If I ruled the world...

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Wrote this a few days ago, as some of the posts I link to below were just breaking--there are good conversations circulating about them at each site...cgb


There's a little extra transparency afforded to us by the Interwebs, such that when panels like those of Chris, Debbie, and Becky are rejected by our flagship conference, it doesn't simply happen behind the scenes, as it used to. I'm sure that there are lots of other good proposals that didn't make it; I'm likewise confident that there are a number of proposals that were accepted for papers that will be written days (if not hours) before their actual presentation. I've attended some of those panels, and complained bitterly about them to anyone who will listen. Many of us are lucky enough to receive travel support from our schools to attend CCCC, but it took me a year where I footed the bill on my own to realize that I owed it to my audience to put together the best presentation that I could.

Let me be clear, however, and say that there are also certainly numerous proposals that both were accepted and worthy of acceptance. That's not a question for me. But there are also a lot of good proposals that are annually rejected. Here are a couple of reasons why.

First, our conference leadership has in recent years been preoccupied with making the event more inclusive. By this I don't mean making presentations accessible (which is good), providing child care (which is good), subsidizing under-represented populations (which is good), or any other attempt to meet the needs of conference-goers. I'm talking about the measures that have been taken to bring in first-timers, and in particular, the flattening out of the proposal process to such a degree that one need barely know anything about the field to write a successful proposal.

And perhaps I will be accused of being less than democratic here. So be it. I've never seen the longitudinal demographics on conference attendees, nor do I even know if such data exist, but I do know that the conference is about as big as it can get. (I've heard a lot of people complain in recent years about it being too big--anyone who's ever had to present or attend a talk in a curtained off corner of the exhibit hall would probably agree.) I'd be interested in hearing if our push to "grow" the conference has resulted in increased subscription rates for the journal, memberships in the organization, or any such long-term benefit for those of us who are already committed to the organization and the conference. Perhaps it has, but that data would be have to be qualified with information about the growth of tenure-track positions and programs in the field. I'd be surprised if that information has been gathered in a systematic way, but I'm prepared to be pleasantly surprised.

As the number of proposals has increased, the amount of space devoted to describing the actual projects has shrunk, and that is a trend that privileges the pithy, speculative kind of prose that is its own genre, and which requires far less disciplinary expertise than one might imagine. Again, this makes the process more inclusive, but it does so at the expense of thoughtful research that actually exists. It privileges light, buzzwordy, trendy proposal writing, the kind of writing that gets more difficult to produce once one actually undertakes research and gets into the nuances and complications involved. As Becky notes, "I could have taken a half hour to write a snappy little proposal for an opinion piece about plagiarism, with a little media analysis folded in, and it would have been on the program in a heartbeat." The fact is that our current proposal system privileges this, partly in the interests of making the program as inclusive as possible.

Second, our program is done by percentage, meaning that if technology proposals are 10% of the total, then 10% of the program will be technology panels. The number of proposals in a given area determine the percentage of panels on the program. Democratic, yes? Well, the problem here is that not all areas are created equally. It's no accident that two of the rejections above are for data-driven studies, and another is for historical work. Those are areas where (a) pithy, trendy accounts are not as possible, but more importantly, they are areas where (b) you can't simply read a couple of articles and be prepared to present research. Both historical and qualitative work require a great deal of experience and research, and are likely to have higher percentages of more experienced researchers among their proposals. The Area Clusters are not "equal" so asserting equality among them will often have the opposite effect when it comes to quality.

This would be one way of testing this. Take one year's proposals, and have them rated without reference to Area Cluster (an individual AC reader is going to feel pressure to produce a range of scores--I know because I did when I read one year). Then separate them into Area Clusters and see what the mean scores are. My guess is that we would find that more specialized areas have a higher percentage of strong scores, and that our current system actually penalizes researchers doing more specialized (and potentially more advanced) work. My guess is that there's a much broader range of quality in the catch-all areas.

But that has to be a guess, because we're not allowed to use proposals for research purposes (as of the mid80s, I think). It's why I still hand out that chapter from Berkenkotter and Huckin on CCCC proposals--it's the most recent study possible of this stuff.

I do know that recent attempts to study the field by reference to CCCC Programs (and there are several) are deeply flawed, because they don't allow for the vagaries of the process. We persist in the belief that the annual convention somehow represents our field in a given year, but the fact is that nothing could be further from the truth. It represents the version of our field represented by a flawed process, a version that discourages many who do and prefer certain kinds of work, and the result of a process that I continue to be critical of. That process has seeped deep into the bureaucratic structure of our field, such that we can make small changes around the edges, but I honestly doubt that any sort of sweeping change is possible. And honestly, I don't know that there are that many people who would agree with me--I've believed for some time that our conference is much less than it could be, that it's broken in important ways.

Like Debbie suggests may happen for her this year, I hesitate every year before I send in my membership dues, wary of the degree to which my membership constitutes a vote, however small, for a status quo I find deeply problematic.

Three final notes. As bitter as this may sound, it's not anywhere close to the bitterest version of this entry. Believe me. I still believe that it would be possible to have a better conference, one that I could look forward to attending for more than the opportunity to see my friends.

And second, I have no axe to grind this year, as I didn't send in a proposal. Like Becky, I've been accepted almost every year I've proposed, because I learned early to write pithy, acceptable proposals. I like to think that I use this power for the forces of good, but it took me a few years longer than it should have to arrive at that point.

