Proposing a Special Session for MLA

By Talia Vestri

Last week, I submitted a panel proposal for the next MLA convention in January 2016. (alternative title for this post: What was I thinking?!?)
I was motivated, in part, by an important realization about my own position on the academic career ladder:

There comes a time in every young scholar’s life when she must realize that she is no longer part of the junior graduate cohort. Suddenly there are an uncountable number of faces that you don’t recognize around the department, and conversations being held about seminars you didn’t even know were being offered. This signals only one thing: you’re now horrifyingly closer in position to that new assistant professor who just got hired than you are to the first-year doctoral students. You are more scholar than student, more faculty than freshman. (When did this happen, exactly?!)

It seems only yesterday that I, too, was crawling to class buzzed on Red Bull and chocolate pretzels after being up until 3am the night before trying to wrap up that paper or presentation. But now I happily arise early each morning to work on my dissertation and teach, then meander over to the café for a pleasant cup of tea and a real (non-sugar-laden) lunch while reading new materials for my project. I almost feel like a real live scholar… almost.
So despite the lingering imposter syndrome, I decided to attempt claiming a spot in that wide world of professional academia by proposing a session for next year’s MLA convention in Austin, Texas.420236454
As a follow-up to Laura’s recent discussion about her experiences with organizing a conference from the ground up, I wanted to contribute my experience with putting together this proposal. Even though it may get rejected in the end (I’ll report back in June!!), the process was certainly worth the attempt, and I would strongly encourage my fellow Ph.D.-ers to consider doing so as well. After all, what do we have to lose?
Step 1. Put out a Call for Papers – January/February
MLA carefully lays out the deadlines for each step leading up to the annual convention. The first stage involves gathering paper submissions for your Special Session panel—these are panels that can be proposed by any current MLA member, and are not part of a group or organization like the division or discussion meetings.
One option for organizing a panel might be to contact fellow grad students or faculty whom you know are working in your field. However, it’s less likely that you’re going to know who is engaged in research that aligns with your own at that moment, so the CFP is a useful way to solicit interest.
You can put out a general Call for Papers on MLA’s website. These CFPs must be posted by the end of February, and many people post them as soon as the previous convention is over, around mid-January. I ended up posting mine only a few days prior to the February 28th deadline, and there were many others that showed up online shortly thereafter.
Most people set a deadline for their CFP responses around mid-March. That timeline gives you two or three weeks to compose the panel submission for the April 1st deadline. If you’re not bogged down with a million other tasks, this should be plenty of time. I set my deadline for March 15th, and I had ample time to review the submissions, select and coordinate with my chosen presenters, and write the submission materials.
Here’s what my CFP looked like:
Family, Kinship & Identity in British Literature, 1750-1900
Special Session
How do eighteenth and nineteenth-century literary works portray the effects of kinship networks (family, marriage, siblings, parents) on individual characters/identities? 300-word abstract plus bio by 15 March 2015; Talia Vestri Croan (
* Note that the CFP submission is limited to just 35 words total, including contact info and the session title! So you have about one sentence to throw out a general idea, question, or series of keywords that might catch some interest. I do recommend that, like most other CFPs, you request either a bio or a CV, because you don’t want to have to look up each individual person in order to find out his or her rank, background, publications, etc.
Step 2. Acknowledge Submissions
As a professional courtesy, don’t forget to acknowledge every submission that comes in. I sent a quick email to each respondent thanking him/her for the interest and submission, and informing him/her that I would be in touch by the end of March with final decisions. (And remember to send those polite and grateful “thanks but no thanks” emails after you’ve made final panelist selections.)
Step 3. Review the Papers! – Mid-March
This is obviously the fun part. I received about 35 responses to my CFP, which I thought was phenomenal, and it made me even more excited about the prospect of assembling a panel.
The wide range of proposals I gathered may have been due in part to the diversity and breadth of the proposed session’s timespan (1750-1900) – proposals came in on texts ranging from the late 1600s to early 1900s. As a Romanticist, I was hoping for some work in the 1780-1820s range, but as an aspiring long-nineteenth-century scholar, I was also willing to go for a Victorian-aimed panel if the paper topics cohered around latter decades.

Try to make the panel topic as focused yet as broad as you can. While my question of inquiry was thematic – the relationship between families and individual identities in literature – it also opened up a wide scope of possible avenues and approaches in terms of texts and methodologies. I wanted the thematic overlap to be clear (kinship) but the chronology and content to have some flexibility.

In a first pass through the submissions, you might want to separate them between (a) ones you think are engaging and interesting and (b) ones that you personally don’t find to be quite as exciting or ones that you don’t believe have a clear relationship to how you are conceptualizing this topic.
I received a large number of abstract submissions that genuinely fascinated me but which in some way seemed too far removed from my own assumptions and thinking about the general category of Family, such as scientific racism or anthropological criticism, for example. I set those aside in a first round of decisions.
Then, out of the papers that interest you, find ones that might go together well and that could spark some form of overlap or conversations between them. As I read through the submissions with this lens, I was able to narrow down my options to about half a dozen possible papers.

