Footnotes

Footnotes are consequential.  Let us just grant that for a moment.  They don’t seem to be.  If you are submitting an overly long article to a journal, you can jettison material to notes section. If you are uneasy about a particular point in your argument, you can hide it in your footnotes. And then there’s the damning observation by Noel Coward that “Having to read a footnote resembles having to go downstairs to answer the door while in the midst of making love.” 

Okay, maybe we should say that footnotes can be consquential. 

But you know, some of the most memorable reading I’ve done in my life has been in footnotes. You might think that’s a commentary on a sad life.  But I recall a note in Michael Polanyi’s Personal Knowledge in which he comments that some scientists taught an earthworm to make an intelligent response to a certain stimuli after about 100 repetitions.  I have pondered that footnote late into the night: how did the lab technicians keep at it for a 100 repetitions?  I mean, after 67 times of sticking the probe to the worm’s hind end, wouldn’t you begin to be a little doubtful?  It’s an unforgettable footnote.

One of the reasons I like Polanyi is that I can’t help feeling that Trinity’s his kind of place.  He was a seminal chemist- turned-philospher in the mid twentieth century–and yet today his work is often relegated to footnotes.  I mention his name at conferences, and people’s face lights up: “Oh yes, I read him in grad school!”  But he’s in the footnotes.

Sometimes our work around here feels like a series of footnotes.  Trinity’s not a research one university, if you hadn’t noticed.  In the great, scattered text of academe today, our work here in the Heritage Science Building or in the Jennie Huizenga or in Groot Hall or in the Art and Communication Center, at least from some angles, appears relegatable to the notes section.

But I still say, there’s a sense in which our learning community and footnotes share a remarkable consequentiality.  Think about it: footnotes are very social. More than perhaps any other part of a treatise, they acknowledge that the work of scholarship is preeminently communal–or to use, Polanyi’s word, “convivial.”  And so’s our work around here. We do research together.  That’s why we’re having a Trinity Scholars Dinner this evening; that’s why we’re celebrating the accomplishments of Vander Velde scholars; that’s why Trinity professors keep their office doors open so much; that’s why we have Honor’s Tea on Wednesday afternoons.  I don’t think it’s too much to say that it’s a significant part of what makes Trinity Trinity.  We do the work of teaching and learning, the labor of research and scholarship, together. You could say that we’re too small to balkanize.  We’re too small to set ourselves up in silos.  We’re too small for celebrity.  But I think that it’s probably more adequate to say that our commitment to collaborative scholarship is what makes our work consequential. 

The Reformed tradition has long celebrated two books–the Book of Revelation and the Book of Nature. We explore both of them assiduously in this community.  We are busy adding footnotes to these volumes, you might say. And yet, I think it’s a part of the gospel’s promise that, in a hilarious reversal of usual academic practice, some day our footnotes will be pulled into the main text. Co-laborers with Christ, as our mission statement says–and co-authors, too.

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