Proposing a session or roundtable at a conference


I have written previously about how to write abstracts that can be successfully accepted to sessions–but what about how to write a session proposal that will be accepted? Many conventions offer clear advice, including the Modern Language Association (MLA). Because I have organized or co-organized eight sessions and roundtables at the MLA and the Northeast Modern Language Association (NeMLA), and based on those experiences, I can offer some advice for drafting a proposal.

If you have been able to write abstracts for presentations that have garnered invitations to present on panels or roundtables, then you are likely familiar already with what is required for a successful session proposal. However, conferences vary in terms of which content they require. For this post, I will focus on the initial proposal; in subsequent posts, I will write about publicizing the call for papers, choosing participants, and submitting the finalized proposal for approval before a session or roundtable actually can go on.

And I hope this advice is helpful towards submitting session proposals before the April 29, 2016, deadline for the Northeast Modern Language Association, which will have its March 2017 convention in Baltimore.

Recognize the goals of this conference

Regional conferences tend to benefit from proposals that are far wider in scope: these conference attract scholars from a much smaller geographical range, so you will have to write your proposal to be more general to increase the chance of receiving more submissions.

Conferences in a specific topic, methodology, or time period can have proposals that are much more narrow in focus: these sessions will appeal to experts, and a session proposal that is far too general will have too much overlap with other sessions.

Major national and international conferences permit a wider range of sessions, both general topics and much more specific proposals: a strong proposal that can attract scholars from all over a nation or the world increases the pool of potential applicants, so you will have more flexibility in the range of topics you may propose, whether you are looking at a broad topic to garner very different responses to it, or a specialized topic that, while narrow, still is directed to such a large number of people that you are more likely to receive enough well-written, substantive proposals.

As an example, when I write proposals for sessions at NeMLA, I am aware that the conference, although attracting scholars throughout North America and the world, is still a regional conference and therefore is more likely to have panelists who already reside in the northeastern United States and Canada. The proposal therefore cannot be too specific and risk attracting too few panelists.

Brainstorm a Topic

One strategy is to mix and match from three major categories of conference sessions, as listed below:

Column 1 (A Technique)





Professionalization in…

Column 2 (Topic, Discipline, or Area)





Column 3 (A Narrower Subset)

Time Period



Also notice, upon combining one item from each of the two or three columns, can usually result in a clear, albeit pedantic, title, but one that at least can show you and the convention organizers immediately what is your intended focus.

Research the Conference and Current Trends

Many conferences keep archives of their previous sessions, including lists of all sessions organized by area, discipline, or field of study. As you review these lists, you likely will brainstorm ideas based on gaps you see in the sessions–topics, authors, or methodologies under-represented at this conference.

It is also valuable to keep an eye on trends in CFPs you currently receive through list servs or colleagues. These trends will inform you about what may be popular over the next year, between the long process of proposing this session, choosing your panelists, and actually hosting the session–about a year’s worth of time. Because you have looked at the sessions hosted in the previous year, and which this particular conference has not yet had, you’ll know whether these trends are worthwhile to pursue (in cases in which this convention is behind the times in addressing this topic), or will be a cliche after a year (because you have seen that the convention already hosted more than two sessions on this same trend last year).

Pedagogical topics also are usually in demand at conventions, as they attract audience members interested in incorporating new content, technologies, and methods into their courses.

Writing the Proposal: Follow This Format!

Conventions tend to ask for the following for a session: a title, an abstract, and a description, with a maximum number of characters or words allowed. Sometimes the Abstract and the Description are used interchangeably, so please follow the advice below as seems most applicable to what the convention is asking.  

We’ll start with the Abstract, as it is usually the longer document and can be revised to serve as the Description.


The abstract can be 300 to 1,000 words, depending on the convention, so opt to write in both formats as necessary. This abstract provides a brief summary of the objectives for your session and an opportunity to discuss current topics and debates in a field. You will explain how you are treating this topic, the importance of this topic, and how it relates to current scholarship.

The four-part template I give for writing the proposal is similar to the template I give for writing an abstract, so if you have written a successful paper abstract, then you can write a successful session proposal, too.

(1)  Identify your session’s topic and, as relevant, time period, nation, and methodology. Address questions that your session may approach.  

If the thesis statement to an essay is the answer to the question, your session is about that question itself. It may help, then, to lead your abstract with a set of questions that can be raised by panelists in their presentations or during the question and answer session with the moderator, each other, and the audience. You also can place these questions later in the abstract to conclude.

