John F. Kutsko has been at the helm of the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL), the world’s oldest and largest international organization of scholars in the many fields related to Biblical studies, since July 2010. Kutsko completed his Ph.D. in Hebrew Bible/Old Testament at Harvard University in 1997. He has been active in SBL publishing and academic publishing for more than 20 years, and is contributing editor to the SBL Handbook of Style. Prior to becoming executive director of SBL, he was associate publisher at Abingdon Press. Last year, he was named to Biblical Archaeology Review’s editorial advisory board.
In connection with the recent SBL meeting in San Francisco, BHD contributing blogger Robin Gallaher Branch talked with Kutsko about the significance of the annual meeting, how SBL has grown, and how the organization has managed to maintain its relevance in a changing world. Below are her notes from their meeting.
In spite of a slow economy and a challenging environment for travel funding facing many attendees, the 2011 SBL meeting in San Francisco not only showed significant growth but also exceeded its best comparable meeting, the 2007 meeting in San Diego, said John F. Kutsko, SBL executive director. Membership and attendance at the 2011 meeting were “at historic highs,” he said.
Kutsko provided the following statistics from the 2011 meeting:
• There were 170 program units in 2011, an increase of 58 from 2004
• Program sessions in 2011 more than doubled when compared to those in 2004 (474 and 207 respectively)
• SBL has a current overall membership of 8,600; in 2005, it was about 6,200
“Clearly our members are committed to the meeting for what it delivers to them as scholars,” Kutsko continued. SBL offers members “a chance to test their research live among their peers, to hear what new work their colleagues are doing, to network, to meet with publishers, to see what’s newly published, and to collaborate in person on projects,” he added.
Kutsko called Biblical studies “a robust field,” one offering many opportunities in teaching, research and publishing. The work of Biblical scholars has “an unparalleled impact on religion, culture, arts, literature and politics,” he observed. Do not underestimate this ongoing influence, he continued, for it “is critical to an understanding of the world around us.”
One of SBL’s greatest strengths is what Kutsko called its “big tent of fields and professionals.” At an annual meeting, specializations collaborate, cross-fertilize and exist side by side. SBL’s membership covers “an amazingly broad scholarly guild, from dirt archaeologists to pop culturalists, from historians to theologians,” he said.
Kutsko also offered an interesting insight on an effect of the current American economy. “I would hazard a guess, or express a hunch, that the economy fosters a greater seriousness and appreciation at a meeting like SBL. Why is this? I think it’s because we invest more in our career and look for ways to strengthen our chosen profession against the budget cuts sweeping across higher education.”
Robin Gallaher Branch is professor of Biblical studies at Victory University (formerly Crichton College) in Memphis, Tennessee, and Extraordinary Associate Professor in the Faculty of Theology at North-West University in Potchefstroom, South Africa. She received her Ph.D. in Hebrew Studies from the University of Texas in Austin in 2000. She was awarded a Fulbright Fellowship for the 2002–2003 academic year to the Faculty of Theology at North-West University. Her most recent book is Jereboam’s Wife: The Enduring Contributions of the Old Testament’s Least-Known Women (Hendrickson, 2009).