SECSOR in Context: Student Perspectives on a Regional Annual Meeting

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NOTE: The following remarks are a combination of the author’s own experience of the SECSOR 2015 Annual Meeting in Nashville, TN and those of four other PhD students, all of whom attended and presented papers in sessions related to Ancient Religion and Biblical Studies.



The Annual Meeting of the Southeast Commission for the Study of Religion gets a bad rap. This conference, which convenes the regional forces of the Society of Biblical Literature, the American Academy of Religion, and the American Schools for Oriental Research, is often considered a ‘stepping-stone’ conference – a conference where grad students and junior faculty go to pad their CVs until they’re ‘established.’ Once someone begins presenting at the national meetings of SBL, AAR, or ASOR, he or she may be tempted no longer to attend SECSOR. To be sure, there probably are proportionally more graduate students at SECSOR than at National Meetings, and it is a fact that few senior faculty (read: famous people) frequent SECSOR. But, like the ‘fruit-on-the-bottom’ yogurt that has become so popular of late, much of the value of attending a meeting like SECSOR lies below the surface. The following is an experientially-driven list of some putative pros and cons students (and others) should consider when weighing the relative worth of attending SECSOR’s annual meeting; it is based upon the experiences of 5 PhD students who attended and presented at the 2015 Annual Meeting. This summary attempts a frank, realist approach, endeavoring honestly to answer the question: “How much ‘bang for your buck’ do you get at SECSOR?”

PROS

Networking Opportunities – No, the collective religious studies faculty of the Ivy League schools don’t file into Volvos to pack the house at SECSOR (although you can find Ivy League faculty at regional conferences if you look). However, the networking opportunities that are available at regional meetings are often more fruitful. Many faculty of the myriad colleges in the SE region frequent SECSOR, and more often than not will actually have time to speak with prospective students, those interested in their research, etc… This is often not the case at the SBL/AAR National Meeting(s). Furthermore, some academics like travelling within their own ‘communities,’ and the schools where many aspiring scholars are going to get jobs are often represented at SECSOR.

Books – The book displays at SECSOR aren’t what they are at the National Meetings, but they are one thing: much less crowded. Book distributors have all the time in the world for interested readers at SECSOR, and discounts abound. Indeed, many grad students may know that the end of SECSOR’s Annual Meeting is a great time to score a free book!

Research Response – Any student presenting research at SECSOR may be a bit disappointed at the attendance for his or her paper, which can sometimes be in the single digits. But even at the National Meetings those who specialize in a given paper’s specific area are going to be few in number, and again, presenters generally have more time to interact with their interlocutors at SECSOR, both during and after panels.

Opportunity to Present – It’s no secret that one great boon SECSOR provides for students is a relatively easy avenue to gain professional experience and a CV line or two by presenting research. This is as it should be. Just because SECSOR’s acceptance rate is higher than the SBL/AAR National Meetings doesn’t make it any less a verifiable peer-reviewed setting in which to present research – it is widely recognized as such, and graduate students should take this under consideration.

Development OpportunitiesSECSOR will often put together events for certain students at their Annual Meeting. Some of these are exclusively for women or minorities, but others are designed to attract (and help) graduate students generally. In 2015 a graduate student luncheon invited two early-career scholars to talk about the politics of publishing, dissertation work and networking, even power dynamics within academic departments. Other regional meetings also set up such events with some consistency. These can be some of the most valuable discussions to which a graduate student may be privy.

CONS

Paraprofessional Stigma – Graduate students and faculty alike are often guilty of thinking of meetings like SECSOR as being designed for graduate students (and they are, in part). Advisors may counsel students to present once or twice at SECSOR, and thereafter to frequent the National Meeting (that is, to ‘move up’). This accounts for SECSOR’s several-hundred-person attendance. It is true that by some reckonings a SECSOR presentation does not afford the prestige of a more conspicuous vanue, and everyone’s time is limited.

Book – Advanced graduate students may be interested in talking to publishers about book prospects, and everyone likes a broad variety of discounted reading material to peruse. Very little opportunity for either of these is likely to be offered at SECSOR.

R & D – In developing research ideas, one of the true functions of academic conferences is to provide the kind of multi-perspectival and comprehensive criticism needed to turn a project into a publishable product. Interested, incisive, broad-spectrum criticism is less likely to be available at SECSOR than at the National Meetings. That having been said, no one knows whence the best criticism of a given project may come.

Breadth of Scholarship – At National Meetings attendees routinely must choose between numerous panels they would like to attend. The exact opposite is sometimes the dilemma at a Regional Meeting: one may find at SECSOR only one or two papers over the course of the entire conference of genuine interest. However, interdisciplinary perspective never hurt any academic career, and not infrequently scholars must be coaxed into such dialogue.

CONCLUSION

Is SECSOR’s Regional Meeting worth going to? Absolutely it is. In terms of hotel cost, conference fees, and (usually) transportation, it is far more affordable than the National Meetings. Graduate students can almost always find at least several people who do work in their specific area at SECSOR, and with an advance email, one might find oneself with an hour or more of undivided attention from an important critic, future colleague, or career contact. Furthermore, presenting at SECSOR says as much as presenting anywhere that a grad student is serious about being a productive, social scholar.

Does SECSOR provide everything the National Meetings do at a cheaper price? No. It’s not the same thing. But diversity is the spice of life. SECSOR’s Annual Regional Meeting is an exceptional place to meet academics of kindred interest, to get some feedback on research, to make career connections, and score a free book (or two!) all in a low-key environment (and there is something to be said for the latter in and of itself). Will you get meet Princeton’s President and Harvard’s Graduate Dean for beers? Maybe not. And to be frank, more faculty in the SE region should adopt the habit of attending SECSOR every several years – it is a service both to graduate students and colleagues. But what SECSOR lacks in prestige it makes up for in utility, and either way, the former has got to be one of the most overrated and misused tropes in the academy. So, for my money, check out the SECSOR’s Annual Meeting next March in Atlanta. If you are a graduate student, you ought to have enough projects in the works to whip up a 10-page paper to share some of your research, and who knows, you may find yourself standing before a future employer, colleague, or co-author, and all in your home region!


Contribution by
Carson Bay
On-Campus Student Representative
Florida State University


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