“There is no honor in handbooks,” or is there?

By Cathy Gutierrez

Achilles may have measured his kleos—his fame—through both noble and treacherous displays of bravery on the battlefield, but for modern day academics I think it can be measured in the degree of one’s handbook ennui.  Being asked to contribute to a handbook is a welcome recognition that one is known as a sane and reliable commentator in a certain field, that one can be trusted to distill the most important aspects of a religion or movement, and that one can write in an accessible manner.  Masters of Derridean wordplay are not the intended audience of fat volumes of historical greatest hits.

But the sheer success of handbooks—Oxford and Cambridge Companions, Brill Handbooks, Routledge, and the more pedagogically oriented journal Religion Compass to name the most famous—is creating some repetition that is showing signs of wear.  This past summer I was out to dinner with friends some of whom were suffering major handbook burnout:  “Oh I know, don’t you just dread that email?  Not another handbook!”  I know, many young academics would love to become that jaded.  But handbooks are proliferating like little hardbound bunnies and once you are in the club it is difficult to bow out.

I understand that most of us have been taught that we should be publishing original theses, perhaps even arcane or difficult ones, as a sign of intellectual prowess.  And I understand that writing the basic design scheme of a movement in 8000 words gets, well, a little dull to do over and over again.  But who is the audience here and what do they need to know?  The audience for a handbook is foremost my students: a majority of the time when a student has an as-yet inchoate interest in a period or topic, I will send her to a handbook.   The email goes something like this: “I am delighted that you are interested in this fantastic topic but alas, Medieval mysticism bites off more than one can adequately chew in ten pages.  Please consult the such-and-thus handbook to see what current scholarship has identified as the most important aspects of and historical junctures for that.  When you have narrowed that down then we can talk about articles and monographs on a more manageable paper topic.  (p.s.  Enjoy the leper licking!)”

The other major consumer of handbooks is me.  Not me exclusively, but the collective we I should surmise.  I teach at a very small school with few professors and a broad range of subjects we want our students to know something about.  If I need to do a day, a week, or a semester on something that I have little formal training in, a handbook is the perfect primer.  Renaissance law, Athenian education, or charismatic religions in Africa, in a handbook I can see the lay of the land and the major players (both historical and scholarly) in one stop.  I love the gazillion databases my library allows me to consult anywhere in the world but they are more helpful when I already know roughly what I am looking for.

Handbooks seem to be the academy’s response to the information overload of the current world.  They are trusted, vetted, peer-reviewed, but designed for a general audience who needs to know what is most important about a given subject.  More trustworthy than Google, less sexy than journals, and yes, a bit repetitive.   And if they are not a strictly scholarly endeavor, in that one doesn’t argue a daring and original point, they are at least a needed teacherly one.  And in this day when information overload is no longer a problem sequestered in the usually unreliable web but comes standard in a database search, they seem to be a necessary compromise that we should read, refer students to, and write, with some cheer knowing that handbooks help keep intellectual chaos at bay.

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One Response to “There is no honor in handbooks,” or is there?

  1. Philip L. Tite says:

    Hi Cathy,

    Thanks for this wonderful post. I have little to add to it, except a brief comment on the proliferation of handbooks (and similar works) that you noted. Having worked in publishing, I noted that a major motivation a press has for reference or textbook type resources is simply that they make money. Not only are they major cash cows on first printing, but later editions and alternative editions, such as online resources, are more readily possible than with a technical academic monograph (which has limited market value). Of course, they are not only valuable commercially, but make valuable contributions to the field (especially pedagogically). I do think that real scholarship can occur in a good handbook, though usually in the process of the direction advanced through the synthesis of detailed scholarship as well as the (re-)perception of a field of study offered by the handbook (I think of the Guide to the Study of Religion, e.g.). Again, thanks for post!

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