So You’re Going to the AAR/SBL Annual Meeting by Kecia Ali

Kecia Ali Bio pic officeTen thousand people descend on San Diego this weekend for the American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature joint Annual Meeting. We will present papers, interview and be interviewed, shop for books, and network busily. Many will feel overwhelmed, lost, and/or hungry – convention center food somehow always manages to be lousy and expensive.

I have attended nearly every AAR Annual Meeting since 1999. I have presented papers, spoken on panels, responded to sessions, led tables at pre-conference workshops, and presided at business meetings. I have served on program unit steering committees and chaired a Section. I have gone to editorial board breakfasts and AAR committee meetings.  I have had coffee with editors with whom I’ve gone on to publish books. I have served as a mentor at the Women’s Mentoring Lunch. Though I never used the Employment Center as a job candidate, I have put in cubicle time as part of two search committees.

In other words, I know something about the Annual Meeting.

One thing I know is that I have been fortunate. The program units in which I have participated most actively over the past fifteen years are impressively collegial, with leaders and members who welcome new scholars and foster conversation and connection. Through my program unit and committee service, I have gotten to know AAR staff and to understand some of what goes on behind the scenes, which goes a long way toward making the meeting feel manageable.

Not everyone has similar experiences. Plenty of people find the conference mystifying, alienating, or exhausting. So I offer some resources for newer conference-goers as well as suggestions, for those of us who are old hands, on how to smooth the path for others.

First, consult the AAR’s very helpful guide to this year’s meeting.

With guidance targeted to graduate students and junior faculty, Karen Kelsky explains how to avoid potential pitfalls in a series of “How To Do Conferences” posts, especially “How to Work the Conference” parts one, two, and three.

There is lots of advice for women academics about what to wear, especially when interviewing (go here for information tailored – get it? – to butch dykes). You can also read smart pushback against overly restrictive ideas of appropriate female attire and an appeal for women to embrace their own styles. My suggestion is to find a way to combine professionalism and comfort. Remember that you will be “on” for somewhere between ten and eleventy-zillion hours each day.

Information about getting around the annual meeting, including accessibility information, is available here. If you have mobility limitations, AAR will (as always) reimburse you for the cost of a taxi between official meetings sites, such as between a conference hotel and the convention center. This year, there will not be shuttles between different meeting sites.  AAR has also made arrangements so that attendees with mobility limitations can rent wheelchairs or electric scooters for the duration of the meeting. If you will be walking between the sessions and to and from the hotels, plan your footwear accordingly!

For those who are presenting papers, Julie Kilmer offers advice for students. I also recommend Mary E. Hunt’s “Be Brief, Be Witty, Be Seated,” though I would suggest eight rather than ten pages for a twenty minute talk. Please take into account the AAR’s guidelines for accessibility: you want everyone to appreciate your words of wisdom.

There are various woman-centered spaces and women-centered programs available at the meeting. There is a Women’s Lounge in Convention Center 14A. The Women’s Caucus does programming there, some of it geared to junior scholars.  As of this writing, there are still a few spots left at the Women’s Mentoring Lunch, held on Sunday, co-sponsored by the Status of Women in the Profession and Racial and Ethnic Minorities committees. The Womanist Approaches to Religion and Society Group sponsors a Friday afternoon “Ingathering” in addition to paper sessions during the conference.

Some scholars find the AAR valuable as a way to connect with their “people,” either at events like Saturday’s LGBTIQ committee roundtable lunch (no preregistration or fee required) or Monday’s Persons with Disabilities committee “Connecting Conversations Luncheon” (spaces still available; see Program Book), or by attending the sessions of program units where, for instance, Latino/a theologians are likely to be found, even if these sessions do not focus on their primary areas of research.

In addition to formal and informal programming, one valuable thing about the conference is the ability to connect with far-flung colleagues in one’s area of expertise. There is still time to send an email to someone whose work you admire and ask if she will be at the conference and, if so, whether she is available to meet for a cup of coffee (at her convenience). You can do the same for the authors of papers that look interesting (search the Program Book in advance) but whose presentations you will not be able to attend because your session is scheduled at the same time. If you are unsure about approaching someone this way, consider asking your advisor for an introduction by email, if she knows the person in question.

What about for more established scholars? Those of us who are comfortable at the AAR should take the lead in building a more inclusive and less intimidating conference culture.

If you supervise graduate students who will be attending the conference, sit down with them (ideally, a month or two ago, but in the absence of a time machine, have the conversation today) and discuss their goals for the conference. What do they hope to accomplish? What can you facilitate for them? Advice about which sessions to attend? An introduction to a colleague? A quick chat with an editor? If they are presenting, go to their sessions. After the panels, introduce them to your peers.

If you are presiding at a session, think about who you call on in the audience. If all of the questions seem to be directed to one panelist, find a way to open up the conversation. If you are time-keeping, be ruthless. Fairness matters.

For all conference-goers, notice which publishers at the book exhibit offer exciting feminist and queer publications. Thank the editors. Notice which booths have no books addressing race, gender, or sexuality. Ask why. I imagine this works especially well if you have published with the press in the past and your books sell thousands of copies, but there is no reason why a yet-to-be-published scholar should not make the same inquiry. If enough of us do, presses will pay attention.

