Saturday, November 17, 2012

Scholar in the Heartlands

What is a scholar? A scholar is one who has spent a great deal of time in studying something in detail. Or a scholar is one who has special knowledge in one particular area. I always thought that a scholar is one who has published at least two books (by prestigious publishers) and on this count, I don't qualify. Yet, I realize as time passes that I am now in the ministry of scholarship. Not many Christians or even pastors associate scholarship with Christian ministry, perhaps explaining an anti-intellectual strand in the church that refuses to go away despite advancement in education and knowledge in all fields.

But today I travelled by bus and MRT to a number of locations, in the heartlands of Singapore. Singapore is a beautiful city with many trees. Early in the morning it is fresh though by 9am, it is already pretty hot. I had breakfast in a coffee-shop at Bukit Batok heartland. There were crowds of people but I managed to find a seat and waited 20 minutes for my mee soup to arrive. While drinking my kopi-C siu tai (coffee with evaporated milk with one sugar) I read an MTh (Master of Theology) thesis on the Acts of the Apostles. While many people were chatting away and Singaporeans love to talk and some talk a bit too loudly with good cheers, I focused on examining this MTh thesis and wrote comments with my pencil. Only yesterday I completed the examination of another MTh thesis on Paul's mission expectations for his churches. I wrote a 1,400 word report filling up more than 3 pages in small print.

How does one examine an MTh research thesis unless one is skilled in knowledge in the field of the study of the New Testament? New Testament corpus comprises of 27 books and the apostle Paul is traditionally thought to have written 13 or 14 letters (if one includes Hebrews) but some modern scholars claim that Paul only wrote 7 genuine letters and the others were deutero-Pauline.

It took me 5 times over 3 or 4 hours each to finish reading a 90-page thesis and yesterday I skipped lunch until 3:30pm as I rushed to submit the examination report to the Associate Dean. I spent more than 5 hours in drafting a 3-page report, totaling up to 25 hours of intense work.

Why is it so important that theses examiners do a professional job? The MTh candidate has spent 1 year at least to write his/her thesis and it is only right and proper to give it serious attention and interact with it. Further, it could be the last chance for the MTh candidate to learn something though he has spent one to two years with his supervisor-scholar but the examiner's comments could improve his thesis significantly or least give the candidate food for thought and open up avenues of further research or simply lead him to see a point from a different scholarly perspective.

I have examined one doctoral examination and four MTh theses in 4 years and my fourth MTh student will be graduating next May. They are an international cohort, the first from Myanmar, then from Indonesia, Malaysia and now a Singaporean. I was told by my Registrar that another MTh candidate may come my way from Vietnam.

From Bukit Batok I took the MRT to Jurong East and continued reading her thesis and by the time I had lunch in Clementi I had read 25 pages and wrote many comments beside.

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