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Research Methodology

My Research Methodology class.

I’m struggling at the moment to build / rebuild my curriculum for Research Methodology. I have been teaching Research Methodology for the past three years to MTh/MPhil level students (and sometimes DMin and PhD) at SAIACS, the theological institution where I work. The course, like in many other institutions, is mandatory and all students have to take it at the beginning of their programme.

I was initially happy for the opportunity to work with this subject, mainly because it gave me to the opportunity to impact students who had just joined the college… give them a good start, so to speak. I was also given a lot of freedom to devise the course as I wished. During my course planning, I was also exposed to expectational teacher-training material, particularly action and objective based learning, where the goal for the students was more the focus than the goal for the teacher.

I planned a really good course, I made it exciting and practical (I thought), and it turned out to be one of the best courses I had ever taught. However, a few weeks later, after my course, about 6 of my students were caught plagiarising, and they confessed to their teachers that they still did not understand the rules (I had taught them the rules). Then, a few months later, when I began to work with a few students from my class (within my specialisation), for building their thesis research proposals, I found that none of them remembered my rules/methods of research. All those exciting classes were as if they did not even exist. I had to start from scratch, helping students understand many basic elements of research and even had to go through the rules of plagiarism and formatting again. At that point I really felt like a failure. I couldn’t believe that after so much hard work, there was so little positive to show for it. I couldn’t help but think that something was wrong… in my teaching methodology, in the students, but also perhaps in the course itself.

After much reflection, and as I redesign the Research Methodology course yet again (I will be teaching it in June), I have at least identified a few problems.

A few of my struggles with the Research Methodology course are as follows:

i) The pace is too fast. In my own experience, I learned research by doing research through my long academic journey as a student. My Research Methodolgy course was not where I learned Research Methods, but over a period of several courses and years of trial and error. Research Methodology thus comes too soon, and attempts too much, in a short period of time. Many ideas of research are actually (in the developing world setting) fundamentally new for students (let alone some weakness in English), and I envisage that it could take more than a few courses/months to correct primary academic/thinking flaws.

ii) Spiritual vs academic. Research methodology is also a terrible “first” course for students entering seminary/theological colleges, because many of us come to such places with a “spiritual” goal, but the first course is as “non” spiritual as it gets. It’s hard to bring in theology consistently while teaching formatting rules, style guides, categorisations, argument construction etc.

iii) The institutional expectations tend to be unrealistic. Students, after doing this one-month course, are held accountable for understanding not just the Institutional rules (like footnote styles / formatting etc), but also, critical thinking skills, general research methodology skills, and sometimes most importantly, the ability to break a life-long habit of plagiarism. In my experience, most students, me too, learned most of these skills over time… but having a month, at the beginning of the academic year, with the students mostly just getting adjusted to the institution, its expectations and its ethos, there is just not enough time to achieve all this.

iv) The students are just not able to learn theory before practice. While I have tried making my class “practical” with lot of discussion, practical assignments… etc… there is no way I can prepare a student for what she/he will actually face in their first assignment and beyond. Learning the skills in abstract, separated from the real-life scenarios that the student will face (not just assignments, but departmental teacher-expectations), is actually no learning at all. Students are able to grasp the concepts in the month I teach, but they find themselves having to learn entirely new methodologies, ways of writing, researching, when the teachers gave courses. Ultimately, students adopt a practical methodology, a way of writing papers that is often completely different (even opposite) to the “theory” of research that I have been teaching. And naturally so. How much better would it be to work WITH students whlie they do their courses… while they do their assignments. In fact, focus on different aspects of research methodology for different courses/assignments. (perhaps within this is the natural problem of higher education where we teaching theories/theologies outside the real-life context of the world/church… as a result, here too students are faced with a dichotomy between theory and practice).

v) Large classes. Again, I think I did a good job putting people in smaller groups, getting discussions and activities within a smaller unit of the large classes. Yet, it was still evident that different students were learning at different paces, and especially the weaker students were getting left behind. (The stronger students, ironically, did not even need the research methodology course because they intuitively seemed to get everything).

vi) It’s not as much fun as actual research. As much as I try to make the students “do” research in the class, I find that the focus of learning skills is less exciting than actually going out and asking/answering questions. In a sense, what else is research methods but the learning to ask the right questions and finding the right way to answer those questions. And yet, the course focuses on meta issues, and addresses the needs/lacks that the institution finds in the students, rather than emerging as a need that the students themselves have, and thus want to find ways to solve/find help in.

