Monday, January 5, 2015

Survivor's Guide to Seminary, Post #16 (The Six Über Skills of Seminary - Part 4 - Reading)

SKILL #4 – Reading: Taking Your Mind to the Woodpile

As I mentioned above under skill #2, scholarship is about mastering a body of work. This is done primarily through reading. Now, there are three basic kinds of reading in my arsenal: 1) reading for gist; 2) reading for breadth; 3) reading for specialty.

Reading for Gist

Gist is the “substance” or “essence” of a text. So reading in this way is about quickly gleaning the substance or essence of a text.

Here’s how it works by way of example. In my email software right now are about 30 emails in a folder titled “Journals to Read.” Each of these emails contain TOCs – Table of Content alerts from a variety of journals, some in biblical studies and theology, others from other disciplines, particularly science. Each week, for an hour or two, I plow through the TOCs of these journals. Let me emphasize “plow.” That’s exactly what I’m doing. I’m plowing (somewhat methodically yet deliberately) through the titles and abstracts of a number of recent journals. I’m assuming that I don’t need to read everything in all these journals, so I’m reading for gist. Here’s a small sample section (just the ‘articles’) from the TOCs from the recent edition of Theology and Science (Vol. 12, Issue 4, Nov. 2014):

The Role of Experience in the Assessment of Human Nature
Jan-Olav Henriksen
Pages: 324-337
DOI: 10.1080/14746700.2014.954397

Explaining and Explaining Away in Science and Religion
David H. Glass & Mark McCartney
Pages: 338-361
DOI: 10.1080/14746700.2014.954398

Barth and Darwin: What is Humanity?
Philip Chapman
Pages: 362-377
DOI: 10.1080/14746700.2014.954399

Intellectual Tennis without a Net? Thought Experiments and Theology
Yiftach Fehige
Pages: 378-395
DOI: 10.1080/14746700.2014.954400

Whiteheadian Societies and Peirce's Law of Mind: Actuality and Potentiality in the Cosmic Process
Joseph A. Bracken S.J.
Pages: 396-412
DOI: 10.1080/14746700.2014.954401

As I briefly peruse each entry, I can tell you right away which articles, just from their titles, that I am likely going to read for gist (that is, just titles and abstracts), and which ones I am going to read for specialty (reading it in depth because the article intersects or falls within my field or specialty). I am going to read the “Barth and Darwin: What is Humanity?” and “Intellectual Tennis without a Net? Thought Experiments and Theology” for specialty, and I am going to read the rest for gist.

Why? Well, in terms of the first article, it’s because my area of theological specialty/interest is Barth studies, and I want to work with his theology in my doctoral program. Also, I was an evolutionary biology major as an undergraduate. Also, I have a passing interest in theological anthropology. So this article, just from the title, seems to be hitting on several areas I am very interested in. It may be a dud (who knows?) but I’ll read it in depth before I decide that is the case.

In terms of the second article, I am interested in Barth’s method for making theological proofs, so this article, based on its title, might spur something helpful. Again, I will read it in depth. Perhaps it will prove to be useful.

The rest look like I can read for gist by plowing through their titles and abstracts. By the way, in case you don’t know, an abstract is a summary of the contents of a book, article, or formal speech. It’s an nice little condensed summary which can be quickly digested. So, I’m reading for gist and covering lots of ground. If any of these other articles that I’ve decided to just read for gist prove really interesting or relevant to me, I will switch modes, and read them for more depth.

Now, I read for gist in a number of ways, not just TOCs in emails from journals. As I write this section, I am sitting in my home office, pounding away on my Macbook Pro. Across from me on a coffee table, sit stacks of Science, Chess Life, Perspective on Science and Theology, The Christian Century, and more. I will “journal graze” through these when I have time each week. In other words, I will read for gist. You get the idea, right? By the way, reading for gist is my way of   “keeping up with the literature.” Remember what I said about our time – it’s a finite resource. There is only so much time. Reading for gist can help you stay aware of what’s going on while not getting too bogged down in your wider reading.

