Thursday, December 10, 2009

Empirical research

This month I have been thinking about our graduate program at Rice, and the biblical field and its direction of research. I have written many posts on my concern that the field's infatuation with theory is causing many universities to produce a generation of new scholars who have become more and more detached from the texts and history and the hard work of empirical research.

When I attended a humanities fellows luncheon at Rice a few weeks ago, a historian of French literature spoke directly to the point in her field. When we do not do the empirical research, but privilege theory and method, we are at a disadvantage, because theory and method are trends that shift and change and go away. But the empirical data does not, and so we need to be the best linguists, the best philologists, the best textual scholars we can be.

Although it is to our advantage to employ a variety of approaches and nuance our approach to history, there is no substitute for the hard work of facing the text at the manuscript level, checking decisions made by editors of critical editions we rely on, being immersed in the literature and culture of the era we are studying, and being attuned to the metaphysical and practical landscape of the text under analysis. None of this is "sexy" or "innovative," and it is not quick in terms of ease of publication. But without it, we are left with theory which is here today and gone tomorrow.


Rick Sumner said...

An excellent reminder, though I think you might even understate the case on the problem with hinging too much on method and theory.

In the humanities in general, our methods and our theories often--perhaps even usually--amount to little more than excercising our prejudices. Eloquent justifications for what is, ultimately, a description of plausibility.

Hopefully training and exposure helps us shape our prejudices more evidentially--it must, else there would be no real distinction between the dilettante and the academic. But that they become more informed doesn't make them less subjective. It just puts more weights on the scales.

The hard evidence doesn't demand that subjectivity, or at least when it does it's in a much different fashion, and to a much lesser degree.

Anonymous said...

"a description of plausibility"

I like that phrase, Rick.

Unknown said...

Here, I think, is the problem with post modern scholarship:

'When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean, neither more nor less.’

‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’

From Alice in Wonderland.

Are Humanities Departments in Universities beginning to use Humpty Dumpty's method?

Rick Sumner said...

Thanks Scott. . .I kinda like it myself. I think I'm going to change my blog's tagline to that even! The Dilettante Exegete: Eloquent justifications for what is, ultimately, a description of plausibility."

I even get to call myself eloquent!

Morgan Drake Eckstein said...

So far I have been lucky that my professors have forced me to deal with the texts themselves, trying to get me to chisel understanding out of the texts themselves, rather than expose me to a lot of theories, Oh, there is some theory, but the emphasis is on tackling the texts.

E.M.Eckstein, undergrad (Literature and History) Universtity of Colorado at Denver (previously Community College of Denver)

sparkwidget said...

Thorough study of tradition and surrounding context is extremely important, and a lot of scholars and popular authors do not know enough context. I am astounded at what I learn from studying seemingly irrelevant context (that's a big reason we check each other and watch one anothers' backs).

For instance, the past few years I've been studying Coptic monasticism of Shenoute of Atripe and Pachomius. I have seen, in numerous places, comments resembling Gospel of Thomas 114. These comments very matter-of-factly state that women are to be treated as equals with men in an ascetic/monastic context if they agree to behave and practice like men. It turns out this idea is extremely common in ancient Christian monasticism/asceticism across the board. It seems possible that Thomas 114 is an echo or inclusion of this idea, to me. Before I had that contextual knowledge, I was constantly scratching my head trying to discern some mystical meaning of the logion, but it appears possible that it is just a straightforward statement of the equality of women in monastic and ascetic settings.

Matthew Alexander White said...

Sadly, it’s not just Humanities scholarship. I think this trend of spectacular, sexy, and innovative “scholarship” is indicative of a much more alarming shift in postmodern civilization. It is evident in everything: the paying patrons want style over substance nowadays. In American football, the hard work of committing to a good ground running game is being abandoned in favor of the more appealing, spectacular passing game. Even worse, the rules of the game are even being changed to facilitate this because this is what the paying customers want to see. This same shift is also happening in the Christian churches on Sunday morning. The rules are changing to suit a market driven reality. Sunday morning really is becoming an eye-popping spectacular affair full of glitz, bells and whistles—to the satisfaction of the paying customers/tithers.
The market forces are setting the agenda on Sunday morning, the NFL on Sunday afternoon, and humanities scholarship at the SBL. The agenda being a vicious cycle of trying to conjure up a bigger and better next big thing every 15 minutes. Case in point: National Geographic’s involvement with the whole Judas gospel thing—and then following it up with the Gabriel Stone special once the Judas gospel’s 15 minutes of fame has worn off. I can’t wait for their next primetime special that’s going to “shake Christianity to the core.”

Unknown said...

Matthew, I totally agree. Two more examples:

1. The way the food looks on your plate is more important than whether the amount is sufficient (it never is on this type of plate) and even taste.

2. Designated hitters.