If I could have gone back…

When I was accepted to Durham I had about 11 months before coming and I was doing some teaching and working (for a publishing company), but I wanted to do something to prepare for my research.  So, I started to research heavily in the area of my proposal.  Seems reasonable enough…But when I arrived and started chatting with my supervisors, my research started going in another direction and much of what I worked on before was now peripheral. You really can’t be sure that you will end up studying exactly what you want – your supervisors will likely offer you insight in scope and methodology that will put you on a reliable track to doing good research that needs to be done.

So, what would I have done different?  First, German, German, German.  I know.  I don’t love it either, but it really is necessary.  Those who say you can get by without it…They were lucky and their examiners were probably in a great mood for the viva!

Second, go back and study the history of interpretation in your wider area.  If it is Gospels, go back to the Historical Jesus research and dig in – know the background.  You are expected to know it.  If it is Paul, read Bultmann and Kasemann.  It may be tedious and sometimes dull, but it will save you time, energy and probably embarrassment.  I am currently in a class on ‘Paul and His Interpreters’ (with John Barclay) as well as listening to Frank Thielman’s lectures on New Testament Theology on http://www.biblicaltraining.org and it has helped me immensely.  It teaches you to see who your own influences are that you might not even be aware of!  It teaches you to not try and re-invent the wheel.  Your original contribution to scholarship, believe it or not, will probably be a tweaking of something already out there- better you know that now than a week before your viva!

Third, get a feel for methodologies.  What will be your methodology for your study?  For evangelicals (like me), we prefer good old-fashioned grammatico-historical exegesis, but that is not enough anymore.  There are thousands upon thousands of commentaries that offer plenty of that.  You need to apply new tools to the reworked ground of NT studies.  As for me, I gave to learn ritual theory (ugh), sociology of religion and metaphor theory (a branch of literary theory).  I prefer to do grammatical exegesis, but I have to know this other stuff to establish my argument in the scholarly arena and successfully earn a PhD.  So, explore methods and see what really interests you.  I am fascinated by intertextuality, social-scientific criticism (esp. honor and shame backgrounds), as well as rhetorical criticism.  If you can, go and visit various topics at SBL that you might normally ignore and see if anything strikes you as interesting.

I am doing a lot of these kinds of things now and I wish I had more time!

Oxford English Dictionary Online

If you are using your institution’s network, you may have access to Oxford English Dictionary online (www.oed.com). If you haven’t used it before, it is great for comprehensive definitions – excellent resource for defining key terms in your own writing, or looking up words you don’t know. Also, you can choose helpful options such as etymology and the earliest usage of the word in English. Check it out if you can.

Amazon full-text

I have just added a page at the top ‘Amazon…’ that links to NT academic books that are of great value to research students. I will be adding more whenever I have time. Most of the books are from the SNTS monograph series – completely searchable. Enjoy! Also, please comment if you find mismatched or broken links. Eventually I will categorize them by topic.

Viva: Tips

The ‘viva’ is the word used in the UK for the oral thesis defense. The decision to award you a PhD results from a successful completetion of the viva, along with your written work (of course). So, its helpful to know about it. Some people may be under the impression that all you have to do is know your thesis well. Well, from reading advice and interacting with people who have gone through the experience, here are some thoughts.

This advice comes from Andrew Broad, a professor who teaches a course on thesis writing and management. Broad first mentions that there is a general reasoning behind the viva and the kind of questions asked. In general

These are the points being examined (according to Alex Gray from the University of Cardiff):

  • Understanding: that you’re ready to become an independent researcher.
  • Relationship to other work: that you have a command of your subject-area. Similarity to the work of others doesn’t detract from novelty!
  • Novelty – is your work publishable? If you have already published a couple of papers, that should be proof of sufficient originality. Don’t panic about recent publications that are very similar to your work – the important thing is to be aware of them, and to know the differences between your work and theirs.
  • What you have achieved, and that you are aware of its implications. What will it make a difference to?
  • Demonstration of hypothesis (what you set out to achieve). How have you evaluated/tested your hypothesis? Always be prepared to reconsider your hypothesis if you end up demonstrating something else – it’s vitally important that your results match your hypothesis, and that you have a convincing argument for this.
  • Why did you do it the way you did? Not just your practical work, but everything. For example, your literature review should be focused towards your hypothesis.

Broad also lists excellent ideas of what kinds of questions might be asked. Regardless of discipline, these general kinds of questions are common. I suggest, as I will also try to do, pre-answering these questions both as you write your thesis, and again when you are finished or close to finished.

