Wednesday, May 27, 2009

SBL Forum: Specialist vs. Generalist

I tend to be fairly anti-over-specialization. "Specialists," such as those who focus their entire lives on one book (or I would even say a single body of literature), tend to have scholarly myopia. A piece in the SBL Forum by Michael F. Bird with Craig Keener addresses some of these issues:
Young scholars beginning their careers in biblical studies may have to decide if they are to pursue a career as a “specialist” in one particular field like Pentateuch, Prophets, Paul, Petrine literature or be a “generalist” with expertise across a whole Testament, Second Temple literature, and often even rabbinic and early Christian writings. The attraction to the specialist track can easily be identified: (1) It is easier to master the primary sources of one specific area; (2) secondary literature in our guild is growing exponentially and it is impossible to keep up with the scholarly developments in more than one field; and (3) in terms of career prospects it is easier to develop a research portfolio, and thus secure tenure and promotion, if one sticks to one field of research. That said, the generalist track should also remain a viable and fruitful avenue for scholars to pursue as careers. In this short piece we will present a case for the value of generalists in biblical studies, that is, for the scholar who is “jack of all trades, but master of none.”

I, in fact, find this a bit overdone. I personally consider expertise in an entire Testament or body of literature SPECIALIST, and anything more microscopic than that super-specialist to an absurd degree. A true generalist studies, er, ancient religion, using all of the Christianity and Judaism a small, itty-bitty, tiny examples of broader issues. Bird/Keener make this point a bit further down:
Third, Hebrew Bible and especially New Testament each constitute a relatively small body of writings compared to many other areas of discourse (Renaissance literature, postmodern French philosophy, etc.). Especially in New Testament studies, disciplinary myopia and sometimes even a pinch of indifference towards other fields risk preventing concerted engagement and research with wider horizons relevant to biblical studies.

Indeed, NT is perhaps the only field in the world in which there are so few texts about which there is so much scholarship that, really, says very little. Dante's Divine Comedy alone is longer, and a "specialist" would have to master all of his writings, know a bit about Boccaccio and Petrarch as well. The constant focus on only a few texts leads to scholarly standstills--it is like we keep driving and out wheels are spinning in the mud, because we ask the same questions over and over and over and over and usually just fall on similar lines of the debate that has been raging well over a century (getting nowhere). Thus, while the secondary literature on, say, just the gospels is so vast that the attempt to "master" or "keep up" with it is hopeless, most of it keeps saying the same thing over and over anyway.

The article offers some good general guidelines:

Such observations may invite some younger scholars to wonder how one can cultivate generalist sensitivities. Several suggestions are helpful, though most scholars will not follow all of these. (1) One obvious starting point is to develop competencies in as many of the ancient languages as possible. (2) To adapt I. Howard Marshall’s expression, one should endeavor to become the “master or mistress” of the primary sources and immerse oneself in the relevant literature of the ancient world.[3] That could mean placing a higher priority on reading the primary sources, even if it sometimes comes at the expense of reading all the secondary ones. (3) Hengel suggests that New Testament scholars (but the principle is equally applicable to other fields) should attempt to develop an expertise outside of the New Testament.[4] For instance, developing a side interest in certain writings from the Septuagint, Apocrypha, Pseudepigrapha, or Apostolic Fathers would hone one’s scholarly skills. (4) Read book reviews and summaries of research over a breadth of areas. Journals like Review of Biblical Literature and Currents in Biblical Research can expand one’s horizons about the state of scholarship in other fields. Similarly, it could be beneficial to attend seminars, conferences, and papers on a wide variety of biblical studies and related topics. (5) In terms of research a generalist might stagger one’s research agenda over a number of areas as time progresses. (6) An additional strategy is to write works (books and articles) for both specialist and generalist readers. For instance, concerted study of the Aramaic of the book of Daniel might be accompanied by publication of a textbook on Jewish apocalyptic literature. Alternatively, study of the textual history of Romans might well be followed by a more general volume on the history of the reception of Romans in the first four centuries. One can stay in the preferred “zone” and still produce specialist and generalist works.

If you want to be creative, stick your head out and see what people are doing in other fields. This will lead to new insights in your own area of publication, and you can still do the gritty minutiae work along with it (so, it is not really completely an either/or, but sometimes a both/and): the Aramaic of Daniel and apocalypticism being their example. I try to stagger my research across a multitude of bodies of literature, primarily HB, NT, DSS, and Nag Hammadi. The knowledge of these various texts cross-fertilize one another. My insights into a text of the NT (Hebrews) is highly informed by research into the Ancient Near East and the Hebrew Bible via the Dead Sea Scrolls (there is the structure of my dissertation for you). It is all interlinked. You cannot know one without knowing the others. I agree with Hengel here: stick to the primary sources and the ancient languages--without these you cannot appreciate the secondary works as well anyway. And, there is a reason they are SECONDARY; they are a notch lower on the list of reading priorities. Indeed, a specialist is someone who knows the PRIMARY text thoroughly in its original language, and, given the relative paucity of texts in antiquity, that makes it easier to be a generalist and still be thoroughly familiar with multiple sets of literature, perhaps making the dichotomy between specialist and generalist moot.

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