Tuesday, December 1, 2015

the academic conference: why bother?

It's that time of year. Pumpkins and gourds replace watermelons and blueberries. Trees wrap themselves in robes of gold and red and yellow. Birds fly south. And Mom packs to go to ETS, IBR, and SBL. (For the uninitiated, I'm talking about the annual meetings of the Evangelical Theological Society, the Institute for Biblical Research, and the Society of Biblical Literature).

My children hardly think it strange for me to pull out my suit jackets and chatter about all the great people I'm about to see. This was my 7th annual conference. My academic career has taken me to New Orleans, Atlanta, San Francisco, Milwaukee / Chicago, Baltimore, San Diego, and now full-circle to Atlanta. Although my children think this is normal, perhaps you're still scratching your head, wondering why anyone would voluntarily spend the time and money to sit for a week listening to academics read their research essays aloud to each other (horrors!).

Scripture and Theology in Global Context at ETS 2015,
(right to left) Gene Green, Emily J. Choge Kerama, Jules
Gonzalez, Raymond Aldred,  Sung Wook Chung (photo: C. Imes)
But really, what could be better than a ballroom packed with people who write commentaries and teach college courses in Bible and theology for a living? (Ok, it's true. We are not the hippest crowd you've ever seen. But just imagine the collective IQ!)

I have 5 BIG reasons to keep going back for more, and I share them here in hopes that more students in this field will take the plunge. It's worth every penny.

5. Cutting Edge Research with a Walking Bibliography - Before academic books hit the shelves or journals publish peer-reviewed articles, scholars test their ideas on their peers. At the annual meeting I get first dibs on these new ideas. What's more, I can watch the immediate reactions of other scholars. Meeting these people and hearing them talk invigorates my work and helps me remember what I've learned. Instead of a list of names, I see faces and hear voices and recall handshakes.
Christopher H. J. Wright,
author of The Mission of God,
at IBR 2015 (photo: C. Imes)
     At ETS/SBL I'm surrounded by my bibliography! I sit shoulder to shoulder with giants in the field and have opportunities to ask them questions I have always wondered about their work. Maybe someday when I'm all grown up I won't be so giddy about meeting "famous" people. But even now it's a thrill to walk the halls and watch the name tags fly by -- names of men and women whose work has shaped who I am and what I think. In my little corner of the (academic) world, these people are rock stars. (Human, of course, like you and me, but people who have set the course for my generation of biblical scholars and theologians). This year I rode the escalator with Walter Brueggemann, shook hands with Christopher Wright, and spoke with countless others whose books line my shelves.

4. Deep Discounts - Speaking of books, the book tables are every scholar's dream (and every spouse's nightmare!). All the latest publications in biblical studies are there -- as much as 50% off -- AND you can get your hands on them, check the table of contents or indexes, and stock up for another year of learning. Publishers are eager to see their books in the hands of this particular crowd (especially those who are currently teaching), so you can anticipate free books as well. This year, because I've just agreed to teach another class at Multnomah University, I spent a grand total of $9.50 and came home with 14 books. A new record!

3. Professional Experience - I didn't present a paper this year for the annual meeting, but I've given 7 papers at previous conferences. Each time I've been grateful for the scholars who took the time to listen to my ideas, ask penetrating questions, and offer feedback. It's a bit like being graded, in person, by a dozen or more people at once. That can be intimidating. But the discipline is worth it because it makes me stronger as a scholar. As an audience member, I'm learning how to ask better questions and make every conversation count.

2. Networking - At my first annual meeting in 2009, I didn't understand how important this was. My goal was to attend as many papers as possible. Veterans told me I should go to fewer papers and spend more time with people. I still didn't get it. Now I do. After 30 papers, my brain no longer tracks with the speaker. And even with 5 full days of conference attendance, there wasn't enough time to see all the people I wanted to see.
Second Annual IBR Women's Breakfast (photo: C. Imes)
     The annual meeting is where most schools conduct interviews for open faculty positions. It's also where publishers meet with aspiring authors to discuss book projects. Faculty mentors are meeting prospective PhD students. I am fully convinced that the success of my PhD applications was in large part due to positive connections at the annual meeting. Create your own interview! Find out who the decision-makers are and go out of your way to introduce yourself. Every year you attend you'll have a larger network of people you know and the conference will feel more like a happy reunion.
     Here's proof of the value of networking: In 2010 and 2011, I had dinner with the academic dean of an institution in the Portland area, hoping that this conversation would increase my chances of one day landing a job. We met again in 2012, but this time I noticed a shift in the conversation. The academic dean showed an inordinate amount of interest in my experience at Wheaton College, including the climate, schools for the kids, our church, etc. Eventually he admitted an ulterior motive. The following summer Marc Cortez and his family moved to Wheaton where he took a position on the PhD faculty. While I was thrilled for Wheaton, I wondered if my networking had been in vain. Fast forward to 2015, where I learned that Marc will chair my dissertation defense. Nothing goes to waste!

Colleagues from Wheaton College at our Annual PhD
Reunion (Photo: C. Imes)
1. Reunion - Over the course of the week I spent time with people I know from several schools I've attended, many of whom are now scattered around the globe. Add to that people I've met through job interviews, paper presentations, receptions and through mutual friends, and what you get is a marathon reunion of like-minded people from morning 'til night! At the heart of this for me is the "Blockhead" reunion, where all of Daniel Block's former and current students gather for a meal. This is the best network of all -- friends who share our mentor's legacy and who are each working in our corners of the world to introduce others to the captivating Word of God. It's a fabulous group of men and women on whom I have come to depend throughout the year -- a network of experts in various sub-disciplines who can guide me when I need it.

These are my reasons for prioritizing the annual meetings. I realize it's expensive to go, but think about it: how much does a 3-credit class cost in seminary or graduate school? Over $1000, right? You can attend all three conferences (ETS, IBR, and SBL), stay in the conference hotels, and eat your meals out the whole time for less than that, all the while gaining a great deal more personally and professionally than you can ever get from one class. I call that a bargain!

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