Lesson Learned: When submitting your own abstracts for consideration, you should select panels and conferences where the theme or topic genuinely has an explicit link with your work—and make that link clear in the written abstract. In reviewing these proposals, it became obvious which ones were attempting to “stretch” to fit the proposed topic, or which didn’t have a clear sense of how the work might fit in.

Step 4. Consider the Panel Composition
Because we’re graduate students, one key factor in deciding whom to invite for the panel may relate to professional diversity. It would of course be entirely possible for the MLA committee to accept a panel that was composed of several or even all graduate students. However, a stronger panel submission might include junior, mid-career, or even senior-level faculty, depending on who responds to your Call.
The first priority, though, should of course be on the quality of the work, but I think it’s fair to assume that having assistant, associate, and/or full professors on the panel from a range of universities would make the panel a more viable option for MLA and their expected audience.
Step 5. Accept Papers!
There are a few options for the student who organizes the panel:

  • You can simply be the one who proposes the organized panel. In that case, you’d need to select either 3 or 4 participants to present papers as well as a presider to run the session.
  • You can preside over the session yourself, with 3 panel presenters. There could also be a fourth participant as a respondent.
  • You can preside and also present a paper, which would require selecting 2 other participants from your pile of submissions.

MLA mandates that each session dedicate 15 minutes to Q&A time at the end of the panel slot, so they would ideally like submissions that stick to the traditional grouping of three 20-minute paper presentations. A “respondent” is a nice way to add a fourth voice, but that person would have to be prepared to talk briefly and allow most of the time to go to the Q&A. You could also require presenters to give shorter papers to allow for a fourth participant.

Don’t be afraid to focus or change the panel topic/title based upon your selected papers. My own panel was originally described in the CFP as “Family, Kinship & Identity in British Literature, 1750-1900,” but the final submission was titled more simply as “Romantic Genealogies of Kinship.” There are no requirements that the CFP title be the same as the eventual panel submission.

Step 6. Write the Submission Descriptions – Late March
Once you’ve invited your participants and they’ve committed to being part of your panel submission, it’s your task now to write the two central documents that constitute the submittal: (1) a description and intellectual rationale of the session and (2) an overview of the panelists’ research, experience, and qualifications for presenting on this particular topic.
MLA provides useful examples of the detailed descriptions for previous successful panel proposals. Read these before, during, and after you draft your own. The basics of the intellectual rationale description include a 1-2 paragraph summary of the purpose and intention of the panel, followed by brief summaries of each of the panelists’ submissions (mine were about half the length of their submitted 300-word abstracts).
The website also offers samples of the panelists’ information descriptions, which include a brief paragraph for each presenter with a synopsis of their work in the field related to the panel topic. I used the presenters’ provided bios as well as their CVs to develop a paragraph that would explain as comprehensively as I could their work in relationship to the topic of the panel.

Remember to get feedback on these descriptions just like you would for any other piece of published writing. I circulated my descriptions to both my peer writing group and my dissertation advisor. They each helped me to clarify some points and iron out remaining sticky spots before submitting the final materials.

Step 7.  Submit! – by April 1
MLA provides a multi-page submission form, which can be edited at any time up until the April 1st deadline. There are also documents available on the scoring criteria that the review committee utilizes as well as several short articles about why a panel was actually accepted for the convention, and these are worth perusing before sending in your final proposal.
No matter whether my panel gets accepted in a few months or not, I have loved having this unique opportunity of putting out a hook about a topic in which I am currently so invested and seeing all the various responses that it fished out (pardon the bad metaphor here). I was pleasantly reminded that I’m not just in a bubble of my own creation, obsessing over material that no one else cares about.
Even simply sending thank-you acknowledgements or receiving brief emails of thanks from those whom I turned down made me feel like I was suddenly part of an expansive community of people—people who are interested in the same things I am but whom I didn’t even know existed. Suddenly my network felt like it had grown exponentially, even if for a passing moment. It was utterly thrilling to sense that there are other people out there who are as excited to talk about and think about and write about these same issues and ideas—and all of that was certainly worth going through this intimidating process of proposing for MLA, no matter what the outcome may be for the actual convention.

*** Update: June 1, 2015 ***
I am pleased to report that this panel was, in fact, accepted for MLA 2016! I look forward to seeing some of you there!

2 Replies to “Proposing a Special Session for MLA”

  1. This is an incredibly helpful post, Talia!
    Also, I think you’ve uncannily described exactly how I’m feeling in my department as well. Glad I’m not the only one asking, When did this happen??

  2. Thanks, Laura! (Glad we’re on the same page!)
    Something I also forgot to add: I advertised my CFP a lot during the first week of March. I sent the call description out to several email listservs, including NASSR and ICR as well as the 18th Century List ( and VICTORIA (
    Signing up for these and sending around the call was well worth the minimal effort it takes – the more submissions you get, the more you have to choose from!!

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