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.