Monday, October 12, 2009

Biblical Studies at The University of Sheffield (or not, whatever)

Thank you to everyone who has sent me e-mails over the last week or so regarding the news that The University of Sheffield[.] is considering closing the undergraduate wing of the Biblical Studies department, a move that most (quite rightly) suspect would result in the end of biblical scholarship at Sheffield. The news was published on 8 Oct on the Students' Union website (via Education Officer Holly Taylor's blog). Subsequently, support for the department has exploded, with Jim West (posts available here), Mark Goodacre, Doug Chaplin, and many others following events and commentary. There is also a Facebook group and a website for those interested.

I have waited to comment on the situation in part because I'm really not sure what's going on and in part because I don't have access to the most reliable information. My opinions, therefore, are based less on solid facts and more on my impressions and observations from living and working in the department for over two years and with continued work in the department for an additional two-and-a-half years. Even so, the Bibs department has been the University's neglected step-child for some time, from a general lack of support for replacing faculty to a general view of the physical space inhabited by the Bibs department (on the 11th floor of the Arts Tower) as expansion potential for the Philosophy department (on the 12th floor). The department, admittedly, hasn't maximized the use of its space, but that problem could have been addressed without threatening the department as whole.

Despite all of this, the Biblical Studies department at The University of Sheffield[.] has a worldwide reputation and is a leading institution in terms of defining and embodying biblical scholarship. Its RAE scores attest the quality scholarship fostered by the department's faculty, to say nothing of the work put out by its graduates (myself included). Unlike many (most?) other theology and/or religion departments across the UK, the Bibs department is not religiously affiliated, and this has been the source of some criticism from circles to which I belong. But in my experience, this world-renowned, unaffiliated department was a welcoming, nurturing, and stimulating environment for biblical scholarship even for a conservative, confessional scholar such as I am. Sheffield is a truly unique place to pursue biblical scholarship, and the loss of the Biblical Studies department would be a loss both to The University and to professional biblical research.


clk said...

Thanks for chiming in here, Rafael. I've been wondering what you might have to say. Interestingly, in all the blog discussions there is quite a bit about the dept. and its reputation, faculty, students, etc., and rightly so. Given that I'm not a Sheffield product but know several who are, including one of our common main influences, I've tended to be concerned about all this along the lines of the field of NT scholarship. Reaching back to FF Bruce, Sheffield has had an important role to play in the larger field, and I can't help feeling that biblical scholarship as a whole will be much more monotonous and outright bland without the Sheffield effect. It strikes me that the University itself really has no concept of how important the Bibs dept. is to its overall branding in academics, as there are whole slews of scholarship who know nothing of the University other than the press (RIP...welcome the Phoenix) and that dept.

Rafael said...

I think you're right about the Uni as a whole being fairly clueless. It strikes me that a whole lot of biblical scholarship is associated with Sheffield by virtue of Sheffield Academic Press and its legacy (including now Sheffield Phoenix). The irony is that the Uni had nothing to do with SAP, as I understand it. But they've definitely benefited from its legacy, and now they appear on the verge of discounting and losing that benefit. It's all a shame.

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