A couple of years ago, I wrote a post on Surviving SBL. It was in response to a request from Sean Winter who was, at that time, a newcomer to the meeting. This year I have had a couple more requests for my own tips about surviving the meeting, so I thought I would revisit and revise the original post, but now under the heading "enjoying" rather than "surviving" SBL. I am one of those for whom SBL is both duty and joy.
(1) Beer and Good Company: Find people you like spending time with (and who like spending time with you, I suppose!) and your experience will be ten times more enjoyable than otherwise. I have heard some people say that they find the SBL a bit of a maze and rather overwhelming. I have never found that, and perhaps because I have been lucky enough to spend time with people whose company I greatly enjoy. The intellectual stimulation will often come more from those small gatherings with friends over a beer than it will at the sessions.
(2) Choose Sessions Carefully: Don't be over ambitious about how many sessions you can get to. I used to treat the SBL a bit like the way I used to treat the Christmas Radio Times and TV Times when I was a child. I used to fill every moment in the day with telly, allowing just little slots for five or ten minute "breaks" in viewing. SBL sessions, though sometimes enjoyable, are no Christmas TV, and you can get conferenced out.
(3) Be a Tart: Don't feel obliged to stay for the whole of each two-and-a-half hour session that you go to. Several times I've got stuck in the world's most boring papers by accident because I was interested in the paper just before it or just after it. Once, I attended a paper in a packed room, over 100 or so in the audience, but I did not make a sharp enough exit when it had finished. I got stuck listening to the next paper with four other people and felt so sorry for the guy presenting that I felt obliged to stay and feign interest. Unlike the British New Testament Conference, where one is encouraged to be loyal to one seminar throughout the conference, you are allowed to be a complete tart at the SBL.
(4) Burning the Candle at Both Ends: Try not to burn the candle at both ends, socializing until late and then getting up before the crack of dawn for a breakfast meeting. I am talking to myself here. I walk round the SBL perpetually exhausted because I don't have the discipline to go to bed early when I have to be up early. Every year I tell myself not to arrange breakfast meetings, or get invited to them; every year I end up with breakfast meetings each day. I've done it again. Bummer.
(5) Budget beating breakfast buffets: To develop some advice from an older blog post, here's a tip for those at SBL on a budget: get to one of those great American breakfast buffets and eat to your heart's content. Don't be put off by earnest looking professor types who only visit the buffet once. Keep going for as long as you can. Eat so much that you won't want lunch. You can then make it through to the evening when you'll be just peckish enough to enjoy something else. In fact you might even be invited to one of those evening receptions where there is a lot of food. On days like that, you have only had to buy breakfast and the budget is looking healthier than it might have been.
Birmingham never gave me enough to travel, and so troughing my face at breakfast was my standard survival strategy. And the American breakfast buffets are great, though for Brits it can be a little off-putting to see Americans putting their fruit on the same plate as their sausage and bacon, or worse, putting corn syrup on their scrambled egg. So Brits abroad may need to avert their eyes. There is also an unappetizing pastey coloured concoction called "grits", which is to be avoided.
(6) Getting to Receptions: Receptions are a great way of meeting people, and can be fun. They are held by publishers, universities and others and are often generous in their invitations, and it is good, once again, to be a tart. There are signs, though, that the seven years of plenty may be coming to an end. This is the first SBL meeting since the split with AAR, the credit crunch is biting and universities and publishers are all feeling the squeeze. Several publishers no longer hold receptions and several universities have pulled the plug too. My guess is that there we will some cash bars instead of free bars, and less food at the receptions that remain.
(7) Presenting Papers: Regular readers will know that I have outspoken views on this topic, but I continue to be amazed by the lack of investment that many make in presenting their papers. The gist of my concern is this: far too many people simply read their paper out verbatim at SBL sessions in the most inarticulate way imaginable, often with no attempt to communicating with the audience. A particular problem is speed-reading. People write their fifteen page screed and have a bloody-minded determination to read through the whole lot if it kills them, whether or not it fits into the time. This is a particular problem with graduate student papers, and it is related to nerves. My advice: practise your paper beforehand and think about issues like pausing, breathing, adding light and shade and varying your intonation. I never cease to be amazed, though, to see seasoned scholars completely unable to time a paper, selfishly praying on the good will of the chair and the other presenters. This is really elementary stuff -- overrunning on a paper is egotistical and unprofessional. If you are chairing a session, be ruthless -- the presenter who is unable to time their own paper does not deserve your compassion. I feel like having a longer rant on this, but perhaps I'll save it for my conference thoughts.
(8) Seeing the city: It is very easy to spend several days in a city and not see the city. It's really worth taking some time out to see the city, especially a city as fine as Boston. Too many of my SBL memories merge into one because I spent 95% of my time on the inside of hotels and convention centres. Actually, my hope this year is that I might bump into Doctor Who. Meeting in the same city and at the same time this year is the New England Fan Experience, at which Peter Davison (the fifth doctor) is a special guest. It would make my day to meet him.