Saturday, August 25, 2012


I'm officially starting the first semester of my doctoral program this week and though I'm pretty excited to be taking great classes, right now I'm struggling to fill that third seminar spot I need for my semester. So far, I know for sure I will be taking:

Acts of the Apostles (Carl Holladay)
Greco-Roman backgrounds (Walter Wilson)

But as for the third class, here are the options (with their class descriptions)

Questions of War (Ellen Ott Marshall):
Traditionally, ethicists refer to the debate over the moral justification of war as “the question of war.”  This course includes writings by Bonhoeffer, Reinhold Niebuhr, John Howard Yoder, Stanley Hauerwas, Jean Bethke Elshtain, and Michael Walzer to discuss the moral justification.  Increasingly, however, ethicists find themselves addressing multiple questions of war.  For this reason, “Questions of War” in the fall of 2012 will also examine contemporary issues, such as the ethics of exit, the use of torture, drones, genocide and humanitarian intervention, and the reality of child soldiers.

The Book of Jubilees and Related Works (William Gilders):
In this course, we will read and interpret the book of Jubilees, a work composed in Hebrew sometime in the second century B.C.E., probably in the land of Israel.  In connection with our focused study of Jubilees, we will look at several other works, which appear to be related to the book (such as the Aramaic Levi document, the Genesis Apocryphon, and the Temple Scroll).  Through our study of Jubilees and the related texts, we will explore questions about the varieties of Second Temple Judaism(s) and their literary expressions; the meaning and utility of the designation “rewritten Bible”; methods, forms, and purposes of biblical interpretation in early Judaism; and theoretical issues in the study of the “reception” of biblical literature.

People of the Book and Critical Ethnography (Don Seeman):
Ethnography has come relatively late to the critical study of the world’s most highly textual religious traditions. This course investigates issues related to textuality and scriptural authority as well as media and lived experience in Judaism, Christianity and Islam. We will ask whether there is something about these three broad traditions that justifies comparative analysis and we will explore the cultural politics of representation within both anthropology and the academic study of religion.  In particular, we will examine the possibilities and limitations of interdisciplinary research involving both textual and ethnographic research methods.

Special Topcs in History: Subalternity and Difference (Gyanendra Pandey/Bruce Knauft):
Focusing on concepts that have been central to writings on the history, society, and culture of marginalized, subordinated and disenfranchised populations, we set out in this course to investigate how notions of subalternity and difference intersect with, enable, or complicate one another in different times and places.  The seminar is centrally concerned with a question that critical theorists, feminists and other oppositional movements have raised, of how modern societies and states take account of, and manage, social, economic and cultural difference.  We shall examine at the same time how disadvantaged and subalternized groups -- women, blacks, dalits, ethnic minorities, conquered indigenous peoples, migrants and unsettled populations -- have in their turn deployed the category of difference to provoke a re-arrangement, if not an overturning, of prevailing structures of power.  The historical and ethnographic texts we read will explore the production of conditions of marginality and minority, subalternity and difference, across time and space.

It's always a struggle to pick a good class and now that these classes will likely contribute in some way to both my dissertation and my prelims, it's all the more difficult! Anyone have any thoughts on some of these classes?

Friday, August 24, 2012

Road to a NT PhD

I had always wanted to write a blog post about my own experience in applying to PhD programs, and now that another season of applications is rolling by, I thought this would be a good time to write this post.

When I first set out with the goal of getting into a PhD program, there was a blog post that was very helpful (see Nijay Gupta's post here). This was all the more important, as I did not personally know anyone pursuing the same goal: none of my friends nor acquaintances were in doctoral programs. One good friend eventually matriculated as a PhD student, but his experience of getting into a doctoral program in the sciences was very different than my own, and another friend eventually entered into a PhD program for the same field as mine, but he went over to the UK, which again is different than my experience of the US system. I've ran into other blog posts dealing with this issue of doing PhD work (see here, here, here, here, and here) and more recently, one blogger has described his own experience of applying to PhD programs in patristics and/or early Christianity. So, I thought I would talk about my own thoughts on this process (for discussions on US vs. UK systems, a helpful starting point is a blog post from one of my teachers at Duke, Mark Goodacre).

(1) GREs: One of the necessary evils of this whole process. An advice that I repeatedly heard from students and faculty was to make sure that my GRE scores were high. Given the very limited spots per school, the admissions committee would need something off-the-bat to whittle down the candidate-pool. See, for example, this very useful summary from Duke University regarding PhD applications to their Graduate Program in Religion. In the last 10 years, the acceptance rate has been anywhere from as low as 4% to a still fairly low 17%. In my opinion, the GRE scores won't make you (i.e. secure you immediate admission to the program) but it will certainly break you. I suppose this might not be as important for some programs out there, but I'm using as my point of reference, schools in the realm of Duke, Emory, Yale, et al. that will probably take your GRE scores seriously. Also, I know for a fact that certain schools nominate some of their best admittees (i.e., high GRE/GPA) for a competitive university-wide scholarship or fellowship that will be added on top of the general stipend for their PhD students.

