From Journalist to Academic: A Dialectic

As a fourth year PhD student, I am supposed to be in the position when I am ready to present my research to the department. If I were pregnant, I’d have a clearly visible bump, I’d be waddling and people would give up their seats for me on the bus. I’d also want to get the damn thing inside out of me. In a sense, I am ready to pop.

But when I gave a talk on my PhD research this week, it was as if I had only just done a pregnancy test. In fact, I was wearing so many extra layers that people could see I had put on weight but they did not know why. PhD research, like pregnancy and childbirth, suppose to be a beautiful process, but I had simplified it so much that I turned a baby, not even into a foetus but into a clump of cells.

In a former career, I was a journalist, and I now I blog and still do the occasional bit of copywriting. Like every other experience, it had shaped me in way that I was able to take useful life lessons. One of these lesson was: when communicating information, don’t assume that my reader or listener knows what I am talking about; indeed, it is generally a good idea to assume they know nothing. (Incidentally, I heard a similar version of this lesson in relation to driving: just assume everyone is an idiot.)  Of course, I don’t take this lesson to the extreme but I have always found it to be a helpful guide. I do not find it easy, it does require being extra-vigilant but generally others have complimented me on my comprehensive writing.

When I started my PhD, I continued to adopt this approach. It is possible that I have assessed academic books and papers based on how easy they were to understand and I generally prefer writing journalistically than in academese or in a managerial style. Indeed, I would argue that all writing should be journalistic. Indeed, I  have noticed that, in terms of structure, a news story, a journal article, a first class dissertation and a PhD thesis chapter are very similar. (Of course, a news story is more condensed.) My supervisor has now and again made references to my journalistic style of writing and to my alter ego as a blogger, then at our last meeting he said that I am writing more like an academic. To be honest, I had no idea what he was talking about. My undergraduate degree was in Mathematics and Computing Science,  did not have to the three years experience of writing academic essays, and then I went straight into journalism for three or four years. So when it went back to university to study law, I did not consciously write any different. I applied the skills I learnt as a journalist. A good essay was about research and analysis, as far as I could tell. So when it came to my PhD, I did not consciously think that I  had to write as an academic. I simply applied the skills and lessons that served me well, like a habit.

And so, knowing that there would be people who were not familiar with my particular theoretical framework, I decided to dumb down so to speak. I did not think of it like that, I simply wanted to make my research easy to understand. But there is a difference between simplifying in writing, where the reader has something to refer on paper, and orally, where all explanation has to come out of the speaker’s mouth, with or without the help of Powerpoint slides. Unfortunately, I found that I could not do justice to Hegel in a few slides, so I decided to speak only. Furthermore, like a journalist, I focused on one particular thread in my research. Unfortunately, this was the most unHegelian thing I could do. I ignored the dialectic between the different aspects of my research except the most basic of original Hegel and household recycling.

Throughout my PhD, there has been an underlying creative tension of the Hegelian dialectic between myself as a journalist and myself as a (potential) academic. In a sense, my PhD is a synthesis between what I knew as a journalist and what I am supposed to be learning as an academic. But, according to Catherine Malabou, that means that I was relying on a habit of journalism (what I know) and at least consciously resisting an aspect of academia. However, I was also submitting to academia as well, because I found that – by surprise – I was able to understand books in my third year that I could not understand in my first year. The dialectics between resistance and submission is plastic, in that both clearly were shaping it and it was resisting deformation . But then, there is an explosive quality to plastic as well. In my talk, I entered a situation where the need to submit was as strong as the desire to resist and I think I had a major explosion (or implosion). Perhaps I was have been applying the paradigm of journalism to situations where I should have been applying the paradigm of academia (whatever that is). Sometimes it worked and where it had not, I had put the failure down to something else. so, Thomas Kuhn argues, it was only when the conflict between two paradigms were sufficiently great that I reached a point of what Malabou calls le voir venir (To see what is coming). It was like a prophecy given by the Ancient Greek gods warning what might happen if I did not change course. The problem is how? What does say with regard to journalism and academia?

The Bible – God’s Thesis

There are many different ways to read the Bible. Some people choose to read it literally, which is problematic because not every part is meant to be a chronological narrative. Others read it christologically where every bit points to Jesus. Others will look for consistent patterns throughout or even as a love letter from God. I would like to posit it, in the greatest respect, as God’s Thesis.

Firstly, the Bible can be divided into sections equivalent to that of a thesis. The first 11 chapters of Genesis, from creation to the tower of Babel, is his introduction. It is difficult to argue that it is historical. It seems more mythical. It therefore succinctly states God’s overall argument: I created man, man disobeyed me, but I will save them even though no-one deserves because I love man. This is best captured in the story of Noah, who trusted God and did something which sounds ridiculous and unreasonable – build a boat miles away from water – because the boat  became the source of salvation through God’s power. (Ok, so God was a researcher-participant.) Noah’s drunkenness and Tower of Babel emphasises man’s ongoing capacity to sin, even after being saved.

