Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Open Letter about SBL

I have concerns about the Society of Biblical Literature. I have been on steering committees and functioning as a chair for different groups on and off for the last fifteen years. Since the AAR-SBL split, I am concerned about the 'health' of our Society.

1. We were told at the Chairs' meeting about the gigantic increase in numbers of groups and therefore number of people participating by delivering papers and presiding. This was represented to us as a great sign of our vitality and growth.

But I don't think so. In fact it is the opposite. The drastic increase in the number of groups is alarming. We should not kid ourselves that this proliferation means growth and strength. Our groups have proliferated to the point that there is so much competition for audiences that entire sessions are beginning to have only a handful in attendance. Papers that may have taken a year to prepare may have an audience of five. This means that there is little discussion and little in terms of dissemination of research to the broader community. As more and more specialized groups form, they are breaking down the membership of the traditional larger groups, causing members to have to choose between the new specialized group (which will eventually run out of steam) and the traditional larger group it is co-opting. This means that the memberships of the groups are getting carved into smaller and smaller pieces, and instead of spreading our knowledge we are ending up talking only to ourselves.

We need to put the brakes on the formation of new groups, and find ways to connect together the ones that we have in place. Whenever possible, steering committees should be finding ways of absorbing groups into each other while maintaining their agendas. I'm not just talking about joint sessions. I am talking about a main group that might have subgroups or panels working on specific projects and these subgroups or panels might rotate sessions or years. What I'm saying is that we need a new model for group formation and maintenance. Limiting the number of sessions per group might help, but it isn't going to be the answer because there are just too many groups now.

2. We have to fix the problem of overlapping in the program similar groups or groups with similar interests. This is not just a complaint. This is a MAJOR problem that is forcing members of different groups to choose between groups that they should not have to, and we shouldn't want them to. Their membership in different groups and participation in those groups is vital to the 'health' of the Society. I think that SBL should consider hiring external consultants to resolve this scheduling problem for us. It is a persistent problem that has become much worse now that AAR is not meeting with us. It is not impossible to fix.

3. The problem comes down to this: AAR sessions are not overlapping with SBL sessions anymore. It was enough of a struggle for us when we competed with other AAR sessions. But now we have significant increase in the SBL sessions (but not an equally significant increase in the SBL membership) and these sessions are overlapping with each other in such extreme ways that the groups are not going to be able to sustain themselves, unless they have a membership that has no other interests or no other competing groups.


Danny Zacharias said...

Great post, and I totally agree.

If you follow Mark Goodacre's blog, he gives "tips for surviving SBL". One of them is to not be afraid to be a flake and walk in and out of sessions. While I understand this opinion and to some extent agree, it seems to have just gotten ridiculous. There are these huge flurries in and out of sessions after every paper as people rush to another session. Sometimes even presenters at the table bolt after they are done their paper and discussion!

Jim said...

i agree and in fact think that at some point the number of sessions will simply collapse in on themselves, like one giant implosion.

Matthew Alexander White said...

I have never had the privilege of attending, but it seems that the proliferation of groups could be related to some of the other things perennially dislikeable about the SBL: the ego-driven arguing instead of any real cooperative exchanging of ideas/discussion.

If this was the case, all these dysfunctional group dynamics would inevitably lead to the proliferation of groups, reckless disregard for scheduling, and inflated attendence numbers.

It is a sad state of affairs when profitable group discourse gives way to egomaniacal pontification. You said yourself in previous blogs that some people only came to the SBL on account of the cooperative civility of your group. However, if we've learned anything from the political (ecclesiastical) climate in America lately, it's that no one is trying to understand or learn from each other. Instead, everyone is shouting their own point of view all the more loudly and just playing to their own support base.

If the SBL is simply becoming a pissing-contest (albeit a ritualized, passive-agressive, intellectualized one), the individual egos of all the personalities involved would demand the denominationalism into groups that would conveniently be mutually exclusive, if only due to apparent scheduling snafus.

What matters to the ego of some is that the record shows they presented a paper at an impressively name group at the SBL this year. On paper it looks just as impressive if there were five people in the audience or five hundred. People who didn't attend would ever know the difference and will read the paper with interest on their own simply because it was a presented paper.

It ain't about learning; it's about getting to be the smartest person in the room, even if it's only for 20 minutes in front of five people.

P.S. I tried to post this from my blackberry and it didn't work--so don't feel bad.

Dr. Dave said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Steve Wiggins said...

I think the problem is larger than SBL. It is a problem in the whole of academia. Our foci have become so specialized that we have little to say to each other. While I have a Ph.D. in Hebrew Bible, when I've attended SBL over the last two decades there have been many groups/sessions that I can't hope to comprehend, even within my broad specialization. Universities encourage this to crank out more Ph.D.s (who will not find jobs) and our professional societies sit by and idly watch. This is a very serious issue and shows a crisis brewing in higher education in general.

April DeConick said...

What should we do about this?

Matthew Alexander White said...

Well, we could can’t revolt against the system and try to make a competing group. Even if we ‘succeeded’ It would be cursed from the beginning by Girardian mimetic rivalry and we would become what we hate most: being part of the problem (Like Feanor in the Silmarillion). This leaves us with redeeming the system we have in place.

First, I suggest that April retake up her chairpersonship of a small group (like she doesn’t have enough on her plate already). This would attract the kind of like minded scholars who she says herself only used to come to be part of her group because it was a place where constructive discussion took place in the search of learning in an environment of non competitiveness free of ego driven discussion/pseudo-scholarship. Restart her group would bring together other scholars who are not dead set on being the smartest guy in the room (that was not gender neutral on purpose ;p ).

Second, we pull a page out of the lodge Gnostic playbook and try to enlighten and redeem the “Roman” institutional from the inside. In this case Once Dr. D. gets her little click back in order, the center cell group sends it members in an organized and coordinated canvassing effort to branch out into other ultra-specialized groups that are within their field but inaccessible due to scheduling conflicts and or being on the margins of her expertise etc. This branching out will serve two functions. The short range one will be simply fact finding about the state of the scholarship in the highly specialized group attended. The other members will be debriefed of the group they missed so at to keep up to abreast of things. If everyone in the original cell does this, the entire cell will be able to keep up on many more areas. The long range goal would be to influence the individual cells towards constructive discussion and not polarizing kill-of-the-hill polemics or politely allowing one person to monopolize the discussion. Both of these things kill any good thing that can come from group discussion.
This coordinated effort and the resulting debriefing of other group members could happen in person at the conference or online in a blog like this. Hopefully after a few years the original cell could grow in influence and numbers and it could help be a breath of fresh air.
P.S. Dr. D, my Chinese-wife says that the Chinese characters on the blog in this thread read “I like this, I will keep supporting [by regular reading]”. However, she also says that the multiple periods behind it are actually a hyper-like to Chinese-porn. So you may want to delete it

Gary said...

As to problem #2, I would strongly advise against the hiring of external consultants. Instead, I suggest creating an internal department to organize programs. You could call it the Department of Redundancy Department Bureau.

OK but seriously, I hope you (plural) work something out to allow the Society to continue constructively.

Anonymous said...

Have you read this?