There was a discussion on Twitter over this past weekend about tips for writing conference proposals and abstracts and participating in that discussion reminded me that I had for several years done a presentation at the AAR Annual Meeting about how to write conference proposals. Since I thought the information in that presentation could still be helpful (even though I haven’t given the presentation at AAR since 2019), I decided to edit it and post it here so everyone can access it. Now, while some of the information that I am going to discuss in this post is useful in a general sense for writing proposals, I am going to be looking at this specifically from within the context of the AAR system and how proposals get reviewed.
Just a quick explanation of my expertise on this: I’ve been an AAR member since 2007 and in 2012 I became a member of the steering committee for the Religion in Europe unit. I took over as co-chair of that unit in 2015 and remained in that position until January 2021. I am no longer part of the steering committee, having cycled off at the end of 2021. So, part of what I say here comes from my ten years of experience reviewing and evaluating proposals. Since I joined the AAR, I have not submitted a proposal every year, but I personally have had proposals accepted probably about 70% of the time that I’ve proposed something. I do not claim perfection for my proposals, but in what I discuss I will be using one of my successful proposals as an example of some of the content that you should include. Finally, I also ran several workshops for graduate students on writing conference proposals over my career, so my post draws on all that experience to give you some tips on what to do to improve your chances of acceptance as much as that is in your control. This post will walk you through the different parts of the proposal, give you some do’s and don’ts for writing proposals, talk about what the review process is like, and give you some of my personal recommendations for maximizing your (networking) benefit with your AAR proposals.
In writing your proposals for the AAR, there are three important parts to consider: first the title, second the description (which is a maximum of 1000 words), and third the abstract (which is a maximum of 150 words). Other conferences may ask only for an abstract and so some of the advice that I write about will apply to those also, but some will address the AAR system more specifically.
The AAR System
When you submit your proposal to the AAR, you must select the type of proposal you are making: a paper, a papers session, or a roundtable session. The paper selection is for the individual paper, which is the type of proposal that most people will be using. It is possible to arrange with colleagues to submit a papers or roundtable session all together, but in those cases you will need to each individually write your paper submission and then also have a similar description that you put together for the whole session. Some conferences tend to prefer that you submit a papers session over individual papers, but for AAR doing a prearranged session does not necessarily increase your chances of acceptance (though I know at least once we accepted a prearranged session—pending revisions—as part of the Religion in Europe unit, so your mileage may vary).
You also need to select to which program unit(s) you will submit your proposal. The notes in the system (at least as it was in 2019) provide some very important information that, unfortunately, not everyone follows: First, you should select your program units in order of preference. This is important if two units want to use your paper in their session. Second, if you are submitting our paper to a co-sponsored session, do not choose both individual program units. The AAR creates co-sponsored sessions for the topics that units arrange in advance with other program units. So, if your proposal is about one of these co-sponsored topics, you want to submit to the co-sponsored session, not the individual program units. This is important for two reasons. First, the AAR allows you to submit up to two proposals each year, and if you submit the same paper to the two individual program units, this will use up both your proposals. Second, from the review side, it makes the review process more difficult if it is submitted to one program unit and not the co-sponsored session. The program units you select here designate who has access to read your proposal in the first place.
Writing the Paper Description
For the AAR, the description section is very important as it is generally the focus of the review process. In this, you have 1000 words to basically make the case for your paper. You do not have to use the full 1000-word space, but given that you have that space, use enough of it so that you can explain your paper and argue for its significance. You cannot just copy your abstract here because you are competing against people who use the space to give a full description of their paper. If you use this space well, you can use it as a way to start writing your paper itself.
