“My Paper Was Turned Down. Should I Take It Personally?”

This is a revised and updated version of Laurel Kendall’s President’s Column from the Fall 2016 issue of the AAS E-Newsletter.

The carefully crafted panel submission, a summation of hot-breaking research, the anticipation of a lively intellectual exchange … and then the rejection message, “owing to the number of high-quality submissions and the limitations of space”—a splash of cold water! Many of us have been there—I certainly have—and so have many distinguished scholars, including at least one former President of the AAS whose proposed submissions were rejected twice in the years after his service. It happens. In such circumstances it is difficult not to feel that “there must have been some mistake,” or worse “AAS is just not interested in the kind of work I do,” or still worse, that “someone on the program committee had it in for me.” In a healthy organization, there will always be many more proposals than available slots on the program, and in that respect AAS is very healthy indeed. But when members feel that they have been victims of a biased process, or that their particular field of interest consistently receives an unfavorable reading or an obscure slot on the program, this is not good for AAS.

The Program Committee for AAS 2019 (Denver, March 21-24) has recently met, acceptances and rejections have been received, and the Call for Proposals for the next AAS-in-Asia conference (Bangkok, Thailand, July 1-4, 2019) is now open, with a submission deadline of October 22. It seems a good moment to take stock of the issue of program equity, both for AAS and for AAS-in-Asia. This column will not recapitulate the logic of a polite letter of rejection, nor will it be a pep talk on how to write a successful proposal; the ground rules are clearly stated on program sites and usually followed. Rather, I would like to extend a conversation that goes on both around the meeting table of the AAS Board and also, more heatedly, in elevators and over drinks at our annual meeting: What does a fair and equitable selection process look like? How might it be accomplished? How does AAS policy try to engineer a fair outcome? Can the process be tweaked to achieve a better outcome?

Every fall, a Program Committee of ten meets to determine the annual conference program. The Program Committee for AAS 2019 addressed the Solomonic task of whittling 548 organized panel, roundtable, and workshop submissions and 382 individual paper submissions into just under 400 available session slots. As in all other matters of AAS governance, all four Area Councils are represented but the composition of the Program Committee better approximates a House of Representatives than a Senate. The Chair and Vice-Chair, who are appointed by the AAS Board, rotate among the four regions, but the rest of the committee reflects proportional representation in AAS by region and is also roughly correlated with the number of proposals received each year: three China and Inner Asia representatives (ideally composed of one pre-1900 specialist and two post-1900 specialists); two Japan representatives (ideally one in the humanities and one in the social sciences) and one Korea representative (general); one South Asia representative (general); and one Southeast Asia representative (general). Each proposal is read by at least two members of the committee.

Panel slots on the program are similarly based roughly on membership proportions, although the committee observes a form of affirmative action to avoid a program dominated by China proposals by giving a boost to less well-represented South and Southeast Asia panels. In other words, while China always has the largest number of proposals and is consequently a significant presence on the program, a higher proportion of the proposed South and Southeast Asia panels submitted for consideration are accepted for the program. As long as it accurately represents AAS demographics, this arrangement gives a fair allocation of program space to all of the regions represented by the Area Councils while acknowledging differences of practice within the larger fields of China and Japan Studies.

Beyond the very broad distinctions between modern and pre-modern in CIAC’s representation and between humanities and social sciences for Japan, the Program Committee does not give proportional representation to variations between academic disciplines. It would be an even more impossible calculus to account for new subfields and interests that spring up within and between established disciplines—visual culture, queer studies, the Anthropocene—much less the (usually unintended) biases of generational interests and academic lineage. The AAS Area Councils are well-situated to nominate committee members with a broad view of their field and with eyes and ears well attuned to developments in the academy.