  • What is the area in which you wish to be examined? (particularly difficult and important if your thesis fits into several areas, or has several aspects, or seems to fit into an area of its own as mine does).
  • In one sentence, what is your thesis? (Resist the temptation to run from the room!)
  • What have you done that merits a PhD?
  • Summarise your key findings.
  • What are you most proud of, and why? This may be asked (again) towards the end of the viva.
  • What’s original about your work? Where is the novelty? Don’t leave it to the examiners to make up their own minds – they may get it wrong!
  • What are the contributions (to knowledge) of your thesis?
  • Which topics overlap with your area?
    For topic X:

    • How does your work relate to X?
    • What do you know about the history of X?
    • What is the current state of the art in X? (capabilities and limitations of existing systems)
      What techniques are commonly used?
      Where do current technologies fail such that you (could) make a contribution?
    • How does/could your work enhance the state of the art in X?
    • Who are the main `players’ in X? (Hint: you should cluster together papers written by the same people)
      Who are your closest competitors?
    • What do you do better than them? What do you do worse?
    • Which are the three most important papers in X?
    • What are the recent major developments in X?
    • How do you expect X to progress over the next five years? How long-term is your contribution, given the anticipated future developments in X?
  • What did you do for your MPhil, and how does your PhD extend it? Did you make any changes to the system you implemented for your MPhil?
  • What are the strongest/weakest parts of your work?
  • Where did you go wrong?
  • Why have you done it this way? You need to justify your approach – don’t assume the examiners share your views.
  • What are the alternatives to your approach?
    What do you gain by your approach?
    What would you gain by approach X?
  • Why didn’t you do it this way (the way everyone else does it)? This requires having done extensive reading. Be honest if you never thought of the alternative they’re suggesting, or if you just didn’t get around to it. If you try to bluff your way out, they’ll trap you in your own words.
  • Looking back, what might you have done differently? This requires a thoughtful answer, whilst defending what you did at the time.
  • How do scientists/philosophers carry out experiments?
  • How have you evaluated your work?
    • intrinsic evaluation: how have you demonstrated that it works, and how well it performs?
    • extrinsic evaluation: how have you demonstrated its usefulness for a specific application context?
  • What do your results mean?
  • How would your system cope with bigger examples? Does it scale up? This is especially important if you have only run your system on `toy’ examples, and they think it has `learned its test-data’.
  • How do you know that your algorithm/rules are correct?
  • How could you improve your work?
  • What are the motivations for your research? Why is the problem you have tackled worth tackling?
  • What is the relevance of your contributions?
    • to other researchers?
    • to industry?
  • What is the implication of your work in your area? What does it change?
  • How do/would you cope with known problems in your field? (e.g. combinatorial explosion)
  • Have you solved the field’s problem that you claim to have solved? For example, if something is too slow, and you can make it go faster – how much increase in speed is needed for the applications you claim to support?
  • Is your field going in the right direction? For example, if everyone’s been concentrating on speed, but the real issue is space (if the issue is time, you can just wait it out (unless it’s combinatorially explosive), but if the issue is space, the system could fall over). This is kind of justifying why you have gone into the field you’re working in.
  • Who are your envisioned users? What use would your work be in situation X?
  • How do your contributions generalise?
    To what extent would they generalise to systems other than the one you’ve worked on?
    Under what circumstances would your approach be useable? (Again, does it scale up?)
  • Where will you publish your work? Think about which journals and conferences your research would best suit. Just as popular musicians promote their latest albums by releasing singles and going on tour, you should promote your thesis by publishing papers in journals and presenting them at conferences. This takes your work to a much wider audience; this is how academics establish themselves.
  • Which aspects of your thesis could be published?
  • What have you learned from the process of doing your PhD? Remember that the aim of the PhD process is to train you to be a fully professional researcher – passing your PhD means that you know the state of the art in your area and the directions in which it could be extended, and that you have proved you are capable of making such extensions.
  • Where did your research-project come from? How did your research-questions emerge? You can’t just say “my supervisor told me to do it” – if this is the case, you need to talk it over with your supervisor before the viva. Think out a succinct answer (2 to 5 minutes).
  • Has your view of your research topic changed during the course of the research?
  • You discuss future work in your conclusion chapter. How long would it take to implement X, and what are the likely problems you envisage? Do not underestimate the time and the difficulties – you might be talking about your own resubmission-order! 😉

Particular Questions

Most of the viva will probably consist of questions about specific sections of your thesis, and the examiner should give a page-reference for each question. According to Alex Gray, these questions fall into six categories:

  • Clarification. The examiners ask you to explain a particular statement in the thesis. In some cases, their lack of understanding may be due to a typo, e.g. “Why did you connect the client to the sewer?” Also, “not” is a small word which makes a big difference! 😉
  • Justification.
  • Alternatives considered. Be honest if you didn’t consider alternatives, otherwise you’ll be digging a hole for yourself.
  • Awareness of other work.
  • Distinction from similar work. Especially recent publications where others are working in the same area – what are the similarities and differences between your work and theirs?
  • Correction of errors (typos, technical errors, misleading statements, and so on).

Thanks to Dr. Broad; here is his website: http://www.geocities.com/andrewbroad/cs/cs710/viva.html.
I will try and post more as I find helpful info.

Book Reviews: Reading Critically

Writing the book review obviously requires reading the book. But, the reading must be done with a critical engagement. I’m sure some people can just sit and read a book and write their thoughts. However, I have tried to find an approach that will help me make notations and markers in the book in a way that will be helpful when it comes time to write. I offer this as an example of what I have done, but everyone learns and thinks differently – I hope it might help but it may not.

