My Letter to Executive Director John Kutsko about SBL Policy Changes

When I first heard about the changes to paper submissions by SBL Student members (via Targuman), of which I am one, I was concerned. Then I received an email in which those changes were confirmed. Others have voiced their concerns (see here and here), while some are less bothered (see also, James McGrath’s lineup). Since I just renewed my student membership last week before the changes were announced, I called and asked if I could upgrade my account to a full membership. Their willingness to do so demonstrates how superficial these changes really are. I have outlined the numerous problematic implications in my letter (below) sent this morning to John Kutsko, executive director of SBL. I would encourage concerned members to voice their opinion about these changes to those in charge.

Dear John Kutsko,

As a student member of SBL, one who renewed his membership just this past week before changes to student membership were announced, I would like to express my concerns about these recent changes. Based on information at the SBL website, I understand the student membership option to be one in which student members “receive all of the same benefits as a full member.” It appears, from this, that the option to join as a student member has been graciously extended to students who may have greater difficulty paying the full membership price due to educational expenses. I am grateful for this concession. I am, however, unsure what to make of these new changes. It appears that it is no longer true that student members receive all the same benefits as a full member. This should be promptly changed on the SBL website if these changes are to remain in effect.

In thinking through the implications of these changes, I am not convinced that Council will have succeeded in improving the society apart from some rather significant changes (as yet unstated) to membership in general. You say in your letter that “limitations apply not just to student members but to participants in general, and Council’s recent policy statement included actions concerning all members as well as Affiliate organizations.” Is the society planning to install a hierarchy of memberships, such that to have a full membership will require that one hold a terminal degree in some field directly related to biblical studies? Right now, anyone can join as a full member, regardless of whether or not they have earned a terminal degree in biblical studies. Short of a change not currently reflected on your website, student members like myself who are concerned about the changes to our membership privileges can simply pay $45 more dollars and enjoy the privileges of full membership. Unless other changes accompany the changes to student membership, these changes hardly improve the standards of the society, though they might help increase revenue! I don’t want to unfairly judge the motives of Council, but if no other changes are being put in place, then either Council did not anticipate this loophole, or Council had motives other than those advertised (i.e. $$) for changing the membership privileges of students.

I have another concern about the implications of these changes. If I am required to submit my full paper when I submit my proposal to a particular program unit, then supposedly my paper is being read when being considered for submission. It is then being evaluated against other proposals for which there is only a title and abstract. This is, I believe, an unbalanced way of comparing submissions, like comparing an opened gift to an unopened one at a dirty Santa gift exchange (the mystery of the unopened gift can prove very appealing, even if the opened gift is a fine one). If, however, student submissions will only be considered on the basis of their title and abstract, and if the reason for submitting the paper with the proposal is to ensure that students deliver their promised research, why does this need to happen so far in advance? Could student papers not be granted preliminary acceptance based on abstract and title. Students could then have till late July or early August to submit their full papers to the chairs of their program unit for final acceptance. Other submissions could be wait-listed, should students not deliver on their promised research. Since papers are often written in the few months or weeks preceding the conference, this would hardly put a burden on wait-listed individuals that they do not frequently place upon themselves. This would also allow student members to make multiple proposals without writing multiple papers. Because the society cannot accept every paper proposal, it is often the case that one submits 3 or 4 proposals to increase their changes of presenting. The new policies will require students who want to make multiple proposals in hopes that one of them is accepted submit multiple papers. This, I hope you will agree, is too much of a burden to place on students. Getting a paper accepted is already a challenging process for students, but these changes are turning it into a crap shot.

A further concern is related to the “pathway” for student members laid out in the letter. If the vision is that student members read a paper at a regional meeting, and they use the feedback from that meeting to improve their paper for the annual meeting, then the deadline for the call for papers needs to be extended beyond the date of the regional meetings. This would ensure that students who receive constructive feedback at the regional meetings are able to submit their proposals to the annual meeting with improvements. As it is, the regional meetings take place after the call for papers deadline. Students who submit their papers must submit a paper that has not undergone a “process of mentoring, discussion, and informal peer review.” Thus, your own policies subvert the very “pathway” you are trying to set up for student members. Of course, you could say that papers read at the regional meetings this year could be submitted to the annual meeting in 2012, but I think the absurdity of this “pathway” is self-evident.

