Want to know what happens in a dissertation defense?!? I’m your guy. Here’s a summary of what I experienced last Thursday in my defense.
First, here’s what happened. We met in a glass-walled conference room in the Fuller Library. Two of my cohort-mates were there in person with another three there on video. Three members of my family were there, my parents and Amy. And then two professors were present, and together they constituted my dissertation committee.
At the outset, I was given 10ish minutes to give those gathered a sense of what my journey thorough the program has been like. I chose to testify about how God has met Amy and I in terms of time, finances, passion, and product. Next, my most recent peer reviewers got to give feedback or ask questions, before members of my committee did the same. Then, when all was said and done, we cleared the room so that the committee could decide what they wanted to do with my work. After maybe 10 minutes out of the room, we came back in and they issued the verdict.
Now, five reflections on the time:
First, I found it to be an odd combination of defending my work and gladly receiving input. I mean, the whole experience is framed as a defense; in other words, my task was to justify my findings and conclusions. At points, this required me to answer pointed questions and clarify misconceptions. On the other hand, my reviewers had some helpful input for me, and I was glad to receive it. I don’t know if navigating the tension is normal for dissertation defenses, but I spent my 90 minutes sitting in the middle of this interesting dichotomy of defending and receiving.
Second, I came away with some subtle but helpful ways to strengthen my work. Because of this, I’m not technically done yet, so hold of on your “Dr. Rob” commentary for now. From here, the plan is to do my revisions in the next couple of weeks, run them by my committee, and then send it for copy editing, which is a mandatory step before publication. Once it’s published, have at it with the doctoring (or don’t!).
Third, I certainly felt the presence of my community. I was the one defending on Thursday, but I had scores of friends and family rooting me on from afar. And I felt it palpably. So, a big THANK YOU to everyone who prayed, texted, tweeted, facebooked, and called me.
Fourth, I left the defense incredibly encouraged. Simply put, people were super generous with their comments, both inside and outside the room. Perhaps my favorites were the women in my world that affirmed that the research I had done was congruent with their experience of me. One of my deepest aspirations in life is to have my words and actions be integrated, so these comments were a gift to me.
Fifth, as we walked out of the library and out onto the Fuller mall, I actually felt a twinge of sadness. I’ve been a Fuller student for the last seven years in a focused way, and for the last 17 years (!!!) in a more “meandering” way. To be honest, I’m going to miss the coursework, the cohort experiences, and I’ll miss the ways that Fuller has trained and equipped me for my ministry with InterVarsity.
What was the best part of the experience? That’s easy.
Hearing my mentor professor say, “congratulations, you are passed with distinction.”
Thanks be to God.
My journey through the DMiss program has been a long, winding, and wonderful road. To be honest, I can’t quite believe I’m at (or very near) the end. More than once lately, I’ve been feeling nostalgic; when it’s over, I think I’m going to actually be sad, in addition to like 75 other emotions.
What’s ahead? The defense. Sounds sort of ominous, right? When I think of defending something, it doesn’t take long before the imagery gets life or death. And while I trust that my upcoming dissertation defense won’t be some sort of missiological Alamo, it is in fact a big deal, one worth preparing for. Here’s what I’m doing to get ready.
First, I’m reading. I’ve spent the last two days reading peer dissertations, but today and tomorrow I’m going to read my own. I want to be as familiar as possible with my project before a bunch of scholars ask me incisive questions about it! To celebrate the occasion, I even printed it out, the first time I’ve done so since I started writing.
Second, I’m critiquing. What’s that cliche? “The best defense is a good offense?” I’m going to try that out, and so as I’m reading, I’m critiquing. I’m going to create a list of the toughest questions I can muster, and then try to answer them. Then, for fun, I’ll see how many of my questions actually get asked during the defense.
Third, I’m gathering. In one sense, I’ll be the one standing up at the podium defending this dissertation. But in another sense, I see myself as a part of a community of folks who are interested in my research, who have participated in my research, and who give a rip about the topic of flourishing male/female ministry partnerships. So I’m plotting email updates and Facebook posts all week. Also, it’s going to be great to have advocates in the room with me; thanks in advance to Amy, my folks, and to my cohort for your support.
