Hacking the Dissertation 1: Narrative Overview

Intro to Series

With graduation now a month in the past, I’d like to inaugurate a series called “Hacking the Dissertation.” This is primarily an avenue for me to reflect on the various aspects of writing a dissertation. The task of research is deeply satisfying but can also prove isolating; self-reflection is vital if one wishes to grow, rather than wither, under the stress. Hopefully these reflections will prove useful also to others.

The series will range from the intensely practical (how I managed my time, what a typical day looked like) to the personal and spiritual (on finding work and meaning outside the tenure track search). What I say will be most relevant to those like me, who are students of ancient literature, but plenty of it should be useful for those working in other fields.

In this post, I’ll talk a little bit about why I did a PhD in the first place, what I did for my dissertation, and what my timeline was like.

Why and where did I do a PhD?

As I now transition back into the world of software development, I’ve asked myself often the past few months why I embarked on this project. I spent seven years of my life doing something not particularly remunerative. I even knew going in that it may not lead a job as a professor. So, why did I do it in the first place?

As best as I can reconstruct my thinking from 8+ years ago, I was led to graduate school because I was fascinated by the world of early Christianity. Like, fascinated enough to teach myself Greek and Latin. Fascinated enough to read scholarly books and articles while doing a bachelor’s degree in Computer Science (I may well have used downtime while working at IBM to prop open a Greek Grammar…). By the time I was finishing my undergraduate work, I knew I wanted to study the languages and literatures of the early Christian church intensely, and eventually contribute to the scholarly conversation on these texts. This was the time of my life to do that: I didn’t have to go into debt for the degree, and I knew I could always return to software development if I wished. And though I am an autodidact, I knew no level of self-study would lead to the sort of mastery of languages, history, and theology that one needs to contribute to scholarly discussions on early Christianity. My wife was extremely supportive, and, fortunately, wanted to work in the technology sector, so we had a stable income throughout the whole process.

I ended up doing an MA and PhD in Greek and Latin at Catholic University of America in Washington, DC. It took seven years: I began in August 2012 and finished in May, 2019. Intellectually, one could scarcely ask for a better place for my interests. I’m by disposition a philologist, one who loves language and literature. CUA is one of the few places in North America where you can study ancient Christianity in what is essentially a Classics department. I received excellent training in both classical and early Christian authors. CUA was both nurturing and demanding: the program asked an enormous amount of us intellectually, but the faculty and other students were extremely supportive throughout.

My Timeline

Years 1–3 were devoted to coursework (for both degrees) and MA comps (I had translation and essay exams in both classical Greek and classical Latin). During my fourth year I did my PhD comps (minor field: Ovid, major field: Gregory of Nazianzus). During the fifth year, I got my proposal written and approved, and then wrote over the course of year 6 and 7. So I became ABD (all but dissertation) in April 2017 and defended two years later in April, 2019.

I had five body chapters plus an introduction:

  • first chapter: submitted September, 2017
  • second chapter: submitted August, 2018
  • third chapter: submitted September, 2018
  • fourth chapter: submitted December, 2018
  • fifth chapter: submitted January, 2019
  • intro and final manuscript: February, 2019
  • edits: March, 2019
  • defense: April, 2019

Along the way, there were a number of personal milestones.

  • my son was born in February, 2016 (right as I was finishing my PhD comps)
  • In July, 2018 we both moved to a new house and had our second child, a daughter

My wife took several months off of work when each was born; otherwise I was the primary caregiver during the day (yes, there will be a post on childcare!).

My Dissertation

I’m particularly interested in how early Christians appropriated the classical literary inheritance of Greece and Rome, and I’ve an inordinate fondness for classical poetry. This led me to the poetry of Gregory of Nazianzus (c. 330–390 AD), who was one of the first Christian poets writing in Greek to leave a significant amount of verse (over an Iliad’s worth).

The entire dissertation can be found here:

The abstract:

In this study, I analyze the poetics of Gregory of Nazianzus (ca. 330–390 AD), who was one of the first Christian poets writing in Greek to leave an extensive corpus of poetry (about 17,000 lines). Gregory work is striking not only for its breadth but also for its wide variety of themes and metrical schemes. As my focal point, I have chosen Gregory’s reception and adaptation of the poetry and poetics of Callimachus of Cyrene (ca. 290–230 BC). Callimachus was the first poet in the western tradition to enunciate an aesthetic and came to typify for subsequent authors an approach to poetry that privileged finely-wrought, compressed, and erudite compositions. I argue that for Gregory, Callimachus’ works are more than simply one more source to exploit for nice turns of phrase; rather, Callimachus pervasively shapes Gregory’s entire approach to poetic composition. This is seen not only in Gregory’s allusions to Callimachean works, which are numerous and occur quite frequently in programmatic contexts, but also in features of Gregory’s work like poikilia (variety) and a strong authorial persona that have their best precedent in Callimachus’ variegated oeuvre.

In chapter one, I survey Callimachus’ reception in the second and third centuries AD. By examining the three most extensive works of hexametric didactic extant from this period (Dionysius’ Periegesis, Oppian’s Halieutica, and ps.-Oppian’s Cynegetica), I argue that Callimachus is a uniquely useful influence for probing how later poets create their poetic personae and enunciate their own aesthetic. Chapters 2–5 treat Gregory’s poetry. I have organized them around four traits that scholars have consistently associated with Callimachean poetry: originality, fineness (leptotēs), erudition, and self-awareness. In chapter two, I show how Gregory adapts the untrodden path motif found in the prologue to Callimachus’ Aetia. I contend that Gregory’s formal experimentation should be regarded as a deliberate embrace of Callimachean polyeideia. Chapter three has as its subject Gregory’s poetic style. I show that for Gregory, Callimachus typifies the concise and technically capable poet, as Gregory consistently advocates for concise speech through allusions to Callimachus’ works. In the fourth chapter, I attend to Gregory’s erudition. His self-proclaimed mastery of both pagan and Christian literature is a foundational aspect of his poetic persona. Though the patent didactic intent in some of Gregory’s verse is at odds with Callimachus’ practice, I argue that when Gregory deploys erudition for polemical and cultural ends he fits neatly within the tradition of Alexandrian didactic. In chapter five, I consider Gregory’s poetic self-awareness. I argue that, following Callimachean precedent, Gregory created sequences of multiple poems thematically linked by ring-compositions and self-allusions. I conclude that Gregory edited his poems much more extensively than has previously been recognized. My work illuminates on the one hand how pervasively Callimachus shapes Gregory’s approach to poetic composition. Yet I have also identified a number of significant ways in which Gregory consciously departs from his Callimachean model.