On Being a Dilettante

By September 4, 2009

The need of specialization has the drawback of limiting the scope of one’s work. As I’ve stumbled through the study of history, this has often been a frustration; the academic study of history is quite focussed. This is needed to gain the expertise one needs in historical writing, but as Richard Fletcher says in preface to his The Barbarian Conversion “Professional historians today are expected to know more and more about less and less.”

So when I got to UCSB, I joyfully inserted myself into their “Christian Traditions” track and am now doing exam readings on the history of Christianity and in so doing I’m finding myself in increasingly unfamiliar territory: from Reformation, to medieval, to early Christianity. So I ask myself several questions: is there a way to balance depth and breadth? and how do the specialists feel about “outsiders” treading on their territory (me writing about early Christianity or vice versa)?

Article filed under Methodology, Academic Issues Reflective Posts


  1. I have found that managing depth and breadth just takes practice–and I find that I get lots of that practice in my preparations for teaching. As to your other question, generally, I have found that what any scholar cares about is the quality of the work. If you are seen to be well-grounded in their literature and conversant with the theoretical, methodological, and historiographical concerns of the day then there is typically not much in the way of bias toward “outsiders.” This isn’t always the case, but in my experience it is generally true. Oh, one HUGE exception to this is when a scholar who is either younger than most or from an outside field or both attempts to get snarky and aggressive. That is often not too well received.

    Comment by SC Taysom — September 4, 2009 @ 3:52 pm

  2. Specialization certainly has its good fruits, but like you, Steve, I feel hesitant to focus myself so exclusively. It seems that at least two of the most important emphases of liberal education, holism and integration, are lost with a specialized academy. While there is ever more material out there, who but a dilettante, I wonder, will help us understand how and if it all relates together?

    Comment by Ryan T — September 4, 2009 @ 4:25 pm

  3. I agree with SC that teaching prep is a great way to familiarize yourself with important literature and ideas that don’t necessarily fall within your area of immediate expertise.

    Comment by David G. — September 4, 2009 @ 4:55 pm

  4. Thanks SC. I perhaps have been a little aggressive at times. I just got slammed by reviewers on an article where I was crossing disciplinary lines. It was a little aggressive and “not too well received.” Good to keep in mind in the future.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — September 4, 2009 @ 9:44 pm

  5. It happens to be all the time. I was speaking from experience!

    Comment by SC Taysom — September 5, 2009 @ 8:35 am

  6. Ryan, “how and if it all relates” is what I’m after but I have to wander through all sorts of areas in which I do not have expertise. This makes me very dependent on those with the greater expertise.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — September 5, 2009 @ 12:38 pm


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