Tuesday, June 28, 2011

thesis defense

I had my thesis defense on Monday. It was a good experience, a very good experience, for me. Not at all the scare-fest I thought it would be. When I first began my master's degree, one of the things I was sure I didn't want to do was defend a thesis, and that was why I chose the project option. The idea of standing in front of a committee of learned scholars and being grilled was a scary thought that made my stomach lurch in nasty ways. I would rather eat sushi (for those of you who know how much I dislike the Japanese fast food, this is a rather strong statement).

I have moments when my mind goes blank. I struggle to remember names and dates. For some reason, my mind likes to file away important, general information in a storage facility where it is very hard to access at short notice. Also, I have been known to easily get distracted and lose my train of thought. All of these can be deadly in a defense situation where one needs to be able to respond quickly to challenges and questions in order to demonstrate a broad knowledge as well as insightful depth regarding the subject of their thesis.

About a year and a half ago, one of my professors challenged me to reconsider doing a thesis. He is a very persuasive man and what he said made a lot of sense, so I gave it some serious thought. Shortly after that conversation, I was watching the movie Invictis and had an epiphany about not making choices based in fear (you can read a bit about it here). I realised that I had taken the project route because I was afraid to defend a thesis, and as someone who desires to live life without fear, I saw clearly that I had to change my course of study. So I started down the thesis road, a road which is ended on Monday.

To my surprise, I had no fear going into the defense. I was well-prepared, I knew my topic, and I knew I was in a room with friends. The kind of friends who are rooting for you, but who challenge you, who gently point out your mistakes, and who won't let you get away with doing less than you are capable of. I love all that these teachers have brought to my life in the past few years. And love is always stronger than fear. The three professors who questioned me were not trying to trip me up - they were giving me a chance to prove to them and to myself that I had mastered a subject. Of course, there is still plenty I don't know, and when the questions ventured into territory that I was unfamiliar with, I stated as much. Knowing where your knowledge ends is as important as knowing what you do know. And I surprised myself with how much I did know and was able to articulate not only clearly but with confidence and conviction.

In a preliminary thesis proposal that I presented in December, I made the claim that if I could learn to love Evelyn Underhill (my thesis subject), then I could understand her and learn from her. And I believe this is my strength as a student and a somewhat unlikely theologian: I learn by loving. Because I have found that love enlarges not only your heart, but your mind and your capacity to understand.

This is a photo of one of the books that I cited in my thesis.

By the way, my favourite book of Underhill's is The Fruits of the Spirit. It is a short, easy read that demonstrates her remarkable ability to fuse profound spirituality with everyday life. Plus, you get to experience her distinctive early 20th century, middle-class London style of writing. Read it sometime if you can.

4 comments:

One of Freedom said...

You rock Matte. I love your project of learning to love your subject. The whole reason I undertook my own subject is that I fell in love with the possibilities I saw for German Political theology in my own life as an evangelical longing to love and serve my Savior. Because I am trying to speak comprehensively to evangelical theologies I read a lot of stuff I don't love - but every now and then I find the jewels in there that remind me why those men and few women were loved by evangelicals in their time. I think you have encouraged me to be more deliberate about loving my subjects.

steven hamilton said...

that's so encouraging! Thanks for sharing...

Shelley said...

I'll have to look her up! I think you are absolutely right about love...

I know it is difficult, if not impossible to learn anything from someone who I feel I must hold at arms length.

Cynthia Orr said...

Wow! Some people find thesis defence to be nerve wreaking, but you really are different for finding it interesting. Yes thesis defence can be hard, but it would really put you in the position that you really know and have the right information and knowledge for your area of specialty.