Reading for Breadth

Reading for breadth is reading for wide range or extent. Meaning, reading that will expose you to more than just your chosen field. In my case, my chosen field is systematic theology. Because I like to read for breadth, I also read journals and books on the Old Testament and New Testament, journals for the general sciences, magazines on chess and ministry. You get the idea. I try to stay broad by reading stuff outside my field.

Why do this? Because lightning is more likely to strike (in the form of fresh ideas and new connections) when you survey stuff outside your field. I remember attending a talk by a hotshot ecologist when I was in my undergraduate days. He was talking about the big breakthrough the led him to his chosen field and the great problem he was working on. He said he discovered it while reading about the microbiology of chicken farming. Yep, the poultry literature had somehow led this scientific hotshot to his great discovery. Read for breadth, my friends. You never know what is going to give you your great idea.

Nota Bene: you can read for breadth and read for gist at the same time. I mention this in case you are wondering what the difference is between the two reading styles. There is a difference between them, but it can sometimes not seem obvious. For example, I like to read for gist while I am reading for breadth in the journal Science.

Reading for Specialty

Reading for specialty is about mastering a corner of the literature. In my case, I’m wading through more and more of the literature of systematic theology. Despite this area being a “mere” corner of the vast literature of the Christian Tradition, it is itself VAST, and this is no small task. Nonetheless, this is an area I want to add to by writing, so I am trying to master a certain area within systematic theology, particularly the area of Barth studies.

Reading for specialty is something where you read stuff in depth and more regularly than in the other areas of the literature. When I read journal articles for specialty, I usually add them to my bibliographic software (in my case, Sente 6). I save this stuff. I might even print it and mark it up. When I am reading for specialty, I am reading to “grok” the material.

“Grok” is a word coined by Robert A. Heinlein for his 1961 science-fiction novel, Stranger in a Strange Land, where it is defined as follows:

Grok means to understand so thoroughly, that the observer becomes a part of the observed—to merge, blend, intermarry, lose identity in group experience. It means almost everything that we mean by religion, philosophy, and science—and it means as little to us (because of our Earthling assumptions) as color means to a blind man.

In other words, “grok” connotes intimate and exhaustive knowledge. “Grokking” is like reading for specialty because it is reading that you want to deeply, reading that falls well within your wheelhouse. It is reading of materials that you really need to know.

And just to be clear how these different reading styles relate to each other, I don’t let my journal skimming or perusing Chess Life take precedence over reading for specialty. Reading for specialty is primary, followed by reading for gist, and then reading for breadth. All are important though.

Just in case you’re interested, here’s a snap shot of the journals I regularly engage as someone who is both a pastor and an aspiring scholar in systematic theology:

Journals that feed me as a pastor:
Interpretation: A Journal of Bible and Theology:
Word and World
Review and Expositor
Expository Times
Currents in Bible Research
Journal of Spiritual Formation and Soul Care
The Other Journal
Journal for the Study of Paul and His Letters
McMaster Journal of Theology and Ministry
Currents in Theology and Mission
Denver Seminary Journal

Journals that feed my academic aspirations in systematic theology:
Modern Theology
International Journal of Systematic
Scottish Journal of Theology
Studies in Christian Ethics
New Blackfriars
Political Theology
Neue Zeitschrift für Systematische Theologie und Religionsphilosophie
Literature and Theology
Heythrop Journal
The Other Journal
Journal of Theological Studies
Reviews in Religion and Theology
Theology Today

Could I read other stuff? Yep, and sometimes I do. Particularly when I am reading for gist and reading for breadth, but when it comes to reading for specialty, things will narrow a bit.

The important thing is to always be reading. So, tolle lege. Go and read. And try out these three different ways of reading for yourself. I think you’ll find your reading productivity increasing.