U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The Conference Rejection Pile

As our readers are probably aware, today is the deadline for submitting proposals for the 2012 S-USIH conference (see the CFP here). 

I am not in any way connected with the conference committee, nor will I be part of the selection process for this year’s conference.  I did sign on to participate in a panel proposed by another scholar, so I will wait along with everyone else to find out if I’ll have a place on the program this year. 

It’s not a sure thing.  The committee will no doubt receive far more proposals than there are slots available, and some very strong proposals will be declined simply for want of time and room.  That reason, or some variant of it, is a common but accurate explanation for why perfectly good proposals don’t find their way onto a conference program.  When a conference committee “regrets to inform you” that they could not include your excellent proposal in their conference, they are telling the truth. 

But, as they say, the truth hurts.

How do I know this?  Because last year I proposed a paper that was not accepted for the conference.  It was not a question of whether or not the topic or my approach was interesting or worthy of discussion; it was simply a matter of finding a place for my particular paper on the overall program.

That was the fourth time I had proposed a paper for an academic conference, but it was only the first time one of my proposals had been rejected.  So it really took me by surprise — my past experience, limited as it was, had led me to expect nothing but one fabulous success after another.  When I got the polite email informing me of the committee’s regrets, I did not feel very successful.  I felt awful, and my profs and my colleagues who knew about my project felt awful for me.  I really began to doubt myself as a scholar and an academic. 

It was a tough experience.  I wanted to take part in that conference almost more than I can say.  I was bitterly disappointed not to have a place on the program, and I could not possibly justify the expense of traveling to New York just to attend the conference, though I surely would have enjoyed it.  Eventually, though, I got over my disappointment and was able to put the experience in perspective:  Welcome to academe.

So why am I writing this post today?  Well, for a few reasons.  But before I tell you what my reasons are, let me tell you what they aren’t.  I’m not trying to tip the scales of selection in my favor.  First of all, I don’t need to.  The proposal with which I am associated will stand or fall on its own merits.  Secondly, even if I were tacky enough to try to do something like that, it wouldn’t work.  Now that I have participated in planning, organizing and hosting a conference, I am all the more aware of the complex dynamics and considerations that go into putting even the simplest program together.  These decisions require cooperation and consensus, and once such consensus has been achieved, it is not recklessly abandoned for the sake of one hopeful participant.  In other words, one person’s whinging would not a difference make.

Instead, I hope this post can make a difference for readers who may be getting — or may have already gotten — unwelcome news from a conference to which they have submitted or will submit a proposal. 

I want to encourage you to not take the decision personally.  A conference committee’s decision is not a sweeping verdict on you as a scholar or on your place or plans in academe.  It is a highly contextual decision, a judgment call about one possibility for one small piece of the overall shape of that particular conference program.  If you receive an email regretfully informing you that your paper or your panel was not accepted, this does not mean that you are not doing good work or interesting work.  It does not mean that you are unacceptable as a scholar.  It just means that it wasn’t a good fit for this conference, this time.

So, do not take it personally. By the same token, do not take your disappointment out personally on the conference committee.  For the sake of your own equanimity, if not for the sake of professional collegiality, resist the urge to put on your own little off-Broadway production of “The Fox and the Grapes.”  No, the people who decided that your proposal wouldn’t work aren’t clueless.  No, they aren’t out of touch with what is happening in the field.  No, they aren’t trying to stand in the way of your success.  They are just doing the best they can with the information they have so that they can put together a good conference.

Do not take it personally, do not take your disappointment out on others, and do not give up.  Use the experience as an opportunity to learn.  Go over your rejected proposal and your plans for your paper with a colleague or a mentor and see if you can find a new way to frame the work or perhaps a more suitable venue or opportunity through which to present it.  A rejected conference proposal might turn into a collaborative writing project or a re-envisioned dissertation topic.  In the case of my paper proposal from last year, both of those things might turn out to be true.

The toughest thing to do is to take the risk and put in the effort and put together another proposal for another conference, especially if you’re still working on (roughly) the same topic.  That can be scary.  And if you’re the one putting the whole proposal together, it’s not just your place on the program that’s at risk.  All of your colleagues and would-be co-presenters are also counting on you to help them get their work out to a wider audience.   It can be very intimidating to think about facing the possibility of rejection all over again.  If your revised and re-envisioned work gets turned down for another conference, what does it mean?

I don’t know.  I’m still trying to figure it out.  I put together a very strong panel for a very big conference, found a well-known and well-regarded commenter and chair, got it all together, sent it off, and waited for the news.  And the news came today, and it. was. not. good.

I’m not tempted for a moment to take my disappointment out on others, but I would forgive my co-panelists if they were tempted to take their disappointment out on me.  I feel so badly for them.  I know it’s not my fault; it was our proposal, and we all worked on it together.  But it was my responsibility to shepherd the idea through the proposal process, and nobody regrets the outcome more than I do.

But I’m not ready to give up on my topic or my approach.  Even if I question my own judgment as a scholar (and I frequently do!), I trust the judgment of the historians who have seen my work or heard about my project and have offered their encouragement.  I may feel like I don’t know what I’m talking about, but they do.  And they help me remember that I have work to do — it’s important work, it’s good work, and I need to see it through.

Even though this blog post started with  me preaching to the choir, it is ending — as they often do — with me preaching to myself.  But my guess is that I am not the only reader of this blog who has received or will receive a “we regret to inform you” email from a conference program committee.  And those emails are especially daunting and discouraging for junior scholars.

