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The impending "divorce" between the AAR and the SBL is an unfortunate development that will disrupt social and professional networks among scholars within or involved with religious studies; additionally, it will cause both financial and logistical hardship to scholars, graduate students, and departments where participants may need or wish to go to both sets of meetings. Nevertheless, it appears to be a fait accompli, and our energies at this point should be used to think about how the SBL might best move forward in terms of its core mandate. The AAR set up a task force to look closely at what it does and how it might better serve its public in preparation for going it alone; the report of that task force, which has recently been released to the membership, discusses the challenges and opportunities that the AAR will now face and outlines some ideas for meeting the needs of its members. It seems to me that in preparing for the "future of the Society," the SBL would be wise to follow suit; that is, to set up a similar task force that would then provide some foundation for discussion and refinement as the SBL also prepares to meet independently of the AAR.

On the strategic vision:

The SBL's strategic vision statement lists seven items. These can be grouped into three categories:

1. Encouraging study of biblical literature, under which would also be included support for biblical scholarship and teaching in collaboration with appropriate institutions.

2. Organizing congresses for scholarly exchange. These congresses are perhaps the primary vehicle for encouraging the study of biblical literature, but they also provide an opportunity for networking, mutual support, etc., and facilitate broad and open discussion from a variety of perspectives.

3. Developing resources for diverse audiences, and publishing biblical scholarship.

Of these three areas, the most important, in my own experience, is the second one, and, within that category, I think principally of the Annual Meeting. The Annual Meeting has been central in my own academic development. It is the forum in which I have had first exposure to critical theory, including feminism, literary criticism, postmodern perspectives, African-American hermeneutics, etc. It has provided the opportunity to meet and interact with scholars of all generations, and been the fertile ground within which I have been able to develop, present, and receive constructive feedback for my own ideas.

On the Annual Meeting:

Fundamentally, the current format works well. The number of simultaneous sessions has occasionally been a frustration, particularly when two related sessions are offered at the same time, but the possibility of moving from session to session makes it possible most of the time to catch most of what I find interesting. (While some may find it disturbing to have others moving in and out of sessions or may feel inhibited about doing so themselves, in my view this is acceptable under these circumstances, and most people are tolerant of the minor disruptions.)

A couple of suggestions from the AAR task force might be worth considering for the SBL as well. One is experimentation with one or two time slots for shorter sessions during the day. That is, it would be possible to split one of the mornings or afternoons into two shorter sessions, to encourage a programming format different from the usual five papers. Some sections have in effect adopted this type of programming on occasion. For example, the Johannine Literature Section occasionally splits one of its sections into two, by offering a book panel for ninety minutes followed by a major lecture and responses for another hour. But it might be worth formalizing this structure in one of the time slots so that the entire slot would not have to be taken up with the programming of a single section or group.

A second interesting idea is that of having "wild-card" sessions; that is, to invite proposals from individuals who would organize panels in areas that may not fit easily within one or another organized section. There could be a committee set up to vet these; those proposing such a session would have to come with a detailed proposal, including speakers, topics, and rationale, as a one-time only opportunity. This may be used, for example, if there is a particular topical issue or if one or more individuals want to test the waters with regard to member interest in a particular topic before developing a proposal for a new section, group, or consultation.

Another idea might be to organize at least one event each year to which the general public is invited. Many of us are ever more concerned to make our work interesting and accessible to non-academics, and it may prove worthwhile for the Society to be more open to public participation.

At the same time, it is important to have some breaks in the schedule, as is done currently, to keep lunch and dinner times free as well as not to program into the late evening, so that there are opportunities for informal gatherings and meetings.

With regard to programming, the SBL should consider offering more professional development sessions aimed at graduate students and newer faculty or other constituencies as needed. Other ways of delivering academic information, such as poster sessions, perhaps even with prizes or awards, might also be interesting possibilities.

Finally, it would be worth making contact with newer members who may be having trouble figuring out how to "work" the meeting, both academically and socially. It can take a few years before people no longer feel that the meeting is an alienating experience, and unless people find a group of others whom they look forward to seeing year after year or with whom they work closely in a section, group, or consultation, the alienation may never completely wear off.

But I return to my main recommendation: to set up a task force to prepare a comprehensive study of issues pertaining to the Annual Meeting, gather information, and present possibilities to the Council and to the membership at large.

Adele Reinhartz, Wilfrid Laurier University, Waterloo, Ontario, areinhar@wlu.ca

Citation: Adele Reinhartz, " Some Reflections on the Future of the Society," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited Jan 2005]. Online:http://sbl-site.org/Article.aspx?ArticleID=354

 
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