Sunday, September 2, 2007

Scholarship and Community (cont'd)

In an earlier post I commented that it took me a long time to realize scholarship is a social enterprise. It took me even longer to realize that this is a good thing.

Because I lean toward the inept end of the social spectrum, it is easy for me to view the social side of scholarship with suspicion. The guild can be cliquey. Some people get ahead because of who they know; some fine scholars do not get the hearing they deserve. At conferences I tend to watch for the name tags of major scholars and observe them from a distance, while others of my rank in the pecking order walk right up and engage in small talk. If I happen to know them well enough I don't hold it against them, but it is tempting to conclude that the rest of the smooth-talking crowd are simply sycophants.

Strange as it may seem, good character is not a natural by-product of the scholarly life. Left unchecked, the pressures of climbing the ladder to academic stardom are more likely to produce posturing, envy and Schadenfreude (along with a larger vocabulary). The unstated ideal of academic success, absorbed by Ph.D. students along with their comprehensive reading lists, is defined not by character, but by externals: where you work, how much you publish, and where you publish it. So when I heard Michael Stone say that my teacher, Eileen Schuller, is "a fine scholar and a very nice woman", I was surprised (although the statement is quite true). When he made a similar comment about someone else, it dawned on me that there is something to the old cliché about being a gentleman and a scholar, and that this was an ideal to which I should aspire.

According to this ideal, good scholars network not simply because it is a necessary part of their job, but because it is a function of who they are, because they genuinely care for the "other." Good scholars are not defined by the number of their publications, but by the fact that they have something to say; and what they have to say emerges from a life of disciplined study. In the end, the important thing for "good" scholars is not academic success, but becoming more fully human. In the language of James 3:13-18, it is the difference between wisdom from above and wisdom from below. (Btw, this is not to restrict "good" scholars to a particular religious tradition: Big-name mainstream scholars I've encountered have impressed me with their humility. Maybe I'm overly sensitive, but some of their big-name evangelical counterparts have impressed me with their self-importance. Of course, my experience with both groups is not statistically significant.)

One more thing related to the reality check I mentioned in my previous post: Somewhere along the line I realized that a person's most significant impact occurs through personal contact with other people. This means that my most significant impact will occur through interaction with my students, my colleagues and others with whom I have social connections--not through the monographs I have yet to publish. Based on my own experience as a student, a professor's character often leaves more of an impression than whatever it is they say in class. There is a reason why gentleman comes before scholar.

1 comment:

Edith said...

Interesting post - I enjoyed reading it. And am looking forward to the baby's arrival also.