Scholar in Training

The blog of a new postgraduate student hoping to make it against all odds in the harsh world of modern biblical scholarship. Wow, it almost sounds like a Hollywood blockbuster...

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

What's the point of SBL?

It takes someone who's been to SBL to ask this question, and Hugh Pyper graciously obliges with his remarks on presented papers:
"One thing that I continue to rail at is the unrelieved wordiness and worthiness of so many presentations, with honourable exceptions of course. Boy are they worthy! [...] How often do you sit in a paper and think, 'I love this subject, and I know more about it than most, but if this person goes on any longer, I'm going to lose the will to live, let alone touch the topic with a barge pole.' If that's how feel after 20 minutes, what do their students feel after a semester?"
As of yet, I haven't really come across this in as far as academic papers go. True, I've found some of the Sheffield Research Seminar papers hard to follow, but that's more down to my ignorance of the subject material rather than a deficiency in the presentation. (The papers presented yesterday by Paul Nikkel and Deborah Kahn-Harris were excellent, though - very user friendly, easy to follow, and interesting to boot!) It does worry me that someone like Hugh, who's been teaching Biblical Studies/Theology for 13 years, can sit down and effectively say "Boredom is the norm in conferences".

Perhaps it's not the norm, and Hugh is just being cynical - though Mark Goodacre also notes that he "would be keen to see more quality control" (on the back of Ed Cook's post - for which some of the comments on it by others are illuminating!), and makes a plea for the use of handouts.

Some more (illuminating?) comments, this time on last year's SBL international meeting from a grad student called Mark Stephens, who is commenting on Mark Goodacre's blog post here:
"As a grad student, my own reflections on the SBL international meeting in June would be more nuanced. Many academics, IMHO, have zero idea how to communicate their ideas. They know how to research and to write papers, but as regards the all important rhetorical skill of delivery, that is sorely lacking. Grad students are simply following in their masters footsteps... There is a reason many people fall asleep in lectures - they are boring. In fact, for many lectures, I just wish they would write the article and I would read it in my own time. These comments do not apply to everyone, and there are some absolute masters of presentation, but we need to give up on the idea that we are at present teaching people how to present in an oral context. If we are teaching it - it isn't working."
Fairly damning overall, but it links to the final question Hugh asks:
"How efficient a way of communicating is the average conference session? [...] It did make me think about the role the blogging community could have in raising the standards here - any reactions?"
I think that, given the openness of the whole biblical blogosphere, standards could be raised. For example, I could post a link to a written paper I was due to give at SBL 6 months early, and ask for hints/tips/ideas not just about the content, but how it might be best presented. In postmodern culture, just reading a paper doesn't work anymore - well, I don't think so anyway. People are more visual these days. A good PowerPoint presentation works wonders, as opposed to a bad one which just looks daft. If we use handouts in class, why not at conferences?

However, the genius of the internet is that not only can one publish the text of a paper, you could also publish the PowerPoint presentation and ask for constructive feedback on it. You could record a podcast of yourself delivering the paper, and ask for criticism on that as well for good measure.

...but, of course, some of the ideas above could make going to conferences partly redundant if everyone was into online publishing, blogging and podcasting all the time. :-) Would open biblical scholarship (also see here) destablise the whole point of conferences? There's a question...!


  • At 03:09, Blogger Monk-in-Training said…

    I don't mean to be dense, tho I probably am, but what is SBL?

  • At 04:36, Blogger Tim said…

    Sorry this is rather belated! (My excuse is that we've just finished the summer hols down here;)

    I do hope greater openness in BS does work to "destabilise" conferences, too many conference papers are of the yawn sort, and too many are better read a "papers". However, there are exceptions, the performance section at the November SBL was moving in the direction of more interactive sessions, using the fact of having so many "experts" and "interested amateurs" together in one place. Some of the Computer Assisted Research Group's sessions have also provoked, allowed, encouraged more discussion and interaction...


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