Scholarship – Playing the Long Game

In dating, “I’m playing the long game” might be code for, “I’m too scared to make a move now.” In any serious pursuit, however, it is essential to focus on long-term goals while navigating short-term challenges. Activity is measured not primarily by quantity (how much am I working?) but by direction (where is this getting me?).

Aspiring scholars must play the long game. The first step is imagining the end game. What sort of work do I want to do? Well, as a historical theologian, I would publish original research on figures, groups, ideas and/or themes from the Church’s past. I think that I would like to concentrate on the pre-modern period, perhaps particularly on the polemical interaction between Protestants and Catholics during and after the Reformation.

Next, I ask what knowledge, skills, and resources I would need to do that work, and do it excellently. (If you are aspiring to be a mediocre scholar, you may disregard that last qualification.) Well, to be a scholar of any sort requires certain mental equipment. You need a decent memory to retain hoards of information. Close reading requires analytical skill; effective writing calls for proficiency in grammar, organization, and rhetoric. Curiosity and creativity drive research and publishing. All these are inherent faculties, but the scholar must hone them until she is far above average.

Scholars must be proficient in multiple languages, in order to be conversant with both primary and secondary literature.   Almost every humanities subject requires two foreign languages just to read the secondary literature. Historians studying material outside their first language usually need several more. My interests require Greek, Latin, French, and German. Hebrew, Dutch and Italian would be helpful. Many aspiring scholars play around in their research languages. Many learn just enough to pass an exam. I believe proficiency entails the ability to read comfortably for pages at a time with a dictionary. If a primary source hasn’t been translated, you should be able to understand it and use it in your research, even if you’re not comfortable publishing your own edition of the text.

Scholars read. They devote a large portion of their time to reading. Not all reading, however, is equally beneficial. Research reading can be categorized by proximity: about my topic, in my field, or in a related field. A well-rounded scholar reads in each area, but proximity often determines the ratio of primary to secondary sources. Right now, I am studying Augustine, a key figure in Protestant/Catholic polemic. I read mostly in the primary sources, even ones considered less important. In my field of historical theology, I read many primary sources, focusing on the most influential. Secondary sources cover lesser features and areas outside my primary interest. When drawing from related disciplines, I read a few primary sources but often rely on secondary accounts.

I pursue a “great books” approach to reading. By reading the most influential books of all time, those that have altered the course of social and/or intellectual history, I develop my mind and make other reading easier. Within my field I apply a similar great books approach. I have marked certain theologians – Origen, Augustine, Thomas, Luther, Calvin, and others – that I simply must know intimately. By knowing them, I can quickly grasp the contours of figures and groups influenced by them.

The “great books” approach applies to secondary literature, too. No one can study historical theology without carefully studying the Bible, perhaps in several languages. It is the universal reference point. Harnack’s History of Dogma is a standard in the field; it must be consulted. Underneath Emperor Bible and General Harnack, the various sub-fields have their own governors. For the medieval period, Etienne Gilson is unavoidable. Anyone who gets cited repeatedly on many topics from opposing points of view is probably a governor. If you want to move through their territory, you need their permission.

Finally, scholars need a rigorous environment with a compatible mentor. The best 10 or 20 programs in a given field will produce a disproportionately high number of jobs, particularly the best jobs. Some of that is prestige, but they really do produce superior scholars. Selective programs offer cooperative/competitive environments, funding, and access to resources and opportunities that second-tier programs lack. Since they have invested money in you, they are more committed to your professional success. Nevertheless, your mentor may matter even more than the general quality of the program. He or she is the person who trains you, who fights for you, who makes sure you do in fact survive the program. If he is not that interested in helping you, it’s like learning to swim by being dropped in a lake. You may make it; you may not.

So, the scholar who plays the long game has much to ponder and plan. I listed several components of the long game, but these need to be ordered. I won’t try to delineate an order now, except to say that languages are best pursued sooner than later. The key to making these goals reality is the ability to say no. Say no to the decent to embrace the best. Resist premature specialization. Refuse to take on many projects that don’t match the trajectory of your long game. Remember that it is a long game, and don’t try to rush. Whoever lays the foundation most precisely will in the end build the sturdiest edifice.

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Published in: on March 21, 2011 at 10:20 am  Leave a Comment  
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