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Ahhh, Spring is in the air; the flowers are blooming, the weather is getting warmer, and my annual SMT conference rejection e-mail has arrived. I suppose I am naive enough to believe in climate change, to believe that one year my SMT conference proposal will be accepted as a full-fledged spoken paper presentation. But alas, I am rebuffed again.
But seriously, folks, I believe we as a Society should have a frank discussion about what we want our annual conference to be. Should it be a highly exclusive event, where only a small percentage of our members have proposed topics deemed worthy of presentation; or should it be more inclusive, where we as a large group of music theorists come together once a year to hear what our far-flung colleagues are working on, to get feedback, to collaborate, and to share our ideas? If we are aiming for the latter, then the acceptance rate for the national SMT conference seems far too low to truly foster anything like that.
I say this as someone who has otherwise had relative success with presentations and publications recently. In the past five years, I have proposed 18 papers to non-SMT conferences and been accepted to 16. This includes regional conferences (SCSMT, MTMW, MTSE, MTSMA), national conferences (IASPM-US, SMPC), international conferences (EuroMAC, ISMIR), and various specialty conferences (pedagogy, popular music, music cognition). During this same period, I have garnered 18 publications either in print or forthcoming, including a book, several book chapters, and articles in leading music theory journals (JMT, MTO, MTA). Yet in that same period, not a single one of my SMT proposals was accepted as a spoken paper presentation. Last year, in fact, I received my rejection from SMT in the same week as I received the acceptance letter from a major theory journal for the article-length version of the same paper! (It was a damn good proposal.) And this year, I submitted another damn good proposal (for what would have been a damn good spoken paper).
If this were something that were just happening to me, it would be one thing. But when I talk about the situation to my fellow theorists (that's you!), it seems rather common. In fact, one senior scholar — someone who has several books and publishes 3-4 articles in major journals every year — said that they have not had an SMT proposal accepted in the last decade or so, despite submitting every year. WTF?
The added element of frustration is that, at the same time as it seems extremely difficult (at least for some) to join the exclusive club of those with spoken papers accepted to SMT, there is this growing side-show of lightning talks cropping up in the interest group meetings. And the quality of those lightning talks is highly variable. This trend is not surprising, given that such large numbers of people are getting rejected from the main SMT program. Essentially, we have created a back door to present at SMT, which can be leveraged for travel funding and other benefits. But of course, these lightning talks go through a much less rigorous vetting and preparation process. Nonetheless, a lightning talk is research that gets to be presented at SMT. So my damn good proposal is rejected, but someone else's slapdash lightning talk will be presented. (Don't get me wrong, I've heard some decent interest group lightning talks, but I think you get my point.)
It thus feels like we are due for a reckoning. Is there no way to increase the number of papers on the main SMT program? Is there no possibility of adding an extra parallel session or two on each day? Do we really need all papers on the main program to have 45-minute slots? I do believe that the proliferation of interest groups in recent years speaks directly to how marginalized many of us feel. To be clear, I think the program committee does as good a job as half a dozen or so humans can be expected to do, given the circumstances.
Ultimately, if inclusion and diversity are sincere goals of the Society, we might want to rethink our national conference acceptance rate. If more papers are accepted, then more people attend, and then more people can come together to work together to help shape the future of our discipline and improve the quality of research overall. To me, it should not be far easier to get a paper published than accepted for presentation at SMT. Our national conference should be a chance, I think, to present work-in-progress, and that means accepting all good proposals as well as some marginal ones. That would seem to be in the interest of all in our group (as well as in the interest of the interest groups).
Trevor de Clercq