Making the Most of the SBL Conference

Making the Most of the SBL Conference November 4, 2008

Several bloggers have addressed how to get the most out of SBL, but a commenter of a recent post asked me to pitch in, so here I am.

First of all, your ‘conference goals’ are largely determined by your place in the chain (student versus scholar) and your ambitions. But, I think I itch most students where they scratch with a few general statements.

1. ALWAYS TRY TO PRESENT A PAPER – from early on in your PHD, think through what you might like to present on. Don’t try to do it on your WHOLE thesis/dissertation topic – you only have 20 minutes! Pick a passage to work in. Or interact with one recent theory or article in an interesting way. Some scholars will tell you – you need something really earth-shattering to present at SBL because you don’t want to make a fool of yourself. OK, don’t do anything stupid. But, (1) I presented once to an audience at SBL of about 8 -not exactly an intimidating group of peers and scholars. (2) conferences are there for ‘testing’ ideas before they go to articles and books and theses. (3) the SBL bar has been set low in terms of very interesting papers. For every one show-stopping paper, I sit through 6 dull ones.

2. PAPERS ARE ONLY A SMALL PART OF SBL LIFE – given that you should try to present a paper, remember that hearing papers is only a very small part of SBL conferences. Honestly, after the third or fourth paper (on the first day), I am burnt out already! Also, if you really think a paper sounds interesting, most of the time you can email the scholar and he/she will send you a copy of it – so don’t freak out if you miss a paper.

3. PRE-CONTACT A SCHOLAR OR TWO – OK, don’t phone up Joseph Fitzmyer or Richard Hays, but it is tolerable to most scholars to have a grad student ask to meet with them at SBL. They might say no, but they won’t be overly-annoyed. Try to have some kind of point of contact – ‘I am studying with a former doctoral student of yours’ or ‘I recently heard you speak at such and such an event’. That way you don’t seem like just a groupie. This year I am happy to be visiting with three scholars who are generous enough the spare a meal time.

4. PRE-CONSIDER BOOK PURCHASES – Peruse the the SBL hardcopy program and pre-decide which books you are going to need for your research. Commit yourself beforehand to buying the books you need, and not giving into temptation when you see the selection (unless things are really discounted the last morning). You may want to do this pre-vetting in order to be on the look out for an important new book that might not be easily visible when you are browsing.

5. GO TO SOME OF THE GRADUATE WORKSHOPS – academic papers are OK and many are worthwhile, but it can get dull and tedious. At some of the graduate workshops this year they are discussing tips on publishing, how to get hired, and things that every PHD student should know. I will try to get to the publishing one.

6. DON’T BE AFRAID TO APPROACH A SCHOLAR WHO IS JUST SITTING AND WAITING FOR THE NEXT THING TO START – if a scholar is just taking a rest, its not a bad time to introduce yourself and strike up a conversation. Once again, you seem less weird if you have some connection- ‘were you at the last paper on XYZ? What did you think?’ – first impressions are important! Now if the scholar really seems like they need a rest (and some peace), be discerning!

7. EXPECT TO GET LONELY IF YOU ARE NEW TO SBL – it is very hard for new people – you don’t know anyone and you have nothing to do for meals and at night. Expect it to be a bit lonely. Hopefully you will run into some acquaintances. But, not always. Hopefully you were able to go to SBL with others from your institution. Sometimes not. Just be prepared for the loneliness of it – its normal and happens to everyone the first couple of years. Maybe not to Mike Bird. But that’s just because he talks so much and when he is talking to himself it makes him feel like the voices in his head are listening.

8. DON’T JUST GO TO PAPERS ON YOUR THESIS TOPIC – BROADEN YOUR HORIZONS – I am a Pauline guy. I love Paul. I will teach Paul. At SBL, I don’t go to very many Paul papers. I try to get a little bit of John, some NT theology, some Philo, some subject groups on identity, ritual, sacrifice, resurrection, ethics, etc… You can sometimes stumble upon some really amazing things by stepping out of your ‘normal’ circles.

9. NEVER EVER STAY AT A YMCA (I am speaking from experience).

10. TRY TO RE-CONNECT WITH OLD PROFS – contact ahead of time profs from a previous institution (BA or Masters). They are usually happy to do it. It is, of course, to reminisce and hear about what’s going on in your alma mater. But, it may also pay in the long run to keep up a relationship with your past institutions. Many institutions have receptions or breakfasts where alum and profs from a certain seminary or university gather and catch-up. This is a great time to meet new people and sometime enjoy some yummy food!

NB: Making the most of your paper: If you present a paper, you may get a couple of interesting and probing questions. Good. That’s not very common for me. What I have done in the past is scan the audience and see if I recognize someone. Later, if I am sure they stayed for me paper (!), if I see her I ask her opinion. This direct, face to face, approach can yield great results.

So, best wishes to those who are new. I might even bump into you – I am the Indian with his shirt untucked and ketchup on his tie – the ketchup may not be from this year. Sorry.

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  • Here was my advice from 2006:

    How to Survive and Thrive at ETS and SBL:

    ETS is followed by SBL so that you can attend both if you are interested.

    (1) The paper writers present their own papers. They basically read the academic paper aloud. You hear regular laments in the hallway about bad pedagogy. “We present with PowerPoint and illustrations in our classrooms back home but read papers when we are together. Oh academia . . .” But it is still pretty fun if you are interested in seeing the scholars or are interested in the topic. Need I mention that caffeine helps?

    (2) If two papers are scheduled at 8:30 am, you have to choose one to attend. But if the paper is over at 9:10, you can run to another one. In other words, you don’t have to attend all three papers of one session. There is lots of movement in between papers. So make your schedule ahead of time and run around and go to the papers you want to.

    (3) If nothing looks good, go to the book room. Every publisher in the world has all of their books at 50% off. Very cool.

    (4) Don’t bother going to see a moderator because they really don’t do a thing except make sure that the person doesn’t go over time. If it says that the moderator is participating in a discussion, then it could be interesting.

    (5) Schedule lunch and dinner with your friends or acquaintances. You’ll be running around all day but you don’t want to get stuck eating alone (unless you found a good book in the book room). And it easy to lose your friends in the chaos around mealtimes. So schedule your meals and meeting places ahead of time.

    (6) The General sessions are also optional. I would recommend the one at ETS with the dinner though. I sat next to Gordon Wenham last year. Again, I recommend booking people ahead of time to sit with.

    (7) The theme really means nothing except for influencing the general sessions.

    (8) Book a place to stay now as things get filled up and you’ll get stuck with the real expensive hotels.

  • John

    Thank you so much for this, Nijay. Concerning # 10 above, where can I find the information about different receptions? I have been encouraged to attend a couple of receptions but I do not know exactly where/when they meet.

  • John, they are in the program under “Additional Meetings” . . . See Eerdmans, Duke, Princeton, Harvard, Durham, etc.