(2) Money: Unfortunately, none of this is cost-free so be aware of the following things that cost money: GRE prep books, GRE tests, sending GRE scores (per school), transcripts (some schools are free; Duke, for instance), and PhD application fees. I know students who applied to over 15 schools and by my estimation, that should have cost at the minimum close to $2000(!). That leads me to...

(3) Schools: I did not want to spend that much money nor did I even have thousands of dollars to spend on just applying to schools even if I wanted, so I went the route of applying to six schools. Some might think that casting a wider net increases one's chances of getting into a PhD program, but I'm ambivalent to that strategy: these schools have a specific philosophy, culture, and interest(s) within their faculty/students and if you are not a very good fit, no amount of money or applications will increase the chances of getting in. Furthermore, I know there are various "rankings" out there on who has the best religion program, and while that might be irrelevant to some, I often found a correlation between "rank" and the availability of funding. In other words, most, if not all of the "first-tier" programs (I take this term from N. Gupta's blog post) have tons of funding while other schools on the fringe or lower had less (far less in some cases). For example, I'm pretty sure Yale has one of the highest base stipend payments at around $26-27k per year while I know of other students pursuing PhD work at Fuller in Pasadena who are paying their way through the program. Fiscally speaking, there is really no comparison. But, lest that discount another factor...

(4) Lifestyle: This may play a factor in where you apply for your PhD work. For example, you (and/or your family) might have tons of fun in Pasadena, Hollywood, and downtown LA, but that does not mean this comes without a price: I'd guess that a comparable-sized apartment in Pasadena will cost two to three times more than New Haven (not to mention the traffic). So, do not just look at the school but consider what life would be like at school X in city Y. You might be fine spending five years in the libraries, but what about your spouse or children? For example, would you prefer life in Waco, Texas and attend Baylor University or life in Chicago and attend University of Chicago?

(5) Interviews: A month or two after the applications are due, schools will come calling (be aware that some schools do not interview). If you are invited to interviews, it's safe to say that you've done good work, so just try to be yourself. I flew and Skyped for interview sessions and during those weeks, I tried to remind myself that I did not have to fabricate knowledge, provide some undiscovered thesis, or be overly fawning. Personally, I just tried to display genuine interest in the faculty and showed how my interests overlapped with theirs and how my own research could be molded by their program. I can honestly say that all the faculty members were very friendly and interested in getting to know a potential candidate. As far as I can tell, they were not out to "get you," so try not to stress out, just act professionally and be yourself.

(6) The Decision: In a couple weeks, you should have heard something from the admissions committee. If you got accepted to just the one school, then great, the decision is an easy one. However, if you have been accepted to multiple schools, you now probably feel like the LBJ of academia, wondering where you should take your talents. My advice: take your time but be professional in the way you approach this process. If you have been accepted to schools A, B, and C, and know that you are definitely not going to attend school C, there is really no reason to string them along. When you reject their offer, they will seek to fill that spot with another candidate (either for your specific track or across the entire department), but if you tell them 1 hour before the deadline, they will probably be unable to offer that spot to anyone. Professional courtesy calls for timely decision-making.

Anyway, these are my thoughts for now. Hope this will help someone in this process, and to those applying this year, good luck!

Sunday, August 19, 2012


Just found out that one of my former teachers at Duke University, Professor Susan Keefe, passed away unexpectedly at the age of 58. I took a class with her last year titled, "Between Augustine to Anselm," a church history class where I was exposed to a time period that otherwise would have remained in my mind as the "Dark Ages." She was an amazingly knowledgeable teacher who, by her own enthusiasm for the subject, made this oft-forgotten time period of church history a fascinating topic of study. We read a ton of primary sources (this seemed to be her pedagogical focus in all her history classes, which was awesome) and all of us had a chance to share different ideas about our final paper. I presented on the topic of the dormition of Mary and how in some of the earliest documents where Marian theology began to take shape (esp. influenced, I think, by the Protoevangelium of James), Mary appears to be a cipher or entrance to discussions of orthodoxy which was undoubtedly important during the early centuries of Christianity. I think there were a lot more I could have said and done but Dr. Keefe was always very encouraging and provided helpful guidance for my dabbling in an area which I was not very familiar with. I hope her charitable spirit will continue to be remembered among the Duke community and that she will now forever rest in peace.