On the acceptance and rejection of conference proposals

Today is the deadline for program units of the American Academy of Religion to accept or reject all proposals. As someone who has made many proposals over the years, I know that the process appears opaque. I am currently serving as co-chair of the Theology and Continental Philosophy group and for several years I was a member of the steering committee for Bible, Theology, and Postmodernism. Hence I thought it might be helpful for those receiving their notifications to get an inside view of the decision-making process.

The first point to consider is that, as with almost everything in academia, programming units typically receive many more proposals than they can accept. We had three sessions to fill this year, which equals out to 10-12 papers, and we had nearly three times that number of papers to choose from.

A second complication is that no paper is an island — programming groups prioritize some type of coherence or thematic unity in a given session. A middling proposal may wind up getting chosen because it fits neatly into a possible grouping, while a great proposal may be rejected because it doesn’t fit with any of the other proposals. A pure “grab bag” session is possible, but they tend to be poorly attended, which can have consequences down the road for the number of sessions a group is allocated or even for the group’s continued existence.

Coming at the problem from another direction, there is no silver bullet. Conventional wisdom holds that it is better to submit a full session proposal rather than an individual paper, as this saves the committee work. As a committee member, I don’t see that as an overriding concern — it’s not that much work to cobble together a session out of individual papers, and sometimes ready-made sessions give the impression of being united by “me and my friends” more than by a substantive shared project.

Similarly, aiming squarely at the CFP is no guarantee of acceptance, either, because there’s no guarantee that there will be enough proposals to make a session on any given topic listed. Going “off-book” feels risky, but if you’re working on something you know to be an up-and-coming trend in a particular disciplinary space, your topic may well get more proposals than any particular CFP item.

In terms of the proposal itself, it can be hard to hit that golden mean between overly simple exposition and excessive ambition. In this particular round, several of the papers that wound up getting accepted seemed like they could be overambitious, but the ones that we rejected seemed impossible — weaving together Derrida, Deleuze, Zizek, and Chomsky to create an entirely new mode of resistence to capitalism (not a real example, but not too far off), or something like that. I don’t understand people’s compulsion to write conference proposals that would be difficult to tackle in a dissertation. At the same time, a paper that is too neat and tidy is unlikely to generate much discussion.

I want to leave you with one concrete piece of advice, though: don’t just copy and paste the abstract into the proposal and hit submit. It makes the proposal look lazy and slapdash.

I am happy to take questions.