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.