So that’s just a brief list. In my more negative days, this list is longer. And I must admit that I have considered quiting teaching this subject. But I do feel that while some problems cannot be changed (like the course timing), perhaps the last point (vi), where I make this subject really something that students feel they need help in… to help students identify their own problems so that they seek out the solutions… could actually bring more lasting impact/change/help in them.

 

After publishing What is Religion? A Theological Answer through Wipf & Stock (US), I was ready to begin work on the South Asian edition.

Wipf & Stock had made me change my Indian spellings into US spellings (so “Saviour” became “Savior”). I decided to edit my document again for the South Asian edition and change the spellings back to the Indian (UK) spellings in which my work was original written. The other change I made was to make my quotation indents more in tune with SAIACS style guide (4-lines-or-more are indented). Wipf & Stock style guide says 8-lines-or-more are indented, which meant many of my crucial quotes were merged into the text and not highlighted as I had wanted them to be. Naturally this resulted in a change in page numbers, and yes, a change in index as well.

My mentor, Cor, strongly advised against making any changes, especially since they could change page numbers. He urged me to keep consistent page numbers to avoid confusion. But there was both political (“Indian”) and personal interest (indenting) and so I went ahead and made the change.

Shockingly, I found a few more errors in my manuscript. So I changed them in the South Asian edition and informed Wipf & Stock of the same. Wipf & Stock uses a print-to-order press, so I hoped that the few errors I did find could be corrected in a later run. With a revised layout, revised index, and even revised cover in place, I was ready to submit my document to my Indian publisher.

Ironically, and completely unexpectedly, my Indian publisher said that they were not currently ready to print my work. I had simply assumed that they would print my manuscript, once I submitted it. However, I was shocked to learn that due to a financial crunch, my manuscript was low in the priority of projects.

They did say that they wanted to publish my work, but only “not yet.” If I wanted to expedite the process, they said, I could help cover the cost of printing. But that was certainly way beyond my ability, so I had to agree to put the project on hold.

That was a big blow, something I had not considered. And so I asked my Indian publisher if I could look for alternative publishers. They agreed.

Looking for alternative publishers was itself another long process, and surprisingly for me more complex than printing/publishing in the West. I basically offered Indian publishers two choices. 1) I asked publishers whether they would co-publish the South Asian edition with my first choice Indian publisher. Which meant, they would share the cost of printing the book and then jointly market the book (along agreed upon prices), 2) I asked publishers whether they would publish my book as sole South Asian publishers (and take on the full load of marketing).

I began by asking a local Christian publisher (in Bangalore) whether they would be interested in co-publishing. This publishing house said that they found the book interesting, but they couldn’t print it because it was too academic and it had a limited market that would compete with my other publisher’s market share. It was a fair argument, so I thanked them for graciously considering my request and moved on.

I then tried a big Christian publisher. They expressed interest, and I sent them a copy of my work. But after several weeks (a couple of months actually), they still hadn’t gotten back to me. I tried contacting them, but I think they forgot about my work or that they felt it was too academic and not worth pursuing.

I then asked two other established publishers, one secular and another Christian. The Christian publisher sated that they do not jointly publish (which meant they did not even want to partner with Wipf & Stock, and were only open to publish something that was exclusively published through them. The secular press felt that my book was too specialised beyond the scope of their print profile. Both were very courteous in their mails, which was nice.

I then explored a print-by-demand option; where I could publish through my first-choice publisher, but I would only print about 100 copies so that the liability for the publisher would be less. However, the was quite expensive… coming to about 350 rupees per book. This was just too expensive and so I dropped that idea.

Finally, however, alls-well-that-ends-well, because my first-choice publisher got back to me and said that they had finally gotten some funds and were ready to print my book. Once approved, the manuscript went through the printing process quite fast. Especially since I had already edited, and revised my layout.

