The recent article on the SBL forum by Michael Bird and Craig Keener, “Jack of All Trades and Master of None: The Case for “Generalist” Scholars in Biblical Scholarship,” brings up an important point that graduate student really need to contemplate. Many PhD programs seem to encourage students toward sharply focused specialization. Students then try to pick a niche and often it is perceived that the more obscure the area the better. This is certainly not a bad thing. However, we also need generalists who are able to assimilate data and perspectives into a coherent and accurate big picture.
Not only does the field and the general public need good quality big picture presentations, but having the capability to teach a wide variety of courses is very beneficial for employment purposes. Only the very big research institutions are going to want to hire someone with an incredibly focused niche who is not able to also provide general presentations of the wider field(s). For example, my specialty is clearly Old Testament and Mesopotamia (this already is pretty general since one can specialize just in one biblical book or one genre of literature within Cuneiform studies) but I talked with a school about a position that they were looking to fill and they wanted someone who could teach not only Old Testament but New Testament and even Eastern religions. This was way too far outside of my abilities and interests (I am interested in the Jesus Festschrift as Jim Getz calls it but I wouldn’t be able to teach a class on Eastern religions without a lot of prep work and it wouldn’t be very exciting for me) but it showed me that all but about 5 schools in the country really care about Neo-Sumerian (this same school told me, “So what? You know Ugaritic, Akkadian, and Sumerian–we only teach biblical Hebrew one semester every other year IF there is student demand for it. Have you ever taught an Old Testament survey course; now that’s what we’re looking for.”).
So, I’m in praise of the Generalist since I consider myself to be one (with one or two little specialties). What are your thoughts?