In the last five years, I have had the pleasure to organize or chair more than 12 sessions on literature, language, and culture, most at the Northeast Modern Language Association (NeMLA) but also including three sessions at the Modern Language Association and a talk at New York University’s Edgar Allan Poe Showcase. I have worked in all capacities of conference organizing–behind the scenes, behind the podium, in the audience. Outside my capacity as Administrative and Marketing Coordinator of NeMLA, I want to share some advice for organizing a conference session, from inception to completion to follow-up, not only to help you with developing your own conferences, but also to help those who are submitting session proposals to NeMLA’s Pittsburgh convention before its April 29, 2017, deadline.
Some content below borrows from my earlier instructions for writing an abstract and for presenting at a conference. And I start below with the bureaucratic parameters, paperwork, and easier tasks before focusing on how to actually brainstorm a topic for a session. I appreciate any feedback or additional advice: based on your experiences at academic conferences, which qualities have made for successful abstracts? Which presentations came out the best? Which conferences were most satisfying? Email, tweet, or comment below what you do to develop successful session proposals!
Updated April 23, 2017, with additional advice from my colleagues.
Know your responsibilities before submitting a proposal.
In almost any sessions, your responsibilities as organizer and chair include:
- Writing the proposal
- Advertising the call for papers
- Choosing abstracts that will produce the best session possible
- Sending messages to accept or decline abstracts received
- Introducing presenters, including receiving their bios and revising them for consistency and accuracy
- Facilitating the question and answer session between participants and the audience, which includes drafting questions beforehand in case audience participation is limited
- Hosting the participants at the conference, including organizing any post-session meal or drink, if desired
- Doing a follow-up with presenters after the conference to thank them and to pursue professional contact, if desired
Share the responsibilities. There are pros and cons to working with a co-organizer, so find someone who complements you: you want someone who has the strengths you lack, and someone who can motivate you to bring the session to completion. If you’re organized but lack a topic, work with someone who is full of ideas. If you’re very creative but lack time and a schedule to finish all the paperwork, find someone who is really good at meeting deadlines. Sometimes instructors recruit one of their graduate students–and in those cases, the instructor and the graduate student should be treating each other as equals in the context of that session, which is a challenge when they are not equals outside of that session. Determine your own goals for determining your collaborator: if you want a mentor and an instructor offers to recruit you, you may want to accept the offer; if you want to develop a session because you want an entry on your CV and are passionate about the topic, then approach someone at your same or similar level, not someone on your dissertation committee who may overshadow your work. Do not depend on this person to go to the conference in your stead–you have to put in every effort to be physically present at the conference’s site.
Also consider whether you want a respondent. If a preeminent expert on the topic is already attending the conference, make the offer to them. You don’t want to use up a favor from someone important in your field, but it is worth mentioning your session, then wait to see their reaction. Respondents are not helpful for roundtables, where everyone is an equal in the discussion; they are helpful for paper presentations, where they can find ways to link together presentations and help you guide the question and answer session with the audience; they are most helpful in seminars, as they can provide publishing advice.
Carry the session to the end, or find a substitute. Conference expect that, when you submit a proposal, you commit to carry out that session to its completion. That means completing all steps listed above, as well as being physically present at the convention. Obviously circumstances in your schedule can change between the date of submission and the convention itself. If you know you cannot commit before the deadline to finalize your session, tell the conference immediately: they may be able to salvage the session and have someone else step in as organizer or chair, which means you may still claim credit for developing the session on your CV. If after choosing your panelists and after your session is guaranteed to run, even before it is officially scheduled, there is no getting out: this session is going to have to happen, so if you know you cannot be at the location for the session, tell the conference now so they can have someone else chair, likely someone already presenting on your session.
Read the instructions for submitting, and know the format of the sessions.
Does the conference want proposals mailed, emailed, or posted to an online database? Which documents do they require? Does the session have to be pre-formed, or do you have to open it to submissions from any and circulate a public call for papers?
Some conventions don’t solicit for sessions: they only solicit for paper presentations, then their organizers groups those presentations into three- to four-presentation sessions. If the convention wants you to design the session, see which formats they offer: presentation panels, roundtables, seminars, workshops, and creative sessions.
Presentation Panels: These sessions can be 60 to 90 minutes, featuring three to four paper presentations, 15 to 20 minutes each, with time for a question and answer session at the end. These sessions tend to be the easiest to organize: pick the papers, introduce each presenter with the bio they sent to you, keep presenters on time, and facilitate the question and answer session.
