Report From the Annual Meeting
There is a popular saying among Texans that "Everything is bigger in Texas" and from the size of their state to the size of their guns they revel in the larger than life character of the Lone Star state. Considering this, one has the distinct impression that any Texan would have been proud to witness the recent SBL Annual Meeting in San Antonio. With approximately 275 sessions held over a span of five days the SBL meeting easily boasts of being the "largest gathering of biblical scholars in the world".
As a Canadian working on a post-grad research degree in the UK, I occupy that area of limbo created by being a Namerican living in a country geographically close to continental Europe but accused of being politically and ideologically closer to the United States. Whether this double identity crisis provides me with an advantageous perspective on the SBL meeting is doubtful, but a unique perspective is tenable.
From a European perspective the SBL Annual Meeting contrasts sharply with its younger and smaller cousin, the SBL International Meeting. Certainly the cultural difference between eating lunch underneath the fifteenth century Martini Tower of Groningen and the Holstein patterned tablecloths in San Antonio's "Steers and Beers" steakhouse sharpens the contrast, but the meeting could also be identified with stereotypical American characteristics in the sheer enormity of the event and the pell-mell pace of presentations. Also notable is the impression of a larger faith-based influence evident at the meeting; whether this can be correlated with the rising interest in pedagogy or is simply colored by crossover from the preceding and increasingly popular Evangelical Theological Society conference is questionable.
Although the Annual Meeting offers up a vast selection of sessions and papers of merit, it also struggles against its own mass with a tendency to offer up much more quantity than it can afford. Fragmentation is expected and even necessary in a large academic conference; however, along with an increase in valuable sessions there seems to be an increase in sessions that appear to duplicate existing frameworks. Along with these redundant sessions there are also a number that have long since passed their prime and new consultations shimming up two sessions with identifiable dross. There is, I am sure, a rationale for each session, but the fragmentation of similar sessions combined with the post-conference summary evaluation of sessions may create an atmosphere of competition that is concerned more with drawing attention and attendance than nurturing positive academic discussion. There is an element in sessions that pit Niels Peter Lemche against William Dever or those chaired by Hershel Shanks that can create confusion over whether we are attending the greatest show on earth or a congress that fosters biblical scholarship.
Of course, these criticisms of the Annual Meeting are often a result of its size, which is only a testament to its success. As a post-grad student, I find the immense scale of the meeting provides multiple opportunities for discovering papers relevant to a post-grad's supposed esoteric research interests. The Annual Meeting also caters to graduate students through seminars and sessions specifically tailored to provide advice and assistance for graduate studies, such as the Wabash Luncheon for Graduate Students. The informal discussion with other academics working in a similar field and the opportunity to directly interact with scholars and discuss their work yields invaluable benefits to a student engaged in graduate research.
And so I look forward to next November and five days of a hopefully stimulating as well as scintillating Annual Meeting in Philadelphia. This time I will leave the spurs at home (they didn't really match the tweed anyway) and try to leave the rain in the UK (sorry about that).
Paul Nikkel, University of Sheffield
Citation: Paul Nikkel, " Report From the Annual Meeting," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited Dec 2004]. Online:http://sbl-site.org/Article.aspx?ArticleID=340