Saturday, November 20, 2010

Finding your "niche" in Biblical Studies, #SBL10

A little later I am doing a stint in a section organized by Pat McCullough entitled "Finding your 'niche' in Biblical Studies" and featuring also Christopher Hays, Katharine Doob Sakenfeld, Dale Martin and Paula Fredriksen. One of the things I will be encouraging people to do is to treat all advice with a pinch of salt. When I was in the early stages of my doctoral research in Oxford, I was asked by one of the New Testament dons, "So what are you writing on for your DPhil, Mark?" I said that I had settled on a thesis about the work of Michael Goulder on the Gospels. "There are two things wrong with that topic," he replied, while we stood outside the Theology Faculty building at St Giles.  "It will be unpublishable, and you won't get a job." The problem was that that was what I really wanted to write about and I knew that the best chance I had of writing a decent DPhil (they are DPhils in Oxford and not PhDs) was to write about something that I was enthused about.

Luckily, there were others with different thoughts.  I suppose that the research would never have got off the ground if things had been different.  When I went to Ed Sanders with my idea about Michael Goulder, he said, "Well, I have said for years that someone should spend time with Goulder's work and I think it would be a fine topic for a doctorate."  And so I began the work on the thesis only for Prof. Sanders to tell me, not long afterwards, through clouds of pipe smoke in his room at Queen's College, that he would be leaving to go to a place I had never heard of in America, Duke University.  I was crestfallen and I remember thinking, "Why on earth would he want to do that?"

Well, I ploughed on with the research on Goulder and the Gospels, a DPhil orphan for a while, turned down by one potential supervisor, and only saved by the arrival of John Muddiman in Oxford in 1991, and I could not have had a more ideal supervisor.   As it turned out, I did get a job and I did get the thing published.  I enjoyed my doctorate and I am still pleased that I did not really listen to the naysayers.

I suppose that this is going to be the difficulty with the "Finding your 'niche'" session.  I imagine that there will be a lot of conflicting advice.  The thing is that every academic's experience is so different.  I am not sure that I would want to advise my students to choose to write about unpublishable, un-marketable topics.  And yet the key thing is to follow your nose and to write about the things that will enthuse you, whatever they might be.    I mean: I am baffled by the fact that many (most?) scholars appear to be so uninterested in detailed discussion of the Synoptic Problem, but I haven't let that prevent me from airing my own interest in it.

In fact, on this topic there is another piece of advice that I ought to offer, but which I have ignored: if you want a career, don't try to take on the establishment on a dearly loved, consensus topic.  I wrote a book called The Case Against Q in which I argued that the grounds for postulating the existence of Q are not as persuasive as the alternative, which accepts Marcan Priority but adds that Luke also knew Matthew.  Looking back on it now, I wonder if I might have been a bit naive to have been so confrontational so early in my career and to have taken so great a risk.  I could have played safe.

I suppose that the serious advice I would give here is that if you are going to take a risk like that, then make sure you fully understand your opponent's position, and make sure you go the extra mile to represent it as fairly as possible.  You will get nowhere if your readers can easily charge you with misreading, misunderstanding and misrepresentation.  In fact, that is probably much more destructive to a potential career than anything, the failure to attempt to represent the scholarship honestly and fairly.

I remember once talking to a PhD student about his plans for the future;  he handed me a sheet in which the research program was mapped out for the next twenty years, with projected publishing dates and everything.  I think what amazed me most about that was that the plan was made on the assumption that the student would have no new ideas for twenty years, that there would be a predictable pattern to his career.  One of the things that is so enjoyable about the academic's life is, for me, that it is unpredictable.  And you have new ideas all the time -- it's an inevitability of teaching and of continuing to read and research.

It is a question, I would say, of enthusiasm rather than obsession.  I have got pretty close to being obsessed with the Synoptic Problem, but I don't want to go the way of William Farmer and spend my entire career on it.  In fact, Ed Sanders once warned me that getting into the Synoptic Problem is like getting into quicksand -- he was concerned I would never emerge.  So I think it's good to put your ideas out there, to see what happens and to move on.

Sometimes the a major research project will emerge naturally from the topic you are studying.  I am finishing up a book on the Gospel of Thomas at the moment, but I got into Thomas because of Q.  While I was writing about Q, people kept saying, "What about the Gospel of Thomas?"  And so I became interested in Thomas.  And having become interested in Thomas, I began teaching courses on the non-canonical Gospels, which, in turn spawns further research into related topics of interest.

The process of scholarly interest in different topics is often accidental and unpredictable.  You simply don't know what new idea might pop into your head while you are teaching and researching, and I would discourage the tendency to identify yourself too strongly with any particular "niche" in Biblical Studies.  Very few of us only teach on our primary areas of interest and publication, and that breadth in teaching is our invitation to keep breadth in research and publication.  So finding a niche is good, but finding another after that, and another after that, is better.


Rich Griese said...

Has anyone art the conference reported any new jesus data discovered this year? I am trying to track new jesus data if there is any. If anyone hears of any new jesus data, I would appreciate it if you would alert me to you. you can email me at

Cheers! RichGriese.NET

Patrick G. McCullough said...

Thanks so much for posting this, Mark. Again, I can't thank you enough for your fabulous words for the group.


Mark Goodacre said...

You are too kind. I really enjoyed participating in this session.