Sunday, May 24, 2009

What type of scholar are you? Redux

Over on the SBL Forum, Michael Bird and Craig Keener have an enjoyable article entitled Jack of All Trades and Master of None: The Case for “Generalist” Scholars in Biblical Scholarship. The pieces picks up from one of Mike's old blog articles, Specialist or Generalist? from August 2005. I commented at the time with What type of NT Scholar are you? and I thought I would take the liberty of revisiting and revising that post here.

The title of my post on that occasion came from Sean Winter's on Sean the Baptist (post no longer available).  One of the elements that was in the Euangelion blog post but does not appear in the article is the following: 
If you can’t actually attend conferences at least read the seminar paper topics for various conferences like SBL, ETS, SNTS etc. Ask authors to email you their paper if you are interested in their seminar paper and you can’t attend.
This is a good suggestion, and will add: don't just go to papers in the narrow area of your own research -- try to take an interest in as many as possible. Always attend plenary sessions where possible. A related but key point I'd also add would be perhaps too obvious for mentioning, but still vital:
Talk to people: at the conferences take an interest in other people's research, and when they are working in an area you are not familiar with, ask them what one ought to be reading in that area. What are that person's pick of the last few years' books? What are the interesting ideas that deserve attention? Who are the "ones to watch" in that area?
I think the best way out of being a narrow specialist is to keep on talking, and to be humble.  Sean the Baptist went on, in the post no longer present, to quote a fascinating characterisation of the different kinds of scholar, from an assessment by John Knox of John A. T. Robinson:
To be sure, there are many scholars so gifted and accomplished as not to be typical in either sense ... But for the larger number of us I believe one may say that the worker in New Testament studies will belong to one type or the other - to the more knowledgeable or the more imaginative. And I would maintain that the door to being a true, and even a distinguished, scholar is as widely open to the second type as to the first

John Knox, "J. A. T. Robinson and the Meaning of New Testament Scholarship", Theology 92 (1989), 251-267 (here p.256)
It's a fabulous quotation, and I love the idea of being "as widely open to the second type as the first".  This is a great way of making sure that one avoids the pitfalls of both. I would add that it is not easy to answer the "Specialist or Generalist?" question towards the beginning of one's career.  And most of us bibliobloggers are relatively young, at least in sometmes crusty old academic world.  Sometimes we become associated with a particular narrow area because we have so far only published, on the whole, in one or two narrow areas, and that might make us appear to be specialists. Perhaps those who now appear "specialist" will in due course become "generalists". It's difficult to say. So I suppose it is something that one will be able to pronounce on more confidently when looking back at one's career rather than looking forward at it.

Here's a way of nuancing the question. What type of scholar do we most admire? I must admit to a fondness for what I would call "ideas" people, i.e. "the more imaginative" in Knox's characterisation above. Fundamentally, my favourite scholars are those who have the ability to think exciting new thoughts, to rework existing questions in interesting new directions. I am thinking in particular of scholars like Michael Goulder (I know, surprise, surprise) who might be criticized on various fronts, but who will never be criticized for being dull. He always makes me think about existing questions in new ways.

The example of a Michael Goulder, though, raises the question about the appropriateness of the terminology "specialist" or "generalist".   If the definition of a "generalist" is someone who has published in a variety of areas across the Testaments, then Goulder is definitely a "generalist".  But I wouldn't feel that that was a useful term to characterize him, as someone who is precise and specialized in his approach to a whole range of specific areas, from the Synoptics to Paul to Revelation, from Isaiah to Song of Songs to the Psalms.  Perhaps the ideal is to be both specialist and generalist, or, to be a specialist in a wide range of different areas.

It may be that the characterisation, then, is too simplistic to be useful. We can all think of work-a-day scholars whose special ability is to keep on top of a range of material, both primary and secondary, but who have nothing very interesting to say about any of it.  The best scholars are those who combine imagination and insight with knowledge and wisdom. The greatest of all living NT scholars in my book typifies this combination, E. P. Sanders. He radically rethinks consensus positions, lucidly explicating his own views, at which he has arrived on the basis of extensive but careful reading of the primary materials.

3 comments: said...
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Anonymous said...

This question is quite interesting, I am still pondering where I fall/ hope to fall on this spectrum. It has been highlighted as a Paul Post of the Week.

steph said...

I don't see a distinction between generalist and specialist scholars. As you have already suggested, research requires specialisation and teaching (and conferences allow generalisation. Therefore all the best scholars are both good generalists as well as specialists. And the very best scholars are able to adapt their specialist work for the benefit of broader audiences. Maybe in the interests of the advancement of knowledge, it is better to encourage students with potential to aspire to the likes of Dale Allison and so forth.