Conference advice from an assistant’s viewpoint

tl;dr: ~1600 words

Over at the Duck, Stephen Saideman presented some great ideas of belated conference proposal advice for the International Studies Association 2014. It’s more of a general piece which is equally helpful for other conferences. His four main points are

(1) do organize panels if you can – they are more coherent. Have a mixed crowd on the panel; do not submit the individual paper(s) as well
(2) have short and clear abstract– keep it simple, do not give too much detail, have a clear and exciting title (see also Leanne Powner’s abstract-writing worksheet)
(3) you do not need to link your submissions to the theme by all means – ISA sections have panel allocations independent of the theme or may issue separate calls
(4) make sure to send your submission(s) to the right section(s)

While these points are worthwhile, I think that Steve is too rigorous on some other points. I started off writing a comment given my experience working for last year’s ISA conference but quickly realized that I would have quite a long list of additional points which go beyond a mere “comment”. So, I will  spell these out in more detail. And, following Megan MacKenzie’s ISA survival guide and Steve’s proposal advice, I would add some points regarding the months in between so that we have covered the whole ISA cycle.

On acceptance rates and the virtue of big names

Steve also argues that submitted panel proposals are more likely to end up on the program. Getting on the program is even more probable if you have a big name on the panel, either as a paper giver or a discussant or a chair. Those claims simply are not true in my opinion, at least not unconditionally.

First, organized panels do not have a higher acceptance rate than individually submitted papers. I have seen the numbers at least for the last three conferences. Of course, the acceptance rate will never exactly match the submission rate for organized panels / individual papers. And there are differences across the 27 ISA sections. There may be sections that tend to accept more panel than paper submissions, but I have also seen the reverse. These numbers are, however, closer to the submission ratio than one might expect. (Although, this is of course hard to measure given that one has to aggregate individual papers into potential panels in order to compare panel and paper submissions.) In my opinions, slight shifts in these ratios mostly depend on the (section) program chair(s) and how much work they are able or willing to put into creating the program. Some may be more restrained due to other commitments and others may neglect other duties to actually put more time in reviewing and constructing panels. Maybe it’s just about the fun of building such a program…

Second, big names do not sell as much as Steve implies, at least not the names alone. For those cases I know, big names were often rejected; maybe not as often as rather unknown or junior scholars, but this was not based on name recognition alone. However, there is no reliable data on this. My take on this would be that big names just know how to play the game, i.e. how to write a good and selling abstract / title. And then again, it all depends on the (section) program chair(s). Rejecting a well-known colleague may turn out pretty nasty if s/he is directly approaching you about this issue. I have come across such cases and some people tend to be very insistent. However, senior scholars should also be and are rejected given the resource constraints of any conference.
Also, you have to imagine how much extra effort it would be to find out about all big names in the first place, at least for constructing ISA conference programs. Section program chair(s) do not have access to a list of scholars and what panel / paper submissions they are on. So, they cannot search for a particular person and directly accept the respective submission(s). What they can access are the submissions; that is the titles, abstracts and in cases of panel submissions the included papers’ titles and abstracts. Particularly, the ISA program construction system used to be set up in a way that this information was upfront (the system has been changed recently and I know nothing about the new one). Of course, SPCs will be able to see the chairs and discussants at some point. But given the amount of submissions that the sections receive, my guess would be that they do not spend their precious time on looking for chairs’ and discussants’ names.

Some more ideas to enhance your conference proposal and the organizer’s experience

If you submit a proposal or plan to do so in the future, please, double-check for typos and never, never, never submit anything written in all capitals. I AM STILL WONDERING WHY ANYONE WOULD DO THAT. IT DOES NOT HELP TO MAKE YOUR PROPOSAL MORE INTERESTING. Changing these things by hand is just painful, time-consuming and very costly, especially if we are talking about a conference as big as ISA. And it does not matter whether the proof-reading part is outsourced or accomplished by an assistant. It should be clear that the organizer’s time and money could be spend for more worthwhile activities.

So you think about volunteering for serving as a discussant or a chair? Think twice. It is additional work, maybe even more work than you are willing or able to handle. And you do not increase your chances to end up on the program. (This is also one of those myths I have come across during my time working at ISA.) In turn, people volunteer and just do not care at all about the papers or presenters. Last year, two people I know had very bad luck with their discussant. One person was on a panel when the discussant proposed to speed up the presentation and discussion so that they “could actually attend an interesting panel”. In another panel, there was not much of an audience (which is in itself pretty sad) and the discussant literally said “Well, that’s just how interesting this topic is”. Nobody needs this kind of a discussant, especially if you are a grad student or presenting at a big conference for the first time.
But if you do want to volunteer, you should think about the topics that you actually can and want to discuss. At ISA, you have to set tags for fields of expertise. Some people think that they can contribute to everything from environmental studies to war as well as feminism and politicization. I do not want to question the expertise of any particular scholar, but I would suggest to limit yourself to those two or three fields that you feel most qualified to help the presenters and papers and to contribute to a great discussion.

From submission to the conference

The months to come probably feel like silence fraught with menace. The only thing left to do is to apply for the travel grants if you need one. And yes, you have to apply for travel grants before you know whether you end up on the program. While the (section) program chairs, assistant(s) and ISA staff are busy reviewing submissions, building panels, proof-reading (all capital) submissions, slotting the panels and again reviewing the whole program, most of the submitters just wait for September when acceptance / rejection notifications are sent out.

So, what do you do if you are rejected in the end? You should probably just accept the rejection. You can always ask for reasons of rejection, but it seems highly unlikely that any (S)PC will still remember why a specific submission was rejected. My impression was that proposals either did not fit the call / section or were not related to other papers and hence no even somewhat coherent panel could be built. But it is also possible that the submission simply did not fulfill some basic criteria or other submissions were considered better (whatever this means). This happens, so move on. What you definitely should not do is to insult or threaten the involved people.

If you are accepted and you know that you will not make it anyways, let the program chair(s) know as soon as possible. This especially applies to people who are scheduled as discussants. One cannot imagine what March Madness means to ISA organizers when everyone wants to make changes at the very last minute. If you are honest and can explain your situation, they will probably lift the ISA ban rule (refunding is a different question). Other people will get the chance to present at the conference and appreciate early information. In the end, it boils down to a matter of fairness and sense of responsibility towards other people.

If you are a discussant or a chair, you should also inform your co-panelists and it is always very much appreciated if you suggest a replacement who is already on the program. It helps speeding up the process. If it takes five minutes of your time to identify a suitable replacement and to write an email asking for them to take over the role, it may take a lot more time for other people to identify, contact, convince and simply to technically add these replacements; especially if this person is not part of your network (yet).

Having said that, the only basic rule of probably every social interaction applies: Be kind and polite in the email conversation and most people are more than happy to help you out with whatever problem needs to be solved.

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