How Dare They Reject My Conference Proposal

Academic librarians are the type of folks who will suffer in silence when dealing with a conference rejection. At best we may share our disappointment with a colleague or two or perhaps our supervisor, but in general (and yes, this is a generalization) I suspect that few academic librarians would make a public stink about how their great proposal for a paper or panel was somehow not accepted – and even go to great lengths to point out the failings of a conference that rejected their proposal. ACRL recently sent out its acceptance/rejection notices for the 14th annual conference in Seattle. It appears the competition was greater than ever for a presentation slot, with an approximate 20% acceptance rate. But can you imagine me using my blog to rant about getting rejected or even going so far as to publish my proposal here for you to tell me how great it is and how could it possibly have been rejected – and further telling you how sorry you will be to not be hearing me present it at the conference. “What could the fools on those review committees have been thinking” I would expect you to write as a comment to my post. Well, that’s just not our style. We take it on the chin and just keep on going.

So you can imagine that I was pretty surprised to see an entire thread, in a sector of the faculty blogoverse, by bloggers who took their conference rejections public – and even used their rejections as an opportunity to criticize the conference organizers for having lowered their standards by accepting proposals of lesser quality than their own. It started here with a post at Collins vs. Blog. The author of the post, , shares his/her thoughts about the Conference on College Composition and Communication (CCCC) and points to other bloggers who are similarly lamenting about the rejection of their proposals. Some of these other bloggers went so far as to post their actual proposals for others to discuss. A number of the commenters also went on to discuss their rejected proposals giving various reasons for why they think that happened – along with additional critiques of the selection process.

Now, before you jump to the conclusion that this all just a bunch of whining, bitching and all that sour grapes stuff, take some time and read some of these posts. The conference organizers may not take kindly to it, but the conversation appears to point to some ways in which the conference and the proposal selection process might be improved. Some of these suggestions appear to point to valid concerns about what might be a selection process that has inherent flaws. I suppose that my main concern about the use of blogging to complain about getting rejected and criticizing the selection process is that the conference organizers might be unhappy with me and that might affect my future opportunities with the association and its programs. I’m sure they are open to suggestions for improving the process, but is publicly blogging one’s complaints and criticisms the right way to go about creating positive change? Probably not.

I’ve served on ACRL national conference selection committees. It’s not an easy job. Let’s remember that the people who serve on these committees are academic librarians just like you and me, and that they are volunteering their time – and it takes a lot of time to go through 250 proposals knowing you can only select 40 or so of them. That’s not to say that the selection criteria and process used to make the decisions couldn’t be subject to occasional review to determine if improvements are possible. For example, a common complaint about ACRL presentations is that they can lack quality. The reviewers can only base their decisions on what they read; they have no idea if the proposal authors can put together a high quality, informative and engaging presentation. The only way to do that would be to know who submitted the proposal and determine their past presenting experience. Of course, that would eliminate the blind review process that makes ACRL National our profession’s premier scholarly conference.

It’s unfortunate that so many proposals, many of them good ones I’m sure, are rejected. But that’s the nature of the game we choose to play when we submit our proposals for ACRL conferences. I would still encourage readers to develop and submit their proposals even knowing the odds of acceptance are slim. It is good to go through the creative process of completing the application, and once you have started on that road there is no telling where it may lead – even if your proposal is rejected. One year my proposal for a paper presentation and then a poster session was double rejected. Ow! Guess what. That paper idea went on to become an article published in College & Research Libraries. Back then we didn’t have blogs to complain about getting rejected. The best revenge, I guess, was simply proving to myself that I had an idea of value that the conference reviewers just didn’t recognize.

2 thoughts on “How Dare They Reject My Conference Proposal”

  1. Yours is the first post I’ve read that offers an opposing view of the thread of rejection posts.

    There’s a larger conversation with which you might not be familiar that will help you better understand our “whining.” The short of it is this: the organization recognizes and has initiated public conversations about the need for more rigor. Conference proposals and paper presentations need to have higher standards.

    As well, the process is a bit opaque. Some of the folks who are doing their public complaining are actually, in my opinion, providing a service. E.g. until I read some of my colleagues publicly posted conference proposals I had never even read a conference proposal (other than my own). I had no basis of comparison. Also, the conversation, as you point out, has provided me with some insight on how the selection process works. Something about which I was equally ignorant.

    Scholarly work is often isolated enough. Is there no value in this conversation? Does the conversation not offer at least a sliver of insight into the process? Why should they/we have held our tongues on this matter?

  2. In the case of the 4Cs conference, without having done due diligence and only skimmed some of the posts, there is a philosophical difference being debated, and it’s one that cuts to the heart of the discipline, no? What actually constitutes the direction our scholarship should be going? is a question that any scholarly conference, consciously or not, addresses by choosing which scholarship gets to take the stage. And by posting rejected proposals and comparing notes, people can arrive at some kind of answer in an alternative mode, especially in the absence of a shared understanding of how the decisions are made.

    I’m not sure at all that such a question guided the ACRL planners’ decision-making – I suspect it was more along the lines of “how can we construct a program that addresses the questions people are interested in” and picking what they consider the best submissions to address t hose questions, rather than choosing presentations that match a particular direction scholarship should be taking – but in the absence of a shared understanding of how these decisions are made, sharing what didn’t get accepted is one way to suss it out.

    The other piece of this puzzle is the political economy of promotion and tenure. I get more support from my institution to attend a conference if I present, because those who present give back more to the institution in terms of prestige. In turn, I need to present to have an impressive CV. In those terms, there’s no payoff for attending a conference. If the main motivation of attending a conference is to present, then the ratio of presenters to audience gets skewed. ACRL (and, no doubt, 4Cs) loses some registrations from those who aren’t accepted because there’s no reward offered by the institution.

    Which really is another argument for rethinking the “let’s all go to a city and stay in expensive hotels to hear people read papers at us” conference model. It will become increasingly unsustainable on so many counts.

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