How to Attend Biblical Studies Conferences – A Guide for Students (Part I)

In a previous post, I overviewed the various biblical and religious studies societies, how to join them, how to and whether you can participate, and why you would do such a thing. Well, one of the major reasons I mentioned is attending conferences. So, especially since it is September again and the new academic year is upon us, that is what I will focus on here, and chalk this post up as a Resource Review particularly targeted at current students of biblical studies hoping to enter a doctoral program.

The professional conferences are distinctly NOT like this.

The conferences, while often chaotic, offer wonderful opportunities for young scholars. But, as I mentioned in the prior post, as a newcomer, not only will you feel like a peon amidst the humming throng of scholars around you, that feeling is accurate. The conferences will give you a healthy, to-scale understanding of how insignificant you are as you drift amidst the endless sea of other aspiring scholars (trust me, I’ve had plenty of first-hand experience). So if you think you’re going to one of these conferences primarily to give education rather than receive it, don’t bother going. The real opportunity at these conferences is a learning opportunity. So consider this a strategy guide to getting as much as you can out of it.

The Opportunities of Biblical Studies Conferences

Let’s just get the obvious out of the way: if you are involved in biblical studies, but have never attended SBL in particular, you should go. It’s a wonderful opportunity to network and find out more about your field of interest. Particularly if you plan to enter doctoral studies (and especially if you are already in your doctoral work), attending this conference – and others – will help you tremendously. Here are a few opportunities, in no particular order, that you can take advantage of:

No. 1 – The Book Display

The book display at SBL

One benefit of registering for a conference is your access to the book display. At the larger events like SBL/AAR these displays can reach monumental proportions. Prepare to make use of a map lest you be lost for hours. What is exciting about the book displays is not just their size, however, but that all the major publishing companies set up shop and bring all the newest volumes. Even if you don’t have a budget to blow on books, it’s a great way to see the most recent scholarship and be able to page through it at your leisure.

Another thing to note is that most of the vendors know people have traveled great distances to be there. To incentivize purchases, not only are there significant discounts offered (although I recommend checking Amazon prices too, even if they are pre-order), but many offer free shipping to wherever you came from. That way you don’t have to haul books with you when you go home.

Finally, every vendor booth will have a brochure or handout of some kind listing all of their volumes. Usually these function as order forms that you can take with you to look through in a less hectic setting, and yet still take advantage of the conference rates. In many cases even the free shipping option applies for a period of time as well.

No. 2 – Hearing Papers

Of course, one of the major reasons for going to a conference is to attend sessions. If you register early enough, many organizations will mail you the program for the entire event. That is nice since it allows you to peruse the various topics to be discussed and gather your top choices to attend. Of course, these programs can reach biblical scales – literally hundreds of pages long for SBL/AAR – and therefore offer many hours of page-flipping, not to mention several pounds to your luggage. Some organizations are now opting for annual mobile apps that essentially do the same thing but in a more searchable and user-friendly fashion.

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Avoid this part of the conference experience – plan ahead!

However you choose to do it, go through the conference program in advance and schedule out sessions you’d like to attend. This is easier to do if you have a relatively decent idea of your field of interest, but quickly becomes overwhelming and can be extremely frustrating if you do not. It’s easy to think you can just pop from session to session as your fancy leads you, but at the bigger events Talk A can be a twenty minute walk (or more) from Talk B even assuming you know where you’re going. At that point, you’ve missed Talk B with nothing to show for it but sweat stains. Plan ahead. Orient yourself to the conference center upon arrival so that you can navigate from session to session without hiccup. Most events have staff members here and there to help you do so, but it’s best to be confident navigating for yourself. Some of the apps mentioned above have a scheduling feature with reminders and even conference center maps built in – use them!

Perhaps this is a good time to say that you should have some concept of your narrower field of interest (e.g. the Pastoral Epistles, Papyrology, Essene Studies, etc.) if you are going to attend a conference. While of course you don’t have to have a dissertation proposal in-hand, it certainly goes a long way to know the kinds of sessions you want to be in, the kinds of topics you find fascinating, and – most importantly – the people at work in those areas. This leads me to the next opportunity.

No. 3 – Networking

Possibly the biggest pay-off for attending a conference is the opportunity to meet other scholars. I say “possibly” because this opportunity is in large part what you make of it. If you plan to shoot from the hip and let fate/providence have its way, I submit that you’ve lost the principal on your conference investment. The Academy is made up of people, and it is people that therefore present the greatest resource to the young scholar.

