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Old Wine, Old Wineskins (Or, SBL and 20th Century Communications Strategies)


Old Wine, Old Wineskins (Or, SBL and 20th Century Communications Strategies)

Thomas Whitley

The Society of Biblical Literature has been taking a lot of heat lately, the most recent of which has been directed at its sudden and unilateral decision to move its book review publication, the Review of Biblical Literature, behind a paywall with very little explanation for why. Revenue is one reason, but even this is counterintuitive. The RBL has so many issues right now — the noncritical and unscholarly nature of so many of its reviews, the apparent lack of any sort of vetting process for reviewers, the overwhelmingly male composition of reviewers, etc. — that the number of people who would choose to become a member of SBL just to gain access to RBL reviews would seem to be minuscule, thereby not actually addressing the revenue question. This is still an issue, but the SBL executive director, John Kutsko, has said that changes are coming to RBL that will make it a better and more useful publication (we do not know what these are and we do know that the RBL Board was not consulted before the decision was made to move the RBL behind a paywall), but whether and how this will be borne out is yet to be seen.

I’m more interested today, though, in the communications strategy (or lack thereof) of the SBL and how so many of SBL's recent controversies could have been avoided by a communications strategy that was not stuck in the 20th century. Carrie Schroeder has addressed some of these concerns already in her post recounting her phone conversation with John Kutsko.

I'm still concerned that the SBL has one foot in the past.  I’m concerned that the decision to try to increase the “value” of the membership through member initiatives reflects a view of an academy that no longer exists.  John and I spoke a lot about the changing landscape of academia, and why people join the SBL.  Members, he noted, have more of a utilitarian, contractual relationship–more and more people join because they want to go to the annual meeting, rather than because they feel a sustained, long-term relationship with the “guild.”  The new programs are designed in part to reinvigorate membership, as well as promote scholarship in the field.

As Carrie notes, this is a view rooted in the past. That the SBL is stuck in a 20th century communications model is on display even more in SBL public statements policy and in the email John Kutsko sent the SBL membership this morning regarding that policy. The policy (“The Role of the Society in Making Public Statements”) evinces a fear of offending any of its constituents, which might lead to the non-renewal of membership and a loss of revenue for the Society. It is further concerned with explaining why it should not and will not “espouse particular ethical and political positions and issue public statements on them,” but its most recent controversies are not about ethical or political positions, but rather about the goings-on of the Society and its lack of clear and comprehensive communication with its members that these changes are going to take place, why, and to what ends.

While some members have asked the Society to make ethical and political statements, most who are concerned with what has been going on with RBL are concerned not with ethics (aside, of course, from the ethical question of the staggering underrepresentation of women and people of color, though this does not seem to be what is meant here by “ethics") and politics but with transparency. SBL, though, still understands Society communication in a press release model: a committee or the director drafts a statement and then blasts it out to all members. The Society rarely engages its members or the wider public in any sort of public conversation (on social media, for instance, where many of these discussions are happening), but expects its members (those who provide the Society with a bulk of its revenue) to accept that the decisions that have been handed down are the best and seems to scoff at requests for clarification and explanation or does provide this but through private conversations with bloggers they hope will distribute the message widely (with how seriously this backfired last year, it’s astonishing that Kutsko has used this same model with Carrie, which she also notes).

John Kutkso’s email today justifying the Society’s policy on public statements is further evidence that the Society is stuck in a 20th century communications mindset.

This policy is intended to ensure that, while fostering biblical scholarship, we are a forum for members to practice values that advance respect and dialogue. On occasion, issues may arise that Council deems relevant to SBL’s mission, thus requiring public comment. To be sure, there are times when not all members will agree with a response to such issues. With that said, this policy is intended to highlight that SBL takes its diversity seriously and weighs carefully when to speak for its members and its mission.
Subsequent to this policy, approved in December 2015 following nearly a year of deliberation, Council will begin work on procedures for making statements initiated by Council or the SBL membership. Council expects to provide these guidelines in advance of the 2016 Annual Meeting. The procedures will include steps for raising substantive issues with Council such as the implementation of new policy, making amendments to bylaws, and proposing changes to existing policy.

As a Society member (full disclosure: I am also a member of the Society’s Student Advisory Board), I appreciate that the Society is working to be judicious about when it should issue public statements. However, the Society has failed to realize that they can no longer control the message. I experienced this desire to maintain control of the message when I did some consulting on social media for churches and non-profits. There remains among many a fear of losing control of the message. Thus they want Facebook pages where no one else can comment because those comments will not have been vetted by a committee and their Twitter feeds are nothing more than press release machines. There is no desire for openness, transparency, or conversation. But that model of communications simply does not work in the world today where communication has been democratized.

Further, in 2016 it should not take nearly a full year to develop and provide guidelines/procedures for initiating a public statement by the Society. But again, the Society is still clearly thinking only in terms of a press release model. In such a model, every sentence has to be cleared by a committee (and sometimes lawyers). This is not only a dead model, this isn’t even what I think most of the Society desires (at least not most of the portion of the Society I know). At the very least, this is not what is being asked for with regard to RBL. Society membership wants to know that its concerns are being heard. Yet, when it comes to the changes to RBL, SBL is performing cosmetic surgery when it needs multiple organ transplants.

See, for instance, the teaser offered in the initial email about changes to the RBL:

In fact, we are currently imagining and beginning to develop an entirely new resource that will stand on the shoulders of RBL and usher in a new era of online discovery, information exchange, and scholarly research. All this will require significant human and financial resources, but the resulting product will certainly be worth the investment.

How exactly is this mysterious new resource supposed to “usher in a new era of online discovery, information exchange, and scholarly research" when RBL has just been put behind a paywall? The SBL is rapidly being left behind with its lack of a clear and comprehensive communications strategy and its apparent inability to understand the world of communications as it exists in 2016.

There remains another important issue that is germane to this discussion. Carrie mentioned John Kutsko’s desire to foster more of a commitment to the guild:

Members, he noted, have more of a utilitarian, contractual relationship–more and more people join because they want to go to the annual meeting, rather than because they feel a sustained, long-term relationship with the “guild.”

Yet this commitment to the guild is going to remain impossible to foster as long as the guild continues to have no commitment to those who wish to join it. As Carrie pointed out in her piece, contingency and the adjunctification of the humanities labor force is drastically reshaping the field, but the SBL appears concerned only with the”increasingly smaller slice of the population” who are on the tenure track or who have already earned tenure. As long as our guild continues to produce significantly more PhDs than there are positions, continues to replicate ourselves in our students preparing them for a world that no longer exists, and continues to sit idly by as graduate students and contingent faculty are further exploited, our guild is doomed. The Society cannot hope for more members to have a sustained, long-term relationship with the guild while ignoring the economics that make such a relationship untenable for so many.

A 2016-ready communications strategy will not fix all of the Society’s (and the field’s) issues, but to paraphrase Macklemore, it’s a damn good place to start.


Image: “The Drunkenness of Noah” by Giovanni Bellini via Wikipedia