Nothing New Under the Sun

Mark Goodacre has a post up today called The Scholar’s Scalpel in which he shares this quote by Michael Goulder:

With a fine enough scalpel, everything is unique.

This is a fantastic quote and it comes on the same day as Jim West posts his The Problem With Young Scholars: An Observation, in which he says

The problem with young scholars is that they believe they’ve seen things no one else has ever noticed and observed things no one else has ever observed. Thereby betraying their unfamiliarity with both the work of their forebears and the Solomonic truth that there is nothing new under the sun.

Their forgetfulness/hubris leads them to a tragic sense of self-importance and a paralysis of humility.

Both quotes are, in my opinion, spot on. However, as a masters student who is sending in applications to PhD programs this fall I sense a mixed message from the academic community. I have struggled for the past two years to come up with an original topic/idea for my thesis in vain. I have recently settled on one that I am very happy with and it is an area that I have not seen much work done on before, but I still know it is not original. Yet, the message seems to be that when applying to PhD programs one must show their previous work and what it adds to the field (i.e. originality) and how they intend to further their work by yet again adding to the field (i.e. continuing on this path of originality). Now I do understand that many additions to the field are not necessarily original, rather they are re-emergences of texts/facts/etc. or are different methodologies (i.e. applying literary criticism to the study of the gospels). Nevertheless, the expectation still seems to remain for successful PhD candidates and other young scholars to find something original, whether that expectation is stated or not.

What is a young scholar to do then? I do not fully know the answer, but I do know that my planned path is to continue to learn as much from others as possible (i.e. reading scholarly works in my field and reading biblioblogs by the likes of Mark Goodacre and Jim West) while continuing to present my absolute best work in my thesis and make sure that the work I present does not merely “prove” my preconceived notions, but rather takes as much into account as possible so that learning will actually be a result of my work, both that I would learn and others would as well, and that in the end the field may be advanced ever so slightly.

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4 thoughts on “Nothing New Under the Sun

  1. [I’ll focus on the question of dissertation topics, as that is where one most sees the problems identified by Jim and Mark.]

    Originality as a concept or as an academic goal is greatly overvalued. My experience is that a good thesis does not have to be a bolt-of-lightning epiphany. It may provide an elegant articulation of a particular set of issues, or a more complete investigation of a particular alley that hasn’t been done yet.

    Your example of new methodologies is near to my heart, as that is basically what I did in coordinating literary and ritual studies methodologies (just well enough to realize why this is hard to do, which is a contribution to the field in its own way as well).

    The best dissertations are ones where I think, “Hey with enough time I could have written this but I don’t really want to, and I’m glad someone has done it for me.”

    One last quote that was common in my program at Princeton: the best dissertation is a finished dissertation.

  2. “Behold, I am making all things new.” (Or “I make all things new,” … I don’t know Greek)

    I like to think that statement is always true–a perpetual prophecy, if you will. Once things are made new, they are still to be made new … again and again and again.

    With new technologies, we have new experiences and, hence, new understandings and interpretations. With the ever-increasing “posts” (especially post-colonialism), individual and corporate experiences change, creating, again, new understandings and new interpretations.

    I like to think innovation will always exist. Qoheleth was frustrated–and rightly so, since many experiences are similar and we humans tend towards repetition (or simply ignorance of something someone already said). Controversy surrounding abortion, homosexuality, ecology, and stem-cell research may have many similarities to controversies in Qoheleth’s time, but I cannot say they are the same–or even the same thing presented differently.

    There’s Trevar’s two cents while putting off going to the library to look at Gesenius … or work on his thesis … or study Greek and Hebrew vocab words. 🙂

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