Conference Proposal Tips From the AAAL Leadership
With the submission deadline for the 2021 AAAL conference just around the corner, we imagine many of you are working on your proposals right now. In this section, Charlene Polio, Kendall King, and Patricia Duff provide in-depth insight into the conference proposal submission and review process. We hope this piece will be useful to you as you prepare for next year's convention!
If you want to learn more about the AAAL Executive Committee,
How Does It Really Work? AAAL Conference Proposal Submission and Review
Charlene Polio, Kendall King, and Patsy Duff
Warm greetings! As long-time AAAL conference-goers and current AAAL Executive Committee members, we want to encourage you to submit and participate in AAAL 2021. We had some of our earliest (and best) academic conference experiences at AAAL and wish the same for you. We also know you probably have a lot of questions about how the submission and review systems work.
AAAL has some long-standing resources about writing conference proposals (also called abstracts) on the web site as well as a description of what should be included for 2021. Here we offer some additional and more specific insights based our experience as strand coordinators and conference organizers who have overseen the abstract review process. Once you understand the conference proposal genre, you will likely find that it is one of the easiest genres you will have to write in your career, and much less work than writing the paper that you will want to publish after the conference!
Writing Conference Proposals
A conference proposal, although similar in length to the abstract of a journal article, often differs in some respects, so journal abstracts might not be the best point of reference for you. What’s more, journal abstracts vary from journal to journal and even between quantitative and qualitative research, so they can be a misleading guide for conference proposals. Finding models to analyze is not always straightforward since not all organizations in applied linguistics publish the full conference abstracts. AAAL only began doing so in 2020.
We suggest that if you are new to proposal writing, you get together with your classmates and professors and share successful examples of AAAL proposals. One way of collecting these is by checking the AAAL app (2020 Conference, Denver). Even though the conference was cancelled due to COVID-19, the abstracts are still posted. By reviewing these abstracts, you can identify the elements that they have in common and then share your own drafts for feedback.
Despite some differences among proposals, we can provide some tips. First, make sure your abstract reflects timely and interesting work, showing its relevance to current issues in the field. To that end, show that you are aware of the related literature but don’t get bogged down in it and keep references to theory and past research brief (e.g., 3-4 in-text references, such as “(Smith, 2019; Tamaguchi, 2014);” citing none, in contrast, will likely lower the score on contextualization within relevant literature or theory. It’s usually appropriate and expected that you will cite some related research, but there is no need to use up the word count by listing the full references at the end of the abstract. Evaluators will look to see if you have explained how your research will move the field forward, fill a gap, or replicate a prior study.
After that, explain your study as thoroughly as you can within the 300-word-maximum limit. Above all, make sure that you clearly explain the design of your study and, if it is an empirical project, what data were collected and how analyzed. Next, if you have them, report the results. One question about proposals that many people ask is, “Do I need to have the results of my study to submit a proposal?” Of course, it’s ideal if you have them, but many people submit their proposals before collecting or analyzing their data, since the abstract submission deadline is typically eight months before the conference. If you do submit an abstract prior to completing the study, make sure that you will have time to finish the study by the time of the conference. If you write the proposal without your results, it’s fine to speculate, to note preliminary results (if any), or to explain what the results will imply. Sometimes, especially if you report the results, you won’t have space to discuss the implications, which is usually not a problem. Most reviewers would rather that you take the time to talk about your study so that they can properly evaluate it.
Finally, remember that you can only submit one proposal as first author of a paper (whether stand-alone or in a colloquium), roundtable presentation, or poster. Some people in the past have prepared and submitted multiple proposals with the hope that at least one will be accepted. However, this year the Confex system that manages submissions will automatically prevent multiple submissions. So focus on making the abstract you do submit as strong as possible.
One of the first steps in the abstract submission process is to choose the primary (and, optionally, secondary) strand your abstract fits into. This is important information because the reviewers of your abstract (see next section) are recruited because of their expertise in that area. In addition, when we create the AAAL program, we cluster and code abstracts by strand so AAAL attendees can easily find presentations that align closely with their own interests.
The Review Process
Once the abstract submission system (in Confex) closes (this year on July 29th, 4 p.m. EDT), all proposals are electronically transferred to Strand Coordinators. These are individuals who are established experts in their sub-area of applied linguistics and have volunteered to coordinate the review of abstracts. There are 22 strands this year and each strand has at least one, and sometimes two, coordinators and then dozens or even hundreds of reviewers, depending on the historical and current number of submissions to each particular strand. Strand Coordinators then electronically assign proposals in their strand to reviewers, those AAAL members who have agreed to review proposals for that strand. This is done in what is known as a double-blind manner: the reviewers do not know who wrote the abstract and the authors will not know who reviewed it either.