There are a few things that you should include in this section. First, make the thesis of your paper abundantly clear. It is not enough just to describe your topic or area of research. The reviewers are looking to see that you both (1) have a clear argument and (2) that it is an argument that you can likely make in a 15- to 20-minute presentation. Also in this section you should set your paper in the state of your field. Show that you know the scholarship in your primary area, but keep in mind in this that many of the people who are reviewing your paper are not going to be specialists in your specific area of research. Show why your paper matters. What are the stakes if your argument is successful? Why should the reviewers be interested in your paper? Also, very importantly, show clearly how your paper relates to the topics in the call for papers. I normally do this by directly borrowing some of the language from the call for papers. For example, in my 2018 presentation I responded to a call from the Theology and Religious Reflection unit that had asked for papers addressing the question, “What is the discipline of ‘academic theology’?” My description stated in response to this:
In this paper, I will look historically at theology in the seventeenth century, comparing methods and qualifications that made someone an academic theologian with more general understandings of theology to draw insights for our understanding of academic theology today. My underlying question is: what happens to our understanding of the discipline of theology when we look at it historically? What changes about our understanding of theology today when we look historically at the academic context of the university, which by its nature prohibited women’s contributions?
You can see here that I have reflected the language of the call for papers directly in the description portion of my proposal. I repeat the idea of “the discipline of theology” and “academic theology” in numerous ways.
My general approach in writing these descriptions has been to write three paragraphs or sections. In the first, I connect my topic and paper directly to the call for papers. In the second, I provide a historical context for my topic and connect my paper to relevant scholarship in the field. To again give an example from my 2018 successful proposal, I demonstrated that I understand key scholarship on the development of theology in seventeenth-century France, looking at both the academic context of the universities and the rise of mystical theology and theology based on experience. I referenced specific texts here—you don’t necessarily need a full citation, but I would include author, title, and date at a minimum. In the last paragraph, I outline my argument and its significance. In this case, my main argument was that academic theology benefits from a broader understanding of its nature, which we can find by looking into the seventeenth century to compare the locations and methods of theology produced by men and women. The significance is, however, not just rooted in history for me, but—as I explained in my proposal—has broader significance for the understanding of women’s voices today.
Above all, in your proposals, be formal, professional, and clear in your writing. If the reviewers cannot understand what you mean, they are not going to bother trying to figure it out—they will just not accept your proposal.
Writing the Title and Abstract
The second part of the AAP proposal I want to talk about here is the title and abstract. For the abstract you only have a maximum of 150 words. It is important to note that the reviewers will likely read your title and abstract first, so this will set the tone for reading your description and must be well done. Remember: this is an opportunity to get people interested in your paper—not only the reviewers who will be evaluating your paper, but also those who will consider attending your presentation. Do not write an abstract that makes your paper seem boring! Even if you write a good description, a poor abstract may exclude your paper from acceptance.
A good abstract includes key information about what your paper is about, namely the context, subject, claim for significance, theoretical framework or method, argument, and evidence, which could include texts to be analyzed or source of your research. But it must also be interesting!
I titled my 2018 paper “Academic Theology and the Jansenist Controversy in France: Voices of Men and Women in the History of the Discipline of Theology.” Here is the abstract from that paper and you can see that I’ve tried to include all the key information within the 150-word limit: context, subject, claim for significance, method, argument, and evidence.
Dos and Don’ts
In my experience, there are several important dos and don’ts to keep in mind when writing your proposal.
First, do include references to scholarly literature in your description rather than just speaking vaguely about the state of the field. Generally, your paper will be rated lower if you do not show that you are setting your argument in a specific field of scholarship.
Second, do show that you can explain your argument to someone outside your discipline area and strive for clarity in this. Generally, you cannot guarantee that the reviewers will be familiar with your specific disciplinary area and the audience for sessions will often be mixed. So be sure that you show that you can speak to those unfamiliar with your discipline about your research.
Third, do show that your paper has enough focus, especially so that you can present it in only 15 to 20 minutes. A good approach for this is presenting your research as a question to be answered or a puzzle to be solved—as long as it can be reasonably solved or answered in the time limit!
Fourth, as I said previously, you do not have to use the full 1000 words in the description section, but do make sure you say enough to fully explain your paper. In my 2018 proposal that I’ve been discussing here, my description was 994 words. In the two proposals that I had accepted in 2022, in contrast, the descriptions were 680 words and 876 words. So the issue is really that if the reviewers still have questions after reading your proposal, it will likely not be accepted.
