Tuesday, October 8, 2019

Guest Post: Antonios Finitsis, editor of "Dress and Clothing in the Hebrew Bible"

As a follow-up to my recent post on our regional SBL research group, the mastermind behind our research group and the editor of our project wanted to add a few words. Antonios Finitsis is associate professor of Hebrew Bible at Pacific Lutheran University. Here's what he has to say:

Antonios Finitsis (left) with members of the second research group
 on dress in the Hebrew Bible (Pacific Lutheran University, 2018):
Jennifer Brown Jones, Sara Koenig, Carmen Imes, Shannon Parrott,
and Jenny Matheny (Photo: Brady Alan Beard). Several more
scholars joined us in 2019 for a new round of collaboration.
     Academics, we all love our footnotes, those long litanies of names and sources that are the hallmark of our work. It is a matter of ethics, respect, and attributing credit where credit is due. It is also recognition of the fact that we all stand on the shoulders of giants. Any research is indebted to those you came before and devoted their minds to exploration and discovery. Thus, I would argue, it also an expression of gratitude towards the labor of scholars who shared their findings with us. Citations are indispensable for our work.
     In that spirit, I have to refer to my undergraduate Hebrew Bible professor in the University of Athens: Elias Oikonomou. He was the scholar who introduced me to biblical archaeology and exploded my imagination with his work on biblical ecology. His mind was a spring-source of new concepts and I was often taken by his thoughts. One of them, that apparently had a profound impact on me, was what he called: “collective thinking.” He explained that biblical scholars do most of their work in isolation, however, he believed that working and thinking together could lead to even greater discoveries. Today, I would add that it also leads to even greater gratification and contributes towards better community.
     Our Pacific Northwest research group was conceived on the theoretical basis of what professor Oikonomou called: “collective thinking.” I even likened its workings to a “think-tank” in the call for papers the year that I introduced it to the regional conference. My goal was double. First, I wanted to prove that biblical scholars in our side of the country do great work. Second, I wanted to build community. Higher Education institutions in our region are not as close to one-another as the ones on the East Coast and more importantly we do not have institutionalized annual conferences as they do. The result is a true Wild West loner feeling for all of us. If I were going to do this research group right, I would potentially affect our regional prestige and our sense of community.
     So the call for the Research Group on Clothing went out in 2014 and, as they typically say, the rest is history and in our case it is also a book. All of us who study history though know that nothing simply happens. In our case there are two behind the scenes details that I wish to disclose. First, nothing would have happened if the scholars gathered had not brought their A-game with them. We all worked hard and inspired one another to surpass our expectations. Hence we put forward our book with pure joy and celebration. Then, as Carmen astutely observed above, the academic world is filled with fragile egos and I would add: with bitter feuds. Had that being the case with our research group, history would have been very different right now. The intellectual humility and spirit of generosity that this group of scholars brought and cultivated was unparalleled. I still remember the euphoria we all experienced at the end of our conferences. It was not a feeling anyone could have foreseen or construct artificially. That was a sign of a unique collaboration. Of course, our scholarship will be evaluated on the basis of its quality and we will be delighted to be engaged in dialogue. While the enthusiasm for our findings might fade, the memory of our community will be forever vibrant and energizing.
Thanks, again, Tony, for pouring your energy into this community of scholars and making the Pacific Northwest a truly collaborative place to work!

Friday, October 4, 2019

Our Regional Research Group: A Model for Academic Collaboration

One of the highlights of my academic career thus far has been participating in a unique research group in the Pacific Northwest. When we moved to Oregon in 2014, I discovered that the Hebrew Bible section for our region of the Society of Biblical Literature was engaged in a multi-year research project on clothing. I was in the midst of finishing my doctoral dissertation, which included a study of the garments worn by Israel's high priest, so I proposed a paper that would dive deeper into that topic. My paper proposal was accepted, and I began work on the most rigorous interdisciplinary project I had ever undertaken -- researching the production of dyes and fabrics in ancient times, the styles of clothing worn by the elites in cultures surrounding Israel, the Hebrew terms used for fabrics and colors, and the overall literary structure of the tabernacle instructions in Exodus. I was trying to get at the symbolic significance of Aaron's garments in their literary and cultural contexts.

Research sections of SBL can be quite competitive and critical. If you're lucky enough to have a paper proposal accepted, it can be an isolating experience to present your research among academic peers who then pompously critique it. Once I gave a paper at the national SBL meeting on the history of interpretation of a passage. I had just 20 minutes to survey 3,000 years of interpretive history, and one of the only four people in attendance lit into me for failing to mention Philo. Not everyone is that unfriendly, but the academic world is full of fragile egos, so people sometimes try to protect their turf and climb to the top by making others look stupid. I compensated for my nervousness with the clothing research group by exploring every possible angle of my topic.

I needn't have worried. This research group was entirely different. Thanks to the vision of Antonios Finitsis, the research group on Dress and Clothing in the Hebrew Bible is a warmly collaborative environment involving both junior and senior scholars that enables each member to produce his or her best work.

Here's how it works: Each member commits to attending the group for 2-3 consecutive years. In year one, each participant presents a paper on the topic of clothing in the Hebrew Bible and responds to someone else's paper. All the papers are distributed before the meeting and we all read all the other papers so that feedback can be prepared in advance. Each of us leaves the meeting with valuable suggestions for improvement.

In year 2, we present a revised version of our paper that incorporates the input of our fellow scholars. We also provide a formal response to one of the other revised papers and hear another respondent to our work. Following this second round of feedback, each of us revises our papers again, preparing a final version to be presented in year 3.

The essays are then collected for publication, resulting in a volume that is far more coherent and integrated than the average essay collection. The product of our research, entitled Dress and Clothing in the Hebrew Bible (T&T Clark), was released last month, the culmination of 5 years of scholarly collaboration.

Our group included Ehud Ben Zvi, Scott R. A. Starbuck, Ian D. Wilson, Sean E. Cook, Sara M. Koenig, Joshua Joel Spoelstra, Shawn W. Flynn, and myself. We are a rather eclectic bunch. Though we share an interest in the Hebrew Bible, our group includes people from Jewish, Catholic, mainline Protestant, and Evangelical traditions teaching at a wide range of institutions, from the University of Alberta to Gonzaga to Seattle Pacific to Prairie College. We span an international border, including Americans and Canadians.

I learned so much from my colleagues -- both in their own papers and in their responses to mine. By the end of this project, we have more than just a published volume. We have become friends -- helping each other with rides and housing for regional meetings, offering career advice, and cheering each other on in our work. I am so grateful for Tony's leadership, and thrilled to be participating in a second round of papers with another stellar group of scholars that will become a second volume on this topic. (This time around I'm working on clothing metaphor in imprecatory psalms). This unique approach to collaboration is now attracting scholars from as far away as Ontario, Colorado, and Utah.

Drawing of Pharaoh Seti I with the goddess Maat
at Abydos by Abigail Guthrie (Photo: C Imes)
A special bonus as I worked on the first volume was discovering that my TA, Abigail Guthrie, has quite the talent for drawing. Two of her illustrations made it into the book. Congratulations, Abby, and thanks for your great contribution!