My experience of SBL is a communal one. What I mean is that this is the one time of year that I get together with scholars who are working on similar projects and texts. It is a time to catch up on what everyone else is doing and thinking. It is a time to share what I've been doing. It is a time to celebrate publications and other successes. It is a very valuable time to me, and the one year I missed when I was eight months pregnant remains a hole in my institutional SBL memory.
I have found that reading papers is actually a good thing especially in larger groups. No amount of predistributing paper is going to mean that anyone in the audience has read it and digested it. Predistributing only works if the group is very small - like a seminar - and the goal of the meeting is detailed discussion of the paper (like the New Testament Mysticism Project Seminar).
But this is not the goal of all sessions, nor should it be. The paper reading sessions have their own goal, and that is distribution of information for general comment. This is extremely informative especially when the committee has set up a coherent slate of papers, and offers one person to summarize and respond to the set of papers read. Hearing a paper read is not the same thing as reading it in my office, just as studies of orality and scribality have shown. Why? Because the orator can be interrupted, can be asked questions, can be probed for further information or reflection, can interact with the audience. It is these interactions, these intersections with others, that adds even more value to these sessions.
I might add, however, that orators need to distinguish between the written word and the oral word. Rewrite your academic paper into an oration (think: public lecture), and it will be more concise and easier for the audience to follow. I started doing this last year for my conference presentations, and I have found that the feedback from the audience is much more positive. Get your thesis out there, and a few solid points developed, and that's it. Leave the rest for the publication that will follow out later.
The other sessions that I find helpful are the book review sessions. In these sessions the respondents give a good sense of the content of any given book, have some critical remarks, to which the author can then reply. The best book review sessions are the ones where all comments and responses have been prepared ahead of time, and read at the conference. The Early Jewish and Christian Mysticism group has done review sessions almost every year, and they are very successful in my opinion. The best book review I heard this year was by James Tabor of Jane Schaberg's Resurrection of Mary.
As for the number of sessions, when SBL first started to allow for more and more sessions (about three years ago I think), I was concerned that the sheer number wasn't necessary, and would keep the number of attendees down per group due to competition. But this just hasn't been my experience so far. I am developing a different sense of the SBL units now that so many are being put into place. These units function as small communities of scholars with like interests, goals, and projects. More often than not, these interests cannot (and perhaps even should not) be cultivated in already existing units, because the already existing unit has its own history, method, and past/future agenda. Even though leadership is made to shift in the units, they remain controlled by the community of scholars who launch them. I see nothing wrong with this as long as the agendas continue to be full of life for the community involved. And as long as the powers that be allow other communities of scholars to form their own groups to support their own research.
So if a group of scholars wants to open a unit on "History in Acts" as a separate venture from the Acts group (which has its own life and interests), then I say let it be. The more units like this that come into existence, the more research will be done and distributed. This policy allows for minority positions to have their own sessions, rather than be controlled by the dominant position which might already have a unit that is not interested in the minority position.
As for issues of attendance, I think that my original perception of needing to cultivate large audiences for all the SBL units is silly. The SBL unit's success has little to do with large or small audiences. It has to do with the community of scholars who form the basis of the group, whether or not the session is helpful to them. This community might consist of 20 or 120, but these are the people for whom the sessions are built to inform and interest, not the 5120 who could care less about the subject.
What to do about competing time slots? This has been the big drag of the programming from day one. I don't see any way out of it. There will never be a meeting without overlap. So it comes down to the luck of the draw and individual choice of attendance.
I want to emphasize only two things that I hope that the SBL organizers will consider. Stop 9-11:30 a.m. sessions on Saturday. We need this time for committee meetings. I do not like these early morning sessions at all.
Please judge room size better. I cannot believe that the panel on Judas where Elaine Pagels and Karen King were responding to Birger Pearson, Louis Painchaud, and me was put in a room that seated 75. People were sitting in the aisles, along the perimeter of the room, and hanging out the door. Those crammed in the doorway told me that at least 50 people tried to get into the room, but finally left exasperated.
Finally I want to say that I absolutely LOVE the Friday working sessions. I hope that SBL will continue to allow for these sessions. It is time for closed seminars like the New Testament Mysticism Project to get real work done on communal projects.