We were also able to negotiate a deal with the printers to print fewer copies (350 copies), so that the Publisher would not be stuck with a huge pile of unsold books. Thankfully, as a result, I didn’t have to pay anything either, though I realised I would have to do much of the marketing of the book, and also I had to consider how to get reviewers interested in reading/reviewing it.

It was ironic that after a pretty straightforward to publishing process in the West, I was struggling a bit to get my work to the press in India (the primary audience of my work!). But at least South Asian edition, something I really wanted, was coming out. Which was a relief.

Summary thoughts

1. If publishing in India, be sure that you have a publisher who is willing to publish your work.

2. If you are willing to finance your own work, you will find more publishers. If money is an issue for you, then you will have to be willing to wait.

3. Try to keep your options open (though that didn’t really help me initially). These contacts may come in handy at a later stage.

4. Negotiate the printing of fewer copies, so that your publisher need not be stuck with too many copies that may not sell (dissertations are tough to sell). Explore print-by-demand options.

5. Finally, be ready to market your own book. See where and how you would like to spread awareness of your work.

A Theological AnswerIt was an exciting day, when I received free copies of my printed dissertation: What is religion? It looked so much better than my thick-bound printout in the library archives. It made sense that I should publish. And certainly, this should not be the end. And now that my PhD dissertation is published (by Wipf & Stock and SAIACS Press) I have decided to pen my thoughts… about the publishing process. Hope that any doctoral student reading this will find it helpful. What I learned was quite surprising; publishing is not something to be feared, even though it does require some “more” hard work (so don’t get tired of your completed unpublished PhD dissertation just yet!).

Step #1. Say yes to publishing

This is something I had to learn, and I want to thank one of my mentors, Dr. Cor Bennema, for pushing me to publish. The end of doctoral research did not stop at “writing”, or even defending the work, but in publishing it, he would say. He urged me again and again to look for publishers, present my proposal and hope for the best. Personally, I felt “publishing” a dissertation was more like a vanity project, but his constant emphasis made me feel as if my work was incomplete until I could gain a larger readership.

Step #2. Look out for publishers as soon as your doctoral defense is over.
Do not delay the process. If you’re from a context like mine, where once we finished doctoral studies our sending institutions overload us with work!!!, then you won’t have much time to pursue publishers. So start early. Again, because of Cor’s “nagging”, I began the process of submitting my work for approval even before I had my bound copy. Now, though the entire process took over a year, I don’t regret it. (In fact, I’m really glad I started early).

Step#3: Look out for “good” publishers.

My own process of publishing was to work with the people instrumental in my dissertation. So, in India, my obvious choice was to print my dissertation through SAIACS Press (Bangalore), because I studied here, and also was going to work here. For my western printing, I looked to McGill University’s Press, because I studied at McGill for a while, and felt my work resonated with the concerns of the Religious Studies department. I looked at their author guidelines and submitted all the details I could about my work. Interestedly, they wrote back within a few weeks, but sadly they said “no” to printing my dissertation because they felt my work was “too theological” (while McGill tends to be more “religious studies” focussed), but they politely (very nicely in fact) suggested I look for a Press that prints Theological material.

My next step was to look around and a colleague was printing through Wipf & Stock (US). I looked by Wipf & Stock’s author guidelines and sent them another detailed mail about my work (which included sending them a sample chapter). Surprisingly for me, they accepted the work for published and asked me to begin the process of getting the document ready for printing.

I was delighted and told Cor about it.  He however said that I could have tried for a more “prestigious” Press. Personally I was too grateful/thankful that Wipf & Stock agreed, and I didn’t regret anything. Though if anyone (reading this post) is looking for advice, Cor would suggest that you look for the more established presses and then work downwards.

This could help with greater visibility and recognition. Personally, I liked working with Wipf & Stock, especially since they were mainly theology focussed (like my work), plus they had a good relationship with SAIACS Press and were more than willing to allow SAIACS to have the India South Asian rights. This, I felt, was quite generous of them, and feel that because they were a smaller press probably they were more flexible. I also found Wipf & Stock people very approachable and cordial. So all that worked out well for me.

Step #4: Your contract

Another thing to look out while choosing the publisher is to read the contract carefully, and see if you agree with the stipulations. Personally, and I suspect for most doctoral publishers, we’re so relieved that someone is publishing our work that we don’t care that we’re getting stiffed! J I think that Wipf & Stock offered an ok deal… but here again I appreciated my mentor’s advice.

