Thursday, May 21, 2009

Nothing New Under the Sun

"There is nothing new under the sun" says Qohelet (Ecc 1:9), the resident pessimist of the Hebrew Bible. At no time do his words ring more true than when one is searching for a dissertation topic.  I admire those graduate students I know who began their graduate work already knowing what they wanted to research, tailoring their papers as they went to serve their overall research goals. Unfortunately, I didn't have the foresight to plan like that and my paper topics are all over the map, so to speak.  Ironically, one of my current topic ideas is taking me back to the class work I did as a sophomore in college that started me on this path to graduate studies in Old Testament/Hebrew Bible.

So as I do the preliminary research for a dissertation proposal, I face two paths.  One appears to me to have more potential as "original" research, and the other is a much-studied theme and I'd have to work harder to find an original angle.  What is "original" research anyway? The bibliography on almost any aspect of biblical studies has multiplied exponentially in the last century.  While still expected to become experts on language work and primary sources, we're drowning in secondary sources, wading through to see if someone else had the same idea or treated the same topic. Then if we want to pursue that same topic, we have to interact with the most relevant pieces directly and explain why our work is unlike or better than theirs.

Does the fact that no one has done exactly what I have in mind indicate that it's too ambitious of a project for a dissertation? I'm interested in inner-biblical interpretation and exploring how different biblical books interact with and re-work different motifs. That requires exploring the motif in multiple texts, but I'm finding that dissertations have been written individually on the several texts that I want to explore.

The fact that so much has been written on almost any topic leads me to agree with Qohelet that there's nothing new under the sun and that "of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh" (Ecc. 12:12).


  1. I was quite surprised (yet, also pleasantly pleased) that no one has discussed my topic at all. It is latent in some scholarship, but they never make the move, which surprises me tremendously. And now, with an article out on it, the dissertation project on the topic, and two SBL paper presentations on the topic, I can rightfully claim ownership of the idea.

    Finding 'gaps' like that are not common, but they do exist. Most of the time it is a matter of nuance.

  2. You need someone to come up to you and say "psst ... I found some scrolls in a cave."

  3. Part of long-ago advice from a biologist on how to write a dissertation: "Don't try to discover anything new, you can do that later at a higher salary. Concentrate on collecting data quickly and in quantity."

    Of course this was back when jobs for biologists were easier to come by...

  4. I know this is easier said than done (as is any “write a diss quickly” formula), but an excellent rule of thumb is: when deciding between two paths, choose the one that more clearly narrows the topic. My adviser used to say all the time that someone planning or writing a dissertation should be constantly running around closing windows, not opening them. Once I got writing, it seemed that sources and concepts were constantly trying to climb into those windows to complicate my work (and thereby lengthen my writing days).

    I wound up greatly respecting my colleagues who found a way to write on a single chapter of a single book of the Bible.

  5. "Closing windows", narrowing the topic, focus, is great advice :) but on the other hand following trials of allusion, echo and illusion is so much more fun ;) not at all weariness of the spirit!

  6. To expand on anumma's advice, someone once told me to decide on your texts before your topic. Trying to decide what texts are important for your topic is a lot harder than deciding topic best helps you study your texts. As anumma, this will close many windows.
    Anumma, do you have specific examples of colleagues who wrote on specific chapters and things worked out for them. Personally, I'm always looking for role models of successful writing practices.

  7. Hi Anonymous,
    My good friend Nyasha Junior wrote on gender-bending in Gen 39 (Joseph and Potiphar's wife). R. Mark Shipp wrote on "dead kings and dirges: myth and meaning in Isa 14:4b-21." I can remember seeing notices about others on a single psalm, or on some NT passage or other.

    It seems that the idea is usually, "Feature X in Text Y." The justification for choosing the single text is to argue that it bears a given feature that has received inadequate attention, or it bears this feature in a way that is uniquely illustrative, or something.

    I'm not saying every thesis should follow a formula. I just personally so envied these students' focus while working on my own thing! For my part, I had thought that I had narrowed things down by choosing "allusion to Isaiah in the book of Daniel" for my dissertation topic, but even that limited set of texts found that proved almost overwhelming in practice.

    The genre of the dissertation calls for brevity (a monograph, not a book), and yet thorough defense of every little point. Hence the "closing windows" mantra!

  8. Brooke,

    Thanks for the advice and the topic examples. I think I may need to close more windows on my topic and narrow it significantly. To add to the examples, I have a colleague whose dissertation was all on Psalm 119 (granted it's the longest Psalm).