First, I read up (on the internet or whatever) on who the author is and what they are known for. Go to their faculty webpage, or read the author blurb from that book and others. Get a sense of who is making the claims and what their convictions and influences are.

Second, I pay careful attention to the preface, acknowledgements and introductory words. It is often here that you see most clearly the purpose behind the work and the hoped-for results.

Third (the reading). I typically use symbols and abbreviations in the margin to make notes for myself for later. Then, when I read the whole book, I go back and have a session of ‘write up’ where I type up my notations and then I can make an assessment of the work (which will be the last step before writing a draft of the review).

The notations are simple: Underline any statement that:

(1) is a Main Point of the author and write MP in the margin next to it

(2) is a good quote, either summarizing or articulating something special; something you might quote in the review and put a Q in the margin

(3) is particularly insightful or good; that you find positive and that the review reader would gain from; put a * or star in the margin

(4) is something that you find fundamentally problematic in the argument, incomplete, unnecessarily confusing, or just plain wrong (factually, logically, etc…); put a X in the margin.


I find a couple of blank pages in the back and I keep a running set of columns: a good column (things I really liked about the book) and a bad column (issues that are problematic). As I read, I will add comments to the columns in the back and mark page numbers. This helps to organize my thoughts as I read.

Writing a Book Review

I have found that one of the best ways to stay up-to-date on current research is to volunteer to do book reviews.  I have done about five or six and I have four more on contract that I am working on with various periodicals.  What I notice when reading reviews is how much they vary in what kind of things are said and for what reasons.  This begs the question, how should a book review be written, and for what reasons?  It seems simple enough – review the book.  But people expect more than a summary – they can get a summary from the back cover!  They want a critical review – an analytical summary.   So, with that in mind, I have tried to tackle a book review with some of these things in mind:

1. Find the Central thesis of the book: Unless it is purely a reference book, the author(s) has a main point, and it is probably ‘original’. Your initial task is to find it and be able to summarize it clearly and succintly.  Even if it is a reference book, there is probably an agenda behind the new survey book, or dictionary or whatever.  Try to figure out what it is, by the tone of the piece, or the editorial comments at the beginning, or by researching a bit about the contributors.

2. The Main thing you want to evaluate in a review is: is the author successful in arguing his/her thesis.  What methodology is employed?  What is the flow of logic?  What presumptions are recognizable – how do they further the thesis; how do they limit the persuasiveness?  Many reviewers quibble with a small point here or there, but this does little for the reader.  Is there main point fundamentally flawed?  Even if you feel the thesis is wrong, does the argument raise important questions?

3. Format: It may seem rigid, but my pattern is to summarize the book for about 3/5 of the review, and critique for the final 2/5.  That way, the reader gets a sense for what the book is about ( – leave the detailed analytical critiques to the expert reviewers in journals of narrow scope -),  and you can offer some perspective at the end.

4.  Positive Points – I try and have something positive to say about the book.  The book may be rubbish, but at least it raises some questions about assumptions in the particular field.  If you are only negative, it may seem like you went into reading the book with bias.  I recently read comments by Karl Barth in prefaces to his second and third edition of his commentary on Romans, and he mentions nasty reviews by theological/biblical opponents.  Some of these opponents wrote scathing reviews.  This, to me, is poor reviewing.  It may be impossible to be completely objective, but I feel that we must come to every book willing to learn or appreciate something.

5. Negative Points – Often people are wanting to know what is wrong with the book, and look to experts for insight. Now, you and I are not experts, but it is a good exercise to scrutinize the argument and look for its flaws – major and minor.  Here are some areas to explore for criticism:

a. Length: Is it too short or long – inappropriate for the type of argument.

b. Omissions: Does the author exclude key issues in the topic; does he/she exclude key contributions in the previous research on the issue.

c. Focus:  Are some issues covered to the exclusion of others; are any chapters superfluous

d. Errors: Are there multiple typographical/bibliographical/grammatical errors that seriously detract from the argument (this can be the case with published theses that receive little or no editing by the publisher)

e. Is the work overly agressive against a particular author – is their argument ad hominem (which seems to bias the author too much)?  Has the author arguing against straw men?

f. Arrangement – is the material arranged in a useful manner; or are the chapters scattered thoughts?

g. Sources – Does the author use primary sources responsibly or just as ‘proof-texts’?  Does he/she demonstrate serious competence in the original literature being studied?

h. Originality – Is the argument original? Does it seem to just rehearse what someone else has already said?

6.  Front/Back Matter – sometimes the book has useful indexes or  charts in the front or back and these may be worthy of mention.

7. Text-book ideas: Ocassionally, it is worthy of mention that a book would make a good textbook for a course.

If you are a non-expert, writing for a more general-audience periodical, chances are the review is going to be relatively short – don’t try to do too much.  Just give a good summary that gets at the heart of what the person is arguing, and offer some pluses and minuses.

TIP: A tenured scholar gave me the advice that you should be careful not to be too polemic in your review – certain allegiences are formed around particular disciplines and if you are labelled an opponent of the discipline you might find yourself in bad standing with the whole group.  Be honest in your review, but in a respectful way!