Wipf & Stock, like many publishers nowadays, expects the author to bear some of the cost of publishing the book. So, I had to pay some money (I forgot how much) to help cover the cost of the book. Since I was in no way to afford paying for my own book, my mentor suggested that I offer to do the layout of the book in lieu of the payment, so that would help mitigate the cost. Wipf & Stock agreed, and so I didn’t have to pay anything.

Step #5: Edit / format your work properly.

This is something I regret. I was so “burned out” after working on my dissertation, that I paid very little attention to editing it. Sure I made several changes in the text, and the more I looked at it, the more I felt like editing it, but probably that’s why I just wanted to stay away. Instead, I hired a copy-editor to read and format the work for my publisher’s requirements. I hardly paid attention to detail, grudgingly clarified when my copy editor asked questions, and basically was relieved to get it out of my hands.

It was only when I had to make the index (and yes, I feel every dissertation needs and index), that I was horrified to find so many errors. I was relieved that I was reading the work myself, finally, but I wished I had more time to edit. I should have joined the initial editing process.

Step #6: Make an index.

Yes, I said it earlier, but I say it again. An index is a lot of work, and no matter what the technology, one cannot escape some level of manual labour. It took me several days of working full time to complete the index. But it was worth it simply because I caught so many errors while looking at the text carefully. Also, the work really looks more profession and is certainly more useful with an index. So don’t shirk on the responsibility: make the index.

Interestingly, my Wipf & Stock editors did not insist that I make the index and felt I didn’t really need it. But for the reasons I said above, I was really glad that I did make it. And now the book looks really good with the index backing-it-up.

Step #7:  Follow up

Here I recommend that we keep following up (gently) with the publishers, asking if there is any clarification needed etc. I didn’t do much follow-up and months went by. Until when I started writing back, the publishers told me that they had let the project slide a bit and promised to speed things up. So a gentle reminder to the publishers may help keep things moving.

Step #8: Marketing / Get contacts

It’s now a known fact that authors need to participate as much as possible in the marketing of their book. As the printing of the book drew nearer, the marketing team talked to me about contacts for recommendations of the book, and also contacts for which libraries, faculties, we should send the book too. Sadly, being in India, I had very few international contacts. And here, I feel, that it would really help if we keep an eye out on which libraries, which teachers/professors, we could send recommendations of the book to. I helped a bit, but this can be done so much better.

Step #9: Free copies / buying more

It’s really great to get your free copies… and I got four. It was really exciting. However, four copies were just not enough. My problem was that paying in dollars was never really possible for me, so I couldn’t order copies. I did hope that the South Asian edition would come soon, so I could have more “affordable” copies. But getting a South Asian edition of my book was tougher than I had anticipated, but that’s another story. (Featured in part 2 of this post)

Step #10: Set up a blog, or something like that, to help publicize your book

While my blog wasn’t really that successful (meaning there were hardly any visitors and google only showed it in the 2nd/3rd page), still it helped to have a place where I could direct friends and interested people to where they could find more information about the book. I intended the blog to be a place to talk about discounts, reviews (so far there have been none). It helped to use Facebook to direct “friends” to the blog. Whether it succeeds or not, I still think it’s a good idea to have something like this. So do it, if you can.

In this US, the Wipf & Stock site has the book listed here: https://wipfandstock.com/store/What_Is_Religion_A_Theological_Answer

It is truly a big day when a doctoral student passes the viva. It is the final examination of almost a decade’s worth of work (in my instance at least). Everything hangs on how two examiners feel about your work… everything seems to hang on how you answer each and every question not matter how hard (in my case really hard). Still, when they approve your work, and better still say how they liked it, it feels like a huge accomplishment. A vindication. A triumph.

So why am I feeling low?

My supervisor, days after my viva, told me that it was normal for doctoral students to experience a form of depression after submitting their viva. Another PhD colleague vouched for this very thing. I can’t imagine how it makes sense. But neither does my feeling low at this moment.

Somehow I’m filled with feelings of embarrassment, sadness, in-completion and the huge daunting fear of all that lies before. I am overwhelmed.

