Over the last several years, I’ve been invited more and more often to serve as a peer reviewer for conference proposals. I’ve done this for the DHSI Colloquium, for the Canadian Society for Digital Humanities, the Association of Internet Researchers, and Digital Humanities. I’ve probably reviewed 30 or more submissions. And then there’s all the proposals I’ve written that I’ve received feedback on, and the proposals that graduate students I work with share with me, and the “conference proposals” I make yet other grad students write as part of the assessment structure of a seminar I teach. That’s probably another 50 or so proposals.
I’ve been noticing some patterns.
I figured that since you all liked my post on giving conference papers, framed around the stuff that annoys the crap out of me, I could do the same for conference paper proposals, too. All in the name of helpfulness, of course. If you’re a graduate student, I hope this information is good advice; if you’re on the other end of the PhD and a habituée of the review circuit, please throw your own advice or experience in the comments.
It’s a tough genre to break into, and every conference seems to require something different. They don’t, though, mostly: and I’m going to tell you the gist of the feedback I give to nearly 100% of people I review in all venues.
First, the easy stuff:
- Stick to the required limits, constraints, requirements, and formats. If the call asks for a reference list, provide one. If it says you need to submit a bio along with your abstract, do that. If it suggests a maximum of 1500 words, get close to that–200 words will not do in that case, but neither will 2000. (I’ve seen both happen.) Oh, and it is increasingly the case, with computerized application processes, that 3 minutes after the deadline means you missed it: be timely.
- Why does this matter? Well, peer review for conferences means comparing apples to apples, and quite a lot of apples, and according to set criteria. At the very least, you don’t want to stand out from the rest of the applications with weirdo formatting or length or no reference list or a too-long reference list, etc. At best, if you follow the rules, the content of what you’re proposing is what will stand out.
- For the love of baby kangaroos, proofread your submission carefully. One typo, I find, can happen to anyone. A bunch of typos, or three references done incorrectly, or something cited but not referenced, or misspelling a central critical term repeatedly, or using a big word that is actually the wrong word? RED FLAG.
- Why does this matter? It’s really the case that it is irritating out of all reasonable proportion to read a proposal with more than one typo in it. It may not be reasonable, but it is true. It gives a whiff of last-minute-itis or, heaven help us, stupidity.
Now, the not-so-straightforward stuff:
- Be a laser, not a homemade Diet-Coke-and-Mentos bomb. On 80% of the proposals I read, I advise the author or the program committee that the proposal bites off more than any human brain can chew in 15-20 minutes, to mix metaphors for a moment. I addressed the end result of this in my conference post, so I won’t belabour it here. Much. No one aims to write a proposal that skitters all over like a bunny on ice skates, but sometimes, in our sheer enthusiasm for all the nuances of a topic, or our deep research and preparation, we overdo it. All fizz, no boom.
- Why does this matter? You only have time to make one point well, and support it, in the average conference slot. Focus, focus, focus. If a 250 or 500 or 1250 word conference proposal already scrambles my brain with its sub-clauses and side-arguments, as a reviewer, I’m going to try to spare a full audience from the confusion and diffusion I am sure will result from a 3000 word paper. Also, when a proposal skips all over hell and back (and a startling number of them do), even if the applicant has been researching the topic for years, it doesn’t come across; this kind of proposal reads very surface-y.
- Do not blow up the edifice of prior scholarship and proclaim yourself the holder of the red scrunchie. You don’t have to revolutionize the field in 15-20 minutes. You just have to make a sensible contribution to strengthening the foundation, or replacing the weather stripping on the exterior doors, or sweeping the front porch. Hell, you might even do a total gut on the kitchen, but let that emerge from your paper itself. Show, don’t tell.
- Why does this matter? Debunking an entire field is a rookie manoeuvre. It usually indicates a lack of subtlety or nuance in the final thinking. It leads to grandiose writing in the proposal, and bombast in the presentation, a thundering denunciation best saved for the drinking session with your academic buddies, from which, upon sober second thought, a more laser-like and specific criticism might be elaborated.
- And yet, do not, either, hide behind the big wigs. This is the corollary rookie mistake: ventriloquizing the major scholars in your field, especially the fine folks whose works are most often studied in grad seminars. If the first couple of sentences of every paragraph summarize, paraphrase, or extensively quote published work, the rest of the paragraph explains the idea cited, start over.
- Why does this matter? We’ve probably all read those same books. We are familiar already with most of the big ideas: we took those grad seminars, too, or taught them. A conference paper is meant to make a contribution to new scholarship, not explicate extant works. This kind of proposal telegraphs a kind of intellectual timidity. What is your idea?
- Put your big idea in the first sentence. A lot of proposals work up to the main point, leaving it in the concluding sentence. This may be suspenseful and exciting, but it results in the reader–having only really discovered what the applicant is proposing in the final seconds–having to go back to the beginning and read it over again to see how the case was made. Surprise is good for The Sixth Sense. How fun it is to rewatch that once you know the trick! It’s really, though, if I may be frank, never fun to reread a conference proposal.
- Why does this matter? Reviewers read a lot of proposals. If a proposal tells me the Main Point in sentence 1, I can read the rest of the proposal to see if such a claim is supported, or how it will be developed in the final presentation. It gives me the context by which to evaluate the proposal. If all the context comes first, I’m constantly asking myself, “why tell me this?” and “what are you getting at?” Also, a proposal that gets right to the point gives me confidence that there is a point and that it will effectively be conveyed to an audience. Further, many reviewers, frankly, are not going to take the time to do a second careful read of the proposal in this way, because they are busy. And now possibly annoyed at having been made to be confused for several minutes.
That’s it, pretty much. Do these things, and your paper just got way more likely to be accepted. You get better at it the more conferences you apply to, so hang in there! Of course, there are things you can’t control. I get rejected from way more conferences now than I ever did before, even though I’m an ace proposal writer–sometimes reviewers are crabby and just don’t like your subfield. Sometimes, in interdisciplinary contexts, they don’t get it. Sometimes, there’s just way more applicants than there are available slots. Sometimes, the substance of the thing is just not ready, no matter how well you write it up. Oh well.
Thoughts? Addenda? Let’s make conferences more awesome!
You’ll notice all the ideas are labelled Number 1. That’s partly because they’re equally important, but also because I can’t seem to bend the HTML to my my will this morning.