What the heck is a scholarly dilettante? Isn’t that a contradiction in terms? Not really. Allow me to explain.
I’ve been playing the violin since I was seven. When I was 15, I switched to a new teacher, Mr Gordon. I overheard my mother talking on the phone making the arrangements with him. He must have asked, “Is she a serious musician?” because my mother’s answer was, “No, she’s a dilettante.” My first reaction was indignation—“who’s she calling a dilettante?” But immediately I realized that she was in fact correct—I was a dilettante. I didn’t intend to make music my career; I wasn’t planning to be a music major in college; I didn’t practice for hours every day; I just did it for fun. Definitely a dilettante. I guess Mr Gordon didn’t care; I studied with him for several years; I continue to play the violin and viola to this day.
Recently I’ve been thinking about the exchange I overheard between my mother and Mr Gordon, and I’ve come to realize not just that I am a dilettante, but that I should not be ashamed of it. In fact, I should be proud of it. Because the original meaning of the word “dilettante” isn’t someone who’s unserious or untalented or superficial or a dabbler. “Dilettante” comes from the Italian verb dilettare, which means “to take delight in.” That attitude describes not just the way I approach my violin playing but also many other activities, including my professional life.
It may sound strange to hear a professional historian describe herself as a dilettante, especially since a related word, “amateur,” is often taken as the opposite of professional. But just as the etymology of “dilettante” is “delight,” the etymology of “amateur,” from French this time, is “lover”—an amateur is someone who does something for the love of it. So while I’m definitely a professional historian—I have a PhD; I am a tenured full professor at a university, which pays me; I give papers at academic conferences and publish articles in peer-reviewed journals;—I love what I do and take delight in it. (Well, maybe except for grading. And meetings.)
Furthermore, being a dilettante doesn’t only mean you can take delight in what you do for a living, your profession. It also means you can take seriously what you do for fun, as an amateur. I’m an amateur musician, but I took a year of music theory at our local community college. Every summer for about the last ten years I’ve attended a weeklong workshop on violin technique. Several years ago I began taking piano lessons, also at the community college. I take them for college credit, partly because it’s slightly cheaper than the non-credit option but mostly because it is more demanding. As a requirement for the course I have to attend performance classes where the other college students and I play for each other and get feedback from a faculty member; I’m also required to play before a jury of faculty every semester. I don’t need the credits; I don’t care about the grade (although I do have a 4.0). I do it this way because it’s a greater opportunity for learning.
I plan to use this blog to explore in a scholarly way the things I take delight in. That will include historical topics, of course, especially from the eras I teach (ancient Greece and Rome and the Middle Ages primarily, but also modern Europe), as well as musical ones and any others that take my fancy. I would be delighted for you to join me in these explorations.