Monday, September 14, 2009

The SBL-Biblioblogger Affiliation

Some people have expressed concern with the new relationship between bibliobloggers and the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL). I'm not going to do a round-up of all the posts--Daniel O. McClellan has already done an excellent job of that over at his blog.

What concerns are there? Well, some are concerned that "bibliobloggers" are too loosely defined. Some have complained that there are not proper controls on which blogs will be officially affiliated with SBL. Academic respectability is a big concern here. Still others are asking what affiliation status even means? After all, since it doesn't really guarantee the academic integrity of a blog, what good is it?

Briefly here are my thoughts.

SBL: The Good, the Bad, and the Dilettantes
First, SBL membership itself really tells you nothing about the quality of a person's scholarship. There are all sorts of wacky people affiliated with SBL. People complaining that the SBL affiliate badge will in some way harm the prestige of SBL itself tend to gloss over the fact that the badge is displayed by people who are already members of the Society.

What Is "Academic Respectability"?
Second, this whole dust up raises an even more important issue--namely, what exactly constitutes "academic respectability". In my mind "academic respectability" is not determined by a person's affiliation. Whatever university or society a person may be associated with, the standard for judging someone's scholarship is the merits of their own work and the credibility of their own arguments. I think a major problem in biblical scholarship is that positions (i.e., exegetical, historical, theological, etc.) are often accepted or rejected on grounds irrelevant to the evidence and/or arguments attached with them.

Take for example the Secret Gospel of Mark. What is most surely a fraud still carries with it some academic clout simply because it is attached to the name Morton Smith.

Thankfully scholars are indeed waking up--years later. Yet there are still a plethera of other areas where "respectability" is afforded to positions simply because they have been advanced by scholars of "stature". Irregardless of the data, positions are deemed "respectable" or "unlikely".

I hesitate to begin to offer further illustrations because I know I'll alienate some people and because I also know I may just get carried away. But let me just point to one area--one I'm dealing with in detail in my thesis: assumptions inherited from the form-critics about the way the Jesus tradition was transmitted. Because of the form-critics, for example, many scholars today simply accept the idea--without any investigation!--that the the titles of the Gospels were likely later additions. As Martin Hengel so ably showed, this position is adopted without a single shred of evidence. Pay no heed to the actual evidence from the manuscripts! Forget the fact that the attributions are universally corroborated in the early Church! (There was no email back then--it's not like the Christians could just get everyone to agree magically overnight on a attribution which only emerged later). Skip over the fact that the Synoptic Gospels are attributed to unlikely figures (e.g., Matthew, the Gospel which is clearly trying to make Jesus palatable to Jewish audience is attributed to the former tax collector!; the second and third Gospels are not even attributed to apostles)!

In short, "academic respectability", if it has to do with something other than arguments and evidence, means little. In fact, you can tell when a scholar knows he's loosing an argument--he has to label the opposing position with terms such as "conservative" or "liberal", as if "guilt by association" were itself somehow to be counted as evidence against the credibility of their case.

What's The Point?
With that in mind, you might ask, "If SBL membership does not ensure solid scholarship and if 'academic respectability' should not have to do with affiliation, why even bother being affiliated with SBL?" The answer: because those who are likely to do cutting-edge, solid scholarship are likely to also be affiliated with SBL. Let's be clear, SBL is not great because it somehow guarantees the work being done by all of its members. SBL is important because so many of its members do important work.

Put it another way: I don't go to SBL meetings because I know that only solid scholarship is done there. I go because I know that it is one of the only places the majority of those doing great scholarship are likely to converge. Of course, there are great scholars who are not affiliated with SBL and who never attend. I'm not saying that SBL is where ALL great scholarship is done. But the one place I know I can go to find the most number of like-minded people is the annual SBL meeting.

Let's translate that now to the biblioblog affiliation. Blogs with the SBL badge are not necessarily going to have excellent scholarship. Just as there are wacky members in SBL there are going to be wacky SBL members with blogs. And just as there are great scholars who have nothing to do with SBL, there are going to be great scholars whose blogs will not be affiliated with SBL.

But just as I go to SBL because I know that there I'm more likely to find the kind of balanced, open-minded, solid scholarship that stimulates my thinking than elsewhere in the US, hopefully the same can be true with the SBL Affiliate blogging. There are host of crack-pot Bible blogs out there. But I go to the biblioblogs because I know that those interested in serious academic discussion seem to be drawn to it. In other words, the kinds of scholars I enjoy reading tend to be SBL members. It would make sense then that they would want to identify themselves with an SBL-affilate status. The tag therefore has value, though it doesn't guarantee solid scholarship any more than membership in SBL does.