Finally, figure out how you can keep your internal balance despite the overload of people and activities. I keep my head reasonably clear by getting a half-hour of exercise in the mornings before my breakfast meetings start and by forgoing late-night receptions. Others will find that they enjoy those receptions but are best served by skipping the lunch rush at the concession stands and getting some fresh air.

What conference tips work for you? What things are you concerned about? Let’s consider the comments section a place to share wisdom. See you in San Diego!

Kecia Ali, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor of Religion at Boston University where she teaches a range of classes related to Islam. She writes on early Islamic law, women, ethics, and biography. Her newest books are The Lives of Muhammad and the co-edited Guide for Women in Religion, revised edition. Her earlier books include Sexual Ethics and Islam: Feminist Reflections on Qur’an, Hadith, and Jurisprudence (2006), Marriage and Slavery in Early Islam (2010), and Imam Shafi’i: Scholar and Saint (2011). She currently serves on the Membership Task Force of the American Academy of Religion and serves as president of the Society for the Study of Muslim Ethics. She lives in the Boston area with her family.

Categories: Academics, Academy, General, Women and Scholarship, Women and Work

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13 replies

  1. Thank you so much for this wisdom around AAR/SBL Annual Meeting. This will be the fifth time that I attend yet, I always feel like a stranger. I recommend reviewing the Program Book so that you can better plan the sessions you visit. Some have appealing titles, but it’s the subject of the papers that really make the sessions. My absolute favorite part of the Annual Meeting is the hall of book vendors. I look forward to seeing many of you in San Diego this weekend!


    • Thanks for the comment, Karen. One piece of book exhibit wisdom someone gave me: use self-stick address labels on forms to get books shipped to you, so you don’t have to fill out your address over and over. You can also staple business cards to the forms – necessary if you’re requesting exam copies of a book.


  2. That piece on what to wear is very funny. I remember when John Malloy invented Dress For Success. It applied to businesspeople everywhere. Except in Southern California. Overall, you wrote an interesting blog. I hope people who go to conferences benefit from it.


  3. The AAR (or any five day professional association meeting) is especially taxing for introverts. You (or I) might need more breaks or some other way to recharge and accept that as part of self-care. I remember how impressed I was last year when a fellow scholar decided not to attend because the AAR meeting always leaves her sick and exhausted. Now I can say out loud that it exhausts me, too.


  4. I would like to propose to try and change the ethos of the conference by insisting on conversation, exchange and getting to know people as opposed to showing off, competing with each other, and coming out feeling inferior. It is an uphill battle but I have decided that for me it is worth fighting it.

    And a kind word of appreciation for a junior scholar after a presentation, or acknowledging their presence goes a long way.


    • Juliane, you’re absolutely right that cultural change is necessary and that it can occur when more established scholars make overtures to newer folks (though that isn’t at all meant to discourage students, untenured scholars, etc. from reaching out) and set the tone by conversing rather than posturing. I think most of us came to scholarship and teaching because we are interested in the conversations we can have – in the classroom, through our writings, and ideally through conferences – with others who are passionate about similar topics.

      One caveat: engaging in conversation doesn’t mean disclaiming our authority. Many of us are experts in our fields, and at AAR and elsewhere there will be times when *performing* authoritatively will be important.


  5. Thank you for this, Kecia! As a conference veteran who is a first-time attendee at AAR, I do appreciate the advice. It always helps me to know that there are 2-4 good friends among attendees. That way, when worn out by the stress of ‘over-being’ and the deafening vibes of LOOK-AT-ME-PLEASE-PLEASE-GIVE-ME-A-JOB dashed against the shores of I-AM-TOO-OLD-AND-SPECIAL-TO-GIVE-A-DAMN-ABOUT-ANYONE, I can always find refuge in the loving embrace of comfortable friendship. Juliane, I struggle with the nonstop interaction as well, though the evening hotel-room-gossip-sessions could go on for EVER as far as I’m concerned :-) Join me!


    • Shabana, it’s a great idea to make plans with friends in advance and know that you can check in with them during the conference if you need to escape the cacophony. And for me: no evening hotel room chats. I need *silence* after the long day.


  6. Thank you, Kecia! Wonderful advice. For anyone interested in discussing professional development and prefer a smaller workshop setting, the Student Lounge hosts a workshop series that is open to anyone interested in the topic (not just students!). This year we have eighteen one-hour sessions, covering topics such as pedagogy, community-engaged research, mentoring, eating disorders, work-life balance, and more. They are listed on page 2 of this handout:


  7. Welcome to San Diego. If you have time to explore the area’s history on a tour of our spectacular coastline, there are many pioneering women who help shape San Diego and the seaside community of La Jolla in particular. The trees and plants you see around San Diego are thanks to Kate Sessions. The local love for the music and arts are thanks to women who started the Anthenaeum Music and Arts Library, the Green Dragon Music and Arts Colony and the Women Club in La Jolla in the 1890s. Anne Lindbergh became the first women to earn a gliders license by flying a motor-less plane off a local hilltop where our tour guests enjoy panoramic views of Southern California. The term Rosie the Riveter was coined when 40 women were hired to become the first of many more to help build planes at a local factory we’ll pass by during the tour. There are a lot of great stories we’d love to share with you if you have time before our after the conference. We’ll have tours Friday, Monday, and Wednesday afternoons. Enjoy your time in San Diego!


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