To collaborate or compete? — and a brief update.

Graduate school is starting to hike up the stress.  Part of the stress is not about academics much at all — it’s about the social life.  In E.O. Wilson’s The Social Conquest of Earth, he spends a lot of time talking about the delicate balance between collaboration and competition that any species must engage in to survive.  So every individual organism is focused on perpetuating its genes, helping its family survive.

Thinking about this delicate balance is helping me understand graduate school a lot better.  In seminar we are supposed to appreciate the differing backgrounds of our colleagues.  I feel this strongly in my rabbinic literature class.  The class is housed at the Center for Jewish Studies, and most of the students are in the Jewish Studies program, with only two of us in biblical studies.  So I learn a lot from the other students in the class, because many of them are thinking about Jewish life today or applying this to their studies of modern Judaism.  It means I do not always get the conversations going on, but I much prefer learning about rabbinics in this way than from a Christian professor with a bunch of Christian students.

Still, even though I appreciate what I learn from colleagues, I also feel pressure to compete, to make intelligent points and impress the professor and our fellow students.  We can’t only listen and appreciate.  We must critique and, to a certain extent, self-promote.  Finding that balance is hard.  You want to come off as competent but not an asshole.

I’m finding that the solution to this is just knowing my strengths and weaknesses.  This is very different from being an undergraduate.  As an undergraduate, we are bigger fish in smaller ponds, and being “the best” in our department or major is actually an attainable goal.  As graduate students, we are not supposed to be “the best.”  If we try, we burn out, or become insufferable assholes who mansplain other peoples’ areas of expertise to them because we think we know everything.

Rather, we are supposed to be the best at what we want to be.

Let me explain that.

Nobody can do everything.  Even in a field as specialized as biblical studies, nobody understands everything.  We build niches.  Early on in our careers, we are siphoned off into Hebrew Bible or New Testament.  Then we are trained in particular methodologies: text-criticism, linguistics, archaeology, literary criticism, historical study, etc.  If one goes outside studying the biblical texts themselves, you can get into the worlds of Second Temple Jewish literature (including Dead Sea Scrolls), apocryphal early Christian literature (e.g. Gnostics), rabbinic literature, reception studies, and then the many contemporary methodologies such as feminist criticism, postcolonial criticism, etc.  Though most who become professors will have to be able to teach these things, nobody knows them well enough to publish in all of them.  (This is not to say that scholars don’t develop new areas of expertise over the course of their career. Many do.  One of my professors was trained in Hebrew Bible and became a Darwin scholar mid-career.  That’s a bit of a leap, but you get the idea.)

Right now I am focused on connections between the Bible and Qur’an.  I am not hoping to focus on either Hebrew Bible or New Testament because I hope to know both well enough to work with them.  But this does mean I don’t need to become an expert in Leviticus, or master literary criticism of biblical narratives, to name some things my fellow students specialize in.  I can turn to them when I have questions on these things.  That’s a freeing thought: I don’t have to do everything!

But knowing what direction I want to move into, and knowing my strengths and weaknesses, does mean I have to become an expert in things my fellow students don’t.  Like learning Arabic.  (Yikes.)  And learning the language and literature of Syriac Christians.  And Islamic traditions of tafsir, Qur’an exegesis.  These are all things I know only a little about.  (Double yikes.)

So in the first month of graduate school, I really am finding it’s a different game.  It’s not about being the best.  It’s about knowing what you want to do and focusing on doing that the best that you can.  And when you know what are you good at, what you are an expert in, and what you not good at or knowledgeable in, means that you can engage in that dynamic dance of collaboration and competition, of being both humble enough to learn from colleagues and competent enough that you have something to teach them too.  That is not a model I understood as an undergraduate (which likely says more about me than about my mentors).


In other news, I have gone twice now to the Muslim Community Association, the mosque near my apartment.  I really like the vibe of the community.  When I went there the first time two weekends ago, for an educational event on Islamophobia, I felt a strong sense of calling to that community.  I’m hoping to go back and learn from them.  I want my studies to be rooted in a real dialogue with real people about what texts mean today, not just a classroom exercise.


This weekend I’m headed to the Parliament of World Religions in Salt Lake City.  Wow.  Then I come back home for two days and immediately head out on a family trip with my mom.  Thankfully we GTU students get a week off late October for reading week, so I can go on this trip and only miss two days of school.  It’ll be interesting balancing the relaxation of a family trip with the anti-relaxation of impending paper deadlines.





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