If I Could Go Back…15 years (Part 2) (Gupta)

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Let me take you back 15 years. The year was 2003, and I was about halfway through Seminary (and 2 seasons into Alias). I studied for my M.Div and Th.M. at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. I chose GCTS for its emphasis on biblical languages and Christian discipleship. When I started at seminary, I didn’t have a particular vocation in mind, but I will say teaching/academia was not on my radar. Because my studies (from grade school through college) had been in the secular educational world up to that point, I just had never imagined what it would have been like to be a “Bible prof.” But as I journeyed through seminary and came alive in these Scripture courses, I had a fire in my heart for lifelong study of the Bible and the compulsion to share with others what I was learning.

When did I “know” I wanted to be a prof? Probably that second year of seminary.

Good Decisions

Well, Gordon-Conwell was a good decision. It had an excellent language program. I tested out of both basic Greek and basic Hebrew, but at GCTS I took advanced Greek, advanced Hebrew, LXX Greek, patristic Greek, Ecclesial Latin, German, French, Aramaic, and Akkadian! I took 7-8 Greek-level exegesis courses. All of these have helped me immensely.

I applied every year to be a TA—most years I got this opportunity, and for a few years I was a Greek TA, which gave me lots of teaching experience. The institution came to trust me enough that I taught a course (Paul and His Letters) on my own as an adjunct at the urban extension campus. It was an amazing experience!

Instead of switching to a “pre-PhD” style MA, I stayed in the MDIV. Even when I knew I wanted to be a professor, I still felt that the MDIV would round me out and help me to be a “pastor” to the students. I have never spent even a second re-thinking that decision.

By a kind of happy accident, I spent six months working in sales for a theological publishing company. This gave me lots of industry information and I have made friendships and connections that have thrived over more than a decade.

 

Done Differently

There is a long list of reconsiderations! None of these keep me up at night, but I try to counsel students to do better than I did.

Master of Theology. I did my Th.M. at GCTS out of convenience (my wife was finishing her degree at GCTS at the time); but my desire was to do the Th.M. elsewhere. I didn’t have a problem with GCTS, but I knew a different faculty and community would offer something new and special. I always encourage folks to get diverse experiences with different people. But I enjoyed my Th.M. at GCTS in any case.

Thesis. I chose not to do a thesis in my Th.M., mostly because I couldn’t find a supervisor. So I went into my doctoral program having never written a paper longer than 25 pages. That made the dissertation learning curve very steep. Looking back, it was not wise. The experience of crafting a proposal, thesis, and going through a defense would have given me important pre-PhD experience in advanced research.

Consortium Courses. At GCTS, I could have taken courses through our consortium (Harvard, Boston College, Boston University, etc.). I chose not to mostly because I didn’t want to commute into Boston. I regret not taking at least one course in one of these elite institutions.

Study Abroad. I toyed around with the idea of studying abroad for a term (e.g., London), but again I chickened out. I wish I would have done it, but eventually, I went to the UK for my PhD. 🙂

Guild Involvement. By 2004, I was pretty certain that I wanted to do a PhD and enter into academia as a career. But I didn’t manage to go to SBL until 2006. I wish I would have made more of an effort to get “guild experience” – I did not know how such conferences worked. I needed someone to come alongside. I also did not understand very well that there were regional meetings. Again, wish I had help with these things.

Narrow Focus. In seminary, I loved taking language courses and biblical studies courses—to a fault. By that I mean I chose not to use any of my electives on theology or church history. Now I regret that, because we had a church history professor (Isaac Gordon) who taught a course on Luther, and another on Bonhoeffer. I look back and I wish I could have taken both those courses. I narrowed my educational focus too much and dismissed learning opportunities that would have helped me to be well-rounded. As a bit of karma, I am working closely with Luther’s works these days, and I wish I had taken that course!

GRE Prep Course. When I was applying for PhD programs, I chose not to take a GRE Prep Course. Suffice it to say I bombed the GRE. Twice. That is one of the reasons I ended up going to the UK. A prep-course may have helped me get a better score. But maybe not. 😦

Self-Care. In the throes of seminary and PhD-prep, and working and family, I just didn’t do a good job enjoying the moment and taking care of my body. Late nights. Bad eating habits. Little exercise. And these become a way of life in academia and next thing you know you are sick and fat and tired all the time. Not ideal, trust me. I would have focused more on work/life balance. I am trying to right that ship now (~ a decade into my career), but easier to do earlier.

 

If I Could Go Back (20 Years)…: Preparing for a Career in Biblical Studies (Part 1)

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I am starting a new series called “If I Could Go Back…” I am now almost a decade into my teaching career, and it has given me a chance to look back and appreciate some things I did right, and also to consider how I could have better prepared for this vocation as teacher and researcher.

In this first part, I am going back 20 years to 1998. I was a sophomore in college at Miami University (OH). First I will talk about good decisions, then about what I could have done differently.

Good Decisions

I kind of stumbled into a major – I started first in music education. But I realized quickly this was not that interesting to me as a career. Then, I switched to “Speech Communication” as a placeholder. I had some interest in ministry (youth or college ministry of some kind). It didn’t occur to me at all to become a Bible professor. I wasn’t even interested in seminary at the time.

Probably the first good decision I made (accidentally) was taking Attic Greek. This was my first learning experience in Greek. I needed to take a language to fulfill my “language” requirement, and I thought it might be fun to learn ancient Greek and maybe study the New Testament. I took 8 credits my first year of college and LOVED it. So, I ended up taking 20+ credits of ancient Greek and had enough credits to be a major (even though I never officially declared it as a second major). This knowledge of Greek gave me a leg up (and I tested out of Greek in seminary). Now (2018), I am working closely with Plutarch, Xenophon, and other Hellenophone writers, and some of that knowledge is coming in handy as I return to classical resources.

Another “good decision” I made back then was taking journalism writing courses. My Speech Com concentration was “Public Relations” – I had to take two journalism courses. I cannot tell you how helpful these were both for learning about “research,” but especially for learning to write clearly, factually, and compellingly. I think every aspiring writer should take a journalism course. I also had to take marketing courses, and these came in handy when it came to learning how to “sell” an argument, article, book, idea, etc. And I had to take “interpersonal communication”: I don’t think I need to make a case for how crucial this is, but whether it is working with students, colleagues, or editors, you just can’t be a recluse in the academy and make it very far!

Done Differently

Ok, so what could I have done differently? I was at a public university, so I wasn’t confident in the strength of the religion courses. I took one (with James Hanges to boot!), but I didn’t understand a lick of it at the time (on apocalypticism in the ancient world). I think I would have benefited from a good course in ancient Greek and Roman history and civilization. Also, I wish I would have taken courses on archaeology and ancient historiography.

Perhaps the biggest regret I have from that time is that I didn’t heed people’s advice that I should do a semester abroad. We had abroad programs all over, and I just was too lazy to put any effort into it. I don’t have just one single benefit in mind from this, but I know now (having done my PhD abroad) that it helps to see other education systems, learning styles, and to explore and navigate other cultures.

I actually don’t look back to my college years with much regret. I seriously had no idea I would head down a professorial career. So I don’t beat myself up much in retrospect. Much of what I ended up learning has helped me, even though I made many course choices haphazardly.

When undergrads approach me, asking me how they can prepare for a path to doctoral studies and a career in academia, I often tell them to focus on languages: Greek, Hebrew, Latin, German if you can. Learn history. Explore the world. Become a better writer.

Oh, and sleep while you can. 🙂