Finally, as I also said previously, do not just copy your 150-word abstract into the description field. This is more common than you might think and a huge pet peeve of mine as a reviewer. There is almost no chance that we would accept a proposal done in this way because—again—you are competing against other proposers who used the description space to fully explain their argument and its relevance.
The Review Process
I’ve mentioned acceptance and ratings of papers a few times so far, so I want to spend some time “demystifying” the review process so you can understand what the reviewers are doing when they evaluate your papers. Other units might have slightly different processes for review—I know some get together via Skype or some other tool to discuss the papers, whereas the Religion in Europe unit did everything by email when I was on the committee—but this is generally how the process goes. First, the committee reads all the proposals and ranks them on a scale of 1 to 5 stars. The numbers associated with these stars correspond to “poor,” “fair,” “good,” “very good,” and “excellent.” When you review the papers, you can also leave comments about the paper. Some people do not do this, but I always tried to so that I could jog my memory later in the discussion. The comments focus on the proposal itself—such as whether the argument needs to be developed more, that it needs to be more clear, that it needs a connection with the scholarly literature—or on the connection of the proposal with the unit and/or the call for papers. For example, for the Religion in Europe unit, we often noted that the connection to Europe wasn’t entirely clear or not central enough to the proposal. This gets at the importance of picking a unit whose mission and call for papers fit your research well enough.
After everyone has read and ranked the proposals, the committee then needs to put together their sessions based on common themes. Different units are allotted different numbers of sessions, though you can get a bonus for co-sponsoring. The Religion in Europe unit generally listed the proposals according to rankings (from highest to lowest) and in general we would not pick proposals that had an average ranking of less than three stars. We tried always to only pick ones that are ranked even higher than that, but there are other factors than the merits of your proposal that come into play at this point in the process. We were often negotiating with other units about creating new co-sponsorships or decided whether we wanted to pursue our initially suggested co-sponsorships. The general rankings of the proposals that we received in response to each topic is a major factor in this.
Finally, it is important not to take rejection personally—necessarily, that is. If you followed all the tips I suggested here and wrote a good proposal, you might still be rejected based on what other proposals the unit received. It has happened in the past that we received an excellent proposal on a topic that was ranked at the top of our list, but we either received no other proposals about that topic or the other proposals related to that topic were not good enough. A good proposal can very well be rejected because we are unable to create a good enough session on the topic. This is, unfortunately, the point at which your acceptance is no longer in your control.
AAR and Networking: My Experience
I’d like to end with just some suggestions based on my experience, as one of my Twitter mutual was asking about how to submit proposals to maximize their benefit. If you want to get more involved with the AAR program units, or just in general, I would recommend one of two things: first, if there is a unit that perfectly encapsulates the research that you do, definitely apply there, but if you are like many of us and your research can fit into different places, I recommend submitting to one of the smaller program units.
The reason why is that a smaller unit is more likely to be looking for steering committee members and so they would be happy to have volunteers! My own experience—how I ended up as co-chair of Religion in Europe—is that I did a presentation for the Religion in Europe unit very early in my graduate studies. That year, I stayed for and contributed suggestions to the business meeting, getting to know the current co-chairs of the unit. Always go to the business meeting if you are interested in getting involved! When I sent a proposal to them the following year, and it was rejected, I also took the opportunity to respond to them by email and thanking them for considering my proposal. By staying in touch, when they had an opening on the steering committee, they invited me to fill it. This opened me up to many other things with AAR as well—I was invited to stand for election as a graduate student representative, for example, but I turned this down because at the same time I had just become co-chair of the Religion in Europe unit. Then, I was invited by AAR to be a member of the Travel Grants Jury, which I served on for three years. Thus, in my experience, it was getting involved with the smaller—more closely knit—unit that opened other doors to me.
Again, in this experience your mileage may vary, but if you’re looking for a place to start, that is what I recommend!