With respect to intellectual content, AAS has sometimes been proactive in encouraging an otherwise underrepresented intellectual project or a new direction in scholarly thinking. Here are three recent examples among several others: For complex reasons, the so-called “hard” social sciences have been relatively absent from AAS in recent years. To enhance the visibility of the social sciences, five social science panels will receive special highlighting on the AAS 2019 program. For several years, the association similarly highlighted a selection of Border-Crossing and Inter-area panels, a process that was hugely successful in encouraging such efforts. Inter-area/Border-Crossing proposals have increased over the years and are now the second largest proposal group after China/Inner Asia panels. Addressing the internal complexity of Southeast Asian Studies, and its under-representation within AAS, SEAC sponsors a “Rising Voices” session, a designated slot on the program, as a special roundtable which pairs three younger scholars from Southeast Asian countries with two senior scholars from the West—a project for which AAS provides a $2,500 subsidy. In 2019, a designated panel on the Anthropocene will highlight the work of AAS’s second “Emerging Fields in the Study of Asia” workshop. If you have other ideas for proactive scheduling, please bring them to the attention of your Area Council and into the conversation.

AAS-in-Asia faces an additional challenge as a smaller, more intimate scholarly gathering with a stated purpose of drawing greater participation from Asia-based and younger scholars than the North American AAS Annual Conference. The model assumes a reliance on the facilities of the local hosting institution and thus necessarily, a more limited number of program slots. For the first AAS-in-Asia (2014), the Singapore organizers received 328 panel proposals—far greater than anticipated—while the space available at the National University of Singapore could accommodate only 80 panels, 25% of the total submissions. The 75% rejection rate resulted in much disappointment and considerable criticism; nevertheless, the Singapore conference attracted 548 participants from 30 countries, fulfilling its intended mission and garnering favorable reviews from attendees. Based on the Singapore experience, the Program Committee for the 2015 meeting at Academia Sinica, Taipei expanded the number of sessions to 120 and was able to accept just over 50% of the 228 panel proposals received. The 2016 Kyoto conference at Doshisha University received a total of 430 panel and roundtable proposals, by far the highest number of proposals to date for an AAS-in-Asia conference. A total of 227 proposals were accepted with again, an acceptance rate of just over 50%. Acceptance rates in Seoul and New Delhi were slightly higher (Seoul: 314 panels proposed, 175 accepted; New Delhi: 240 proposed, 164 accepted).

While the host institutions for AAS-in-Asia conferences have worked masterfully to respond to the popularity of these events, by their very virtue as smaller, more personal gatherings, the AAS-in-Asia program will likely always have a higher rejection rate than the North American AAS Annual Conference. This being the case, the best a Program Committee can do is provide a strong and balanced program. The Program Committee for AAS-in-Asia includes three members nominated by the host institution and three by the AAS Board. The full committee is constituted to insure a representation of all four AAS Council areas. Care is also taken to include a balance of disciplines. As with the North American conference, proposals from under-represented areas have a higher acceptance rate to insure their presence on the program. The difference is that the representational balance shifts with the location of AAS-in-Asia—with more submissions on Southeast Asia for the Singapore meeting, more China in Taipei, more Northeast Asia for Kyoto and Seoul, and more South Asia for New Delhi. Although these regions had a higher number of panels on the programs of these respective meetings, they also had a higher rejection rate than proposals from less-well-represented areas. AAS-in-Asia is a work in progress and the input of attending members is deeply valued—in other words, please contact your Area Council with questions and suggestions!

Ensuring a fair and representative selection process and constructing a program that gives a multiplicity of subfields and new subfields a hearing may be a Sisyphean task and yet, year after year, Asianists of goodwill agree to wade into the morass of proposals to construct intellectually satisfying programs that represent the diversity and excitement of our larger field. It is an imperfect process, but one subject to periodic tinkering in the hope of making it better. To do this, we need to hear from you.

I would like to thank Michael Paschal, Robyn Jones, Robert Snow, and Maura Elizabeth Cunningham for providing both statistical gravitas and necessary corrections to this column. Mistakes and limitations are my own.

The AAS Secretariat will be closed on Monday, May 27 in observance of Memorial Day