Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Interview: On Christian Scholarship (and Teaching)

One of my students, Jasmine Wilson, is a program assistant for our "Honors Floor" here at Calvin College--a "living-learning" community in one of the dorms. I've known Jasmine since before she arrived at Calvin: we corresponded when she was a student at a classical high school in Oregon and was already reading my work and stuff by Stanley Hauerwas and others. So it was a treat to have Jasmine come to Calvin and to watch her develop. (She blogs a bit over at The Other Journal.)

As part of one of her courses on Christian scholarship, Jasmine interviewed me about the vocation of being a Christian scholar, which also morphed into a conversation about the overlap between scholarship and teaching. Some might be interested to read the interview.

Here's a snippet:
JW: Because you are so interdisciplinary in some ways, the big thing at the January Series was that your work is, “at the borderlands between philosophy and theology, ethics, aesthetics, science, and politics.”

Jamie Smith: Which, by the way, just kind of means I’m a dilettante. (laugh)

JW: So how do you think that affects your work? Do you see that as beneficial to be in so many different ponds in a way? [If I were to re-ask this question I don’t think I would use the term “beneficial”].

Jamie Smith: I think it’s necessary for somebody to be doing that. Whether it’s beneficial… well I am grateful that my scholarly formation was in a discipline. And it’s really in philosophy, although I think I could hang with about anybody who had a theology PhD as well to some degree. And actually my PhD program, I was able to do a little bit of cross disciplinary work, so I was able to take courses in the theology department and I had theologians on my dissertation committee. So I’m grateful that I did learn to dot my I’s and cross my T’s within a philosophical discipline.

And that it was philosophy is exactly what enabled me to be able to lean out and start to absorb what’s going on in other discourses. That will sound really snobby, but to be honest, I think because philosophers ask the most foundational questions they’re also able to discern the sort of foundational issues in other disciplines. I don’t think that necessarily works for other disciplines.

The problem with the multi-disciplinary stuff is there aren’t clear lines of accountability for your work anymore. So in philosophy you submit to peer review in the discipline. For this kind of work, who would be the peers that you would be reviewed by? So increasingly what happens is the arena of evaluation is how it’s received. And that makes me nervous a little bit. I think it especially makes specialists nervous. I view interdisciplinary work as a kind of necessary evil (chuckle). I think the nature of the sort of things we’re grappling with requires us to do that.