The tag extends the SBL community beyond meetings. It creates a kind of on-line community which, among other things, can further academic discussion. And I'm all for that!

But there's more.

The Benefits and Limits of Blogs
In an excellent post Bob Cargill explained how the emergence of scholarly blogging corresponds to the larger issue of the academic respectability of the internet in general. Once academic institutions were completely oppposed to virtually any use of the internet; its benefits though made it impossible to resist.

Now, what I'm going to say next may surprise my students, from whom I virtually never accept papers using internet sources (one primary exception being Catholic magisterial sources, e.g., papal encyclicals which are all helpfully on the Vatican's website). But, as Bob points out, the internet is a valuable tool which simply cannot be dismissed. The key is recognizing the benefits and limits of blogging.

I think the key here is recognizing the difference between sites featuring peer-reviewed articles and those which don't. Sites like NT Gateway which compile peer-reviewed articles are especially helpful. Blogs, admittedly, are not peer-reviewed. As such, one must recognize that a blog is not in-and-of-itself a reliable source.

At the same time, that does not mean that blogs are never reliable. In fact, those written by extremely well-read scholars have a high degree of probability of producing solid content. To that end I've attempted to frequently write posts with a good degree of footnoting (e.g., my series on "Goodacre's Dating Game," i.e., on the Dating of Mark's Gospel [1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6], which I realize I have yet to conclude!). In those posts you can check my sources.

Moreover, blogging can sharpen ideas. For example, I post regularly on things that I'm working through in my thesis. I love getting feedback (please, bring it on!). Scholars who blog therefore can air out ideas more freely with one another, get quick responses, and further polish theories. All of that simply furthers academic research--and who would oppose that?!

The Future Ingathering of Ten Lost Tribes of Scholars
Indeed, much of the academic community is only getting caught up with recent technological tools such as those provided by the internet. The number of academics I know who still do not even use Bible software programs astonishes me! Thus it is not a surprise that many are even further behind when it comes to thinking about the potential the web has for furthering research.

Who are those exploring those areas? Well, those interested in such cutting-edge tools are especially likely to blog. My hope is that the SBL Biblioblogging section will come up with ways to further academic research using internet tools.

Let me give one example: Web-Ex. Web-Ex is an amazing program our school uses for open houses and other events. Web-Ex allows a group of people to essentially have a huge conference call in which all participants can share a computer screen. In other words, when we do open-houses for people over the web, people hear a presentation on financial options here while looking at a Power Point presentation. People can be muted so only the presenter can speak. There is also a "raise your hand" option that works well for Q & A. In addition, there is public and private Instant Messenging, so that participants can communicate easily with one another.

What I find amazing is this: I know numerous people in other fields, e.g., business, medicine, etc., who will tell you that such web-conferencing is now industry standard. Why are biblical scholars so far behind here?

I would hope bibliobloggers could come to present options for the application of internet tools such as Web-Ex for furthering the academic discussion. Imagine the value of having papers presented in such a format. Scholars could interact with one another, present their ideas on a shared-screen, providing "handouts" or even the paper itself (there are no photocopying costs!). It's cheap, it's really easy (you get a phone number and an internet link in an email), and the benefits to such conferencing would be enormous.

Such applications could easily bring together scholars from around the world and also allow those who are unable to travel (e.g., those who are elderly or handicapped) to continue to participate in the community and the ongoing scholarly discussion. Blogging academics could play a key role in such an endeavor. Not only could they promote such events on their blogs, they could even help determine the subject matter. Papers on topical issues could easily be discussed. Furthermore, ideas for such papers could be flushed out by bloggers who could incorporate comments into their presentation seemlessly.

Really the possibilities are endless.

So, in short, yes, I think there are limits to blogging. But as Mark has explained, the benefits are just too great to ignore because of possible pitfalls.

My thanks again to Jim West for helping to bring this development about and to Bob Cargill for agreeing to head up the section at SBL in Atlanta.

1 comment:

Chris said...

Hi Michael,

Just to nitpick on vocabulary...technically, there is no such word as "irregardless"...both the prefix "ir" and the suffix "less" denote the same idea, so "irregardless" is a tautology.

Sorry if this sounds anal! Just trying to make the post sound a bit better!