Roundtables: These sessions can be 60 to 120 minutes, featuring three to eight participants who give very brief presentations, 5 to 10 minutes each (I personally prefer 3 minutes), so that the majority of the time is spent on discussions, debates, and questions between the participants, and potentially more time for discussion with the audience. These sessions require a bit more work: you want to get to know participants before you meet in person at the convention, you want to have far more questions written ahead of time, you want the participants to think about questions to ask each other and not about presenting a 15- to 20-minute paper presentations, and you have to account for spontaneous, unpredictable changes in discussion, especially staying up to date on the topic between when you submitted the proposal and when you hold the session almost a year later. Participants may pre-circulate their topics, questions, or even their prior presentations and publications to help familiarize with the topic.
Seminars: These sessions can be 60 to 120 minutes and are focused on publishing. Five to 12 participants write papers, usually publication length, 15 to 20 pages, which are pre-circulated before the convention. Therefore, as organizer, you must determine the schedule, giving participants a month to read comments, one to three months to read all papers, and enough time to write the papers (if a good conference paper takes two to four weeks to write, I’d say a 15- to 20-page draft for a conference may take at least a month to write). As materials are pre-circulated, although each person will present briefly on their paper, the presentation itself should be abbreviated and geared to the fellow participants: this is a writing workshop, a way to exchange ideas between participants, not as geared towards the audience.
Creative Sessions: These sessions can be 60 to 90 minutes, with three to six participants reading their fiction or nonfiction writing, with a question and answer session with the audience. These sessions depend on you have very good contacts in terms of their publication records, or on a topic that is so narrow that your participants will be a good fit with each other.
Workshops: These sessions are usually one- to three-person jobs, which means you can create your own without soliciting for abstracts, and you may collaborate with peers to lead the discussion. Some conferences will pay the registration for workshop leaders as invited guests; you may also check on whether travel and hotel are covered. Like roundtables and seminars, you want to lead the discussion, and you are going to have to give activities for the audience members to complete, especially as some workshops require audience members to pay–so you better give the audience something helpful.
Poster Sessions: These sessions are usually organized by the conference itself, and your role would be as just another participant who shares their research. Some conferences will print the poster for you, so confirm beforehand who has that responsibility. And anticipate that you have to design the poster: I recommend Adobe InDesign or Quark Xpress, as a Microsoft Word or paint file does not allow much room for the person printing to revise the layout to fit on the page and margins.
Confirm how those submitting will request multimedia, technology, or accessibility.
The conference may ask contributors to list with their submission whether they request multimedia or technology; double-check, especially if the person contributing has a submission that seems to depend on such multimedia but neglected to put in that request. Some conferences such as the Modern Language Association request chairs confirm whether anyone on the session requires accessibility assistance, so be sure to request that those submitting abstracts include that information with their submission, and follow-up again after the session is confirmed in case participants want to update their requests.
Consider hosting more than one session.
Determine whether the conference allows you to submit more than one session. If so, and if you anticipate you will have the time available for additional work and can afford to stay at the conference for multiple days, propose more than one session to increase your chances of being accepted. Be cautious: if they schedule your first session on Day 1 and your last session on Day 4, you are stuck in travel and paying for additional nights in the hotel. Some conventions try to schedule your sessions all on the same day or consecutive days; if they did not, as soon as the convention schedule is posted online, email the organizers and request your session be scheduled for the same day or consecutive days, if those sessions were not already.
Try to propose sessions that are vastly different in some way, not just in format but in topic. Maybe you propose one session in one time period, then one in the century before or after in which you specialize. Maybe you’re someone who is thoroughly engaged in nineteenth-century United States literature but also current comics and fan communities–try proposing one in each category. Try one session that is focused on research, one on pedagogy.
You likely will find the answer whether you may propose multiple sessions by reading the rules about how often a person may be listed in the convention program. If the rules say that you may be listed only once, that likely precludes you from doing anything but chairing the session; if the rules say twice, that likely means you may participate in no more than two session, such as chairing two sessions, presenting on two sessions, or chairing on one session and presenting on another session. Also review whether the rules state whether you may participate in more than one session of the same type: the conference may allow you to present on a paper panel and a roundtable, but not two paper panels, for example.
Research whether this conference is for you.
