Presenting an Academic Paper (vis-a-vis SBL)

If you are currently pursuing a doctorate in biblical studies, you may be thinking about presenting a paper at an academic conference. Now, I have not actually presented a paper, but I hope to soon and I asked John M.G. Barclay for some advice about how to get my paper proposal accepted. First things first – what goes into a proposal? Well, it depends on the desires of the coordinator and the level of competition (e.g. how many slots to fill vs. number of proposals – for the ‘Pauline literature’ group at SBL it is quite competitive). He had these insightful things to say.

First, the decision is made by a committee (for SBL) and each proposal is given a score (of 1-4, 4 being the best) by each committee member. The numbers are added up and averaged and the top ones get the slots. Also, no particular preference is given to ‘tenured’ scholars vs. graduate students. The merit is determined based on content.

So, how is the decision made – on what basis is a paper considered worthy of presenting? Barclay’s advice was threefold.

1. Manageable Topic – Is the paper narrow enough to cover in 20-25 minutes? Is the argument cogent enough to communicate in such a short time? Will the presenter end up speeding through 20 pages frenetically or even need to skip over major sections to finish ‘in time’ (which he or she probably won’t be able to do)? Don’t try to accomplish too much and tackle a major issue that should be argued in twice or three times the amount of time. Barclay recommended shooting for a length of about 10 pages double-spaced, expecting to be able to read at the pace of 1 page every 2 minutes.

2. Relevant Topic – Of course the topic should be relevant to the group theme; but the more interesting it is to a broad range of scholars in that field, the more likely it would be selected. The committee wants their group papers to be interesting to many and they want to fill seats. So, even if your paper idea is very specific, try to frame the paper is such a way that it can have a bearing on broader issues (authorship, hermeneutics, historical issues, socio-cultural issues, etc…).

3. Originality – The thesis of the paper must make an original contribution to the topic discussed. It cannot be a survey or summary of ideas. It must move in a new direction or develop a previous idea in a significant way. There must be a critical balance between advancing a discussion and arguing an unproveable or unreasonable thesis.

Barclay also mentioned the importance of the abstract (varying in length depending on the desires of the group). The abstract needs to be clear, concise and interesting. This should go without saying, but…have you read SBL abstracts before. Some don’t even seem like they are trying to get people interested. So, be attentive to how you write your abstract – its more important than you may think.