George Washington. Soon Dr. Pascalis will be treating yellow fever victims in that miasmic summer of 1793 in the company of such luminaries as Benjamin Rush. Abbe Ouviere is nowhere to be found.

Here is part two of my interview with Professor Rey. We spoke on September 25, 2017.

—Fred Rowland

The Virgin Mary in 19th Century American Culture

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In contemporary American culture the Virgin Mary is associated with Catholic devotion and worship. Because of this, it should come as a surprise to many readers that the mother of Jesus was a general cultural icon in the latter half of nineteenth century Christian America. Temple professor Elizabeth Hayes Alvarez details this history in her new book, The Valiant Woman: The Virgin Mary in Nineteenth Century American Culture (Temple / Amazon). Images and references to Mary proliferated in popular magazines and on the walls of modest and fashionable homes, appealing to both Protestant and Catholic audiences. The Civil War, industrial revolution, and westward expansion transformed the United States. The rise of major urban centers like New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, and St. Louis drew in rural migrants and immigrants, unsettling religious, gender, and social norms. In these early years of mass society when the old agrarian ways were slipping away, the focus on the Virgin Mary offered a safe and familiar way of talking about and negotiating new female roles in this changing social landscape. Professor Alvarez traces the career of Mary from the declaration of the Immaculate Conception by Pope Pius IX in 1854 through its fiftieth anniversary in 1904.

I spoke with Elizabeth Hayes Alvarez about her new book on November 7, 2016.

 

Vikings Visit Minnesota in 1362

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Well, not really, but that’s a story that had significant purchase in early 20th century Minnesota. In 1898 a Swedish immigrant discovered a buried stone with runic letters and the date 1362. The archaic Scandinavian script described a fishing party that returned to its camp to find “10 men red with blood and dead.”

8 Swedes and 22 Norwegians on an exploration journey from Vinland westward. We had our camp by two rocky islets one day’s journey north of this stone. We were out fishing one day. When we came home we found 10 men with blood and dead. AVM, save us from evil. We have 10 men by the sea to look after our ships, 14 days’ journey from this island. Year: 1362. [Translation by Erik Wahlgren, The Kensington Stone: A Mystery Solved]

The news of the apparent visitation of fourteenth century Scandinavians to the great state of Minnesota was enthusiastically received by their latter day heirs. With so many immigrants entering the United States, it was reassuring to learn that these norsemen had staked a claim to the United States more than 100 years before Columbus. Better yet, they had baptized the soil with their own blood, consecrating it as holy ground.

As the authenticity of the “Kensington Rune Stone” came under question, supporters dismissed much of the evidence produced by pointy-headed academics in their ivory towers. Though the scientific consensus has clearly declared the stone a fake, books are still written “proving” its authenticity. In Myths of the Rune Stone: Viking Martyrs and the Birthplace of America, historian and religion scholar David Krueger investigates the century-long story arc of this cultural artifact. He explores the passion for the Rune Stone among Scandinavian and, later, Catholics, who were intent on establishing their rightful place in the American community.

Beyond the history of the Rune Stone itself, Krueger’s work provides valuable insights on the history of immigrant communities and the ways they seek to blend their ancestral histories into a new and imagined cultural landscape. Readers will find the themes of Myths of the Rune Stone illuminating in this time of increased tension and inflammatory rhetoric surrounding immigration.

I spoke with David Krueger on November 9, 2016, the morning after the election of Donald Trump to the presidency.

(For suggestions for how to use the book in a class setting, visit the book website at https://mythsoftherunestone.com/2015/12/15/using-myths-of-the-rune-stone-in-the-classroom/.)

—Fred Rowland