The 2020 annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature will be like none other before it.1

Due to COVID-19, the massive annual gathering of biblical scholars has gone fully online for the first time.

Instead of its usual running time, the annual meeting begins in just a few days on 29 November. And it won’t conclude until 10 December.

Because this is the first time around for a virtual SBL meeting, we’ll probably all be learning as we go to varying degrees.

But with 7 simple steps, you can help set yourself up for an enriching meeting where your focus is on biblical scholarship rather than the technology for delivering the meeting.

1. Have your software and hardware ready.

Well before your first session, be sure to install (or update) and test any software as needed, like Zoom. Also, test your speakers and your microphone.

By getting all of the technology set up early, you’ll avoid last-minute frustrations or delays related to troubleshooting right before a session.

Also, if you’re presenting or otherwise likely to speak during the session, try to arrange things so that you can use a headset or dedicated microphone.

The microphone built into your webcam, laptop, or mobile device can do in a pinch. But the audio will be much better for the rest of the attendees if you’re able to use a dedicated microphone.

2. Plan what sessions you will attend.

One of the nice things about a virtual meeting is that sessions can be offered on a broader schedule. They can also be recorded for later viewing if you weren’t able to attend live.

But these upsides are also downsides if you try to consume too much of the meeting. Just because you can be in or rewatch more sessions in a virtual meeting doesn’t mean you should.

Instead, be choosey. Use the meeting planner to find the sessions most pertinent for you.

That way, rather than giving surface engagement to a wide array of sessions, you can go all in on the few that most align with your interests.

3. Connect early.

Earlier this fall, I presented a paper at another online conference. The morning of my paper, I got on the computer to connect to my session in what I thought was enough time.

It just so happened, however, that the computer also decided that morning that it needed to reboot to install an update. 😐

I ended up still connecting to the session in good time even after the reboot, although with a bit less margin than I would have liked. But if I hadn’t had the buffer provided by trying to connect to the session early, I could easily have been late to my own paper.

Don’t let that happen to you by planning to connect ahead of a given session with enough buffer to handle any last-minute issues that arise.

4. Come to learn.

Whether you’re giving a paper or listening to one, come to learn and contribute. Come to learn from the presenters about their work and contribute to the discussion of it. Or come to learn from the audience about yours.

Either way, if you come to learn and contribute rather than to impress, you’re likely to do more of both while also lessening the time you’ll spend faced with imposter syndrome.

5. Focus on the sessions you attend.

Nowadays, it doesn’t take attending many academic conference sessions before you notice something. During a session, some good portion of the audience will be focused on … their email, Facebook, Twitter, the program book, or really anything besides the session they’re physically attending.

Maybe, they’re “multitasking.” But even if they are, studies show they’re not really paying attention.

I should admit that I’ve been guilty of this practice in the past too, particularly later in the conference when sleep deprivation has tended to set in more acutely. But while it might help with staying awake, getting adequate sleep is a much better approach that will also help you pay closer attention to the sessions you’ve chosen to attend.

As you “multitask” between two or more increasingly complex tasks, your ability to track with either at the same pace drops precipitously. You’ll typically need to elongate the time you spend on the multiple tasks you tried to bundle.2

But that creates problems when you try to combine two incredibly complex and language-intensive tasks like listening to an academic paper and checking your email or social media.

In addition, the easier you make it for your brain to “escape” an academic paper into the world of your email or social media, the more difficult you make it to maintain focus on another paper the next time around.3

Plus, if you follow my suggestion above and craft for yourself a very selective conference schedule to start with, you’ll already have biased your schedule toward the sessions that you find more worth attending. And if they’re more worth attending, they’re more worth attending to while you’re in them.

6. Take notes.

Taking notes in a session is a great way to help keep your mind from wandering off—let alone wanting to seek out distracting stimuli like email or social media.

It’s also a good way of helping you retain the content of the papers you attend, whether or not you look at your notes again afterward.

Since the conference is virtual, you’ll already have some electronic device running when you’re attending a session. So, you may be inclined to take your notes digitally on that same device.

If that works for you, that’s great. But handwriting your notes can give you additional benefits that you don’t get if you’re taking notes by typing.4

(If you want to store notes digitally after the conference, Rocketbook has a great notebook-scanner app pairing that makes digitizing handwritten pages very easy.)

7. Visit the exhibit hall.

One of the best parts of the SBL annual meeting is the exhibit hall. If you attend SBL, you’re probably a book nerd, and the annual meeting makes sure to cater to that crowd. 🙂

This year, the exhibit hall is going virtual as well. SBL has some particular arrangements for advertising that they’re putting into place.

But even aside from all of that, there’s the perpetually wonderful and comprehensive exhibit hall that you have access to in the Internet.

However you decide to browse, be sure to check out Scripture First: Biblical Interpretation that Fosters Christian Unity, which is just out with ACU Press.

And if you order during the conference, you’ll be eligible to receive several exclusive accompanying bonuses.

To claim those after you order, just come back here and click the button below.

Best wishes for a wonderful and enriching 2020 annual SBL meeting!


  1. Header image provided by ASOR

  2. Multitasking: Switching Costs,” American Psychological Association, 20 March 2006. By contrast, habitual tasks that require very little attention can be more successfully combined with other tasks that require more attention (e.g., folding laundry while listening to a podcast). For this reason, Greg McKeown suggests distinguishing between multitasking and multifocusing. Greg McKeown, Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less (New York: Crown Business, 2014), 219–20; cf. C. S. Lewis, “Meditation in a Toolshed,” in God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics, ed. Walter Hooper (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970), 212–15. 

  3. Cal Newport, Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World (New York: Grand Central, 2016), 157–59. 

  4. Pam A. Mueller and Daniel M. Oppenheimer, “The Pen Is Mightier Than the Keyboard: Advantages of Longhand Over Laptop Note Taking,” Psychological Science 25.6 (2014): 1159–68. 

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