This weekend when I got into an elevator at a convention hotel, one of the four guys already inside was whistling. It was a bit annoying.
"Stop whistling," one of his friends said. "He's not whistling," said another friend. "He's just doing natural theology."
I am definitely at the AAR, I thought.
It was my fourteenth time attending the American Academy of Religion/Society of Biblical Literature meeting, where religion scholars from all over the nation (and the world) gather to discuss important topics that everyone else has the good sense not to care about. I've been with AAR through thick and thin, including its painful divorce from SBL, when for several years the two organizations' thousands of children had to go to separate meetings in different cities because Mommy and Daddy couldn't get along. (They have since gotten back together, thanks for asking, though they live their own lives and see other people.)
I confess I don't see the academic point of AAR and SBL. It's rare that a session truly inspires great or new scholarship; many sessions are terrific but in a lot of cases those ideas have already been put out in the ether online. When I look around during sessions I see people coming in late and leaving early (guilty), tweeting (guilty), and planning in advance what brilliant question they will ask at the end to impress their dissertation advisers or faculty colleagues (not guilty, but only because I always leave early).
Yet I thoroughly love this meeting. The academic purpose of gathering in our thousands may be diminishing, but the social point is as strong as ever. As an editor, there is nothing like sitting across the table from an author and getting to know that writer as more of a full person. I also see my colleagues, compare notes about what is and is not working in publishing (or parenting, or life); these people have become good friends I look forward to seeing year after year.
And just because the planned academic discussions don't do much for me doesn't mean that exciting scholarship and new ideas don't happen everywhere else: over lunch, in the hallways, at the alumni gatherings and publisher receptions. When you get throngs of intelligent people together like that, some superb ideas are bound to bubble up.