I remembered how my Old Testament professor used to greet us at the start of class with something like “Hello, comrades” or “Hello, fellow scholars.” This occurred back in the time when I was studying towards my MTS degree. Many of us just laughed at the remark, some of us somehow looked perplexed, but for me, I felt very undeserving to be called a scholar. My idea of a scholar then was someone who is an expert in a particular field of study, and someone who has a PhD, a teaching post, a long list of publications, and an established name and track record in the scholarly world. At the time, I thought that, by that definition, I would never be considered or called a scholar, since only a small percentage of the multitude of scholars in every field of discipline will fit into that category.
This old (and wrong) perception of mine, however, has changed in the course of seemingly endless and sophisticated schoolwork and education in graduate school that I have done. And reflecting on what I have learned through all my years in education, particularly during my PhD studies, I offer some ideas of what it means to be a scholar.
First, my old notion of a scholar, the one I mentioned above, is only one of the many dictionary definitions of the term “scholar.” According to a number of dictionary definitions, a “scholar” can be any “learned person” or “student or pupil.” The important thing to note here is that anyone who devotes their time and energy in graduate school to mastering a particular subject matter like the New Testament or sociolinguistics or linguistics, for example, can legitimately be called a scholar. In other words, the term “scholar” would more appropriately refer to what a person does (i.e., one’s job or vocation) than to one’s notoriety (i.e., one’s reputation or acclamations). The former conceptualization helps us understand the real deal (so Luke 17:10); the latter tempts us to become all puffed up. To be sure, because our life circumstances, priorities, background, etc., differ from one another, we cannot define scholarship based on what others think of us, although of course we can determine the stage of our scholarship based on our achievements as we progress—hence the nomenclature “beginning scholar,” “junior scholar,” “senior scholar,” etc.
Secondly, because I take the term “scholar” to refer to one’s job or vocation, it is inevitable for us not to talk about the idea of a good scholar and a bad scholar. I am not trying to pinpoint here who the good and the bad scholars are, and I am certainly not referring to their character or personality. But good scholarship requires a basic set of criteria for it to be considered as of high standard and good quality. Of course these criteria are only my own, and I certainly do not expect everyone to agree with me. I consider it bad scholarship when these essential criteria of good scholarship are not met in one’s scholarship. I will state these in terms of what good scholarship looks like.
- Good scholarship does not simply reuse or revise an old or existing idea, either by rehashing what has already been said or by arguing for what has already been argued, without introducing something new to supplement an old idea or a new methodology to support an old argument.
- Good scholarship makes arguments on the basis of a defined theoretical framework or methodological procedure and not simply on the basis of personal opinion or preference, or simply logical deduction and what might at first appear to be straightforward interpretation of the available facts or information.
- Good scholarship suspends judgment when new arguments, facts, information, and evidence on a particular issue or subject matter are presented, and will re-evaluate its own view and position in light of them.
- Good scholarship gives credit when credit is due and will not claim the credit for itself. This criterion naturally forces good scholars to think and assess critically a particular issue or subject they are interested in.
- Good scholarship always feels a sense of inadequacy, understanding that scholars do not and cannot know everything, and will thus strive for continual progress and improvement.
Thirdly and lastly, I wish to share briefly from my experience in the last four or so years as a graduate student to say why I think of myself as a good scholar. I recently graduated (May 2015) with a PhD in Christian Theology (New Testament), and I therefore see myself as a beginning scholar. I love what I do (i.e., research and writing, editing, and teaching), and this is the reason why I was able to publish articles, essays, and reviews in various venues while working as a graduate assistant, teaching in an adjunct capacity, being involved in a number of extra-curricular academic activities, and completing my degree program (my publications are posted on our blog site to validate what I say here). Now that I have a teaching and editing job, I continue to love what I do. I believe that if we love what we do, this will always be (and may only be, sad to say) the chief motivation that will keep us going as a scholar—but perhaps this should be enough.
— Hughson T. Ong