(2) Identify significant fields of the critical debate right now around this topic.

It may help to situate two poles of the debate, in which case your session serves to navigate the space in-between, or to identify three camps in the debate, in which case you demonstrate a far wider field of discussion and an opportunity for additional perspective to emerge.

Be specific when discussing the debate: give examples. Name specific scholars currently in the field to demonstrate your knowledge, along with any major scholars in the past or particular authors, texts, or events.

(3) State what is significant about your argument, your goals for this session, and how this session will serve not only your field and your disciplines, but the conference itself.

A conference will host a session when it is made obvious how such a discussion fills a gap at the conference. Again, you will have reviewed the convention’s web site to see previous year’s programs and current CFPs for other conventions to know whether your proposal is clearly filling a gap.

This significance doesn’t have to be something earth-shattering; it can be much more mundane. For example, a regional convention may not have as many opportunities to host workshops on approaches in archiving, research, teaching, mentoring, and job applications, so you can focus on the more intimate environment of that conference and how rare it is for panelists to meet.

You also can focus the significance around the specific location of that convention: conferences will attract session proposals about local authors, historical events, and ongoing activism and economic challenges. For example, a conference in Hartford, Connecticut, will attract proposals about Mark Twain and Harriet Beecher Stowe, and a conference in Baltimore, Maryland, will attract proposals about Edgar Allan Poe and policing.


The description is usually only 50 to 100 words and therefore serves as the Call for Papers that will be included on the convention’s web site, and which will be of small enough length for you to submit at various CFP web sites such as CFP List and U Penn.

Therefore, you likely will write the Description by revising and heavily condensing Part 1 of your Abstract (Topic and Questions). Depending on the convention, you may have to add in your Description your contact information (email address) and stipulations for submitting (maximum number of words, whether to submit only the abstract or also a C.V.) so that applicants give all information to you without needing to ask for additional directions.

Finish the Last Tasks, and Email Convention Organizers

Identify the Format of Your Session. You already know whether you are interested in paper presentations, roundtables, or workshops; check it off and move onto the next steps.

Choose A/V Needs. Many conventions have skipped charging sessions the $5 to $20 fee to provide a projector, speakers, and related cables to a session, so if you are on the fence, request the audio-visual equipment anyway. If you know that audio-visual equipment will only get in the way of discussion, turn it down, but be aware that it is more difficult in many cases to request it later. Most conventions will not provide the computer to attach to the projector: bring your own laptop or tablet. And if you are an Apple user, bring the Macbook’s Lightning Port-to-VGA converter, as conferences and convention locations usually do not provide them.

Identify Accessibility Needs. These will include sign language interpreters, large-print handouts, papers in advance, real-time captioning, and wheelchair access. If the convention does not offer an option to check off these items, organizers will have an area to type additional comments, or an email address to contact for making these requests.

Choose a Category. “Area,” “Discipline,” “Subject”: the words vary between different conventions, but they are all asking for the same thing, which category would you place your proposal? Is it African American Literature? Comparative Literature? Cultural Studies? Pedagogy? Professionalization?

Conventions usually ask that you identify one or two Areas or Disciplines in which you would situate your proposal. By this point, after writing the Abstract and the Description to identify a field and methodology to your proposal, it should be clear to you which categories are best suited to your proposal.

Identify Keywords. These conventions may also ask for sub-categories as well, maybe even keywords. Look again at your proposal to see which words stand out. If you know you are focusing on only one or two authors, those are going to be key name to list. Go back to the Three Categories and list those relevant keywords–names of disciplines, methodologies, careers, and time periods.

Estimate the Size of Your Audience. This step is very likely premature, as conferences ask for it after you have chosen panelists and are about to submit a finalized proposal–but it doesn’t hurt to make an estimate now. If you have attended this convention before, you’ll have a sense of what is realistic. Be honest, and when in doubt, opt for the lower estimate rather than overestimating.

Email Questions to Convention Organizers. If you are not sure in which category to place your proposal, email those Area Directors at the convention to check whether your proposal would be a good fit–and emailing them also may yield advice to improve your chances that your proposal is accepted.

Provide Your Contact Information. Offer not only your email address but, as relevant, your web site, as you will likely be using it to post your participants’ bios and abstracts should your final proposal be accepted, and because your web site may then be listed in the convention program.  

Follow Up. Conferences usually make their decisions within a month of the deadline; therefore, if within two weeks of the deadlines you have not received a message about the convention’s choice regarding your proposal, email them.

Next Time: Advertising Your CFP


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