SBL Presentations and Functional Linguistics…

As some of my recent posts have indicated, my first time out to the SBL annual meeting was very enjoyable.  I learned an awful lot, and I met some new people, some of whom I’d been hoping to meet.  I also didn’t do enough fun things or meet enough new people, which is a problem I intend to remedy next time.  I did see many, many sessions, and one of the things that I have often been told about SBL presentations was entirely true. Though some of them are very good, and entirely engaging, some of them are very, very, very boring.  I’ve been reading some Ruqaiya Hasan this week, and she’s given me some language to help pin down why, from the perspective of functional linguistics (SFL particularly), that is.

The presentations that I saw at SBL that were poor were not poor due to mediocre research or specious reasoning.  In fact very few of the presentations I saw suffered from plain old crappy scholarship.  Instead they suffered from problems related to register.*  In some cases this was unavoidable.  This isn’t because those presentations were bad.  The problem was a breakdown between Field and Mode.

Briefly, Field is an SFL term used to describe “the nature of the social activity…the kind of acts being carried out and their goal(s)” (Hasan, Language, Context, and Text, 56).  In the case of the presentations I’m thinking of, the kinds of acts being carried out were just too much for the Mode, or the way in which they were being carried out.  Mode is essentially concerned with the way language itself is being used in communication, including the idea of Channel (phonic or graphic) and Medium (Spoken or Written) (Hasan, 57-59).  The semantic content and rhetorical drive of these presentations were too heavy for a phonic channel (something spoken aloud).  The latter could not bear the weight of the former.  The weight of the information that was brought to bear simply overrode what was possible for the social situation of an oral presentation.  It was like watching a hippo sit on a folding chair.

The other kind of breakdown that I saw was related less to a conflict between Field and Mode, and more to a conflict between two sub-categories of Mode.  As I just indicated, Hasan differentiates between Channel (phonic/graphic) and Medium (spoken/written).  At first this seems redundant, as it seems that a phonic Channel should always have a spoken Medium.  But she uses this distinction to illustrate that some kinds of communication involve splitting this expected pairing.  Think of a personal letter (Hasan, 59), where the Medium is words written on paper, but the Channel is much more like phonic communication, like speaking aloud in a conversational tone.  One is writing, to borrow Hasan’s term, “as-if” one were speaking.

That as-if is very important, particularly for oral presentations.  What happened in many of the SBL presentations I attended is that the presenter wrote a scholarly paper, and then when presenting it, spoke as-if he or she were still writing a scholarly paper.  Spoken Medium but Graphic Channel.  This is backwards.  One can split the expected Channel-Medium pairing, but it has to happen in the other direction.  Thus one would write the presentation as-if it were an oral presentation meant to be heard by the audience and not a paper meant to be read by the audience.  There is no need to dumb things down to do this.  All that is required is that one writes as one would speak in, for instance, a classroom setting.  Use the first person personal pronoun (for shame!), use contractions (sir, I protest!), even the occasional colloquialism isn’t out of the question (the very idea!).  What you present at a conference can’t possibly be a full paper in any case, as there simply isn’t the time (average journal articles being 25-30ish pages).  It is only sensible, then, to try to line up your Channel with what will have the maximal communicative effect for your audience.


* Yes, I know I talk about linguistic register a lot.  In case you haven’t cottoned on yet, it’s part of my dissertation research…in theory at least.

Welcome to Kentucky…

I am not home yet. I’m supposed to be rolling into Hamilton right about now, but instead I’m chilling in my very nice room at the Spring Hill Suites a few miles from the Cincinatti airport because my flight was cancelled and we’re stuck here until tomorrow. Oh well, another half day of work down the tubes, but not much to be done about that now. Almost time for bed.

A Nice Development…

Well here’s a nice little development.  It turns out I’m going to be going to SBL after all.  I’d resigned myself some time ago to missing the annual meeting in New Orleans, but due to a happy turn of events, and some help from a number of different parties (a thousand thanks to all of them), I get to head on down to the Big Easy for a few days come November.  The one bummer is that I don’t get to do the full lecture and translation time for Intermediate Hebrew for that Tuesday (I TA for the class), but that’s a concession I can live with.  And I imagine the IH students will be happy to have the day off as well.

Now I have to set about the task of deciding which sessions I want to attend.  Too bad I’m way too late for the biblioblogger’s dinner, but I guess I’ll just have to find some other way to meet some of my online acquaintances in person.  In any case, if you’re gonna be at SBL I hope to see you there.  And if you see an average sized guy (read here, a kinda short guy) with glasses, a very likable disposition, and a name-tag that says “Colin Toffelmire,” please stop me and say hi.

Oooo, Gots me an Endorsement…And On Officialization…

Bryan Bibb over on gave me a very kind plug.  Thanks Bryan!  And of course my readers should make a point of visiting Bryan’s blog as well.  And not just Bible nerds.  Bryan’s also a techie, and he’s got stuff about Macs and iPods and such as often as anything else, and I know I’ve got Mac nerds who lurk here.  So go check out Hevel, worth your time for sure.

He also makes a kind comment, saying that I’m a good member of the biblioblogging community.  I do try to make the rounds on the blogs I enjoy, and I comment when I feel like it.  I know how much I like to interact through comments with my readers (all three of you), and I’m also obscenely outspoken (in the sense of quantity, not content), so that bit is easy.  This does make me think again about the idea of defining the biblioblogosphere.  It’s a topic that’s been making the rounds partly due to the latest discussion of sexism that April kicked off, and partly due to Jim’s announcement that there will now be an official biblioblogging session at SBL and an official relationship between SBL and…well and what?  John Hobbins and Chris Heard have raised some concerns on this front already, Chris most vehemently.  I’m not so against the idea of a biblioblogger/SBL connection as Chris, but I agree with all of his points.  The reason I’m not against the relationship is because the biblioblogosphere is going to keep on being what it is, regardless of official connections.  It isn’t a definable entity, no matter what anybody says.  It’s made up of bloggers and commentators and lurkers, not just bloggers alone.  I also doubt very sincerely that it’s one definable community or blogosphere, but is instead probably a bunch of different communities that overlap here and there.  I know that I hardly ever read a ton of the blogs on the Top 50 list.  I don’t even have all of the top 10 on my blogroll.  It’s not because I have a problem with those blogs, it’s just because they don’t pique my interest.  I’m guessing that’s how most bibliobloggers work.  So what is it that is being officially affiliated with SBL?

I’m not really upset by this, and it’s entirely possible that it will be a very good development.  Mark Goodacre is certainly right that there’s no harm in trying it (and I’m very happy with Jim’s steering committee).  So I’m not vehemently opposed to the association like Chris appears to be.  And though I don’t think anybody should try to define the biblioblogosphere “officially”, I don’t care about the issue all that much because such attempts at definition are doomed to failure.  That just ain’t how the internet works.