SBL: Society of Biblical Literature.
This weekend is the annual meeting. Circa 4,000 people. Over a mere 10 session blocks hundreds of papers will be delivered in sessions too numerous to count.
My first entry into this world was in Boston in 1999. It was mostly overwhelming and lonely. Being around thousands of people is bad for an introvert who doesn’t have sure places to go and people to see. I remember one really cool paper, and the rest is a blur.
I genuinely look forward to the meeting now, anticipating that I will likely enjoy it from start to finish. Whereas my initial experiences were often lonely and isolated, coming through a PhD program and entering the teaching end of the profession has expanded my connections innumerably. In fact, my greatest frustration as I look ahead to the coming days is that meetings and/or other commitments are keeping me from getting to some of the sessions I’d most like to attend.
So what are the keys to surviving SBL, the early years?
(1) Don’t worry about not presenting. Yes, people will ask. Yes, it feels weird to say you didn’t have a paper accepted this year. But it’s not the end of the world. I’ve been there recently, and SBL can still be a good experience.
(2) Don’t over-obsess about the “name tag game.” Yes, everyone looks at all the name tags. Yes, everyone will look at yours and immediately look away because they don’t know who you are. Guess what? You’re doing it too. It’s ok to not have everyone know your name.
My favorite solution for any awkwardness you might feel about this game: cheerfully greet everyone you catch reading your tag. “Good morning!” It really messes with people.
(3) Know thyself. If you like big scary rooms full of strangers and books, enjoy the book room. If you find them big and scary and full of strange types, try to stick to sessions.
(4) Somehow in the middle of all the apparent self-assuredness that you see, try to remember that most people there are real people. It’s easy to impute arrogance or a sense of self-importance on other people when you feel like an outsider. But if you look hard enough, or talk long enough to enough people, you’ll find a good number of people who don’t take themselves too seriously, even though they’re serious about their work.
(5) Feel free to introduce yourself to people. And, don’t take it personally if they have little time to chat.
IMPORTANT SURVIVAL TIP: If you find yourself face-to-face with your scholarly hero, and discover that you’re as tongue-tied as a 7th grader asking a girl to dance, immediately revert to the best question you can ever ask: So, what are you working on now?
RELATED: If you’re talking to someone uber-cool, try to act like what they’re doing is more important that your desire to have them think that you, too, are uber-cool, worthy of admission to their program, etc.
Finally, a story from SBL 06 in Washington.
On the last and great day of the feast… er… conference, I was walking to the book room before the morning session.
Tom Wright was walking there as well, and our paths joined as we got to the bottom of the stairs/escalators. Wright was uncharacteristically alone. I enjoy much of his work. I think I had met him once or twice before, though he clearly didn’t know who I was. And, he was clearly in a hurry to get his book buying done before Mike Gorman enlightened us on the wonders of justification by co-crucifixion.
Having nothing to talk to him about, but wanting to say something, I said the only thing I could. “Look! Tom Wright without any captives in his train!” I did not break stride.
This earned me a befuddled smirk which I happily took with me to the book room.
SBL. The memories.
Try to enjoy yourself.