My Advice to Incoming PhD Students (Skinner)

PHDReaders of this blog will know that I recently moved from North Carolina, where I’ve been teaching for the past six years, to Chicago to take a position at Loyola University. These past two weeks have been filled with various sorts of orientations as we prepare to begin classes next Monday, so it’s been difficult to to find enough time to get back on the blog. I’ll return to series of posts I was working on very soon, but while I had a moment today, I wanted to share something that has been on my mind since Monday.

One of my new roles here at Loyola will be section coordinator for the PhD in New Testament / Early Christianity. Earlier this week I had a chance, along with the other three section coordinators, to meet all of the incoming MA and PhD students and welcome them to Loyola. We were asked by the graduate student caucus to discuss our responsibilities as section coordinators and then to share any advice we would like to give to the students. I thought it might be helpful to repeat that advice here on the blog and also share something I was a little hesitant to say on Monday (but probably should have).

(1) Make friends while you’re here. A well-known refrain from one of Maya Angelou’s poems reads, “Alone, all alone, Nobody, but nobody, Can make it out here alone.” Doctoral study can be one of the most difficult, most intense, (and for many) loneliest periods of your adult life. This is especially true if you are in a hyper-competitive or isolated environment where every student is out for himself/herself. I encouraged our students to make friends with one another and thereby create a support system that will sustain them throughout the program and even after their time in graduate school. For my part, I was privileged to have four friends with whom I remained close during my time at Catholic University. When I published my dissertation, I thanked all four of them for the role they played in my transformation, but also for how their friendship sustained me through the long and difficult period that is PhD studies.

Alongside the transformative element of making friends in your program—let’s be honest—establishing and maintaining friendships in this field is also a matter of sheer pragmatics. Finding success in academia—which is measured by things like gainful employment and publication—like many professions, is significantly impacted by who you know. In other words: opportunities accrue to those with robust social networks. I have now collaborated on three different book projects with two of the four friends I mentioned above and have met numerous people in this field as a result of my relationships with them (and vice versa).

(2) Start presenting your research and publishing as soon as possible. I am well aware that this piece of advice will not be as universally agreed-upon as my previous point. I conceded this when talking with the students and then said, “On this point, I’m talking specifically to the PhD students in New Testament / Early Christianity.” More and more, we see freshly-minted PhDs entering the job market with numerous professional presentations and a handful of publications already listed on their CVs. In a perfect world, students would focus on getting through their coursework, finishing comprehensive exams, and writing a solid dissertation before attempting to publish. (There’s obviously greater flexibility for publishing during your program if you’re in a European setting.) The problem is that the job market is saturated and therefore incredibly competitive; everyone is doing everything within reason to make their CVs as impressive and competitive as possible. This might not have been great advice 20 years ago, but it seems to me it’s a necessity in the current market.

(3) Enjoy yourself. Very few people have the opportunity to take several years out of their lives to read, study, and learn about a topic of great interest alongside other students and experts on the subject matter. As difficult as it can be at times, it can also be intoxicating….so try to enjoy yourselves.

(4) *What I didn’t say (but probably should have).* What I would have said if (a) I weren’t brand new and eager to make a positive first impression, and (b) I didn’t want to completely discourage the entire room, is that PhD studies require tremendous sacrifice over a period of years during which many people quite literally put their personal lives on hold. So, if there’s ANYTHING ELSE you think you might want to do other than this, press pause and go do it. If there’s enough uncertainty, you should think long and hard about what you’re about to do. At the end of your period of study and sacrifice, there’s no guarantee that a job will be waiting for you. In fact, the outlook for the academy here in the United States is presently, very grim, especially with nearly 51% of college faculty serving in a contingent capacity. In other words, you will expend a lot of energy over several (possibly many) years, potentially sacrificing a great deal, and it could all very well be just an exercise in personal enrichment.

I hope that advice was neither too extreme nor too grim, but reflective of the realities of pursuing a PhD in our field in 2016. I would love to hear what others might have added (or removed) from my list.


