SBL Council and Student Papers

I knew before this last SBL meeting that their council would be hammering out restrictions of some kind on student presentations at SBL. Initially the proposal was to restrict it entirely to PhD students and have them submit entire papers with advisor approval, but the final version of the decision allows for master’s students to continue to present, which is a relief. Here’s the text of a letter they sent to student members announcing the outcome of their meeting:

Dear Student Member:

The particular opportunities and challenges facing student members deserve focused attention. The Society of Biblical Literature is committed to this focused attention, and we will redouble efforts to develop programs and policies that provide students more opportunities and enable their interests to be represented in SBL governance. It is with this effort in mind that we are providing explanations of two policies recently adopted by Council regarding student participation in the Society’s Annual Meeting.

1.      All students without a doctoral degree are required to submit to the Program Unit Chair the full text of the paper they will read. The paper will be submitted at the time of proposal.  Student proposers will submit the paper they intend to read, not a full-length article intended for written distribution.

2.      The number of sessions students can participate in will be limited to one. This policy pertains to participation as panelist, presenter, and respondent.

Policies limiting an individual’s participation on the program have been in effect for much of the Annual Meeting’s recent history, and they are common among peer ACLS organizations. For a variety of reasons, in an increasingly pressurized academic market, SBL is reinstating these policies. Moreover, limitations apply not just to student members but to participants in general, and Council’s recent policy statement included actions concerning all members as well as Affiliate organizations.

Every member of Council was once in your position – a student member eager to contribute to the field and to engage with senior scholars. That remains a primary purpose of the Annual Meeting, and we encourage you to attend, submit a paper, and engage with colleagues. In addition, Council recognizes that the future of the field is in your hands, and that new ideas, fresh perspectives, and brilliant research are age-blind. Our student members push the profession forward and sustain it, not only through intellectual innovation but also exactitude, care, and hard work. We all know that there is much at stake for student members and that, as a result, you consistently produce work of a high caliber. These policies were made in part to mitigate those high stakes and to ensure that student presentations fit into a larger goal of fostering a diverse, moderated, and fair career path into academic life.

First: at every Annual Meeting we now schedule over 1,700 participants in ten timeslots. For the same reason that Council limits full members to two participations, students have the opportunity to participate once as panelist, presenter, or respondent at the Annual Meeting.  We are opening up the field to more student participants, and so more new voices. This allows for a more diverse SBL and Annual Meeting and provides more opportunity for student member participation.

Second: a traditional “guild” offers a pathway into its profession through a series of stages. For student members of SBL, that pathway is to submit and deliver a paper at a Regional Meeting, collect feedback from peers, and then to seek participation in the Annual Meeting after a process of mentoring, discussion, and informal peer review. The Annual Meeting does not replace Regional Meetings; indeed, the latter are an integral and rich testing ground for new ideas.

Third: because the stakes are so high for students and with the goal of modeling best practices for the field, Council agreed that a full-length paper submission is to the advantage of students and serves as preparation for that much-maligned academic master or mistress – the deadline. Limiting student members to one participation will facilitate their focus on one quality presentation in the midst of demanding thesis or dissertation work. It is also felt that the policies will increase the “currency” of student presentations at the Annual Meeting, making the notation of such presentation on a CV more valuable.

These policies will ensure more diverse representation of student work at the Annual Meeting, cultivate career path helps already in place for SBL student members, and model best practices that can serve as an example for all our members. Of course, all members should pursue the highest quality presentation, and student members present superb papers year to year, just as do independent scholars and tenured faculty. The intent behind these decisions, as I hope I have made clear, is to give students greater opportunity to achieve and display their important contributions to the field.

Students’ success at the meetings and in their careers, indeed, is Council’s main concern. As a Society, we will continue to develop and revise policies together, with the broadest interests in mind and in order to foster the future of biblical scholarship.

Sincerely,

John F. Kutsko
Executive Director
Society of Biblical Literature

Responses have varied. A Facebook group has been set up by the SBL student advisory council (here). A number of interesting points have been made there. A student has replied on their blog here. Deane Galbraith has an interesting take here, where he wonders if the SBL Council is operating outside the scope of its purview in trying to “unilaterally remove the same benefits of full membership.” 28% of SBL are students, and that membership is (still) described in this way on the SBL website:

Student – If you are a current student, choose this membership. You will receive all of the same benefits as a full member.

Despite Deane’s point, I honestly don’t see the council’s decision going away. The above will have to change. Other areas need to be changed as well. On the page listing membership benefits, they have the following:

SBL Meetings: All members receive discounts on registration and travel for SBL meetings. “Full” and “Student” members may propose papers for the Annual Meeting or the International Meeting.

Only “Full” members may propose papers now. “Student” members may submit papers.

From what I’ve heard, two main concerns are (1) bad papers, and (2) not enough slots because students are taking them. I can understand the first concern. We’ve all had to sit through excruciating papers before, and sometimes those papers were presented by students. Just as commonly, however, those papers are by seasoned scholars. Everyone is aware of this.  The second concern is a little more troublesome. The slots should be going to the people with the best proposals, and if students are writing those proposals, so be it. Let the peer review process work.

I think limiting student papers to one is fine. I’m not concerned with that. I presented two in Atlanta, and they both went well, but I don’t need to present two every year. My biggest issue is that I now won’t be able to be in San Fransisco next year for SBL, just before submitting my PhD applications. I can only get funding if I’m presenting, and I can’t afford to pay my own way. I don’t think I’ll have a paper ready by 2 March. If I bust my hump to finish a thesis chapter and then try to spin it off into a 2500 word presentation full of contractions and cues to a PowerPoint presentation (do I have to include the slides?), perhaps I can get something ready. Then I submit my paper to my one session and any number of things can happen. What if the chairs don’t want to read a stack of 8 page papers? What if the chairs see the full papers as red flags? A quite natural division is going to take place between proposals from students and full members. I don’t see how many chairs are going to avoid having that division influence their decisions in one way or another (e.g., “Let’s avoid student papers this year,” or “Let’s make sure we include a student paper”). Is a letter being sent to unit chairs urging them to give all proposals and papers equal consideration? I doubt it. The odds of my single paper getting accepted are reduced significantly. (Consider also, San Fransisco will include AAR sessions again. When the AAR left, the number of SBL sections increased to fill the gap. Where are those sections going next year?)

Lastly, the logic presented in this letter is problematic. The most glaring problem is the following:

We are opening up the field to more student participants, and so more new voices.

But this rationalization for the new policy also has a contradictory rationalization:

It is also felt that the policies will increase the “currency” of student presentations at the Annual Meeting, making the notation of such presentation on a CV more valuable.

Either it’s going to open the door for more student presentations or it’s going to make it more exclusive (the latter is more likely. The limit to one paper isn’t so another student can fill the gap). It can’t do both. These are obviously two ad hoc rationalizations from council members that were put together in this letter without considering whether they were mutually exclusive or not.

To conclude, this decision seems to me to be the outcome of a pet gripe (reflective of a legitimate problem) that happened to have been shared by several members of the council. Students are not the only culprits, though. I think this outcome is better than the initial proposal to limit it to PhD students, but I think it would have shown a lot more foresight and objectivity if they could have put the implementation of these changes off for a year. This would have avoided the pinch the changes are going to put on students for this upcoming call for papers. (Additionally, what about international students who have no regional SBL?)


5 responses to “SBL Council and Student Papers

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