On one level a PhD feels like an overstatement. Sure it is a big deal… to me. But does that justify the huge celebrations from friends and family all over? I never got these many congratulations even for my wedding! All that attention makes me cringe, and I want to hide.

I also feel a lot of shame. I see the inadequacies of my own work. I see the “hidden faults” that no one else can see (it’s only a matter of time, I think). I feel unworthy… why did I pass, and others (a few) didn’t?

Being overwhelmed about the future is also there. But more specifically, it seems useless/pointless. What will I achieve? Will I truly be significant? I know I will struggle to get my work published… chances are that it will never get accepted for printing. Even so, what else should I be doing? Where truly lies the impact that I want to achieve?

I am exhausted too. I am not motivated to even correct my work. Currently, all I want to do is watch movies. Or day-dream. A busy schedule with many administrative tasks (that my college has assigned to me) doesn’t help. I’m not just busy, but am involved with what seems inane/pointless and the whole PhD seems like a stepping stone… without having worth in itself. I am also getting no time to truly reflect on all this.

Looking back at what I’ve written… perhaps my supervisor is right. I am depressed. :)

He forgot to tell me that this is a phase. So let me pretend that he did say this is just a phase, and let me now wait for this “phase” to pass.

I didn’t realise that it had been almost 6 months since I last wrote here. I have been updating some news on twitter which are displayed on a side-bar in this blog, but I guess there’s nothing like a “post” to update what is happening.

Well… I finished my final draft of my dissertation on the 27th of October, about a month later than I wanted to submit it.  The procedure then was to wait for a month so that the SAIACS doctoral committee could read my work, and then I would face them in a PreViva.

The PreViva was a new addition to the SAIACS doctoral programme. Theis was an opportunity for SAIACS to raise the standard of all doctoral research, in a multidisciplinary setting, before the work was submitted to the external examiners… where I would face my real Viva.

The consequence of me submitted about a month late was that November was (and is) a really busy time at SAIACS and very few people had the time to read my work. So my PreViva was postponed by a few days.

I was a little nervous, because the topic I had chosen was really  broad. But I knew I was happy with the research but was afraid if I had missed something, or some blind spot.

My PreViva was attended by my dissertation Supervisor, Dr. Chris B., through skype from Montreal.

The PreViva began at approximately 10am, and went on till 1:00pm… 3 hours. Then, after people had a day to submit further comments, there was a two hour long meeting going through the comments to consolidate what I would have to address.

I was finally given two documents, a long one giving detailed questions. And a shorter one, with certain points on what the committee felt I should address.

The basic gist was that I had to rewrite my conclusion, which was evidently weak. It wasn’t clear, after reading my conclusion, what I was actually trying to say. I had not covered all the basis (or implications) of my thesis. In view of this, I would have to modify my introduction as well. Plus a few minor points of correction in the middle.

In my view the changes were not drastic, but were still significant. I knew that after the PreViva, my work would be much stronger. And for that I was grateful.

I was a little frustrated at the kinds of questions that were asked… some of them were clearly asked without understanding my work. Still, the overall effect was positive.

Now, I have till January 7, to complete my final draft, for submission to my external examiners. Whoever they be. Hopefully, my external viva will be a month later, in February.

If all goes well, I have only minor corrections, and then I graduate in March. If not, then back to the editing table.

This photo was taken in the SAIACS library, where I have been hard at work on my chapter 4.

One day I’ll look at this picture and marvel at how God led me through this impossible journey.

One day… I hope, I hope.

I recently heard this (true) story, and I have still not figured out whether it encourages or discourages me. Anyway, here it is. A Phd student colleague of mine heard this from his mentor (dissertation supervisor):

When I was a PhD student, I shared my academic struggles with my own mentor. I told him I was struggling to make any progress. My mentor asked me “Are you working hard?” I said,  “Yes. I work 10 hours a day in the day time and then another two at night.” My mentor said, “Then, you are making progress!”  And sure enough, within a few days I was able to make a huge breakthrough.

I recently completed an article for the SAIACS Annual Consultation on Indian Christian Identity (to be held on 9-12 November, 2010). The conference looks interesting. But  somehow I feel I have lost confidence in my work and so am not so sure about my paper. My article is titled: “Nationalism and Communalism: Lessons from the Indian Christian rejection of the Communal Award in 1932.” I hope it turns out ok.

