The AAR/SBL Academic Culture – A Challenge (Gupta)

academic-conference.jpgThis is about my 10th or 11th SBL. I remember those early years of being starstruck when I saw Luke Timothy Johnson in the flesh, or when I got a few minutes in line at a cafe to talk to D. Moody Smith. The first papers I presented – how much I prepared and rehearsed. There are so many wonderful things about SBL. It has always been a highlight of my year.

I am trying now, settling into a decade of SBL-ing, to find ways to strengthen the experience. So, here are my bits of advice for everyone, but especially those who have been around for a while, like myself.

#1: You’re not too cool for anyone, so don’t be a jerk. Don’t make SBL about showing off your status, or kissing up to someone. Remember what it was like to be blown off by someone (as they look for someone else more important to talk to). Don’t do it. If someone wants to meet with me or chat with me, I try to find time in my schedule. When someone comes to me and introduces themselves, I don’t wait to find out how important they are – I try to take a minute and get to know them.

#2: Remember the disenfranchised. I have lived in a majority white culture all my life, it’s all I know, and I am not upset about it, but that does not mean that I am always “comfortable.” In recent years I have been trying harder and harder to make sure I am noticing everyone around me. Be friendly and inviting.

#3: Come alongside an underdog. I was (am?) an underdog. I am not the smartest guy in the room – I work hard, but, confession time, I bombed the GRE (twice). Several people at SBL took a chance on me and believed in me, they sent opportunities my way that I didn’t deserve, but they believed I could rise to the occasion. I am trying to do that for others now. Come alongside an underdog at SBL.

#4: Encourage the women in your sphere. Not in a condescending way, but open your eyes to the sexist world of academia. Nobody wants to be sexist, but many of us are. It’s an old boy’s club. It’s changing, thank God it is changing. I work with many incredible women  – academics and editors. But we have a long way to go. Invite them into collaborative projects. Invite them to your social outings. Some women academics receive little or weak support even from their institutions. Let’s do things differently.

#5: Treat exhibitor staff, hotel staff, and SBL staff with utmost respect. Our tendency is to think everyone is there for ME. My books, my papers, my response, my interview. Yeah, I’m sure they go home at night and all they want to do is talk about how amazing you are. (cue eyeroll). Take a minute every once in a while and be friendly to staff people. Surprise, surprise, many of them work excruciatingly long hours and have to be away from family for many, many days to serve you. Kindness helps. (Is it obvious I used to be one of these exhibitors?)

#6: Don’t diss anyone behind their back. I am guilty of this. I have done this. I know better, and I want to raise the bar. When gossip comes up, change the subject.

#7: Be yourself. (Your best self.) Don’t put on a mask at SBL. If you are evangelical, don’t pretend you are not. If you don’t like to drink, don’t get pressured into it. If you feel led to pray for someone with you in public, just do it. Don’t let “SBL” stifle you – we are SBL. We are human. Go for it.



9 thoughts on “The AAR/SBL Academic Culture – A Challenge (Gupta)

  1. This is so good, I don’t know where to start. Thank you, Nijay! I’ve been guilty of all these things myself. You’re helping me plot a new approach to the conference this year. I hope to see you at SBL in a few days!

  2. I remember when I first got blown off at SBL and it made me feel inadequte and small. Sage advice and I hope scholars follow it!

  3. I remember the first time I was blown off. I was on my way to a session (with a few minutes to spare) when I saw one of the big whigs in my field – a person I really, really, looked up to – walking down the same hallway as me. I assumed he was going to the same session as I was, since it was the primary session for our field. Excited at the opportunity, I crossed the hallway and started to walk beside him and began to introduce myself. Before I could finish the sentence though, he brusquely cut me off and stammered that he did not have time to talk because he was on his way to a session and was running late! I tried to say something like “hey, we’re both on our way to the same session, so we can walk and talk together, and anyway, you have a few minutes yet, no need to rush!” but I couldn’t get that out – he cut me off again with a hurried apology and started walking faster to get ahead of me. Of course, I had to keep walking down the same hallway, since I was going to the same session, so then we had the awkward situation of him speed-walking just as fast as his legs could carry him, every few moments casting a terrified glance over his shoulder to see if I was still following after him like some crazed stalker! Eventually I saw a water fountain and, though I wasn’t thirsty, stopped for a drink just to give this bloke a chance to put some ground between us. I arrived at the session with a few minutes to spare, still, and saw him sitting there having a leisurely chat with some other big whigs. So, yeah, over all that was fairly discouraging.

    It was made up for though by meeting Bruce Metzger at the princeton reception that night. Someone led me over to him and said “here’s someone you’ll want to meet” and lo, behold, Bruce Metzger turned around to face me! Talk about being starstruck! I probably could not have put two words together if my life depended on it, I was so nervous, but fortunately I didn’t have to. Metzger immediately started talking to me as if I was the most important person he’d met that night. He asked me all about my studies, my school, and what I was working on. Then he made a great show of shaking my hand and, I’m quoting here, saying what an honour it was to meet me! Me!
    Now, I’m sure he probably followed that protocol with most people he met, and I’m not seriously dense enough to think that meeting me was the highlight of his night, but crap did I ever have wind in my sails after meeting him, and how much effort did that really cost him? How hard was that for him to do? It was so easy for him, but such a moment for me. Such a contrast with the other bloke.

    good post Nijay.

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