In Defense of Academic Generalists

In Defense of Academic Generalists May 25, 2009

I have now seen several posts on Mike Bird and Craig Keener’s excellent little article in the SBL forum on being academic generalists (see HERE).  I very much resonated with what Bird and Keener had to say.  For one’s thesis research he or she will no doubt focus and learn much about one area (or perhaps two).  But, it pays to be appreciative of or attentive to other fields of research.  For me, the decision to be a generalists was based on two simple things: boredom and being a lemming. I am easily bored when spending hours researching for my thesis topic.  I need to ‘mix things up’ and read about something else.  Some people naturally turn to fiction.  I do book reviews!

Secondly, I am a lemming because I find the major debates and trends in scholarship interesting.  So, when there is a major debate at SBL (like the now famous Barclay-Wright one on Paul and Empire), I jump on board.

There is certainly some major advantages for this.  For instance, I am doing some research on Colossians/Ephesians.  There is some academic stirring about the ‘Paulinists’ being accomodationistic to the empire in these letters (which I don’t fully agree with).  There is the matter of how to interpret the household codes.  Now, there has been much discussion about the issue of accommodation vs. resistance in 1 Peter (the well-known Balch-Elliott debate), but not enough Pauline scholars seem to be up-to-date on this to learn from it.  Kudos to Jerry Sumney in his WJK commentary on Colossians because he has done his cross-NT homework!  It seems that too many Paul scholars are too snobby (or too busy?) to read up in other epistolary discussions.  This a serious problem.

Also, in my thesis, I made a comparison of the history of scholarship on Paul’s use of cultic metaphors with the development of the study of gospels.  It is thanks to a book review that I did that this idea came to mind.

I think being a generalist is, in fact, a major advantage for teaching in a seminary or undergraduate.  You are bound to teach on something other than your thesis topic.  You’ll probably get bored with that anyway.  It is a major criticism of students studying in the UK that they are too narrowly qualified academically.  They have no breadth of knowledge.  This is a legitimate concern.  My solution was to have a more general thesis topic (covering 1-2 Corinthians, Romans, Philippians, 1 Thess.) and utilize a range of methodological tools (social-scientific criticism, conceptual metaphor theory, rhetorical criticism, etc…).  Also, I do book reviews (about 2-3 a month).

HERE IS THE DANGER OF BEING A GENERALIST:  Simply put, you may not really know what you are talking about.  Your knowledge may be too superficial.  Just because you are able to write a general book and get it published, be careful not to become too confident that you have the solution to every problem out there.  I think it is best to be a moderate generalist.  I have said this before but try to start off with only two areas, but make them very different.  That way, you get diversity, but it is manageable.  I have chosen Paul’s early letters (a.k.a. the ‘hauptbriefe’) as well as the Gospel of John and 1 Peter.  I cover three areas of the NT, but only one representative from the Gospels and the Catholic Epistles.

I have also recommended that one does not just expect or try to be a scholar of early Judaism too early on.  There are too many people gliding over the literature in a haphazard way.  Pick one or two writers/books to get very familiar with (e.g. 1 Enoch and Josephus, or Philo and Wisdom of Solomon).  In the Greco-Roman world, try to narrow your interests as well (like Stoicism, or the rhetoricians).

I think that things like Bible software (logos, Bibleworks, Accordance, etc..) are necessary and amazing tools, but they lend themselves to ‘I want to do a quick search to find any verses or lines that refer to X or Y’.  OK, that’s good.  But, this can end up being a proof-texting exercise where one plunders Philo, Josephus, and the Pseudepigrapha for phrases and terms without having a good ‘working knowledge’ of how those authors or those genres really work and whether they are compatible for comparison on the word or phrase in question. (NB: My supervisors busted me on this on more than one occasion;also, I am pretty sure neither of my supervisors use Bible software).

So, to try to bring these thoughts together: I wholeheartedly affirm becoming a generalist and reading and researching on a wider scale.  However, if you are younger (like me), I propose progressing from one’s thesis research to more general areas progressively by only adding one or two subjects at a time and work in these areas for a few years.  I will confess that I have found a couple of generalists to be too general too quick.  Even if they feel they are capable of it (which is debatable), it comes across as unstable and faddish.  The truth of the matter is that there is a spectrum between generalism and specialism and the trick is finding where to start and stop.

By the way, my favorite generalist is Jimmy Dunn.  He clearly has done his homework and he has advanced scholarship in several major areas of research (most notably the New Perspective on Paul, and the matter of oral traditions and the synoptic problem in gospels research).

HT: Goodacre; McCullough.

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