Few people among us who are seriously interested in the life of the mind are actually professional teachers; few professional teachers teach at colleges or universities; few college or university teachers are at research universities (a big difference from, say, liberal arts colleges — not better or worse, just very different); and not all instructors at research universities direct PhD Dissertations.  Those of us who do usually find it to be a sacred obligation (it is the final step for a graduate student to her PhD), an honor, a privilege, and an ungodly amount of work.

When I first published this series on what it is research scholars in academic position actually *do*, directing  it was the first thing.  That was because at that precise moment I was deeply entrenched in reading a dissertation.  Here’s what I said.


I have just now been traveling across country (I’m currently in an airline lounge in Chicago) and on the plane I have been reading a (very fine) doctoral dissertation, whose author will be “defending” (that is, being subject to interrogation by the five faculty members on her committee) tomorrow.

It’s a very good dissertation, I think.  Like all dissertations it is book-length (will be turned into a published monograph, I should think), highly technical in places, very learned, the result of something like three years of full time labor.  This particular student is not one that I am directing (each student has one faculty member directly responsible for supervision of the dissertation); I am just one of the other committee members.

One of the things I like best about being a research scholar at a major university is that the dissertations are works that I can learn from – sometimes a whole lot.  They are written at the very end of a PhD candidate’s work as the culmination of their entire education, and these advanced graduate students are experts in the fields that they address.  This particular thesis is a case in point: the author is dealing with twenty-four Jewish inscriptions (both funerary and dedicatory), roughly from the fourth to fifth Christian centuries, which identify Jewish women, specifically, with titles that indicate they were, in some sense, leaders in their Jewish communities.   The big issue really is BIG.  Did Jewish women have positions of authority in running the show in synagogues in the Roman world?

This particular analysis is highly sophisticated.   The author applies a

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post-structuralist analysis to these inscriptions, arguing that while it may be impossible to get back to the historical realities of the situation on the ground, we can see at least how those realities came to be embodied in these inscribed texts.  The question: how were women represented in these inscriptions (so that the representations made good sense to their original readers)?   She also applies a feminist critique of the study of power and argues that our concern over who actually was involved in governance may say more about what we are interested in today than what women (and others) may have been interested in in antiquity.

The scholar who has produced this work is principally an archaeologist, and the study is using archaeological findings (in this case inscriptions) to help us understand better the Jewish world of antiquity.  It is fascinating and heavy-hitting stuff.

As I said, I am simply a committee member in this instance.  I am myself directing a half dozen other dissertations right now, dealing not so much with ancient Judaism as with ancient Christianity, my own area of expertise.   Just to give you a sense of the kind of breadth that my students cover, I can give a list of what these dissertations are:

  • A full examination of the history of the Greek manuscripts of Paul’s letter to the Galatians, showing how scribes altered their texts of Galatians over the centuries, sometimes in significant ways, and utilizing a method known as “cladistics” to establish a plausible relationship of all the surviving manuscripts to one another.  This student just defended his dissertation (I co-directed  it; he is in the PhD program not at UNC but at nearby Duke) and it’s pretty amazing.
  • A study of the language of “martyrdom” in selected Gnostic and proto-orthodox texts of the second and third centuries, showing that traditional claims that Gnostics spurned martyrdom and proto-orthodox Christians embraced it are highly problematic and unnuanced.
  • A study of the form of Mark’s Gospel that was available to the author of Matthew.  The idea here is that Matthew used Mark for many of his stories about Jesus; but Mark was in different forms, depending on which copy an ancient writer was looking at.  This student wants to figure out the ways in which Matthew’s copy of Mark differed from the form of Mark that we are familiar with today.
  • A study of the so-called Testimonium Flavianum – the testimony of Josephus to Jesus as found in Book 18 of his Antiquities of the Jews, a testimony of real importance to the question of whether Jesus actually existed, as mythicists love to tell us!  This author is no mythicist (he is another Duke student; and I am not directing the dissertation, but am just on the committee), but he does think that the passage in question was not written by Josephus, but by none other than Eusebius, the Christian Father of Church History, and that it was inserted into Josephus’s writings by one wanting to show that this famous Jewish historian knew about the existence of Jesus.
  • A study of Paul’s mission to convert the Gentiles that is rooted in the idea that the so-called “northern tribes” of Israel were not, in fact, destroyed (in Paul’s mind; we’re not talking about historical reality here) by the Assyrians in the 8th century BCE, but that “Israel” (the northern 10 tribes) intermarried with non-Israelites, so that if “all Israel must be saved,” as Paul claims in the letter to the Romans, it means that Gentiles have to accept Jesus as messiah.  This, the author is claiming, is why Paul was so intent on converting the non-Jews.
  • A study of the traditions/legends surrounding Jesus post-resurrection appearances in authors of the second and third Christian centuries, in light of what we know about visions and visionary experiences from Greek, Roman, Jewish, and Christian sources of the early centuries CE, with a special emphasis on such texts as the Gospel of Peter.
  • A study (finished last year) of a group of texts known  as the Books of Women, written in ancient Syriac, by fifth century (and later) Christians who in them described the lives of some of the important women of the Old Testament (Esther, Ruth, Susanna, etc.) but ending, not with Scriptural stories, but with the one-time famous “Thecla,” traditionally thought to have been a female convert of the apostle Paul, and who was celebrated and adored in parts of the early Christian church.  Why was Thecla included in a selection of summaries of the lives of famous Israelite women?  A great question – and the one that the dissertation worked to answer!  I co-directed this interesting study with a colleague at Duke, even though the student was at UNC, since he is one of the world’s experts on ancient Syriac)

Obviously these dissertations (I’ve mentioned only the ones I’m working with over the past year or so; I’ve been doing this for 23 years now) cover an enormous range of intellectual inquiry.  One of the reasons I love teaching PhD students is that it forces me to learn all sorts of things that I never would have thought to learn much about on my own.  I have to do so if I’m to supervise all this work.  Doing so has made the most enormous difference in my own intellectual life, and has opened up innumerable doors for me, as I get interested in a much wider assortment of things than if I were teaching in some other kind of environment.  Still, it’s a boatload of work!   But it’s no more work than so many other people do in so many other fields.  There are only 24 hours in the day for each of us, and many of us figure out ways to fill just about all of them, whatever we do for a living.