Saturday, November 24, 2007

SBL Assorted Reflections

A few thoughts about the SBL Annual Meeting:

(1) It's nice to see Duane Smith joining my campaign to have more people making presentations rather than reading out manuscripts (see Abnormal Interests). As some readers may remember, this has been something of a theme here. I am still baffled by the academic habit of reading out papers at conferences. If one is going to read out a paper, one may as well distribute it in advance. I realize that there is some risk and some additional nerves inevitable in a presentation as opposed to reading-a-paper-out-loud, but the risks are worth taking, not least given the fact that one's audience will usually be forgiving if one makes a mistake. I made a much better job of my first presentation (in CARG) than my second (in the Q Section) this year and I think the difference was down to two things: (a) the nature of the audience and (b) the nature of the presentation. My Q section presentation was somewhat thick with facts and figures, and in retrospect, I think I should have added a powerpoint, or at least made my handout more detailed. I suspect, too, that I was overprepared for the Q section -- I had spent so much time on it that I was brim full of things I wanted to share and did not have time for.

(2) The chairing of sessions: this is another standard complaint. While many sessions are chaired very well indeed, there are always sessions where the chair does not seem to understand about how to organise timing. Timing at SBL meetings is particularly important because there are usually several speakers in a limited time slot. If one goes over by 10 minutes, that is 10 minutes less for everyone else; if the second person goes over by 10 minutes, that is 20 minutes less for the remainder , and so on. It's a very straightforward principle and once again, I can't understand why people allow this to happen because it is unfair on some of the speakers. Perhaps one should add that it is also the speakers' responsibility to time themselves properly. If you know that you have 20 minutes, speak for 20 minutes, not 25, or 30. It is selfish to use someone else's time, and no one will be pleased with you.

The relationship between (1) and (2) is an interesting one too. If one has written out a paper that one intends to read out loud, why would one not practise the paper to see how long it takes to read out loud?

(3) Another paper-reading issue: please avoid speed-reading. Take a long, deep breath at regular intervals and take your time. If you are conscious that you have too much material, don't try to squeeze 30 minutes of material into 20 minutes by reading quickly. Cut 10 minutes of material out. This is a particular concern for international attendees. It is much harder to understand a speed-read paper in a second language.

(4) On Blue Cord, Kevin Wilson has several excellent pieces of advice about reading a paper, including avoiding "air quotes", avoiding using abbreviations out loud, avoiding apologizing for your paper by insisting that it is part of a larger research project and so on. On the latter I would always be inclined to avoid "Time does not permit me to . . ." comments. Of course you don't have time to say everything relevant to the topic, so avoid apologizing for the obvious.

(5) I think there are too many sessions, and far too many overlapping sessions. Do we really need to have a Synoptics section as well as a Mark Group, a Matthew section, Luke-Acts consultation, an Acts section, a Q section, a Historical Jesus section, Johannine Literature, John, Jesus and History and so on? Perhaps the single biggest problem in the guild at the moment is over-specialisation and the failure to think across boundaries and at the SBL we are encouraging a high degree of specialisation. I would like to see the SBL organisation taking some time to think through these issues. If the quality of the papers at each of these were overwhelming, then well and good. But as we all know, the quality tends to be mixed.

(6) In relation to the previous point, I think the conference is too long, and it appears to be getting longer. I don't think we need sessions on Saturday morning at 9, when we are just beginning to orientate ourselves, and have multiple early morning meetings that make it impossible to get to them. And the Tuesday morning sessions are so badly attended that there is little point continuing with these, is there? One might add that there appear to be ever more evening sessions now. On several occasions at the meeting, I suggested meeting someone at an evening reception, and heard, "Oh, I'm going to the John and History section at that time", and so on.

(7) This one is the most important of all, and if I could make only one comment, this would be it. A massive thank you to the organisers of the SBL Annual Meeting, who do a fantastic job. The conference always goes incredibly smoothly, the organisers are on top of all the issues, they are unfailingly polite and helpful and I am lost in wonder at how they manage to pull it all together. Very many thanks.


James F. McGrath said...

I unfortunately was unable to make it to SBL this year, and so I really appreciated the posts about it that you and others offered. Thank you!

One thought I had when reading your post was that, if more people did 'presentations' as opposed to reading papers, it might make the issue of time more acute. Then again, I don't think I've ever had a paper take exactly the same amount of time to read as it did when I practiced it beforehand.

It is interesting - now that I think about it, I think I've become so used to papers, that the rare person who does a presentation makes me feel like they are 'teaching a class' and treating the audience like we are students!

But those presentations that are rich on facts and statistics are certainly best served with a healthy dose of powerpoint and/or handouts on the side, as you said.

Thanks again for the suggestions and for making those of us who missed it feel like we haven't been entirely left out!

Anonymous said...


I'll continue my theme of supporting the reading of papers: If someone "presents" their paper without reading it, and I happen to be really interested in what they have to say, then I'm in the unfortunate position of having to get a copy of the paper and read it for myself just to see all the stuff that was left out of the presentation. That's why I prefer a paper to be read: then you know that you're getting it all (except perhaps the footnotes). I would hate to go to a conference where everyone presented. The more I liked the papers, the more homework I would have after the conference.