Seminary Ramblings

Updates from life at seminary

When a Narrow Focus Works, and When it Doesn’t

Several posts back I wrote on the irrelevancy of the academy and in particular lamented the fact that humanities professors feel the need to create “sexy” new course offerings in order to generate student interest. What is more, these courses are often very narrow, focusing on a felt-interest that currently resonates with popular culture, such as pirates, gender-issues, and the like. My friend Sonia commented and asked a very helpful question to which I’d like to respond. She wrote:

It sounds like you’re asserting that the humanities have made themselves irrelevant by failing to be accessible. But then, isn’t offering a course on just one aspect of a discipline creating an inroad to the entire study?…….I guess what I’m wondering is, is there a way to make it work with these more trendy spins on classic disciplines?

This is a great question and one to which I’ll respond, though I don’t pretend to have all the answers (I’m just a punk grad student after all). First, the idea that offering a course on one aspect of a discipline can create and inroad to the entire field of study. In short, I totally agree with this sentiment. Some topics (perhaps most topics) are so broad, so vast, that having a more narrow inroad into them can help reduce the risk of being completely overwhelmed. A narrower focus can provide a helpful lens through which to see things and a vantage point from which to view the wider field.

For example (I apologize that all of my examples are history related, but that’s just the field I know!), suppose one wished to study the history of the Middle Ages in Western civilization. If we place an arbitrary time limit on our period, it might cover all the way from 500-1500. That’s 1000 years of history. There’s no easy way to understand that. Understanding the past week is hard enough! Thus, it could certainly prove helpful to focus more narrowly than just “the history of the middle ages.” Rather, one could use, for example, the more narrow lens of the changing institution of the papacy in order to understand this period. This allows for a more narrow subject matter but nevertheless deals with one which is deeply embedded in the history of this entire period. Understanding the shifts from a more monastically-oriented model of the papal office from Gregory the Great in the 6th century until the first half of the 12th century, to a more legal, canon-law oriented focus of the papacy from the mid 12th-century onward invariably ties into wider political, economic, and social changes that were going on in this period of Europe’s history.

Now for the inevitable downsides. What I have issues with is not focusing on narrow topics per se, but when this focus is done in such a way as to exclude all else from the wider field of vision. Thus, if a student were to take a course on the history of cuisine in early modern Italy but learned nothing about the papacy, nothing about the Renaissance and humanism, and so on, this would be tragic. However, because immense specialization is seen as “true scholarship” and because drawing wide historical connections is inevitably harder to defend and seen with suspicion in a postmodern context which is suspicious of all meta-narrative, this is often the case. Thus, professors are often reticent to tie in their more narrow focus with the subject matter more broadly.

Hans Hillerbrand, one of the great scholars of the history of Christianity in our time, writes about the problems of this narrow focus in an address entitled “Church History as Vocation and Moral Discipline,” given to the American Society of Church History in 2001.

A third characteristic of our current enterprise is a tendency toward marginalization. This is a complicated matter, where one can be easily misunderstood. If you survey some of the most impressive work done in recent years, it becomes obvious that a goodly portion has dealt with aspects of Christian marginality, such as popular Fundamentalism, ethnic Catholics, or Native American Christianity. Carlo Ginzburg wrote a splendid exemplar of such micro-history, The Cheese and the Worms: The Cosmos of a Sixteenth Century Miller. No doubt,we have been immensely enriched by some of these studies, especially when they were accompanied, as was the case in Ginzburg’s book, by methodological reflections on how such micro-history is to be placed into a larger context. Still, notwithstanding the protestation that what seems to be marginality is, in fact, addressing major issues, I would suggest that precisely because some of these studies have been so good, our appreciation of addressing larger issues of the Christian past has diminished. The telltale question would seem to be rather simple: has our understanding of sixteenth century popular religion been really enhanced by Ginzburg’s book?

There is the question in summary form: does the narrow focus really enhance our understanding of the broader issues?

Now on to Sonia’s second point, about whether or not there is a way to make trendy spins on classic disciplines work. While I’ve been playing the curmudgeon, in short I believe there is. What I’m against is the market-driven attitude that leads to these courses, but they are not in and of themselves necessarily bad. They are bad when 1. They exclude from their vision the wider field of study, and 2. They so pander to a “relevant” felt-need that they ignore the information and connections that may actually be more significant (like if a student studied the history of animals in WWI and comes out knowing all about how many horses were shipped across the Atlantic but couldn’t give basic details about the life of Kaiser Wilhelm II or the Treaty of Versailles).

Even with that last example which I’m overusing, I am not necessarily opposed to it. I’m only opposed to it at the undergraduate GE level and at the level where students do not actually have the broader knowledge of context into which to place specific pieces of information (and I believe this knowledge of broader context is often assumed to exist where it in fact does not). A history of animals in WWI might make a great topic for a graduate seminar, just not for an undergrad GE.

Alright, before I talk myself in way over my head, we’re going to end this current post. In the next post I’ll offer what I think are some of the ways in which humanities professors can teach their disciplines in a way that galvanizes student interest without necessarily altering their curriculum. I’m also going to (at Sonia’s) request, post a list of the top 10 books that have stayed with me. Be prepared for a disparate group of books!


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