Finally, I’m praying. Sure, this has been an academic program, but for me the DMiss has also been a deeply spiritual endeavor for me. The other day I was reflecting on how God has met me over the last four years, and I made quite a list. I’ll be sharing a portion of that list as a part of my defense intro.
If you’re the praying type, I’d love to have you onboard. I defend this coming Thursday morning, from 10:45-12:15, at Fuller.
Well, I’m back from Researchville! On Friday, I took a deep breath and hit “submit” on my final paper for year 2 of my doctoral program. And then I celebrated with nachos. While the research process this year was a total joy for me, I’m pretty glad for a break.
Now let’s see if that break translates into more regular blogging or not…
On the Monday of Thanksgiving week, I had the opportunity to exposit Galatians 3:26-29 for a room full of Cal Poly Mustangs. I talked about how the text calls for both salvific and social implications. Indeed, according to the passage, God has no gender bias in salvation, and God’s dream is for there to be gender equality in the Kingdom community.
In other words, gender equality is designed to be good news, both eternally and currently.
In terms of application, I challenged the community to do three things: check their hearts for gender bias, search the Scriptures on the topic of gender equality as a community, and work to build healthy male/female ministry partnerships.
I hope the students engaged the message, and I hope their community is changed as a result of it. Since I’m not there in the aftermath, I don’t totally know what the results might be.
What I do know is the impact on my kids. Because it was Thanksgiving break, the Dixon family made the trip together, and the kids came to hear Dad speak.
And as much as I care about college students engaging the message of gender equality, I’m more eager to have my kids embrace it. If you’ve read my blog over the years, you know it’s been a work in progress, but it seemed like this trip was a helpful deposit.
How do I know?
While I was speaking, the kids got some chalk and graffitied the back chalkboard. How’s this for some tagging, Galatians 3 style?!?
For those of you scoring at home, I’m in the thick of wrapping up the second year of my doctoral program, and it has been a year marked by all manner of academic research. At this point, the end is in sight. I have 40 pages of first draft due on November 20 and then my final paper is due on December 11.
In case you are curious, I thought I would detail my process. In other words, this is what I’ve been up to in lieu of blogging regularly.
First, the research part. The goal has been to cast the net wide and gather as much data as possible on my research problem, namely, the qualities and characteristics of flourishing inter-gender partnerships in my organization, InterVarsity Christian Fellowship.
Primarily, research has taken three forms:
- Participant observation studies. In this method, I’ve sat in the room while InterVarsity staff have conducted a run-of-the-mill staff meeting in order to observe the gender dynamics. You know, stuff like who is sitting where, who talks more (or less), who leads the meeting and how everyone interacts with each other. Think Gorillas in the Mist, only with campus ministers…
- Focus group interviews. I really like this method, as the whole idea is to get a group of staff interacting with one another around my topic. So we’ll have agreeing, disagreeing, and then a bunch of collaborative brainstorming. And when that all happens with some degree of vigor, good data tends to emerge.
- One-on-one interviews. The solo interview format has made up the majority of my research this year, and it has been a joy (and an honor) to hear people’s stories. Early on, I generated a ten question interview route, and I’ve been walking through it with staff from all around the country. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed all of the reading in year one, but the personal interaction in year two has been even better.
So…what do you think you get when you combine hundreds and hundreds of pages of notes and interview transcriptions?
Yep. Data. A lot of it. Like an overwhelming pile of information about inter-gender partnerships in mission and what makes them flourish (or not).
So, step two is to code the data.
Coding the data may sound fancy, but, really, it’s simply the process of culling the information in search of nuggets that while help inform my research problem. In my case, I’m seeking to wrangle the data into four different word documents, one that corresponds to each of my four stated research questions.
How do I do this? Simple. Sorta.
Each research question has a letter code. “H” is for “history,” as in, what is the history of inter-gender partnerships in IV? “C” is for “current state,” as in, what is the current state of those partnerships around the organization? “Q” represents “Qualities and Characteristics,” and that’s really the meat of my research. Finally, “F” stands for “flourishing,” as in, what could flourishing look like in my organization in this area?
And, armed with my H-C-Q-F rubric, I sort through my notes and transcripts, marking them up with one of my four designations. I’ve done this on airplanes, in coffee houses, at my kitchen table and even on a clip-board while I’m walking laps. Then, after I’m done with the paper coding, I go back through with my laptop open, transcribing observations or direct quotes in my word docs.
