Just as every spring, thousands of rhet/comp folks gather for CCCC, every fall, when people find out whether or not their proposals were accepted, there is some conference (and grumbling) over the system by which proposals are reviewed.
Let's just say from the outset that it can't be an easy job.
For the record, I've presented 8 times, beginning in 1996. I also went one time when I didn't present. I can't swear that I proposed every year, but I'm sure I did most of those years. I have no idea if there is any trick to proposing. I would guess something like the following. If one's research sounds like many other people's research (and I'll get to the "sounds" part in a moment), then one will be in a big pile of proposals that are hard to select among, thus creating a higher degree of randomness perhaps because there is not much information to base a decision upon. On the other hand, if one's research is too far outside the norm than one is likely to have a hard time finding a sympathetic ear among reviewers.
So the sweet spot is something that is innovative but recognizable, which is probably the case with virtually every attractive idea, period. I have no idea if my proposals are in the sweet spot, but that's where I am aiming.
Now let me get to the "sounds" part, as several people were pointing this out on the WPA-L. When one proposes for CCCC (and many other conferences), one only gets a fairly short paragraph. I used 192 words to describe my part of the panel on which I'm on for this year. (And BTW, we did get in. It's going to be a great panel on gaming and rhetoric with Alice Daer, Samantha Blackmon, and Ian Bogost.) However, my point is that you really can't learn much from such a short paragraph, and since the submissions are blind reviewed, no one knows who you are. This problem is further exacerbated by the conference theme. Since everyone feels obligated to address the theme somehow, this creates even further commonality among the proposals, or so I would imagine.
Fundamentally the problem is:
- There's very little information on which to base a decision (a couple hundred words).
- What little information there is is often duplicated from one proposal to the next (e.g. discussion of conference theme, similar research practices, etc.)
Ostensibly the goal of the selection process is to get the best presentations on the schedule. There's no way to know if that happens, except perhaps to gauge attendees satisfaction. I've blogged quite a bit about the last few CCCCs I've attended. I generally see four or five panels or presentations that I think are interesting. I would say my research interests only narrowly intersect with those of CCCC in general. Now that I'm WPA, I might find some more panels that are noteworthy from that perspective. However, I have to say that it is the opportunity to social with colleagues that I value the most. It is those conversations away from panels that I find most intellectually valuable. And I assume many others would agree.
So this is the strange thing about conferences in the 21st century. It makes so much more sense to just have everyone post papers and/or make slidecasts or videos or whatever and put them on the CCCC website. On the site they can be viewed and discussed. Then at the FTF conference people can get together and discuss these things face to face. Some scheduling mechanism would have to be created for those conversations, but I'm thinking something could be worked out.
We could still have keynotes and other big panel presentations to create some common experiences, but mostly it would be about people talking. More importantly, you would never have to sit through a lousy panel presentation because you can see/read the actual presentation online. It's those god awful presentations (and we've all sat through them) that make us hesitant to step into an unfamiliar session.
I know there would be issues with how these things get represented on vitas and how people get funded to attend, but really these are such pathetic excuses for not realizing that the conditions under which we work have changed. No one is flying TWA or Eastern airlines to conferences any more.