From Abraham through to the letter of Jude, including the gospels, God presents his evidence and analysis for his overall argument. of course, there are many things which point to Jesus but also many references to first 11 chapters, including Jesus. The conclusion of God’s thesis is the book of Revelation. It summarises the evidence and reveals God’s message of salvation through Jesus Christ.

The Bible has also been put together like an academic thesis. God is the lead author with a large research team whom he has selected himself. Many of his team had other jobs. Not all the material written or researched has made the final cut, indeed the value of some of the writings, such as Hebrews and 2 Peter, was not seen until quite late in the day. One could say the real writing up didn’t really begin until about 300 AD and the various church councils. In a sense, his thesis has been complete for 1,500 years and since then God has focused on teaching and the conference circuit. Obviously, one cannot draw exact parallels between God and an academic, after all knowledge is created by him in the first place.

Finally, everyone calls it God’s Word or logos. In other words, the Bible describes his underlying reasoning, i.e. his argument or thesis. Of course, no post of mine would be complete without mentioning Hegel. The Bible is arguably a dialectical text; it deals with the paradox of God’s love and wrath, of God’s sovereignty and human responsibility, and of God’s as divine and as human. It includes many things which seem ridiculous, not least the idea of God dying. So, God’s Word is not just a thesis but a synthesis of a thesis and antithesis. As a dialectical text, it also a conversation between God and his creation.

As a PhD student and Christian, I have sought to ensure that everything I read is within a biblical framework (or at least I hope so) but still true to the text. One could argue that research is all about understanding God (the author) through understanding the world (his creation). This ultimate purpose of research – among all the other human reasons – is reflected in the The Bible.

Being a Christian and an academic

I lost my Saturday lie-in this weekend because I attended a Christian Academic Network workshop on ‘Knowing in God’s World’. (I also happened to be presenting a paper.)

Keynote speaker Professor Stephen Williams, professor of systematic theology at Union Theological College, started off by asking: “Is there such a thing as Christian knowing applicable to academic disciplines?” In this post, I shall attempt to summarise the key points of his talk below.

We are prone to unconscious nodes of thought inconsistent with a Christian point of view. We are called to be distinctive but that presupposes faithfulness. Therefore, Christian thought and non-Christian thought can, in some ways, overlap. The difference is that the former flows from regeneration by Christ whilst the latter from unregeneracy. To the antithesis is not between regeneration and unregeneration but between regeneration and naturalism. Unfortunately, the psychology of anthithesis is harder to sustain when expanded from two to three or four areas (that is, incorporating partial regeneration of Judaism and Islam not to mention the seed of knowledge of God planted in all men, according to Romans 1).

Humanity has a mandate for domination over the world and this predates the Fall. Like the goodness of work, it therefore doesn’t stop just because we are fallen beings. Therefore, Christian priority should not just be about salvation but about furthering God’s kingdom in every way.

So, Professor Williams put forward the following six-point plan for Christian academics:

  1. Remember that certain realities can only known slowly;
  2. Remember that the fruits of the Spirit (Galations 5:16-25) are virtues in epistemology;
  3. Remember what Michael Polyani said – that some knowledge is tacit;
  4. Christians will agree with Nietzche that thought is driven by moral intentions and purposes;
  5. Explore the role of desire, that is, I know because I want to know and my desire will have certain outcomes;
  6. Take Pascal seriously, because at the centre of human life is action – when we claim we are thinking or deliberating, we are in fact acting.

Professor Andrew Basden of Salford University in response said that academics who belong to Christ can:

  1. Witness in the way they live;
  2. Defend Christian beliefs against atheistic beliefs;
  3. Appropriate things of the world to help us understand God, our relationship to him, etc;
  4. Use our new status/mandate as human beings to be part of God’s rescue of creation – in other words, bring biblical thinking to enrich academia.

Try telling that to the masses…

The further down the research path I am going, the more difficult I am finding to actually explain what my research is to non-academics (i.e. friends, family and acquaintences). I mean, how exactly do you tell someone who has not studied philosophy or any particular philosophy about the inner depth of Hegel. After all, a year ago, I was one of them. He’s not the easiest person to read (understatement of the year), even though I do think his philosophy and particular readings of it describe this world exactly.

But what amazes me is that there are so many different ways to read Hegel. Towards the beginning of the year, Hegel was, for me, an arch liberalist economically and socially. Now, I am starting to see the more socially conservative, statist work that influenced the likes of Marx. Everyone says that Hegel was an extremely liberal Christian but I can see quite clearly a philosophical compatibility with orthodox (i.e. conservative) Christianity. And to confuse everything, there is something here for feminists and environmentalists, as long as you go down the psychoanalytical route of Jessica Benjamin. Go figure!

So, as far as any of my social circle knows, my research is about the way that the state uses incentives to encourage social responsibility, particularly recycling. Feels incomplete but so much easier.