Some conferences have the audience that is not for you, the location that is too far for you financially or otherwise, or a focus or audience that is not conducive to your professional development or mental and emotional health. While you want one or two conferences per year for your CV, if you have a choice, pursue the conference that will be the smartest, most engaged, friendliest, and most conducive to your research, confidence, development, and wallet. Ask colleagues who have attended or worked at the conference. Weigh the pros and cons: if it will cost you nothing to present, then do it; if it will cost you just one hour roundtrip to get to the location and no nights at the hotel, then do it; if it will cost you any more than that, consider your options carefully, especially if your department or program limits your reimbursement per year for conference travel and if you have no financial support from the conference or other sources.
Brainstorm a topic.
Propose a panel you’d like to attend. That’s what Emily Lauer advises, based on her experience reviewing numerous session proposals as part of her responsibilities as CAITY Caucus Representative for NeMLA.Knowing more about the conference will help you determine whether your idea will appeal to their audience, but if the session does not appeal to you, it will not attract the audience you want.
Turn your class or book into a session. Whereas brainstorming a topic for a session presentation can emerge from one chapter of your book or one paper you wrote for class, brainstorming a topic for an overall session needs to come from a larger scope: think about a book you have written or want to write, a course you developed or attended–and make that into a session. Maybe you taught about pop culture adaptations of Edgar Allan Poe: write a session on that topic. Maybe you’re editing a book on intersectional identity in comics: write a session on that topic.
Or think of a course you want to teach or a book you want to write and make that topic into a proposal–and you’ll benefit from hearing presenters’ ideas that will help you design the syllabus, write the book proposal, or even solicit those presenters to write chapters in your anthology.
Avoid topics the conference just covered. Be aware of similar topics presented at the conference in previous years. Many conventions’ web sites have digital copies of their previous years’ schedules to search or download: see whether your topic has already been covered in the previous two to five years. For example, the Northeast Modern Language Association in 2016 and 2017 were at the Mark Twain, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Edgar Allan Poe Houses in Hartford, Connecticut, and Baltimore, Maryland, so I know those authors are less likely to be in demand for discussion at upcoming conventions. If you have a spin on that topic that was not taken in previous years, attempt submitting that proposals; otherwise, you want to choose a different author, or group that authors as part of a larger set of authors that deemphasizes that one author.
Be aware of which sessions the conference usually hosts. There are conferences that are far more traditional and rarely include works that are lowbrow, middlebrow, or from popular culture. There are conferences that thrive on popular texts or fan culture and may not be as theoretical. Do not be discouraged if you think your topic is not a perfect fit: the topic is less important than the tone and methodology of your proposal, so tailor your proposal to the language, expectations, and format of that conference.
Relate your session to the conference’s theme or guests for that year. If the conference has a theme, it may trigger an idea that would be a perfect session. If you are familiar with the works of the conference’s opening speaker, keynote speaker, or other invited special guest speakers, develop a session that is based on their works.
Pursue popular trends. There are trends that remain popular due to how under-developed the research is at the moment, especially in literature and the humanities, leaving so much potential for productive discussion at a convention, such as in ecology, environmentalism, animal studies, fat studies, social justice, queer studies, intersectional studies, critical race theory, comics and graphic narratives, and digital humanities. Be cautious, as trends can be finicky. As vital are all those topics I just listed, the academy can reduce demand in any one of them to the detriment of our studies and to your proposal. The same goes for recent or upcoming works in literature, film, television, and popular culture: you don’t know whether that primary text is going to be a bestseller or a financial and critical failure.
Pick evergreen topics. There are evergreen topics that are always in demand: professionalization, pedagogy, graduate student outreach, labor and contingent and adjunct labor. If those topics inspire a creative session proposal, so for: it is obviously inspiring a passionate discussion that you would do great at hosting. Also check whether the conference itself tends to welcome topics in those fields, especially if that conference has caucuses within it that are committed to those topics and seek people like you to develop such sessions.
Categorize your session for simplicity.
Many conferences have areas or divisions to group together sessions that are similar in some way. This may be by language or region (America, British, Anglophone, French, German, Italian), a field, discipline, or theory (comparative literature, cultural studies, media studies, creative writing, women’s and gender studies), a practice or skill (editing, publishing), professional development and workplace concerns (diversity, pedagogy), or a group of people (graduate students, contingent and adjunct faculty, two-year college faculty, independent scholars). These divisions exist so that they can help you promote your session, have guidance in proofreading and defining your session, and to make sure your session is not held at the same time as another session of a similar topic. So pick one or two categories that fit your session–as many conferences will ask you to do so anyway. But even if they don’t, knowing where your session fits will help you know who is your audience. Upon determining your categories, see whether the conference has its previous years’ schedules and whether those schedules also list sessions by category–and seeing the sessions in that category will let you know whether you chose correctly, how to revise your proposal to appeal to that category, or whether this conference is really for this topic.
