On the Virtue of Changing Your Mind: An Appeal to My Students (Skinner)

Changing MindTomorrow starts a brand new academic year and I am brimming with hopes for you, my students. I love to see the “light come on” in your brains as we cover new terrain. I love those awkward, occasionally uncomfortable conversations about what we’re learning and how it is making you uneasy. Studying the Bible in its social, historical, and religious contexts and in much greater depth than you’re used to can have that effect. I love that what I do with you and how I do it has the evocative power to bring you into and out of moments of intellectual angst and ecstasy. I also love that what we do, day-in and day-out, brings with it the potential to help you learn to change your mind.

Today I sat across from one of you and listened to your youthful, exuberant, and (honestly) half-baked theories about things you have yet to really engage in moments of serious thought. That’s okay. I will walk with you and do my best to help you see things you have not yet seen, just as others have walked with me. Please remember: you are here to learn and learning requires openness. True education means opening yourself to the possibilities that your previous thinking about an issue could potentially be wide of the mark and may need some leavening. I want you to know that it’s okay to be wrong or ignorant or misinformed. We have all been there and we are all there, to various degrees, continuously as we go on learning. Much more than that, I want you to know that true education means an openness to changing your mind. Too much of what passes for education is the rearranging or affirmation of your previously held biases. True learning requires that, eventually, you will change your mind about something.

I will make that my mission this semester. So sleep well and I will see you in class tomorrow.

More Research Advice from a Tenured Scholar

Today I had the privilege of having breakfast in Durham (England) with Ben Witherington III.  Ben and I have quite a bit in common.  We both went to secular universities for our undergraduate degree (he went to UNC; I went to Miami University of Ohio).  We both went to Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary (at very different times!).  We both went on to University of Durham for our PhD’s in New Testament working with the Lightfoot Professor of Divinity (he with Kingsley; one of my two supervisors is John Barclay).  We are both Methodist (he is ordained UMC; my wife and I will soon be pursuing ordination).  Ben taught for about a decade in Ashland, Ohio – my hometown.  I went to high school with his daughter and we were in Latin together.  We had much to talk about!

Well, Ben is a warm, intelligent, pastoral scholar and a humble man.  As I try to do, I asked some general questions that relate to life as a NT researcher.  Perhaps you will find his advice as helpful as I did.

1. What separates a good researcher from a great one? 

Ben basically said that good researches do their homework and know the primary and secondary literature.  A great researcher has enough critical acuity to identify the most helpful and most interesting pieces of scholarship that will take the discussion forward.  Often too much space in a dissertation is spent on superfluous information.  A great research knows how to be discriminating and selective in terms of what to discuss and what not to discuss.  Wise words.

2. What are some pet peeves of yours when it comes to reading theses and dissertations?

Ben said, regarding form, that stylistic and typographic errors can be deadly because they communicate that the writer did not really take the work seriously.  Ben recommended that the researcher not shy away from having numerous proofreaders -it will save you in the end!

As for content, Ben recommended this: make the piece easy to read for your examiners.  Avoid jargon and overly technical language.  Be clear and make your thesis statement simple.  Make the outline of your study intuitive.  Use restatement and repetition of main points the way a preacher might – what may seem over-simplistic may be ‘just right’ to your reader engaging this work for the first time.  So, keep it simple and clear.

3. What have been methodological trends in scholarship that have been most profitable?

Ben mentioned here narrative dynamics of NT theology (see his book on this).  Rhetorical-criticism, of course.  And, Ben referred to an increasing scholarly interest in the relationship between ‘theology’ and ‘ethics’ – something Witherington is working on right now!

4. Ben, what are 5 books that every Pauline-scholar-in-training should have read?

He listed these:

-Sanders, E.P. Paul and Palestinian Judaism

-Hays, R.B. The Faith of Jesus Christ

-Wright, N.T. The Resurrection and the Son of God

-Furnish, V.P. Theology and Ethics in Paul

-Murphy-O’Connor, J. Paul the Letter-Writer

These are all great suggestions!  Thanks, Ben!  I have only interacted with these in portions; I have read none of them in full!  I guess I have some catching up to do!