On Scholarly Conduct

By Mark Goodacre
Associate Professor of Religion
Duke University
July 2009

With the sad death of Graham Stanton last week, the world of Biblical Scholarship lost a fine scholar, whose work on the Gospels, and especially Matthew, has been read by everyone serious about studying the New Testament. Yet one of his enduring legacies, and one of the features consistently underlined in the tributes and obituaries, was his example of how to interact with others. Graham Stanton was unfailingly kind and generous. He was no lover of rank and position. When you first met him, he was genuinely pleased to make your acquaintance. When he talked to you, he would make you feel special. His humility was such that he would always listen with interest to the opinions you had.

Now I did not know Graham Stanton very well. I was not lucky enough to have him as a teacher, let alone a colleague, and our paths crossed only occasionally, usually at academic conferences. But that of course illustrates the point. The fact that he was always so gracious and kind to someone he hardly knew says a lot about the way that he interacted with others in the guild, at whatever stage they were in their careers.

One of the sad facts about reflecting on Stanton's death is that the kindness he showed in his human interactions is actually too rare in the academic life. Many graduate students and young scholars will have had the experience of getting snubbed by academics at conferences. As a young scholar, I once found myself sitting, not by choice, next to a senior academic on an afternoon trip at a conference. It was the height of summer, and we were all a bit hot and bothered, but this academic would not talk to me. I introduced myself, asked questions, but received only monosyllabic answers or silence.

I remember at another conference chatting to a publisher who was feeling exasperated after having met with one of their authors who had been rude and unpleasant for no other reason than, apparently, to throw his weight around. I expressed amazement that an author would try so little to forge a good relationship with their own publisher. Perhaps they were used to bullying at school and had not yet grown out of it?

I sometimes wonder whether the inability to be civil on such occasions arises from the adversarial nature of some scholarship. When we write, it is often in the nature of the topic at hand that we have to be robust in argument against a particular position. Perhaps we forget that there is a difference between rigorous intellectual exchange of ideas and the failure to be civil. After all, Graham Stanton himself could be pretty fervent in his criticism of opposing viewpoints in print, but he knew the difference between forging a strong academic argument and conducting pleasant interpersonal relations.

There is actually a pay off for scholarship in attempting to improve our behaviour when with one another. It helps us to keep our scholarship honest. If, when writing, we imagine ourselves socializing with the scholar we are writing about, it can help us to craft arguments that are based on fair readings of the evidence, and reasoned understanding of our opponent's position. It means that the demon of ad hominem is less likely to rear its head. I know that I have learnt from having to face individuals whose books I have reviewed negatively, and one of the great blessings of having a blog is that the people being discussed might actually read it and react to it.

Of course it might be said that several of the great scholars were polemical, hard-hitting, even unpleasant in their prose, but on these occasions their scholarship was great in spite of and not because of their manner. And in any case, polemics among the giants hardly provide a good model for young scholars to emulate.

This is not to complain, though, but to celebrate. Those who have been most influential in our careers are regularly those whose interpersonal relationships are as admirable as their scholarship. The academic life is often characterized by glorious isolation, but it is at its best when it is open, collaborative and intellectually stimulating. Perhaps more than anything else, conducting ourselves in a positive manner in public might help us to have the humility to admit that from time to time, mē genoito, we might be wrong.

Mark Goodacre is Associate Professor of Religion at Duke University and the editor of the New Testament Gateway (http://NTGateway.com). You can read his NT Blog at http://ntweblog.blogspot.com or listen to his podcast, the NT Pod, at http://podacre.

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