At this point, with most of my research data coded, I’m left with four really robust documents, each with information that (I hope) will help me answer my questions.
And now, step three lies ahead…to write. For this year two final paper, I have to write up two of my four research questions. Deciding which two to focus on is feeling like a challenge! Right now, it’s going to be F and Q, in case you’re curious.
And lest you think drawing the curtain on year two means an end to the research, think again! In some ways, I’m only beginning. In fact, later on this month, after the first draft deadline, I have more interviews scheduled, including one with our president. After that, in year three, more focus groups, more participant observation studies and, ultimately, perhaps a qualitative survey open to all InterVarsity staff.
All of that lies ahead. For now…time to get writing!
Don’t get me wrong, I loved the first year of my DMiss program. Reading, er, ransacking more than 100 books was good for my soul, and I feel like I learned a ton about flourishing inter-gender partnerships in mission.
On the other hand, you can only learn so much from a book, and, on top of that, reading and writing can be a lonely experience, and even introverts like me need good, old-fashioned human interaction from time to time!
So, that said, I’ve really enjoyed year two. My focus this year is on research. With people. With practitioners. With real-life, bona fide campus ministers who are trying to live out flourishing inter-gender partnerships in mission, day-in and day-out.
So far, I’ve conducted seven interviews, the first tithe of a group that might end up numbering at around ten times that number. And it’s been a blast. I’ve gleaned insight into how folks are holding the value for inter-gender partnerships, what they are doing to live them out well, and I’m slowly but surely gaining clarity about what just might make such partnerships really flourish in my context.
Another thing that’s emerged is that without exception people love working with people of the opposite gender. I mean, they really enjoy it, for a variety of reasons. Because it makes them sharper. Because the diversity of perspectives makes the end product better. Because it’s funner. And more.
This joy in partnership stands out in part because it is a relatively new phenomenon, because the sad fact is that in evangelical history for many years, inter-gender partnerships were something that just didn’t happen. As in, they were off the table as options. Like, don’t even think about it.
And who, you ask, were the folks that dreamed up this preposterous, out-of-the-box idea?
Recently, I read this piece, entitled “An Era of Women as Institution Builders,” in the third issue of Fuller Magazine, with interest. In the article, the writer, SPU Professor Priscilla Pope-Levison, analyzes the fruitful pioneering ministry of women in the late 19th century though the middle of the 20th century.
Here’s a quote from the article:
When the nation would not permit women to vote, when mainline denominations only begrudgingly allowed laywomen to vote in general church conferences, when a mere handful of women attended seminary, and when women’s ordination seemed a pipe dream, [these women] built their own institutions, undeterred by what culture or church had to say about their prescribed roles. In institutions of their own making, they exercised religious leadership as evangelists who led others to religious experiences, as ministers who shepherded congregations and celebrated the sacraments, as bishops who ordained ministers (female and male), and as theology and Bible teachers who instructed both men and women. By standing in the pulpit, presiding at the communion table, laying hands on ordinands, teaching classes, and evangelizing the masses, they pioneered women’s religious leadership in American Christianity.
Their significant legacy lies as well in their challenge to patriarchy in American Protestantism. These women broke ground as religious leaders by building institutions for women and men and enlisting male and female converts. Men and women joined their churches, sat alongside one another in religious training school classrooms, and filled church leadership positions at all levels. These women evangelists, therefore, rank among the first American women to build–and lead–mixed-gender religious institutions.
I don’t know. Maybe if I had historically been deprived of power, pushed to the margins of evangelical culture, I might be inclined to establish institutions that cared for and developed…people like me. And only people like me.
So how noteworthy is it that these pioneering women had a vision that was so open-handed, so generous, so inclusive, so…
And I mean that literally.
Today, in class, we were talking about the implications of Tertullian’s commitment to demonstrate that Christianity dovetailed nicely with the highest Roman moral standards. All of a sudden, up on the powerpoint popped this question:
“If you were a missionary meeting Tertullian today, what would you say to him?”
I laughed out loud.
