Mark Goodacre’s excellent post on How to Enjoy SBL has prompted me to create this post. While many of Mark’s points are apt for the SBL first timer, I will provide some additional tips for the SBL rookie.
I remember my first year at SBL quite well. I was an intimidated master’s student from a long ranking school in a sea of prestigious scholars and Ph.D. students who all seemed to know each other. I only knew one other person at the conference and our interests were quite different. Thus, I spent a lot of time by myself listening to papers and wandering the amazing book exhibit. While I still enjoyed SBL immensely I could have used some tips from a more seasoned SBLer.
1.) SBL is about much more than listening to papers. SBL is an excellent opportunity to meet others interested in Biblical Studies. Make sure you attend the student reception and talk to people. It may feel awkward to approach a random stranger but that’s the purpose of the student reception. It’s Saturday night and you will not be the only person who does not know anyone at SBL.
2.) Every night there are many receptions hosted by universities and publishers. These receptions are not restricted to alumni of the various universities. Attend these receptions and talk to people. Again don’t be afraid to approach a stranger. At my first SBL I had a long talk with Mark Nanos. I had no idea who I was approaching, however I had a plate of food and there was an empty spot at a table. I politely asked to sit down and struck up a conversation with this random stranger. Upon browsing the SBL program guide it looks as if the receptions are not listed, hopefully they will be in the on site version.
3.) Browse the program guide and mark the sessions you are planning to attend ahead of time. There is often not a lot of time in between sessions to find a session that looks interesting. Don’t be afraid to leave in between papers, however, do not leave in the middle of a paper. Usually that means making a quick exit so have your belongings ready if you are planning to head out.
4.) I recommend both attending a wide variety of papers and attending multiple sessions of one group. Listening to a wide variety of papers is a great way to introduce yourself to new topics. I had only a cursory knowledge of the Didache at my first SBL. However, I randomly attended a session of the Didache group and have been highly interested in the Didache ever since. Also, by attending multiple sessions of the same group you get an opportunity to observe the dynamics of the group. You will notice who the players are and develop a sense of who you can approach after the session.
5.) While I would not ask questions during the Q & A time period, as the time is quite limited, I certainly would encourage you to hang around after the session and ask questions of the presenters or talk to others who attended the session. If you both heard the same papers you have something to talk about. I often had great conversations with other graduate students about interesting papers.
6.) Take notes during the papers. First, this will keep you awake during the session. No matter how interesting academic papers are, 3 hours of listening is difficult. Mark Goodacre himself openly admits to falling asleep during papers. I will only admit to occasionally “resting my eyes.” Also, if you find a particularly interesting paper it is easier to remember any questions you may have had for the reader (3 hours after the paper is over) if they are written down.
7.) Spend some time in the book exhibit. However, don’t buy a lot of books if you are not heading back to your hotel room. I made the mistake of lugging around a lot of books during my first SBL.
8.) If someone seems to “blow you off” don’t be offended. Countless times I have been talking to someone when another person approaches and our conversation ends abruptly. Bear in mind that for many, SBL is the only time for reconnecting with friends and the more years you attend SBL the more friends you will have. In your first year you have no commitments and probably won’t have many friends. By the time you are a veteran every second of SBL will probably be booked with committees, meetings, etc. so it can be hard to make time to connect with your many friends and colleagues.
9.) Finally, enjoy yourself. If you find yourself exhausted, don’t be afraid to recharge the batteries. Enjoy New Orleans, take a nap, or eat a long lunch. You have not committed yourself to attending every slotted session time. While I often plan to attend every session I have starred in my program, I inevitably skip a few. Frankly, more interesting events crop up.
If anyone else would like to add their wisdom please do so in the comments section.