A brief reflection on this year’s national conference in San Diego.

Every year, since 2014, I am faced with the decision of whether or not to attend the AAR.* Not only is it expensive, but it isn’t something my spouse and I can turn into a vacation. (Fun fact: convention centers are not all that romantic.) What’s challenging, too, is how some years it seems like there is nothing of interest while other years are filled with overlapping sessions. Yet, each year I submit a proposal, and wait to hear my fate. Reflecting upon my second consecutive year of attending and presenting, I noticed something: 1) questions around just how useful/necessary is the AAR/SBL have cropped up, and 2) I and others are beginning to wonder what is the relationship between the national mega-event and smaller regionals. Do we really need a mega-event every year?

San Diego convention center

I have heard professors admit that–for early career scholars and grad students in particular–the AAR is a necessary evil. Its scope is too large and too fractured to be of much use, but it is one place to connect with whomever it is we need to connect with this year. Conversations are not always irenic or even interesting, and you might not see the same people twice, but somehow we are supposed to engage those who are researching in similar areas. For me, the past two years have been opportunities to see friends and colleagues who live in other cities, and to connect (even briefly) with professors. Because I work remotely these days, conferences are the one place to make contact. The AAR is not the only conference to attend, though, and so I find it more meaningful to join a smaller guild, some of which have meetings and sessions at the AAR. For example I also attend the North American Academy of Liturgy, which has a membership of less than 500 people from a variety of traditions. Seeing even just a few of the same people at more than one conference event in a given year helps to encourage scholarly relationships, or at least establish stronger networking ties.

Speaking of smaller venues, what about the regionals? So, this year is my first as a co-chair in the Pacific Northwest region for the Women and Religion unit. That in mind, I attended the national event with a slightly different set of perspectives. Almost invariably, when asking other scholars I meet about their participation at regional conferences, folks reply with some form of, “I did that as a grad student, but not anymore.” For many, regional meetings are junior league while national meetings are the Big Time. Furthermore, not all regions are equals. In the Pacific Northwest, hinderances to robust participation include timing, funding, and distance. Our annual meetings tend to fall at the end of a school year, right around May graduation. By that time, many who teach either have other obligations or they used up their conference budget for the year. In May 2020, we will meet in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. Because our region spans a great deal of territory (including two mountain ranges: the Cascades and the Rockies), we alternate north/south and east/west. All that to say, regular attendance requires serious commitment in the face of alternating locations, limited budgets, and a great variety of (non)religious institutions.

And so, all of this leads me to wonder: What if the national event took a sabbatical every six or seven years? What if we were encouraged to spend time within our own region? What if we limited our consumer output, our carbon footprints, and collectively conserved our sanity periodically? There is actually a petition circulating to do just that.** The petition focuses on the ecological impact of such a large event, but I would venture to say that the ripple effect could be overwhelmingly positive–particularly at the regional level. The benefit to refraining from procuring goods for such an event–thousands of pages of programs, exhibit materials, tote bags–along with the diminished carbon footprint of air travel and all the single-use items tossed in bins, is just as much a theological statement as it is ecological. At the very least, it would communicate a willingness to take up a little less space on this planet, for the good of the rest of creation. It would also demonstrate a recognition that environmental degradation disproportionately burdens economically disadvantaged communities. As Pope Francis states in his encyclical, Laudato Si, “We require a new and universal solidarity.” (§ 14) This cannot be a cheap solidarity that issues statements and disseminates flowery words of compassion for creation, but must be materialized out of our faith. If we believe that God/the Divine, for love of an Other, made the very elements that surround us, that nourish our bodies, that offer themselves below each footstep or tire tread, then we must pay attention to the signals researchers and local communities have been encountering and relaying for some time. Now is a time of change, whether we agree on it or not.

Of course each of us could make our own commitment to skip the November meeting. But I like to think that the largest religious guild in North America would consider taking a sabbatical as an example of meaningful change enacted in the reality of ecological crises and shifting economic structures.

* AAR stands for the American Academy of Religion; annual meetings are held jointly with the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL).
** Link to the original petition here.

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