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SBL Restricts Student Participation

Along with other student members of the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL), I recently received an email letter from John F. Kutsko, Executive Director of SBL, informing me of changes that have been made by the Council of SBL to the way in which student members may participate in the SBL Annual Meeting.  Here are those changes:

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.

As a student member of SBL currently at work on my doctoral degree, I was extremely disappointed over these changes.  These restrictions put students at a disadvantage in the presentation proposal review process and, if maintained, will ultimately lead to reduced student participation in the Annual Meetings, a consequence of which will be less interaction with and feedback from other scholars which is so valuable to ongoing doctoral research.  Let me flesh a few of these points out in more detail.

Student participation will be reduced.  If students are required to turn in their full paper at the time of proposal, then their time to conduct and complete their research is reduced by more than eight months.  Research that will not be presented until November is now due in February.  I finished the final draft of my 2010 paper presentation only days before the conference.  I had expected to get to work on some other ideas for 2011, submit them as proposals, and, if accepted, be able to conduct and finish the research over the course of the next year.  The idea of having all the research completed and written up by the first of March is crippling and near impossible given the responsibilities of my work and as a student.  This change in SBL policy is demoralizing and discourages me from attempting to put the work together in less than half the time to which I am accustomed.  This sadly means that it is unlikely that I will submit a proposal for next year.  From the looks of things circling on the blogs, my fellow student members feel the same way.  What is said to be an aid to students will ultimately strip us of previous opportunity and valuable experience.

If student participation is reduced, students will have less opportunity to receive feedback on their work.  My first presentation at SBL was in 2008, while I was an M.Div. student at Asbury Theological Seminary.  It went very well, and I had some very interesting and helpful interaction during the Q & A time after my presentation.  Given the significantly increased difficulty in gaining acceptance at the Annual Meeting, I can kiss such feedback and interaction goodbye.  The SBL is supposed to be fostering biblical scholarship and the next generation of biblical scholars.  To implement restrictions that will inevitably decrease student participation is a contradiction to the stated mission and vision of the SBL. 

In the past, the peer reviewers of the paper proposals did not know which proposals came from students and which came from senior scholars.  Now that students have to submit full manuscripts as opposed to titles and abstracts, it will be quite clear who the students are.  This will make it impossible to prevent biased decisions against student papers and in favor of those written by holders of the Ph.D. and places students at a distinct disadvantage in the review process.  This undermines the credibility of SBL as an unbiased organization that professes to value inclusiveness, collegiality, and scholarly integrity.

These changes may qualify as a breach of contract.  I registered as a student member under the condition that I would “receive all the same benefits as a full member.”  Now that student members are not granted all the benefits of full membership (e.g. reduced appearances and increased proposal requirements), it would seem that the SBL has violated the terms of our membership agreement and may be legally liable for that infringement.  It doesn’t appear that they really thought this one through. 

For these reasons, the new restrictions to student involvement at SBL meetings are an insult to student members and a stain on the reputation of the Society of Biblical Literature. So much for fostering the future of biblical scholarship.

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