This is your chance to talk to real people.

While it’s true that attendees will be wearing name tags, don’t count on this being your primary means of meeting scholars of interest (although it is always fun to see who’s standing behind you in the coffee line). Here is my recommendation: Again, assuming you have a decently focused idea of your area of interest for doctoral work, spend lots of time on the front end of your trip researching scholars in that field. Find out who they are, where they studied (and under whom), what they’ve written, which institution they are currently on faculty, the kinds of dissertations they have supervised recently, and whether their interests overlap with yours. Most of this information can be found on faculty members’ webpages. Even if you are planning to undertake an American-style doctoral program where choosing an advisor comes late in the game, it’s important to develop relationships nevertheless.

Once you have, say, six to ten people of interest to you – and these should be top tier choices – you need to get in touch with them. Don’t just plan to bump into them. Last year in Baltimore I saw one of my Old Testament professors heading down an escalator as I went up one next to him, and we said “Oh, hey!” as we passed by, both knowing we would certainly never cross paths again that weekend. This is where planning ahead comes into play, since many scholars will only attend part of a conference, or will have already drawn up a full schedule in advance, especially if they are presenting work themselves. You will need to email them directly. In most cases, email addresses can be found on university faculty pages. Look them up, pluck up your courage, and send a note their way.

Others I’ve spoken with about this step seem to express some level of intimidation. That is understandable. But remember that doctoral supervisors are in the business of seeking out new students. Not only do they want prospective students to contact them, but they need such students! Supervisors need supervisees. So be cordial but forthright. Here’s a sample email that I sent two years ago (with success) if you’re really stuck:

_________________________

Hi Dr. ___________,

I hope you’re doing well and enjoying the new academic year. I am a current student at __[your institution]__, and I’m becoming increasingly interested in the field of _______________ studies for doctoral work. I am familiar with your material in this field, and I’m curious to know if you are planning to attend the upcoming ___________ conference. If so, I wonder whether we might be able to meet up for coffee. I’d love to discuss prospects for doctoral work in general, and _[the professor’s institution]_ in particular.

Thanks, and take care,

[your name]

_________________________

Avoid over-enthusiasm. It’s off-putting.

Remember, you’re dealing with scholars who are extremely busy and who don’t particularly care to be fussed over. Get to the point with clarity and professionalism. Read this article for more pointers.

Of course, not everyone will respond, and not everyone who responds will be going, and not everyone who is going will have time to meet up. Hence the need to plan ahead. Most likely, however, you’ll get enough meetings on the agenda to make your attendance more than worthwhile. Oh, and make sure you buy their coffee!

Finally, you will want to be sure to attend the sessions of scholars you are interested in studying under. Be sure to tell them in advance that you’ll be there, although when you go give plenty of space, especially if you’ve already spoken with them or will. When you do meet with scholars, be sensitive to their time. Do your homework on their research, publications, and institution well in advance so you can skip it and spend more face-time dealing with important matters. Think of strategic questions (e.g., are they taking doctoral students when you’ll be matriculating? are they aware of work already done in the vein that you are proposing? what kind of placement rates do their prior students have? what publishing opportunities can they connect you with? etc.). A a bit of forethought goes a long way in establishing a foundation for a potential working relationship. First impressions and all that…

More to come…

I will bring this post to an end here, but in my next I will continue this discussion with some tips on being frugal. As mentioned, it can be expensive to attend conferences, but there are a few practical ways to make your pennies last.

9 comments

  1. Great advice, Will. Thanks! A quick illustration of the benefits of conferences: At SBL this past year I was sitting in a lounge, catching up with a former student (and resting my feet), when we were joined by Harold P. Scanlin, a leading, world-class Masoretic scholar. We spent nearly an hour talking with him, puzzling over some unusual Masoretic pointings, and hearing stories about other OT scholars, the state of scholarship, &c. It was a brilliant time. My former student had just written a dissertation on Proverbs, and the passage in question was in Pr, so we had a genuine conversation, which both he and I found greatly encouraging (and a lot of fun).

    One other piece of advice: Print up some personal “contact” cards with your name, field of study, and contact information (email, address, telephone), and offer them to folks whom you meet. Don’t try to make them look like business cards (i.e., by putting the name of your school on them), unless you are actually employed (in which case your school should/may supply them for you). You can buy perforated sheets of card stock at most office supply stores, and MSPublisher (yours or a friend’s) has templates for (business) cards that are pre-programmed to print on those perforated sheets.

    Thanks again, Will–this is well said.

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