Each proposal is assigned at least two reviewers. In cases where there is a disagreement, a third reviewer might be assigned. Reviewers use a rubric that aligns very closely with published evaluation criteria. For this reason, we strongly recommend that proposal submitters are familiar with these criteria. All reviewers are asked to rate proposals numerically using this rubric (on a 1-6 scale, where 6 is excellent), and then make an overall recommendation about the submission (accept, accept if space permits, tend to reject, reject). They are also encouraged to provide qualitative feedback or commentary. The rubric currently in use is shown in the table below:
Reviewers and Strand Coordinators are unpaid volunteers, and are often asked to review a large number of proposals under a short deadline. (For the 2020 conference as an example, we received nearly 2,000 proposals.) For this reason, many do not provide extensive commentary or feedback to authors, particularly those that are deemed either very strong or very weak.
Once the reviews are complete, each Strand Coordinator is asked to review these collectively and to make recommendations concerning each submission. This quantitative and qualitative information is sent to the Conference Organizing Team. Now come the hard decisions! In a typical year, the number of submissions is limited by hotel space. It’s simple math: we run the conference for just over three and a half days, approximately 8 to 5, plus time for lunch, breaks and plenary sessions. This means–despite having a pool of many excellent and highly rated sessions across the strands–we only have room for so many presentations (colloquia, roundtable or poster presentations, or individual paper presentations).
The conference organizers aim to have roughly similar acceptance/rejection rates across different strands; they also seek to admit the strongest and highest-interest proposals, and to have a diversity of topics, languages and contexts represented. It is important to understand that different strand reviewers tend to rate and score their proposals differently in quantitative terms; the statistical means vary across strands. In practice, this means that a 5 (overall score) in one strand might be accepted (as one of the highest-ranking proposals) and might be rejected in another (as a lower-ranking one). For this reason, the accept/reject decisions are made by strand.
Overall, posters tend to have slightly higher acceptance rates, and colloquia tend to have a somewhat lower rate than traditional papers. Two reasons for the often-higher rejection rate of colloquia (whether 1 hour in length or 2 hours): first, they take more space in the program and can be harder to schedule (especially the 2-hour sessions); and second, they often do not demonstrate sufficient complementarity or coherence across the set of 3-5 papers within the colloquium when reviewed.
Highly-scored proposals for individual papers in some cases might be offered a poster or roundtable session instead of a paper session due to the lack of paper presentation slots. Although such decisions might be disappointing, presenting in a poster or roundtable session can be a great opportunity to share your research and participate in the conference in a lower-stress way and with more personal interaction with others interested in your work.
Alternatively, in some instances, as the conference approaches and more paper slots open up through cancellations, poster or roundtable presenters might be offered the opportunity to switch to a paper presentation slot. This is always optional for the presenter. If a poster has already been prepared, for example, there is no need to abandon that for a paper presentation.
Decision Letters and Next Steps
Decisions about acceptance or rejection of proposals are communicated to submitters in as timely a way as possible. For the 2021 conference, with a submission deadline of late July, we aim to get results out in early October, if possible. Then those accepted must register by early November; if they do not, their session will be dropped and those on the waitlist will be added.
We know that you are eager to know the results of the review process so you can plan accordingly, and the conference team works very intensively to have as quick a turn-around as possible. This involves making recommendations, sometimes getting additional input or reviews, double-checking for errors, and sorting out myriad technical issues across multiple online platforms. We thank you for your patience!
As your decision letters come in, please read them carefully. These letters will typically contain some information about the review process and outcome as well as critical next steps (e.g., registering for the conference). The actual scheduling of sessions is done over the next two months and into January, with allocation of sessions to particular dates and time slots. We then inform you of the time and date of your session. Unfortunately, we cannot accept requests for particular presentation times/day and cannot re-consider accept/reject decisions since the process is so complicated and must take into account numerous factors, as noted above, within a very compressed timeframe.
We hope you have found this helpful and look forward to receiving your proposal for AAAL 2021!
Editorial note: We've received word from the Executive Committee that you can resubmit a proposal from the canceled 2020 conference. Acceptance of previously submitted proposals cannot be guaranteed, though.
If you have any questions for the GSC or AAAL leadership regarding the online conference format or any other conference-related issue, we have created a Google Form where you can submit them.