Poster Presentations And Biblical Studies Conferences

Three things motivate these reflections on poster presentations at academic biblical studies conferences: first, my upcoming presentation at the Pacific Coast Regional meeting of the SBL, second, news of a poster competition sponsored by the Humanities Division of Oxford University, and the fact that poster presentations at academic biblical studies conferences are nearly unheard of.
Unlike the sciences where poster presentations are common, humanities conferences in general and biblical studies conferences in particular tend to be all talk. I’m not sure this is a good thing. Some presentations are best unspoken. For example, think of a text critical exercise where families of several variants are discussed. Without handouts such papers are nearly impossible to follow. But, aside from some connective narrative, nearly everything in the paper is in the handout. Wouldn’t it work just as well if the handout was a nice big poster with graphic elements supplying the narrative and the presenter standing beside it ready to take questions and criticism? The same goes for many lexigraphical studies, many archaeological studies and many studies of intertextuality. My upcoming paper would work well in the form of a poster presentation. Just about any presentation where interrelated evidence drives the argument is a candidate for a poster presentation.
This is not the place to parade our science envy and complain that our evidence doesn’t present well in graphic form. First, sometimes it does. Second, even when our evidence can’t be reduced to a nice chart or graph, it can be presented in text boxes that are connected by graphic elements. Third, we can almost always find cogent illustrations from the rich history of related art. In the PowerPoint slides for my upcoming paper I use Titian’s “The Fall of Man” and a photo of a relief above the entrance to Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris as well as an illustration of Cecil the Seasick Sea Serpent. I also use a couple of pictures of real snakes. I likely wouldn’t use all these illustrations in a poster, but I would use at least two of them. Sorry, Cecil, you would not make the cut in a poster presentation. I’d need the space for the text of a Namburbi against the evil of a snake or perhaps for Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 65b. One thing that poster presentations do is force the presenter to consider what is really important and what is not.
Two cultural factors have restricted the use of poster presentations in biblical studies conferences. First, we love to hear ourselves talk. Second, we have motivational ambiguity. On the one hand, we want feedback. We want to grow intellectually from learned reaction to our presentation. On the other hand, we want our presentation to count as something important: an intellectual achievement, a line on our CV, a reason that our institution should pay our way to the conference. But our academic cultural just doesn’t value a poster presentations as highly as it does that big talk. Well, on one occasion, I presented my big talk to exactly nine people, four of whom were fellow presenters and most (if that’s the right word) of the others were related in some way to the presenters. Feedback was minimal but even larger audiences seldom provide much feedback. I don’t know if a poster format in a more convenient time slot would have done better. In this case, the time slot and the rather arcane organizing topic of the session likely limited participation.
A few years ago, I had occasion to attend the poster presentation area at a conference of atmospheric and oceanic scientists. A friend of mind was presenting a poster and she invited me to drop by. I arrived just as the poster session started. At first, she was alone with her poster so she started explaining it to me. Then someone who actually knew something about the topic showed up and then someone else and, as I withdrew, interest in her poster increased. On one occasion a rather lively debate involving four or five people developed. Notes were taken, business cards exchanged, follow-ups promised. But it wasn’t just her poster. Over the course of the two hours or so that the poster area was open, nearly every presenter attracted interaction with people interested in the topic of the poster and willing to discuss it. I’m confident that the same could happen in a SBL poster presentation area. Perhaps such an area could be co-located with the book exhibit area. But, for it to work, we need a cultural commitment to the importance and usefulness of this kind of presentation.

2 thoughts on “Poster Presentations And Biblical Studies Conferences”

  1. SBL just tried this in San Francisco and it was a pretty sad showing. I’ll be doing my first biblical studies poster this weekend at a university graduate research exhibition. I’ll report back on Sunday with my experience.

  2. Eric,
    I was at the SBL in San Francisco and somehow missed the poster exhibit. Perhaps a little more pub would have helped. It does take time to change culture. Good luck with your poster at the university graduate research exhibition.

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