The feeling of uncertainty about my work and capability is only increasing after each month of unfinished work. The wry comments of people have increased… people saying, “you still haven’t finished”, or even “it must be nice that you can take such a long time doing your PhD.” etc etc. I wonder why I have not yet finished. There must be something wrong.

Hence the lack of confidence. But at least my article is finished. Hope I can get some strength, encouragement through that.

PhD Comics

PhD Comics

This is an adapted progress report I submitted to my mentor. Adapted because it skips a lot of the detail and provides a general overview of where I stand. The report outlines my academic progress after returning to SAIACS back from McGill, Canada, particularly the months from July to December.

July to August, 2009

From the time my family and I returned to SAIACS, Bangalore, things were busy. This was especially because apart from the general reintegration issues to SAIACS, included stabilizing family health, I taught Theological Method to the MTh in Theology students. I enjoyed that thoroughly, and found to be helpful for the students as well. That July teaching month was also a consolidation of some of the things I had been thinking of in the past year (especially after the Method in Theology course I did at Concordia University).

At this time I also implemented the corrections and additions that were suggested by my mentor for my first chapter. There were a few areas that still remain to be clarified, however, I felt it was be best to move on to the subsequent chapters and return to polish it when I am ready to with my first full draft.

September – October, 2009

In September and October, I began going regularly to the UTC, Bangalore, to read all the published material of Chenchiah, sources that were available as Microfilms. This was an exciting phase of my study, where my cursory knowledge of Chenchiah became an expertise. Not all that I read was relevant to his theology of religion (though there was a lot more than I thought there would be). However the exercise was exciting and even beneficial for my work, in that I felt more confident in having opinions about Chenchiah.

The problem was that because I wasn’t able to go to UTC as often as I would have liked. In effect, in those two months I wasn’t able to complete reading all his work. I’ve got about 15 more articles to go, which is about than 1/5 of all his work.  I hope to get this done just before I begin writing on Chenchiah.

November – December, 2009

By November I was nervous that I hadn’t even started writing anything (I had only taken thorough notes of Chenchiah’s articles). So I began reading for and writing the general background to Chenchiah, hoping that by the time I get to Chenchiah, I would have been able to finish my reading of Chenchiah as well.

It was at this time I that I found myself a little confused. Through my reading of Chenchiah, it became apparent that the historical context played an important role in shaping his theology, and it would help my work to highlight the connections with the historical movements and Chenchiah’s theological choices.  Earlier I had thought I would do Chapter 2 as a general background to Chenchiah and then discuss his theology of religion. Chapter 3, then, would be a specific background to Chenchiah, were I would relate his theology to certain historical precedents.

However, I was unsure whether to split my dealings with Chenchiah in these two chapters or let it be one long chapter. My main concern was that looking at the Background to Chenchiah was not a preface to his work, as my chapter 2 brief interaction with background would have suggested, but rather history was very much part of Chenchiah’s context to understand, appreciate and even critique his theological choices (even about religion).

By the middle of November I finally decided to integrate both chapter 2 and 3 as one long chapter, arguing that they were part of one argument in the larger dissertation anyway.  Thus, instead of dividing into a general and specific context, in chapter 2 I would first deal with the historical context in relevant detail, with a particular intention to provide an a summary and appreciation of his theology. Then, in my Chapter 3, I would provide a more critical evaluation of Chenchiah, particularly in response to contemporary research on religion.

Currently, in my chapter 2, I am writing on the nationalist movement.  Next, I will have to give a brief overview of the specific history of of the concept of religion during Chenchiah’s time (before in non-Christian and theological perspectives). After this, I will directly move towards Chenchiah, an overview of his theology and then a statement of his theology of religion.

Also this time I worked on editing an article I presented at the Graduate Studies Conference at McGill, on Ritual. And it was published in Arc, the McGill Religious Studies Journal. For PhD students, that’s actually a big deal!

Finally/Overall…

I must admit that while I am not happy with the speed of my progress, I continue to be fascinated by my subject and have found many new and interesting things. I am confident that something good is coming out.

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