Across the Spectrum of New Testament Studies: Introductory Post (Skinner)

Across the SpectrumNijay and I are currently co-authoring a book for Baker Academic that is tentatively titled, Across the Spectrum: Understanding the Key Issues in New Testament Studies (forthcoming 2017). The book is intended to be a broad coverage of the spectrum of views on major issues in NT research and is aimed at upper-level undergraduate and divinity school audiences. In recent months I have been weighed down with completing several other projects but now I am in a position to turn my attention to this project. We have discussed the merit of blogging through our thoughts, ideas, musings, and revelations as we work through the chapters on this book. So consider this post an introduction to our task, a “heads-up,” and most of all an invitation. In coming months, if you see posts with the title, “Across the Spectrum…..,” we will be talking about issues related to the book. In those cases, PLEASE feel the freedom to weigh in on the conversation. We want this, above all, to be useful for students and non-specialists and our interactions with you will help us sharpen our thinking and writing. Thanks in advance!

Crafting Jesus In Many Images (Or: What I Learned About Jesus from Will Ferrell) (Skinner)

dear lord baby jesusEvery student at our college is required to take at least one course in Religion. One of those courses is Introduction to the New Testament, which I teach every semester. As you can imagine, not everyone is excited about the subject matter and many are convinced that the class will be otherwise useless. I begin the semester with a refrain that promises, “The NT and its subject matter are all around you. You only need to pay attention.” Throughout the semester I seek for opportunities to show the relevance of the course to discussions that are continually going on in the public sphere (including politics, sports, social commentary, etc.). To that end, I open class every Friday with a video of some kind in which Jesus or some element of the NT figures prominently. Today I began with Will Ferrell’s well-known prayer as “Ricky Bobby” In Talladega Nights (see below). For many this scene is simply humorous, but I pointed out that it can be viewed as a fairly profound theological statement. One of the more common tendencies throughout the history of Christianity has been to craft Jesus into a specific image according to a set of lenses. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John did it. So did the church fathers steeped in Greek philosophy, as did the Reformers, as we do today, and on and on. I found that this opens up some interesting discussion and sets the table for the lecture (which today was on the Gospel of Luke). Take a moment to watch this scene again (or for the first time) and witness for yourself the various images of Jesus that can be present at one dinner table.

Judy Redman on Charles Hedrick’s Thomas Commentary

Judy Redman is at it again. This time she provides a review of Charles Hedrick’s 2010 commentary on the Gospel of Thomas (Cascade). As with her review of Petr Pokorny’s commentary, Judy again applies the three questions from my recent book (date of composition, relationship to the NT, theological outlook) to outline the contributions of Hedrick’s book. [I should say that I’m appreciative of this attention for my argument. While I think my book makes a contribution to the field of Thomas studies, it’s nice to have colleagues feel that way as well. So thanks, Judy!]

I have not used Hedrick’s commentary very much but I do own it. One of the peculiar things about Hedrick’s reasoning in the area of the Thomas-Synoptic debate is his assertion that the onus of proof lies squarely on the shoulders of those who claim that Thomas is dependent on the Synoptic tradition–something many of Hedrick’s Westar Institute cronies have also asserted. For my part, I have always been convinced that the onus of proof lies with anyone who makes an assertion, especially in an area of debate with so few certainties as Thomas‘s relationship to the Synoptics. In his article, “An Anecdotal Argument for the Independence of the Gospel of Thomas from the Synoptics,” (in For the Children, Perfect Instruction: Studies in Honor of Hans-Martin Schenke [Leiden: Brill, 2002] 113-26) Hedrick does have an interesting argument for the independence of one logion that he presumably hopes will be used to establish the independence of other (the rest?) of Thomas‘s 114 sayings.

As always, Judy’s insights are helpful and will serve those interested in exploring the world of Thomas scholarship in greater detail. Check out her post when you have a chance.