Write two proposals: one detailed, one brief.
Conferences want to know why your session is worth hosting. There are strategies to sell your session’s topic:
- How does it relate to this year’s convention theme, and what does it add that no other session will?
- How does it relate to the works of guest speakers already invited to present at the conference?
- How does it relate to the city or institution hosting the conference, and what does it add that no other session will?
- How does it add something missing to current discussions on this topic, in this field, or in this discipline?
Be broad. The proposal is to explore a question, not to offer just one answer. As said by my colleague Mary Ellen Iatropoulos, who has successfully organized multiple sessions at numerous conferences, “Raise a question that interests you, and pitch your paper as exploring [that] question.” Emily Lauer adds that having a broad topic means you’re more likely to attract a larger number of submitted abstracts. And having a broad topic does not mean you cannot revise the session, after choosing your submissions: upon selecting the number of abstracts to include, many conferences allow you, when finalizing, to revise the description and title so that they focus on what your abstracts actually cover.
Cite examples as necessary from recent literature or scholarship to show how the topic is relevant right now. Be flexible: again, this session is being proposed a year before you actually will carry it out at the conference, so if you know of upcoming works being released in that interim, it may be relevant to bring up or to revise your proposal to account for what they may cover.
Your ideas should be paramount in the proposal. Even as you may hook the conference with one of those questions above, the proposal has to be what interests you. Benjamin Railton, former President of NeMLA, advises, “Don’t worry about [the] scholarly [conversation] for the proposal–focus on your own main ideas, on what you have to say that we need to hear.” I would say any scholarship should be kept to the longer description, not to the brief summary that conferences include on their web site and newsletter to promote your call for papers. Keep the footnotes and extensive quotations from other scholars to the longer description–or better yet, delete them and summarize your ideas in your own words. Footnotes, works cited, and long quotations are not going to prevent your proposal from being accepted, but the people reading proposals want to hear your ideas first, and the formatting of those citations and quotations take up the maximum number of characters or words you may add in some proposal submissions.
Many conferences also ask for a brief summary that they will post to their web site and newsletter so that they do not have to summarize your detailed proposal for you. Do not repeat what you wrote in the detailed proposal: staff and administrators are reading everything you submit, and if you repeat yourself, you pass up an opportunity to add content to persuade them.
Be concise. If you are under the word or character count, yet have written a persuasive proposal that will secure your session, keep is short. Administrators at many conventions are reviewing more than 500 proposals, and they appreciate when someone not only follows instructions and is clear but is also concise.
Add a hook. Now that you have a concise summary, condense it down to a catchy question that can provoke multiple answers that attract a variety of abstracts. H/T Mary Ellen Iatropoulos.
Title your session.
Follow instructions. Adhere to character and word limits. Add quotation marks or italics where needed and, for online submissions, where possible. Having worked as staff at conventions, we appreciate when people follow instructions: it saves us time in proofreading and revising for you in all promotional materials.
The title has to attract attention: make it catchy and viral. Catchy titles get attention. Make the title something easy to adapt into a hashtag. This doesn’t mean make your title short, unclear, and superficial. Rather, your hashtag can be quite a bit different from the actual title. Maybe there is a clever acronym you can develop from the session title that will get popular on social media. Maybe the title is already clever enough for a hashtag: I have seen excellent titles such as “The Death of Zod” for a philosophy and comics session.
Have peers review your proposal before submission.
Consider which peers will complement you: if you want help to catch errors in writing, find a proofreading; if you want help clarifying your topic, find a good writer; if you want help expanding on an idea, talk with someone and bounce ideas off of them. H/T Mary Ellen Iatropoulos.
Submit all paperwork before the deadline–and get ready for the next steps after your session is accepted.
Set deadlines for abstracts, based on your own deadlines. If the conference did not do so already, schedule your own deadline for abstracts in advance of the conference’s paperwork deadlines so you have enough time to choose submissions, receive acceptance confirmation, ask follow-up questions of contributors to finish paperwork, and turn in all material before the deadline.
