Friday, November 24, 2006

SBL Annual Meeting General Reflections

A few random thoughts:

(1) I can't say that I am too keen on the extension of the meeting backwards towards Saturday at 9 a.m. I used to like the slightly more civilized start at 1 p.m., which enabled one to orientate oneself before getting into the fray. I was very rushed on Saturday morning, especially with a breakfast meeting too.

(2) Are the receptions getting a bit out of hand? I mean: are they losing their identity as receptions for a given university or publishing house and becoming instead free-for-all crowded boozing sessions?

(3) There are far too many sections, and too many overlapping sessions. The meeting encourages not just specialization but specialization within a given area. So if you are interested in the Synoptics (already narrow), you have the choice also of Formation of Luke-Acts, Book of Acts, Mark, Matthew, Historical Jesus, Q, and more. I think this tends to encourage specialized audiences, even cliques, in given areas. Each section has too many sessions and there are always huge overlaps. One of the biggest problem in the guild these days is over-specialization and the SBL Annual Meeting reflects and encourages that problem. It is something that requires some thought.

(4) Although the academic quality remains pretty good, the massive number of sections and sessions inevitably has an effect on the quality. I would like to see the meeting becoming more competitive. I was disappointed to hear a senior academic speak about the bar being set far too low for him to speak at the AAR. It would be a great shame if senior scholars came to feel the same way about the SBL.

(5) Is it time to scrap the Tuesday morning sessions? If it is desirable to shrink the meeting (above), perhaps Tuesday morning sessions would be a good way of beginning the pruning process.

(6) The chairing of sessions is, on the whole, very good, but there are still those sessions where presiders have just not thought through the practicalities of how to time a session. You have to be ruthless. In a two-and-a-half hour session with five speakers, it essential to begin on time, and to allow 28/29 minutes maximum for each speaker and out of fairness to each speaker, to make sure that no one part bleeds into another part.

(7) I witnessed more problems with room size this year than in previous years. This may be because section chairs are not estimating the size of their audience well (and it is difficult), or it may be because the estimates are not getting carried through to the organizers.

(8) I heard many superbly presented papers this year, but I also heard a good number that were simply scripts getting very hastily read, with no thought about communication with the audience. I would say that I saw more hand-outs this year than usual too, and that is something I like very much.

(9) All those things aside, it has to be said that the meeting overall is superbly run. Somehow, everything comes together brilliantly and the only difficulties are minor ones. The book exhibit always goes off brilliantly; it is rare for there to be technical difficulties; these huge American convention centres are surpirsingly straightforward to navigate. Overall, the SBL does a fantastic job, and perhaps we only notice the little niggly things because it does such a good job.

Update (Sunday, 19.38): there are some good comments below from Stephen Carlson and Alan Garrow. On reflection, I say let's keep the Tuesday mornings. Ending on Monday will result in the loss of Monday evening, the one night I actually get to do something relaxing!


Stephen C. Carlson said...

Thanks for all these points, Mark.

(1) A lot of people want to check out the book exhibit first thing on Saturday morning. This means that the papers will be less attended and those giving papers are missing out on some popular books that sell out quickly.

(3, 4) My understanding is that the explosions of sections was designed to allow more people to participate. I like that aspect of the change, but one always has to considers the negatives as well as the positives. It may take a couple of years to see if the change is an overall net gain.

(5) If we scrap the Tuesday morning sessions, will the last Monday session then become the rump session? I think more people would go home on Monday night to save one more night's hotel expense.

All in all, however, it was a very good meeting. I enjoyed more of the papers than ever. Next time, I'll try to be less busy, so I can enjoy the experience even more. (I know, I promised that to myself last year!) :-)

Anonymous said...

Speaking as someone coming from abroad, I appreciate the length of the meeting. As someone with a niche interest I'm also glad that micro-sessions are available, although I very much appreciate what Mark has to say about quality. Perhaps one solution would be for some section heads to mark their section out as having a higher bar in some way?! A tangentially related comment ... I heard of a society in medicine which wouldn't allow speakers to return if they read (rather than presented) their papers. If you could garauntee that all papers in the Synoptic session would be presented rather than read, I'd be there every time.