In this guest post, University of St Andrews PhD researcher Ann Gillian Chu offers advice on what academic conference organisers in Britain might be looking for in their Calls for Papers (CfPs). Similarly, she also explores how British conference organisers can strive to be more inclusive and understanding when opening CfPs to a global audience. You can read more about Ann Gillian Chu in her ‘5 Minutes With’ interview.
Are you wondering why your submissions to conference calls for papers have been rejected? Or are you organising a conference and are frustrated at not being able to make out the arguments of the submissions? This year I co-organised an online postgraduate conference for a UK-based learned society in my field. While I have co-organised an in-person postgraduate symposium in Canada before, at that time we all came from the same learning environment and cultural context. This time, I found the experience to be eye-opening since the online platform was open to submissions from all over the world. I realised that I take too much for granted that others have the same expectations for academic writing. This post offers a few observations on what non-British postgraduates can be aware of when pitching for Anglophone, especially UK-based, conferences. I hope my experience can spur other conference organisers to start thinking about how much we cannot take for granted when creating opportunities for multicultural scholars.
Academics must be able to express themselves in their own terms, yet conference organisers as gatekeepers need to decolonise how we think about what is appropriate for an academic conference. While these institutions are still decolonising, I want to spell out for non-UK based, possibly non-white, applicants how to navigate the submission process. From my perspective as a Chinese female academic, these are the pitfalls that tend to impact scholars who identify as English-as-a-second-language or foreign-language speakers. I will address both what applicants of all backgrounds can do to improve their chances of being selected, and where conference organisers need to be attuned to potential biases.
This post is in four parts, that is, the usual components of submission: 1. Title, 2. Abstract, 3. Paper, 4. Bio. I have also created an academic conference Trello board that might be helpful for applicants to keep track of submissions, to celebrate wins and to reflect on how rejected abstracts can be reshaped for other calls.
- Succinct: We received paper titles that were as long as an abstract. Applicants may want to cover everything in the title to make sure all the ideas get read, but from the reader’s perspective, a title of 100 words is hard to follow. Think of the title as a hook, and not the entire paper. On the flipside, organisers can strive to see whether the content is relevant and original, and issues like long paper titles can be addressed after accepting the submission, such as sending some tips on how to make the paper more accessible to Anglophone, especially UK-based, audiences.
- Relevant: We received lots of paper titles that did not address our conference theme of political theology. Of course, applicants may be trying to draw a paper from their thesis, but it is important to incorporate words from our call for papers to show us that the paper relates to the theme. The same goes for 2. Abstract and 3. Paper, in which applicants can be more explicit about their disciplines and how their papers address the call. The organisers will probably group papers together by discipline and applicants can help by self-sorting according to topic. Being placed in the same panel with others who can dialogue with the work is helpful for other panellists, respondents, and attendees.
- Clarity: We received many abstracts with basic spelling, grammar, and structure issues, making the main idea hard to follow. I would argue that English as an academic Lingua Franca is no one’s first language (cf. Marion Heron and Doris Dippold, Meaningful Teaching Interaction at the Internationalised University), and it is necessary for all applicants to ask a colleague to give their abstracts a quick review for clarity. If the selection panel cannot understand the abstract, they might question whether the audience will understand the presentation. The same goes for 3. Paper; make sure it has been proofread. Your university’s writing centre should be able to help with that. That said, it is also necessary for conference organisers to recognise that perfect grammar is an artificial barrier to good communication, and that if they want to embrace diversity, they should offer suggestions to address the issues so that they do not obstruct meaning.
- Originality: In some cultures, scholars have tendencies to describe an event, a theory, or a figure rather than propose original arguments. There could be many reasons, such as how they have been trained, or that they might want to explain the context for others. At the end of the day, it is the original argument that takes you places. Make sure what is new about the argument or approach in the abstract is being articulated.
- Scope: This year, our call received some abstracts that covered everything under the sun, though each speaker gets only 20 minutes to present. Conference organisers would generally be concerned whether such a paper can be presented within the allocated time. Calls for papers usually include a time allocation, so think about how much can be addressed within that limit.
- Fit: Think about what other papers might be about and how the proposal fits among them. Applicants might look at previously accepted papers or keynote papers. Sometimes a rejection is not because what has been proposed is bad, rather it does not fit with other submissions. Conference organisers generally want to create panels that have a common thread, which the audience will find to be interesting and relevant to the conference theme.
- Global Audience: As we had a global audience this year, owing to the online format, we had to think about how well regional or cultural examples, idioms, slang, metaphors, buzzwords, or jokes would translate to a wider audience. It is unlikely that everyone knows every cultural reference, and the same English words can have very different meanings in different contexts (cf. Malory Nye, Decolonizing the Study of Religion), so it is important to provide appropriate context for the audience to understand the meaning of each illustration.
- Time Limit: Applicants should practice to make sure their papers can be delivered within the time limit, and not trip over words that are awkward to read aloud (cf. G. Robert Jacks, Just Say the Word!). In addition, applicants should try to front-load the argument because if they cannot get through the paper within the designated time, they may be cut off by the panel chair. There are many online tools to calculate words to minutes, such as SpeechInMinutes and WordsToTime.
- Expectation: Try to discover what kind of bio the conference organisers usually expect. Applicants can start with their current position and relevant qualifications, and if there is space, research interests and publications. I have seen applicants write their age, where they were born, and many non-relevant qualifications and experiences. That is unnecessary and makes it difficult for the organisers and panel chairs who need information that is relevant to the academic setting. Keep the bio relevant and succinct and remember that it will be read aloud by the chair, so write in third-person rather than first-person.
- Criteria: If there are specific criteria for presenters, applicants should say explicitly how they fit them. The conference I co-organised was for postgraduates, but many bios were unclear, so we had to email applicants to confirm their eligibility.
I hope this post has been helpful, and on the flipside, Ellie Yates wrote a helpful post for British academics who will present abroad. Do you have any tips to share with us on responding to calls for papers or calls for abstracts? Let us know in the comments!
Ann Gillian Chu graduated from the University of Edinburgh with MA (Honours) in English Language and is currently a PhD (Divinity) Candidate at the University of St Andrews, based in the Centre for the Study of Religion and Politics. Her doctoral research focuses on how Christians conceptualise civic engagement in light of Hong Kong’s resistance movements. You can follow her on Twitter @agillianchu and on her research website, http://gillianchu.com