Get the minimum number of submissions you need. Many conferences will not run your session if it is short one person.
Promote your session in person. Talk to your colleagues in your department about your session, and ask that they submit abstracts or encourage their peers to submit. This approach has its pros and cons. On the one hand, as you did invite the person and their peers to submit, and as you work with them or are separated from them by one degree, you will feel obligated to include them on your session. On the other hand, you do need to cast a wide net to get as many submission as possible. Determine how you will turn down someone’s submission, or consider how you will make a session that is the best fit–and if you can’t choose between two submission, definitely go with the submission that is by someone in your department if you intend to maintain this professional relationship after this session. And conferences limit how many people from the same institution may present on the same session, so you will have to turn down people from your department anyway.
Post your CFP online. Submit your CFP to the U Penn CFP site and CFP List, as well as H-Net sites in your field. Find list servs in your field: join them, submit your proposal–and keep in contact with those list servs so you do not look opportunistic. Email it to your department or program’s list serv, and forward the call for papers to clerical staff in related departments and programs at your university or other ones. Create your own web site for your professional identity and post your call for papers there, as well as on any social media accounts you create (Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, WordPress). Be sure to direct your social media posts about your session @ the conference on social media, if they have an account on that service, so that the conference shares, retweets, or reblogs your submission.
Write an abstract to your own session. Even if you do not intend to present on your own session, you want that placeholder in case you are one presentation short. Submitting does not commit you to presenting: you are in charge of this session, so you get to decide whether to present.
As an aside, there are pros and cons to presenting on your own session. On the one hand, you take a space away from someone else, and it comes across as petty to some scholars–but they’re usually full of themselves anyway, and if your content is great, don’t worry about their nonsense. On the other hand, presenting on your own session gives you another line on your CV. And your department or program may give reimbursement for your conference travel only if you present at the conference, and they may not count chairing a session: confirm with your department or program before committing to a conference, then decide whether to present accordingly.
Choose the submissions for the best fit, not the best individual submissions. This may seem antithetical: you have a really good submission that says something very important on this topic, or a submission from the leading scholar in this field–but you want submissions that will congeal with each other well. If you are creating a session where one presenter is going to stick out because their topic diverges so much from the other submissions, or because their fame will overshadow the other submissions, then you may have to set that one aside and not include it on your session. Think of choosing submissions as assembling a jigsaw puzzle: find the right piece to fit into your session.
Send acceptance messages first–and only decline sessions after your minimum number of contributors have formally accepted. It is also a challenge, as your contributors likely submitted to other sessions at that same conference, or to other conferences, and are determining whether they can still present on your panel. You already planned your deadlines to give yourself enough time to submit all paperwork, so be patient but persistent with contributors, and be prepared to withdraw acceptance if the deadline is broken.
Before declining submissions, consider hosting a second session. If you have enough submissions that could form a second session where all submissions are a good fit with each other, and if you have the desire, time, energy, and someone to serve as a chair, even a co-organizer, confirm with the conference whether they permit a second session on the same or similar topic. Regional conventions frequently welcome second sessions; national conferences are less likely given the larger pool of applicants, unless the session is so important or the participants so famous. If the convention’s rules state they allow second sessions, they likely cannot approve your request until after the paperwork deadline: therefore, email
When finalizing your session, follow all instructions.
Budget now for your trip. Find funding opportunities at your department or program, especially if you have funding reimbursement as a graduate student through your department, program, or graduate student congress. Find work at the conference itself: many conferences seek volunteers and may be willing to pay for registration, membership, even travel and lodging in exchange for work before, during, or after the convention. Look up room and ride sharing options through the conference, and check on budget web sites for discounted prices at hotels and in travel. Determine where to eat inexpensively, whether bringing food with you so not to pay potentially higher prices during travel or in the host city, or check with the conference whether they recommend cheaper dining options.
Confirm with the conference what you are required to bring for technology. Some conference provide projector screens, projectors, and computer speakers, as well as all needed cables and cords; many do not. Also be prepared to purchase or borrow materials you will need: a laptop, necessary converters for Apple and mobile items, a PowerPoint USB remote advancer, a laser pointer. Do not expect to have Internet in your room or a place to print your paper cheaply. Print as many materials as you can beforehand, or start practicing your paper reading from a tablet. Download all content you need beforehand, including video and audio clips. Invest in a smartphone with a data plan and a hotspot/tether feature, in case you need to use that smartphone as a wireless router to get Internet on your computer.