At which point, I had to explain to my classmates that I would indeed have a few things to say to Mr. Tertullian, and that none of them would have anything to do with ancient Roman moral standards. Which ultimately resulted in me quoting Tertullian’s despicable description of women as “the Devil’s gateway.”
Tertullian, consider yourself challenged.
And, also, consider yourself wrong. Because the evidence is that the first church thought and acted differently than Mr. Tertullian. According to Bevans and Schroeder in their book Constants in Context, in the first church women were valued more highly than ever before. They write:
“In the first place, more women than men converted to the Christian faith, including a significant number of high-status women. Recognizing that there were a number of factors, most writers recognize ‘that Christianity was unusually appealing [to women] because within the Christian subculture women enjoyed far higher status than did women in the Greco-Roman world at large.’ Important aspects of this improved status and human dignity are reflected in the Christian condemnation of infanticide (which was most often female infanticide), divorce, incest, marital infidelity and polygamy–common practices that victimized women in particular. Christians respected and cared for widows instead of applying great pressure on them to remarry. In contrast to the general situation in which women were frequently forced into pre-pubertal, consummated marriages, Christian women ‘were married at a substantially older age and had more choice about whom they married.’ Underlying this Christian appreciation of the human dignity of women is the basic belief that all people are equally children of God.”
Not only were women more highly regarded by the first church, there is evidence that the pre-Constantinian faith community put them to work in ministry as well. That happened in more “official” church offices such as apostles, prophets, co-workers and laborers. But it also happened in two other critical ministerial contexts of the day, as house church leaders and as martyrs. Bevans and Schroeder write:
“From this perspective we see that women were very much involved in the predominant model of mission, especially within the household, the house churches and the group of martyrs. This is all the more significant given the subordinate role of women in the general society.”
So, let’s review. Women in the first church were given more dignity than ever before and were deployed as leaders both in more formal and informal contexts, up to and including making the ultimate witness to Christ as martyrs.
Seems to me like Tertullian needs to rethink his own moral standards.
Now that I have some time to catch my breath, I’m doing some reflecting on the year that was. Here are six thoughts:
1. Doctoral programs are no joke. The Masters wasn’t easy, but this program clearly takes it to another level. In the end, my lit review referenced 72 sources (out of more than 100 total sources processed) and it spanned 63 pages. That’s just a level above what I’ve done before. It also made for a very busy Fall.
2. Cohorts rule. I’m in a cohort with 7 saints and 2 professors from around the world. Among other things, this means that I have been given opportunities to learn about what God is doing (and wants to do) in all kinds of contexts. Along the way, I’ve learned about business as ministry on the Honduran island of Roatan, internet evangelism in China, hospital administration in Malawi, holistic inner-city ministry in Michigan, and church planting in Cairo. Truly, I end year one with a greater appreciation for God’s global mission and for those living it out, day to day.
3. My topic is compelling. It’s of course of interest to me, but practically every time I’ve shared what I’m studying, the other person has expressed curiosity and interest as well. I’ve realized that very few people or communities are talking about inter-gender dynamics. Frankly, it’s time we right that wrong.
4. We need some theologizing about inter-gender partnership. The first third of my lit review was a theological survey. And while plenty of ink has been spilled on the topic of women in leadership or ministry, comparatively little has been written about partnership dynamics from a theological perspective. We need someone to study male/female partnerships in Scripture in order to help us know what kinds of missional relationships we should be building. Who’s in?!?
5. A little bit of training could go a long way. The middle third of my lit review was an articulation of 7 qualities and characteristics that make for flourishing inter-gender partnerships in mission. And the more I think about the list, the more I think that with a little intentionality and creativity, we really can train people to build better partnerships. To me, thinking intentionally about opportunities to train men and women to build healthy missional partnerships could be the story of a little bit of energy yielding lots of fruit.
6. This is the right program for me. The DMiss offers a blend of concept/theory and “real world” application. In Fuller’s official literature, it’s a “contextualized applied research” degree. And that’s me. If it’s too heady, I lose interest, but if it’s too practical, I lose track of why we’re doing what we’re doing. This program is right in the middle, and therefore it fits me well. Good thing too, since there are three more years to go!
Next up is a break til March. When I emailed my professor to ask what I could do over the break to be prepared for year two, she replied, “relax.”