Three: again, I'm not criticizing those who do get accepted. I myself have had great luck proposing to CCCC, and I don't doubt that the conference will always be a mixed bag. My point, though, is that different areas of the field have different thresholds for entry, and the process itself ignores that fact.

I'm fully willing to admit that I may be wrong about some of this, but I've tried to be fairly careful here. The fact of the matter is that there's way too much of this process that's hidden behind bureaucratic opacity, and I have my suspicions about why that is. Even the tiny amount that's visible, though, is enough to persuade me that it would be worth our collective time to think about why our conference is alienating to its core audience and about what we might do to change that.

That's all.


I just read the first sentence out loud to my office mate; she is r/c and I am not, and our panel was accepted. I had to read it to her because I was swearing a lot and had to share why. If she were the swearing type, I'm sure she would have joined in the chorus of "no [swear] way" that was coming from my side of the office.

Then I felt really bad, but then I felt sort of energized: not only are we going to give the best possible presentation that we can about our project, I want to find a way to (kind of loudly, probably, knowing me) reference the work of such luminaries who won't be presenting while some lit interloper schmuck like myself will be. I'm not sure it's possible, given the subject matter, but now I'm all fired up about it.

Thanks for writing this.

Thanks, J. I definitely don't want folks who were accepted to feel guilty about it--I don't feel guilty when I'm accepted and friends of mine are not. The process is so gigantic and nebulous that it's not a matter of one's person's proposal knocking out another's.

But I think that the process (and the conference itself) has not changed much from the time when the conference-goers numbered in the hundreds. Now it's in the thousands, but we've been really slow to ask ourselves what that means for the conference. What changes have happened have been around the edges, and I've complained about those before, too (the infamous increase in weird session designations, e.g.).

It feels to me, more and more, like people are looking to the conference (and to the program) as some kind of road map of the field, but that's not the way we've allowed it to evolve. Should we change it to make it more representative of the field? I don't know, but it's worth thinking about...


You're right. I have never taken much time to write a proposal for CCCC, and it rarely shows disciplinary knowledge. One year, I was doing an independent study at the time I was writing the proposal. I showed the prof the proposal since it was related. She was in lit, and she said it was horrible because it was so short and said nothing. I told her it was a hundred words over the limit and was hoping she could help me cut it. She was stunned that the proposals were so short (this is when we were limited to 150 words).

This will be my first time presenting since 2005, also in SF (though I did a workshop presentation last year). And as I said at Becky's it's a talk about teaching that I knew would get in because it's about porn with a pithy title.

Last year was the first time I went in three years, and I'm skipping next year.

Key phrase: "our conference leadership." Notice the singular noun-serving-as-adjective. We've all done a great job of identifying the problem. But as is the case with any other big, complex social system, this problem isn't fixed by critical awareness. And I personally don't think it's fixed by action aimed at the conference itself, not even collective action. A better solution, I think, may be to acknowledge that our discipline has grown large, and that its national conference serves the primary purpose of community- and constituency-building, and therefore does a poor job with the dissemination of scholarly insights. CCCC is a ceremonial and celebratory gathering of a widely dispersed, large group of people. It functions very nicely for that purpose. But scholarship? We need to be taking that to *scholarly* conferences. RSA, WPA (a conference that includes quite a number of research-based presentations), C&C (never been there, but I'm guessing), SLW (which I'm hoping to attend next year), etc. And if we don't have enough such conferences, we need to make more, instead of beating our heads against the brick CCCC wall. On reflection, I'm thinking that in the years when I want to go to CCCC (which in the past has been most but not all years), I'll continue to send them the snappy little proposals that have served me so well in the past. And I'll save the research for conferences that want it.

Sue Wells has always preached to me the value of the smaller conferences when it comes to more rigorous exchange. I still love the networking and camaraderie of Cs. But I think I will now, from here on, seek out conferences like Ohio States' Extending Literacy Studies Conference.

...and, yeah, what RMH said.

Btw, an astute post for one (such as myself) unfamiliar with some of the inner workings of the conference. Thanks for that, CB.

I think that part of what Collin's point here is that it's really hard to generalize what does or doesn't get accepted at the CCCCs. I think he's right about the "inclusion" argument, but I also think that part of what the "conference leadership" argument comes down to is that the person who chairs the CCCCs in a given year has a lot more influence on shaping it than I had perhaps thought was the case originally. If that makes sense.

In any event, I am not going to cry over spilled conference, though I probably will (before submitting for 2010) look over my past proposals, both winners and losers, and see if I can't discern a pattern. Maybe it really is the "pithy" ones, I don't know. And I'm already trying to plan my trip to UC-Davis for C&W.

The main problem w/the argument, though, is that there really isn't some central authority keeping X type of proposal out/Y type of proposal in. I got rejected last year for the first time. I got accepted again this year. The pattern? None. You'll probably find most long time attendees have a rejection in there at some point.
How many people read a given proposal? Three? The odds of getting a match (these reviewers like what I'm doing) are not high by any standard. If the conference accepts less than 30 percent of proposals, the odds of NOT getting accepted are high. I'm not yet swayed by the arguments that there is some movement here to keep one type of paper out and another in, nor that theory is somehow less worthy of getting in than a data driven study, or that a data driven study is more worthy than a pedagogy paper, and so on. I'd have to see evidence that reviewers are told to think that way; I'm not sure such evidence would materialize.
And as far as writing in a proposal in the conference's language (something I typically do as well). My panel did that last year. We got rejected. That approach is not a sure thing either.

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This page contains a single entry by cgbrooke published on September 11, 2008 10:25 AM.

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