Why we read papers.

Or should that be a question mark? My brother, who is teaching Supply Chain and Business Logistics (although it occurs to me that there is another better title, I am sure he will provide it ;-[/mfn], commented today that he found it odd that at SBL we read our papers instead of providing them ahead of time and offering a summary. I don’t know that I want to defend all of our habits and methods in the area of biblical and religious studies (or the humanities in general) but there is some method to this.

1) I have been in session and given papers in sessions where the paper was distributed ahead of time. This is particular easy in this day of web access and email. There are obvious plusses to this, primarily that you already know the content and can get straight into discussion after a brief summary.

2) So why read the papers? Well, first of all because not everyone has time to read all the papers that will be presented ahead of time. I don’t think this is being lazy, it is just that we set aside this time to engage in this exchange of ideas and part of that is this orderly dissemination in this particular time. True, I could read the papers as I would articles or ahead of time but…

3) I don’t know which papers I will want to read ahead of time. There are hundreds (thousands?!) of papers offered at SBL/AAR every year. I often do now know which sessions I will attend until the minute I step into the room. If I have to have prepared then that session is lost to me. In 20 minutes one ought to be able to concisely present one’s research and leave 10 minutes for good discussion.

4) Which leads to the serendipity of the whole affair. Some of the best papers I have heard were ones that I never would have read had I been looking at titles or picking on my own. Instead, I sit down in a session and find a gem of a paper in an unlikely spot. (I might have gone to the session for another paper, for example, and stayed for this unexpected find.)

There are some recent trends whose value I am uncertain about. The primary one is the role of a respondent. I can see this value if the respondent is themselves a clear expert and has a distinctly different view. Often times, however, it is just another member of the general group offering their take. One person commented today that a respondent said, “I agree with everything just said.” But the respondent took 10 minutes to say that! I would much rather they open it up to general discussion. This too often leads to unexpected treasure.

So, we are not perfect and I am the first to recognize the need of different forms of presentation for different fields or kinds of research. (The survey of students regarding biblical studies in our Teaching Biblical Studies in the Liberal Arts session is one that needed many charts and graphs, for example.) I also recognize the need for more coffee before certain papers…

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