Written by Madison Andrews
I recently had a dream in which my seminary colleagues and I were working frantically on some sort of writing-intensive take-home exam. We shared notes, read each other’s work, commiserated, and, most importantly, administered reciprocal emotional support. The funny thing is that we were not graduate but middle school students. I burst out laughing when I recalled the dream. It seemed to beautifully encapsulate some of the characteristic aspects of seminary life — the emotional warmth and collaborative spirit among like-minded (which is to say, curious and hard-working) peers, the stress of meeting academic expectations, and the anxiety of embarking upon a more intellectually rigorous mode of study. As an incoming graduate student, I felt (and often still feel) like a pre-teen — a little awkward, drenched in self-doubt, and acutely aware of my scholarly adolescence.
That being said, graduate school has been one of the most consistently challenging and fun experiences of my life. Part of the challenge inheres not in the academic work itself, but in the psychological and interpersonal adjustments that enable the most meaningful scholarly productions. With papers to write, children to nurture, and jobs to perform, balance can be hard to achieve and maintain. In the interest of “paying it forward,” I want to share some of what I have learned as a student. Here are a few tips for making the most of your seminary experience (and protecting your sanity):
1. Make time for socializing.
This comes naturally to most of us early on in the semester, but in the midst of midterm and finals seasons, interacting with others in a purely social capacity can feel like an irresponsible luxury. While it is neither possible nor wise to spend the majority of your free time with friends, I have found that play is essential to the cultivation of a healthy mind. When you hit a wall in your writing, or feel that reading another sentence poses a serious threat to the integrity of your eye muscles, take time to chat with a friend over coffee or a walk. Like meditation, it takes discipline to detach the mind from tasks that directly affect long-term goals, but it is worth it. Your ability to absorb and manipulate ideas will increase exponentially if you remember to make time for non-school-related interactions.
2. Start planning your final papers early.
One way to ensure that you have enough time for socializing during the most stressful periods of the semester is to start work on your final projects early. Even if you’re not entirely sure what exegesis entails, pick a pericope and commit. Even small amounts of regular reading and note-taking will give you a huge head-start by allowing the ideas to marinate and evolve over time. I’m convinced that a large part of my creativity gestates subconsciously — in sleep and in dreams, in class discussion, and in conversation with friends. If you have some familiarity with the constellation of ideas surrounding your project, you will be far better prepared to perform last-minute miracles come finals season.
3. Know when to skim and when to read closely.
As a close-reading apologist, I was a little scandalized when I first entered graduate school as a student of American literature. My mentor explained to me (and I have already passed this wisdom onto a few of you!) that it is simply impossible to read every assigned text in painstaking detail. Instead, he advised, you have to learn what to skim and what to interrogate on a deeper level. If, for example, you are assigned a handful of readings for the purposes of class discussion, then skimming makes the most sense. Read for thesis statements, or the writer’s main argument, which is usually most clearly articulated in the introduction and conclusion to any given article. If, on the other hand, the material constitutes preparation for an essay, then the text in question merits closer engagement. In what philosophical, theological, and/or exegetical traditions and methods is the writer invested? How does she contribute to or complicate the ongoing conversation underlying the text or topic? What do you like or dislike about the writer’s rhetorical style, i.e. the tone and structure of the argument? In what ways can you make your own contribution to the conversation?
At this point I should probably make clear that I myself am still learning to implement the aforementioned advice. But, as my mentor also liked to say, the work of scholarship is not about mastery; it is about producing knowledge. The only requirement for this task is the continual willingness to practice the skills required to thrive as a seminarian.