Archive for the ‘Conferences’ Category

How Not to Present a Paper

December 30, 2013

I’ve been to two academic conferences in recent weeks: the Society of Biblical Literature conference in Baltimore and the Association for Jewish Studies conference in Boston. At each of them, I heard some interesting talks, along with some that were not interesting, some that were not talks, and one or two that I really couldn’t hear much of.

Every year I angrily declare that I’m going to write a blog post called “How Not to Present a Paper.” This year I’m finally doing it. But let’s try to be positive. So forget the negative title and call it instead …

Some (Cordial) Hints for Presenters

1. Learn how to use a microphone. Yes, this means you — even though you’ve been presenting for 40 years and pretending to use one all that time. If the spirit moves you to go off script, don’t mutter your aside in parentheses to yourself; either say it so your listeners can hear it, or swallow it. You can always tweet it after the session.

2. Don’t write a journal article and then read it. It’s true that you are “presenting a paper,” but the way you are presenting it is by giving a talk about it. You must speak to us, not read to us, if you want us to follow your argument. A written paper follows different rules than an oral presentation.

3. Do write out your talk. Unless you are a remarkable speaker, you will want a script for your talk. This will help you to present your points clearly, to emphasize the correct words and pause in the correct places, and — most of all — to keep to your allotted time.

4. When your time has expired, shut up. You’re given a time limit of x number of minutes. Edit your talk in advance so that you present your argument in the allotted time. (Two minutes per double-spaced page is a good ratio.) You don’t need to present the footnotes that will eventually go into your written paper, and you don’t have to be concerned about providing all the relevant details or even about hinting that you know them. Let the audience ask about them during the question period and provide them then. Don’t tell us what you’re skipping; if we care, we’ll ask you.

5. Don’t speak too quickly. Squeezing a 30-minute talk into 20 minutes just means the whole thing will go by too fast for most people to grasp.

6. Don’t say too much in a single breath. I once heard a paper presenting a result of clinical psychology: that people can only absorb 6 or 7 words at a time. Unfortunately, the paper was presented in chunks of 15-20 words at a time, so that’s all I can tell you about it. Give your audience a chance to take in each phrase before you rush ahead.

The bottom line: When your talk is finished, there are three things I want to know that I didn’t know before you opened your mouth. They are:

1. The take-away. What was your point?

2. The argument. How did you reach that conclusion?

3. The significance. Why does it matter?

I learned some things at this year’s conferences that I’ll incorporate into my own thinking and writing. I’m going to present at least one scholar’s work, and argue with the conclusions of another, in my weekly Torah Talk podcast (when the texts they were talking about come around next). But, as always, there were some boring or pointless papers, and some that seemed important and interesting but that went past in a blur.

Remember, we read to kids to put them to sleep. Don’t do that to your audience! Presumably you think your work is important, interesting, and meaningful. Unless you are just making sure someone pays for your conference expenses, why not let the rest of us in on the fun?

Frank Moore Cross … and his place in the history of Bible scholarship

December 2, 2013

On Sunday afternoon a week ago in Baltimore, at the annual convention of the Society of Biblical Literature, there was a two and a half hour session dedicated to the memory of Frank Moore Cross, longtime professor of “Hebrew and Other Oriental Languages” at Harvard University, director of the Harvard Semitic Museum, and one of the first and longest-lasting interpreters of the Dead Sea Scrolls. His final work was published in the year of his death, 2012.

It was a family affair. Not only was his daughter present (along with other members of the family), but the event featured eight of his doctoral students, all of whom evidently regarded him as what the Germans call their “Doktorvater,” their father in an academic sense. This, of course, implies that they owe him more than simply the respect that any human being owes to another — they are obligated under the responsibility to “honor your father and your mother.” These eight certainly did that.

I’ve been at other events like this, for scholars of a slightly earlier generation than Cross, who were the teachers of my teachers. (Cross was the teacher of some who are more or less my colleagues.) There is always an element of humor, poking gentle fun at the beloved idiosyncrasies of the scholar — some of them (not Cross) extraordinarily idiosyncratic to go along with their outrageously vast knowledge of ancient languages. In Cross’ case the humor was gentle. He seems to have been beloved by his students.

The eight scholars represented eight different specialties within biblical studies: archaeology, paleography, text criticism, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and more. Yet, as one of the more irreverent scholars pointed out, “Cross did all this [stuff].” Though Harvard represents just one of the streams of biblical scholarship in the academy, it is a major one. And through his friendship with David Noel Freedman — the two of them famously co-wrote two dissertations in order to earn their degrees — his influence spread through another chain of scholarship as well.

Yet one word kept floating through my mind as I listened to the panel: “Aristotle.” Many of Cross’ particular readings of Dead Sea Scroll texts, his interpretations of biblical words, and his paleographic work will stand the test of time. (Paleography is the study of how scripts change over time, permitting documents to be dated by the letter forms used in them; when the Dead Sea Scrolls were carbon-dated, Cross remarked that he was delighted that his paleographical work had confirmed the accuracy of carbon-dating.) But somehow his most famous more general book, Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic, has a slightly musty smell about it now. Perhaps it is simply that I myself read it so long ago in my own studies. Nonetheless, my impression is that Cross’ work channeled the field for too long in a direction that it needed to break out of.

