Missions Research and Practice, the Great Divide…

WARNING!! A technical story to follow… feel free to skip the blue section if you wish.

The cover page to Søren Kierkegaard's universi...

The cover page to Søren Kierkegaard's university thesis. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Many years ago, I was a mechanical engineering student. My expertise was in material  science, particularly as it pertained to material response to stress. I did my master’s thesis in the creep rupture response of pultruded glass-reinforced polymer-matrix composites and how they are affected by notch sensitivity and thermal aging (chemical and physical aging). Being a bit less technical, I took some specialized fiber glass, drilled different size holes in it and hung weights on them in different heating environments to see when they fail. I wrote my thesis. I was shocked to discover how little information was out their on the research I was doing (that is nice in a sense since I was supposed to be researching in fertile soil). However, the little research I found disagreed somewhat with my results. The other research came up with a linear (straight line) approximation of the results. Mine was more curved… exponential. And when I looked at the data the other researchers used, it was clear to me that their data was more exponential than linear as well. So I came up with an empirical formula to describe creep rupture.

Why am I telling you this?  That thesis is probably on a shelf in two or three places in the world and most likely read by no more than 4 or 5 people total in the last 13 years. The results actually would be quite useful if they could be verified. Follow-on testing might contradict my results (creep rupture tests are notoriously difficult and the data is extremely limited). But if my results could have been verified, the information would be useful in the polymeric composites industry and in safety/failure analysis.

But almost certainly, the thesis is gathering dust (perhaps rightly so) and not being added to the knowledge base of the engineering world. 

<Okay, it is safe to begin reading again.?>

I am mentioning this because I am reading a dissertation on short-term mission pre-field training. It is quite interesting (to me at least). However, I have seen so many dissertations earn their researcher a doctorate but then simply became dusty books on shelves.

Many theses and dissertations rightly deserve to become forgotten… used by a few researchers for obscure bibliographic references or to act as a guide for structure and formatting. However, some have something relevant to say and should be integrated into present thought and practice.

Of course, (and mentioning nothing new to anyone here) one problem is lack of value of theses or dissertations as a vehicle for change. The language and style is unappealing and its form of dissemination tends to lead to their obscurity. What to do?

A.  One can change the format to make it more popular or at least understandable by those without a highly technical background. However, to do this while maintaining the rigor and hurdles of the process is a question. Can the final output of doctoral level research be a popular book while maintaining the proper oversight and high research standards? A lot of popular books are written. Much are little more than propaganda of the writer’s opinions and agenda. Can a dissertation be understandable and easily adaptable to the real world while maintaining the high level of academic standards. (Doctoral programs and masteral programs have probably been “dumbed-down” more than enough already.)

B. One can maintain the dissertation as it is but improve accessibility. This is done a lot with accessibility of papers through electronic databases accessible via the Internet. However, the structure of the dissertation can still lead to its obscurity even if it is physically/electronically accessible. Even if put into a more accessible form (like book, video, digital presentation) it is possible the good can be lost amidst the mediocre. Additionally, a lot of good papers come from obscure corners of the world where electronic forms are not produced and disseminated.

C.  One can require that students produce both a thesis/dissertation and a more popular adaptation. This sounds good, but setting up a new requirements can stretch out the training process even longer than it already is.

I am not seeking to solve a problem here. Ideally, the graduate  (with support of the learning institution and mentors) will develop accessible, clear, and relevant versions of the research that can be utilized to affect change.

However, I think genuine improvements are possible. I have taught a class in church growth (master’s level) where I gave a doctoral dissertation on the church growth movement as a reading assignment. It was clear and informative. So, I think even the old musty dissertation can be made readable if it is allowed to be done creatively.

In Christian missions this is especially important where mission strategy and policies are often developed “intuitively” or empirically by committee with questionable basis (theologically or otherwise). Good missions research can be a big help if allowed to percolate into the broader discussions of strategy and best practices. Of course, that requires that missions dissertations be good as well. I have read more than one dissertation in Christian work where the conclusions seem to be simply the belief system of the writer because they seem to disagree with (or are at least unrelated to) the research findings.


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