Council should have consulted student and full members before making these changes. The question of how to improve the standards of the society should have been posed to its constituents. There are better ways of making improvements, and I am not completely opposed to limitations being placed on student members. Those limitations, however, should be fair and help facilitate the goals of student membership, something I do not think can be said of these most recent changes.


Joseph Kelly


12 thoughts on “My Letter to Executive Director John Kutsko about SBL Policy Changes

  1. @Joseph: While I am not negative I don’t necessarily want to say I am “in favor”, per se. I am just not bothered. I admit that this is because I am not yet ready to submit anything since I am busy as a Th.M. student just hoping to get my feet wet before Ph.D. studies sometime in 2012. I think I can understand where a more seasoned student, especially one currently in their Ph.D. program, would have more reason to be concerned that I.

  2. Joseph,

    You know me and you know that I like and respect you, so please keep all that in mind as I disagree with you a bit. I will endeavor not to be snarky or mean, but I will shoot straight: in certain respects, your letter backfires by reinforcing Council’s apparent concerns.

    First, your letter exhibits flawed, hasty exegesis—of Kutsko’s letter, that is. According to Kutsko’s letter, item 1, the limitation applies to “all students without a doctoral degree.” Simply upgrading your membership to a full membership does not, as far as I know, confer a doctoral degree. Admittedly, students who upgrade to full membership might slip past conference organizers due to the latter’s inattentiveness. This, however, would be the scholarly equivalent of using a “fake ID” to get into a bar while under age, and any aspiring biblical scholar who stoops to deception to avoid meeting a deadline or to get on the program twice instead of once has much bigger problems than the limitations themselves.

    Second—and this is where I feel petty, although what I’m about to say is highly relevant—your letter does nothing to assuage Council’s concerns about the quality of student presentations. SBL conference organizers (from Council all the way down) must balance two desiderata that are not always compatible: (a) encouraging and integrating the “next generation” of biblical scholars, and (b) ensuring that conference-goers hear high-quality presentations. To be sure, requiring students without doctorates to submit full manuscripts (which has always, as long as I can remember, been the rule for first-time presenters) is a very blunt instrument. Short of creating a sharing a database of individual ratings, however, it’s not unreasonable. Your letter, contrary to your own intent, may suggest to Council that it has actually done the right thing. Kutsko and any other SBL administrator who reads the letter will undoubtedly notice redundancies like “$45 more dollars,” number mismatches like “other proposals for which there is only a title and abstract,” questions that are punctuated as statements, and so on. One can certainly forgive Council for taking your letter as evidence that student presenters could benefit from a round of proofreading and evaluation prior to the actual presentation. Full professors with tenure are, in principle, just as susceptible to sloppy writing as a first-year M.Div. student; in practice, however, presentations by people who actually make their living speaking (lecturing) and writing (publishing) tend to be noticeably better in this regard (this, of course, is a personal, anecdotal observation with no scientific validity).

    Finally, your proposal for “preliminary acceptance” and “wait-listing” proposals is quite impractical. Many participants—including a nontrivial number of full professors with tenure and strong publishing records—can only afford to travel to conferences if their institutions underwrite their travel, and a significant number of institutions determine their contribution to professors’ travel based on the professors’ participation in (not just attendance at) the conference. At Pepperdine, for example, the percentage of our travel expenses for which we receive reimbursement depends on whether we made presentations at the conference (full reimbursement) or not (partial reimbursement). Across the country, such restrictions have grown tighter in recent years due to national and worldwide economic conditions. Some professors cannot, for logistical reasons like reimbursement, decide whether or not to attend the conference until they know whether their presentations will be on the program. To these logistical considerations, add the sheer insult of telling a professor with a teaching post and Ph.D. in hand, “We’d like to put your paper on a waiting list until we see whether this A.B.D.’s paper is worth hearing.”

    Two more things. First, each region sets the dates for its own meeting, and these can vary widely from region to region. My brief glance at the calendar shows regional meetings spread out from February through May in 2011. Unlike the SBL Annual Meeting, which is held at convention centers and conference-hosting hotels, most regional meetings are held on college campuses, and must fit into their host institutions’ schedules. SBL simply cannot, for logistical reasons, tie its submission deadlines to the schedule of regional meetings. Second, the “shotgun” approach to paper submissions is an excellent argument in favor of SBL’s changes. As you correctly noted, students who wish to take this approach must now submit essentially final papers instead of abstracts that represent inchoate ideas upon which the student has barely begun to work. If this policy results in a decreased use of the “shotgun” approach, that’s a good thing, not a flaw.