A few minutes after the talk, I ran into a senior scholar who does not come from the Cross academic lineage. He remarked to me, in a way that was clearly intended to be a corrective to the session we’d just attended, “Cross was a Mozart — not a Beethoven. He made everything more elegant. But he did not start anything new.”

“Then he was Mozart to Albright’s Haydn?” I asked. “That’s right,” he replied.

William Foxwell Albright can indeed be said to be the Haydn of 20th-century biblical studies. He was based in Baltimore, at Johns Hopkins University, and trained a generation of scholars in his own right, Cross among them. His great scholarship has an even mustier smell than does that of Cross. (Albright was extremely forthright about rethinking his earlier work and pointing out where he’d been wrong, so he might well agree with that assessment if he were alive today.)

And it is hardly an insult to call someone a Mozart. But if biblical scholarship needed a Beethoven, someone to forge a “new path,” Cross was not the man. My interlocutor with the musical metaphor unpacks it for us: “Even as it was published, his Canaanite Myths synthesized Albrightian verities, without, however, reaching for newer horizons.”


Next on “The Bible Guy” — a report on the group of Pentateuch scholars who spent last year at the Hebrew University discussing the Documentary Hypothesis.

Exilic Biblical Writing?

November 25, 2012

Last week, I attended the 2012 conference of the Society for Biblical Literature (held in conjunction with the American Academy of Religion), this year at Chicago’s McCormick Place. This isn’t meant to be any kind of comprehensive report; those who’ve been to the SBL will know that’s impossible, since dozens of sessions are running concurrently at any one time. But there’s also no forum for reacting to conference presentations once they’re over. So I’m using this post to present a reaction to something I heard there.

The remark that caught my attention was a comment made by Thomas Römer of the Université de Lausanne. I know his work only from hearing him speak at previous conferences, where he has always sounded sensible and thoughtful. But this time I think his good sense has steered him wrong.

It was in a session on “How to Reconstruct the Literary History of the Hebrew Bible.” The discussion touched on the question of how much of the Bible was put together during the period of the Babylonian exile, following the destruction of the First Temple in 586 BCE. Römer asked the rhetorical question, “When the Israelites went into exile, was their immediate reaction to start writing books?” The question drew a laugh, and a subsequent speaker also alluded to it, as if acknowledging that they obviously did not.

Now for a responsible opposing viewpoint.

We have an empirical model—more on this term in a later post—suggesting that the immediate reaction to exile might indeed be writing books that consolidate the knowledge of the exiled community.

The exile to Babylonia was not the first exile suffered by the Jews (that was in 722, when inhabitants of the northern kingdom of Israel were exiled to other lands by their Assyrian conquerors), and it was far from the last. The exile I want to discuss in this post is the exile from Spain in 1492, and the writer is Isaac Abarbanel.

Abarbanel (often given the courtesy title “Don” Isaac) is identified by the Encyclopedia Judaica as a “statesman, biblical exegete, and theologian,” but I would call him a politician and financier as well as a writer on religious topics. He was forced to leave Spain with the rest of the remaining Jews in 1492, but according to the EJ he was allowed to take 1000 gold ducats out of the country with him.

And here’s what happened next:

After the 1492 expulsion, Abrabanel* passed two years in Naples. Here he completed his commentary on Kings (fall 1493).

*Since the name appears most often in Hebrew characters, which do not make the pronunciation explicit, it appears in transliteration in a number of different ways. I follow the explanation by Sid Leiman (JJS 19 [1968]:49 n. 1) explaining that Don Isaac’s son Judah used the pronunciation “Abarbanel.”

Though Abarbanel was eventually able to resume political and financial activities, he also continued to write. His Bible commentaries are still used, not just read by scholars. (His Torah commentary, somewhat long-winded, is not translated into English, but you will find selections from it in my Commentators’ Bible series.)

Could some of Israel’s biblical literature have been written not only in, but early in, the Babylonian exile? The example of Abarbanel—whose commentary on Kings was finished in 1493, the year after the exile—says that it could.

What circumstances permitted Abarbanel to write his commentary on Kings?

1) He had the means, having left Spain with a bit of money.

2) He had the opportunity, since unlike a baker, tailor, carpenter or the like he could not immediately resume his financial and political occupations, but he could continue to write.

3) He had the motive, partly the same motives that had moved him to write commentaries and other religious works earlier in his career, and partly the desire to reassure himself and his Jewish contemporaries that their tradition was secure and that their ultimate fate was a hopeful one.

Could these same circumstances have existed—for someone—even during the very first months of the Babylonian exile? It would be surprising if they did not. The exilic community certainly included richer and more well-connected members (we know of a Jewish banking family in Babylonia not long after this period) and there were undoubtedly also many learned people among the exiles.

The important thing to remember is that it would only take one such person to produce a biblical book. Contemporary scholars speak of “the Deuteronomistic school,” “the priestly traditions,” and so on, but books are not written by committee—not good books, anyway. They are written by single authors, even if they subsequently change as they are transmitted through the centuries.

Römer’s question, “When the Israelites went into exile, was their immediate reaction to start writing books?” makes the very idea sound absurd. And posed in this general way, it certainly is. But there is nothing absurd about the idea that writing a book might have been the immediate reaction of a few individuals—individuals like Thomas Römer himself, and (not to put myself on the same level) like me.

So the idea that some of the biblical books were composed or compiled during the Babylonian exile is a quite reasonable one.