The Future of the Society
It is with much pleasure that I accepted the invitation to add my thoughts and responses to the following questions:
The Society has, according to its site, over 6,000 members from every continent. It contributes much to the advancement of scholarship in biblical and cognate areas, and certainly provides forums to test ideas and advance and communicate knowledge. There is much to celebrate. This said, it would be foolish to assume that the Society has done all that it can ever do to achieve its mission. I would like to focus on a few areas that, in my opinion, deserve much attention and reflection.
- What does the SBL need to do to advance biblical scholarship?
- What are we not doing that we could be doing to advance the strategic vision?
- What are the biggest challenges and opportunities in doing our own Annual Meeting?
Despite numerous changes in the world and the new possibilities in the area of communication, the Society remains for the most part a society of relatively affluent scholars from affluent countries. Scholars from third world countries and from countries in Central and Eastern Europe that were formerly under Soviet influence rarely participate in our meetings or in our discourse in general. Moreover, as a society we do not contribute in a substantial way to the creation of local conditions that contribute to scholarship in these countries (good libraries, graduate fellowships, etc.). Although I appreciate the idea of holding an international meeting to encourage participation by scholars who are unable to come to the national meeting and that of sending books to certain libraries, both initiatives fall well short of the mark. The costs associated with attending international meetings place them well beyond the means of most scholars in less affluent countries (and of students almost anywhere; more on that later). Sending books is an expensive endeavor and by necessity limited in scope. Moreover, none of the two empowers local academic leadership.
For instance, if we agree that the Society's books should be made affordable to scholars and students in less affluent countries, then their prices should stand in some proportion to their disposable income. Modern publication involves electronic files (often pdf files) that can be easily transferred. The Society may consider the publication of regional (e.g., Eastern European, Latin American) editions of its books to be produced in situ by local publishers (by a press in Poland, another in Chile, etc.) in addition to its present North American/Western European edition. Books produced locally on the basis of files sent by the Society will be much cheaper and affordable than those currently produced in Western settings. In addition, the process will contribute to the development of local presses with expertise in our area. To be sure, it might be argued that such locally produced books will "flood" the market in North America and Europe and eventually bankrupt the SBL Press. But this is neither likely nor something that cannot be dealt with by other measures.
Similarly, we may consider linking with and actively supporting local professional associations and, in particular, their efforts to hold international meetings set and organized with the disposable income of local scholars in mind. I am sure that the goals of sharing knowledge and academic discourses within global communities of scholars would be better accomplished if such local societies organize their own international meetings and we, as members of the Society of Biblical Literature, come to their meetings. In fact, we may even lead the way in the creation of a consortium of such societies to share logistical knowledge and to set perhaps a kind of rotation of locally organized international meetings (e.g., one year in Eastern Europe, another in Africa, another in Latin America).
There is, of course, a world beyond paper publication. Journals such as Biblica and the Journal of Hebrew Scriptures communicate knowledge freely all over the world. I appreciate that the Review of Biblical Literature follows the same path. But I find it disconcerting that the flagship journal of the Society, the Journal of Biblical Literature, does not do so. I would like very much to see open access to the electronic version of the JBL. The same holds true for pdf versions of the Harper's Dictionary and similar works. These actions will benefit not only scholars in less affluent countries but also students everywhere.
A scholarly society needs to encourage and support new scholars, and particularly promising graduate students. I would like to see the Society follow the footsteps of societies such as the Catholic Biblical Association and establish some scholarships and memorial stipends for graduate students. I always wondered why the SBL cannot do as much as the CBA in this case.
Turning to our Annual Meeting, I think that its biggest challenges and opportunities converge in the question of how to make it the preferred place for scholars who meet to exchange ideas, probe conjectures, and look for conversation partners. "Meeting" is an active concept, and our Meeting should not be focused on passive listening, but on conversation, debate, and the like. I would like to see more sessions structured around conversation instead of presentation with no response. In addition, I would like to see more program units, including those that by necessity will not attract a large number of participants. I would like to see a Meeting that is inclusive and in which the only condition that program units should fulfill is that of academic quality. To be sure, I am fully aware that there are logistical limits to the number of concurrent sessions, but if we set appropriate priorities we can do better in this regard too.
Ehud Ben Zvi, University of Alberta, ehud.ben.zvi@ualberta
Citation: Ehud Ben Zvi, " The Future of the Society," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited Jan 2005]. Online:http://sbl-site.org/Article.aspx?ArticleID=350