If you happened to get one of those emails recently, I want to encourage you:  don’t take it personally, don’t get bitter, don’t give up.  Keep working, keep writing, and keep in touch with people who can remind you — in case you temporarily forget — of the value that you and others have found in your scholarship.  If it was worth doing before you got the rejection notice, it’s worth doing now.

So I preach, and so I believe.

5 Thoughts on this Post

  1. My career record is about .500. Below, at, or just above I can’t say without counting it up. But Getting into one our of every two conferences I apply to strikes me as a respectable record. I’m not a team manager, so I won’t be fired for it and I don’t have to worry about the playoffs.

    There was that one conference recently where I was neither rejected nor accepted; I was told the conference had been postponed and the process would be begun de novo once a new date had been selected. Not a tie, then, but a rain-out with make-up date to be announced.

    • “When a conference committee ‘regrets to inform you’ that they could not include your excellent proposal in their conference, they are telling the truth.”

      I have to disagree with you on that. When they say they couldn’t include you, they are lying. If the committee head or representative made such a statement in court under oath, they would be in jail the next day on a perjury rap. They very well could have included you. They chose not to. There is a world of difference there. Phrasing it with the bromides about “regret” makes the committee folks look like duplicitous, mendacious weasels. They may well be duplicitous, mendacious weasels. But why be caught redhanded?

    • Two last points:

      1) This wouldn’t have anything to do with the OAH, would it?

      2) The new reCAPTCHA system sucks even worse than the old one. I suppose Google had no choice, since the old one was completely compromised, but still.

  2. A kindly worded email expressing regret about the results of a selection process and wishing the recipient future success doesn’t signal duplicity or mendacity; it signals politeness and professionalism, and it was received in a like spirit.

    Now, it may not make good professional sense for me to write a blog post about being on the receiving end of such emails, even though pretty much everybody in academe gets similar communications at one time or another. However, I’m not terribly worried that anyone will be scandalized to discover that not everything I attempt is uniformly brilliant or universally hailed as a success. I think that’s already everyone’s working assumption.

    But as you’ll notice from the labels/tags, I created a new one for this post: “collegiality.” It seems to me that one way to be collegial is to acknowledge moments of professional disappointment and offer suggestions on how to get past them.

    This certainly won’t be the last time I work on a proposal that doesn’t find a place on a conference program, and rather than be bummed out about it, I thought I might as well use the occasion as an opportunity to encourage others in their work. Judging from the emails I have received about this post, I seem to be succeeding in that task. And that, in turn, encourages me.

    But to suggest that there is something “mendacious” about the email I received today — or the email I received last year from the S-USIH program committee, or the emails that I sent as a member of the planning committee for the grad student conference at my institution — would be both unhelpful and unfair.

  3. “A kindly worded email expressing regret about the results of a selection process and wishing the recipient future success doesn’t signal duplicity or mendacity.”

    That depends on what the e-mail says and how it’s worded. Let’s compare.

    E-mail 1:

    “We regret to inform you that your proposal is not among those selected for the [conference]. Given the great number of proposals we received, we had to make choices based on the coherence of the overall program and on the lack of space and time for additional presentations.”

    E-mail 2:

    “We regret to inform you that your proposal for the [conference] was not accepted; we had a high volume of submissions and were forced to choose along a narrow set of criteria; we would like to thank you for your proposal, sincerely,”

    The expressions of regret and thanks, I am indifferent to. They are formulaic but they are so because the formula is part of the ritual, as formulas are part of many rituals. So be it. But note the other language: my paper wasn’t “accepted,” it wasn’t “selected.” And that language describes the reality of the situation. (Admittedly, the phrasing uses the passive voice, but there’s little doubt about what happened or who did it, considering what follows.) The committee is accepting responsibility for its decision. The onus is on them, but they are not shirking it. It is forthright. Let me repeat the word: forthright. For whatever reason (and both these e-mails include resaons, for what they’re worth), the committee decided not to pick my paper. But it did decide, and they own up to it. Not everyone does, though.

    E-mail 3:

    “The [program committee] has finalized the program for the [conference]. We regret that we were unable to include . . . the proposal on which you were a participant.”

    Yes, yes, the committee wanted so much to include the panel, but then space aliens materialized in the room and declared that they would destroy Earth if they put the panel on the program. And of course they had to put Earth first. Or maybe what happened was that each time they said they’d put the panel on, a committee member was struck by lightning. After Zeus broiled the third one, they figured maybe God had a thing against the panel, so why risk the wrath of the heavens?

    Fanciful, no? But when you say “unable” that’s what you mean, that something prevented you from taking an action, a something beyond your control and power, some outside agency. But not these folks. No, these guys are full members of the “decisions were made, but not by us” crowd. They were only “unable” to include the proposal if something prevented them for including it. The only thing that did, was their own decision. Which is to say, their words are dissembling and doublespeak. That’s why I called such language “mendacious”: because it is.

    What’s insulting isn’t that my panel wasn’t accepted; it’s that you think I’m so sensitive that you have to tell me in some anodyne, bureaucratic circumlocution. I hate being treated like a fool; especially by people who aren’t my betters.

    You mentioned collegiality, LD. Well, I think honesty and forthrightness are collegial. Far more so than the soft-pedaling and euphemisms too many admissions committees of all kinds think is necessary to convey bad news to people who certainly don’t want it, but are far more prepared to accept it than they are given credit for.

Comments are closed.