    Your passion is admirable, Joseph, but your argument isn’t persuasive. Your time would be better spent producing excellent work than arguing against SBL’s requirements and limits.

    1. Oops … let me be the first to point out my own mistake. I seem to have been comparing Joseph’s letter to Kutsko’s follow-up response rather than the original letter, thus send my second paragraph off base. My apologies to Joseph and all readers.

  3. Your appreciation and respect is apparent from the attention you paid to my letter and your willingness to write such a carefully thought out response. I appreciate it greatly! Also, I was accused recently of being too Vulcan in my interpersonal skills, so I appreciate the fact that you want to “shoot straight.” Sometimes, social conventions are overrated.

    You make some excellent points. Among them, I had not considered the fact that many individuals are only able to attend the meeting if their institution reimburses them, and that many institutions will only reimburse those who present. I still believe the selection of papers should be based on title and abstract alone (Mark Goodacre shared that he too felt this way on the Facebook group dedicated to this issue), but you make it clear that a compromise will not be as simple as the one I worked out. It is more than a fair concern.

    Regarding the distinction between student and full membership, I called the SBL office yesterday morning and asked if they would be willing to allow me to upgrade to a full membership. Because I had renewed my membership just last week, they were willing, and they did not inquire as to whether my educational circumstances had changed. I then explained to the lady on the phone the reason for my inquiry; I didn’t actually want to change my membership status but to find out if I would be allowed. While the lady I spoke to could have been nothing more than a secretary who answers phones, I gathered from our conversation that I was actually speaking to someone of some influence, someone who had been involved in the recent policy changes. She made one statement in particular that hinted at this saying something like, “I hadn’t thought that students might opt to do this.” She understood this as a legitimate way of getting around the recent policy changes, albeit due to a technicality. It was also based on this, not just the letter itself, that led to my response. As it is, Kutsko’s letter says nothing about the minister who has a seminary degree but no doctorate. Such a minister is not a “student,” and as such they would not be subject to the new policies. They pay the eighty-five dollars and, with no doctoral degree, have the same privileges as PhDs. Why should students be singled out by these policies when there are other kinds of individuals who attend SBL who do not possess a terminal degree? Among other things, it was this unfair and unprincipled distinction between students and everyone else to which I was objecting.

    On the Facebook group dedicated to discussing this issue, I submitted my own set of policies that I thought would capture much of the original intent of the new policies while bypassing some of the more negative implications for students. I suggest that all SBL members be categorized as either “credentialed” or “non-credentialed.” A credentialed member is one who has a terminal degree in a field related to biblical studies, all other members are non-credentialed. The distinction between full membership and student membership should be a separate matter, one motivated by the society’s concern for students who have educational expenses and who are likely not to receive reimbursement for attending the meetings. Thus, all credentialed members will pay full membership fees. Non-credentialed members will have the option of paying student membership fees if they are students; otherwise they too will pay full membership fees. I believe the distinction between credentialed and non-credentialed members captures the spirit of the original policies, but with language that more accurately reflects the concerns that motivated the new policies.

    I have no reason to object to a limitation being placed on non-credentialed members, that they be allowed to present one paper at the annual meeting as opposed to two. I do, however, believe we need to find a way of allowing students to submit paper proposals, not full papers, at least not until after they have had the opportunity to be presented at a regional meeting. Otherwise, all this talk of a “pathway” is insubstantial. A student might submit a paper for the annual meeting, and that paper might be rejected for some particular flaws. Yet those very flaws are likely to be pointed out to the student in the regional meeting, and as a result the student will improve their paper. This improvement will mitigate the original concerns about the paper, but the corrections come too late because the student’s paper will have already been rejected. In this way the policies recently implemented subvert the very avenue for growth and development they were implemented to establish. I very much like the idea of SBL setting up policies that develop a “process of mentoring, discussion, and informal peer review.” I do not, however, believe that they have accomplished this with the current policies.

    I hope that Council can see past the inadequacies of my letter and recognize my legitimate concerns.

  4. “I believe the distinction between credentialed and non-credentialed members captures the spirit of the original policies, but with language that more accurately reflects the concerns that motivated the new policies.”

    I think this is a rather good suggestion.

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