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.