Friday, November 13, 2009

How to enjoy SBL

Last year, I wrote a post on Enjoying SBL, based on an earlier post on Surviving SBL. I have dug it out again and revised it in the light of a bit more thought and experience about the meeting, especially as others are offering their own slightly different advice.

(1) Enjoy Beer and Good Company: The SBL Annual Meeting is absolutely massive, and there is nothing more lonely than being on your own in a crowd. It's not like smaller conferences like the British New Testament Conference where you can just go with the flow. At this meeting, you create your own agenda. Find people you like spending time with, and ideally who like spending time with you, if you can, 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. Nevertheless, when you do get stuck into the academic side of the meeting, it is important to:

(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 a lot of them will be pretty ordinary. Nevertheless, these days I miss being able to get to as many sessions as I used to get to because of the number of other commitments and I find that I enjoy the ones I do get to all the more as a result. But in order to enjoy the sessions, you need to:

(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. Mind you, if you do get in a session that's not tip-top, you can always:

(4) Enjoy your sleep: I spend approximately 50% of the time in sessions sleeping. I am not proud of this fact, but there's nothing I can do about it. I am now fairly resigned to it and so just enjoy it. Some of my friends are good at elbowing me in the side but most of them now just know that this is what I do when I sit down for any length of time. This only becomes a major problem if it is one of your graduate students who is presenting, in which case they may be offended, or if you are chairing the session, in which case you are not able to watch the clock for the speakers. Of course the reason that one gets into this predicament is that it is too easy to:

(5) Burn the Candle at Both Ends: The toughest thing at the SBL is to avoid burning 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. Speaking of breakfasts, remember those:

(6) Budget beating breakfast buffets: To reiterate some advice from an a recent post called SBL on a budget, 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. So it is also worth:

(7) Getting to Receptions: Receptions are a great way of meeting people, and they 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 second SBL meeting since the split with AAR, the recession is still causing drastic cutbacks, 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. This year Duke goes to a cash bar for the first time since I have been attending. But I haven't yet mentioned the thing that lots of people will be doing given the size of the program book:

(8) 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 slight problem with graduate student papers, and here it is often related to nerves. My advice: practise your paper beforehand and think about issues like pausing, breathing, adding light and shade and varying your intonation.

The bigger issue for me, though, relates to those who should know better. I never cease to be amazed 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 later. There is something else you should do too and that is to:

(9) See 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. I have never been to New Orleans, and I am looking forward to seeing it though I suspect that I won't see a lot of it. Too many of my SBL memories merge into one because I spent 95% of my time on the inside of hotels and convention centres.

Oh, and one more thing:

(10) Tell us about it: The proliferation in bloggers at the SBL means that lots of us can share our experiences with those less fortunate than ourselves. And this SBL will be the first SBL to have been extensively tweeted. Those of us who will be tweeting SBL are using the hashtag #SBL09. I'll see you -- and tweet you -- there.


Jason Gardner said...

Dr. Goodacre,

Excellent post. Though I am not an SBLer and thus will not be attending the meeting, I did live in New Orleans for several years. It is a great city with lots of history and culture to be appreciated. And, though you may think ill of grits, they are a staple of Southern living. I eat them with plenty of sugar! Enjoy the city and the conferences!

Ed said...

Now listen here: Grits are not disgusting! Everyone should learn to enjoy grits. You have to put butter (lots) and salt and pepper on them, but they are good. Furthermore: No American breakfast is as nasty as the English custom of having beans (!) with breakfast, not to mention haddock.

Hans Arneson said...

Have the grits bowl at Watts Grocery in Durham some Saturday morning before you write them off entirely. Life-changing.

steph said...

"learn to enjoy grits"? Why?!! To become big and fat and gritty? Disgusting! At least white fish, haddock is healthy. Not that I have that either... as long as I have my early morning swims, drink copious amounts of black coffee and don't eat, I can stay up all the nights and not fall asleep during the days - except in the duller papers... ;-)

Christopher W. Skinner said...

Mark, I appreciate the post. I laughed in a few places and gave a hearty "amen" a few times. Hope to see you there and say, "hello" in person.

Chris Skinner

Biblemanblog said...

You should be able to see New Orleans, I've only been there once at the last SBL. Bourbon Street is just across the street from the main hotel. Enjoy some jazz while you are there and if bored, send me an email.

Anonymous said...


Your excellent list has prompted me to post a list of tips for the SBL rookie.

Judy Redman said...

But no-one seems to have put in the most important thing: wear comfortable shoes!!!

I guess women need to hear this more than men, because men are less inclined to wear strappy high heels in an effort to impress. If you want to get to the maximum number of sessions of interest, you will need to walk between venues. Often. If you want to get free food at receptions, you will almost invariably have to stand up to eat it. Unless you look old or decrepit or are willing to claim some sort of physical disability, you will find yourself socialising with others whilst standing. If you want to browse the bookstalls, you will need to stand up to do it, or risk being trodden upon by other bookbrowsers who will not notice you sitting on the floor because they will be looking at the books.

If you really feel the need to wear more upmarket shoes while presenting your paper then carry them in your bag and put them on once you get to the venue. Also remember that you will probably be standing behind a lecturn and no-one will see your shoes and if your paper is worth hearing, no one will care what you have on your feet.

If you really, really, really can't bear to wear comfortable shoes, keep a good supply of bandaids/plasters to put on your blisters and hope that your room has some facility for soaking your sore feet at the end of the day. :-)

Mark Goodacre said...

Spot on, Judy. First couple of SBLs I was in complete agony after wearing my nicest new formal shoes. I then went over to the two pairs scenario, carrying one with me and changing, and now I just wear the comfortable ones the whole time.

steph said...

but you still save the stilettos for the receptions, eh Mark! ;-)

That's good advice Judy. I'm a bit of a shoe freak. Actually boots. I love boots, especially Doc Martins and they're especially comfortable and my blue suede ones with crimson lining (got them in the op shop - read charity shop). It's either boots, bare feet or jandals (read flip flops, thongs) I'll probably fill my bag with boots...

Don't forget an umbrella. It's gonna rain and thunder over the weekend.

Mark Goodacre said...

Ha ha, right.

Jeremy said...


I've written brief post for avid beer drinkers here:

TonyTheProf said...

Wonderful, you make it come to life vividly. A picture of the grits would add to it though for us non-Americans reading the blog (non American - I'd hesitate to call myself a "Brit", I'm a Jerseyman living in the original Jersey, not the USA facsimile, and proud of it!)