I presented a paper yesterday at the SBL Midwest Regional Meeting hosted by Olivet Nazarene University in Bourbonnais, IL. Despite the rather small presentation screens, it was a fine venue and in all a successful event–though, sadly, I could not stay for the entire conference. I presented in the Paul Section and my paper  was titled “Sold under Sin: Echoes of Exile in Romans 7.14-25.” Essentially, I argue that just as Paul alludes to both Eden and Sinai (though mainly the latter) in Rom 7.7-13, so he alludes to the Babylonian captivity in 7.14-25, echoing Isa 49.24-50.2 in Rom 7.14 and 23-25. In short, I try to do for Romans 7-8 what Rodrigo Morales does for Galatians 3-4 (cf. The Spirit and the Restoration of Israel: New Exodus & New Creation Motifs in Galatians [Mohr Siebeck, 2010]). There were about a dozen other people in the room (neither the best nor the worst turn out I’ve had), and I even recognized one quite respected scholar in the back. What struck me, though, was the fact that, at the end of what I felt was a fairly well-executed paper, nobody asked any questions.

Now, this has happened to me before, and I’ve seen it happen to others as well. And while it is somewhat of a relief not to be raked over the coals in front of your peers, it is also quite anti-climactic for there to be total silence at the end of a 25-minute talk–given the time, effort, and nervous energy that goes into the entire process. I mean, you wrack your brain for a paper idea, craft the abstract, submit it, wait for its acceptance, get funding, write the paper, travel to the event, and finally after months of anticipation courageously share some of the most creative thoughts you’ve had in your life, only for nobody to make a single comment or ask a single question. What is one to think about such an empty reaction? Have my ideas simply been accepted uncritically, or was my thesis so uninspiring and unambitious to be undeserving of constructive feedback?

Well, after a period of pondering the implications of my silent audience, I reached the following conclusions:

  1. If, in the future, I truly desire feedback and it doesn’t seem to be immediately forthcoming, I should break the ice myself by asking the audience a question about one or more elements of my argument. Changing roles like this can be awkward, but I’ve done it before and have found it beneficial for getting things going.
  2. If I truly desire feedback, my paper should intend to provoke, pushing my evidences to their limits. Sometimes scholars require intellectual bait. That’s what it takes for my students to be interactive in class; it shouldn’t surprise that many professionals require the same. Indeed, unpublished conference papers should be bold, and mine can be quite a bit bolder. Conferences, after all, exist for scholars to take risks, to test drive ideas without the fear of having to commit to them forever. The feedback won’t always be positive, but it will probably be helpful and stimulating.
  3. If, in the future, I don’t get any feedback, silence is an acceptable response. At the end of the day, worse things can happen in a presentation than receiving no questions. After all, if I were to hear from a journal editor that no corrections were required for an article I had submitted, that would be good news; the same can be true with presentations.
  4. Still, this and other experiences have encouraged me as an auditor to be more interactive with conference presenters, especially those like me in the beginning stages of their career. Without a two-way exchange, the entire experience can feel like a bit of a waste of time.