Originally published in the Fall 2013 MLA Newsletter
Now there’s a question I have never gotten—you can imagine the one I do hear—yet I think it’s important to let members know how we choose convention sessions. The first key thing to understand is that some of the association’s entities (such as divisions, discussion groups, allied organizations, and MLA committees) are entitled to sessions that do not undergo review by the Program Committee. Sessions that the committee reviews fall into two groups: special sessions, which are organized by individual members, and nonguaranteed sessions, which are submitted by MLA entities that wish to organize additional sessions (e.g., a discussion group is guaranteed one session and can compete for up to two more nonguaranteed sessions). The committee generally accepts around fifty percent of proposals; this percentage varies by year and depends in part on the number of guaranteed sessions and on space considerations.
Using a process analogous to what granting agencies do when they evaluate proposals, the Program Committee makes public a set of criteria, provides examples of successful proposals, and offers assistance before submission (or before resubmission, if your proposal wasn’t accepted). The committee scores each proposal on a 1 to 5 scale. Few proposals receive the highest score (5), which indicates that “the session proposal is well thought out, the rationale is convincing and properly documented, the panelists are shown to be well qualified to undertake the topic, and the session will be attractive to an audience.” Most accepted proposals receive an average score of 4; this means that “one or more elements” of the proposal may not meet the qualifications of a 5: “For example, the rationale might be underdeveloped; the discussion of previous scholarship might be insufficient; or one paper might not be as stellar as the others” (“Scoring Guidelines”). The committee looks for clearly articulated proposals that promise new ways of seeing (or doing) things and for presentations (or workshops) that form a coherent whole and that promise to reward attendees with a well-integrated intellectual or pedagogical experience. Just as fellowship and grant panelists learn to evaluate submissions once they’ve read stacks of them, so do Program Committee members, who typically read over four hundred proposals each year.
The reason your session was accepted is not (only) because the topic is compelling or (only) because the participants have relevant experience or name recognition that might draw an audience. The committee also considers the way you explain the focus of your proposed session and how it builds on existing knowledge, why you chose the speakers and presentations you did, and how those speakers will relate to one another in the session. (Session proposers can find plenty of guidance on the MLA Web site; especially helpful are “Proposing a Special Session,” “Convention Session FAQs,” and “Special-Session FAQs.”) The Program Committee tends to accept sessions that are supported by a strong written proposal and not those that feature solely a timely subject, a worthwhile cause, or a prestigious speaker or two. In short, proposers should not assume that the committee will “get it” and should not simply trust that a good topic, a list of interesting paper titles, and a set of fabulous panelists will a great session make.
I realize that session proposals often get written without much lead time for review and revision. Only a superproficient special-session-proposal author can turn out a 4.5–5 quality proposal in the wee hours before 1 April. For most of us, the time-consuming process of drafting, consulting (with fellow panelists and other colleagues), and rewriting produces the best results. Let us know how we can help.
“Scoring Guidelines for MLA Special Sessions and Competitive Sessions.” Modern Language Association. MLA, 22 Mar. 2011. Web. 3 Sept. 2013.