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    Inclusion vs. Exclusion at SMT

    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

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    • 38 Comments sorted by Votes Date Added
    • Thank you, Trevor, for bringing up a difficult topic. Similar to your story, I haven't had a paper accepted for SMT in several years (7? 8? -- I've lost count), although virtually everything I've proposed for SMT has made its way into print (and one of these articles continues to be cited frequently every year). Early in my career, I had papers accepted nearly every year. It could be that the competition is just that much greater now. It could be that the field has expanded so much that it's difficult to know in some cases whether a proposal is good or not. It could be just the luck of the draw. Or, of course, all of these.

      What troubles me is not my own situation. I have a job at a major university. I'm tenured. I've reached the rank of full professor. My situation is about as stable as it gets. One more SMT paper is hardly going to make or break my career, so it's easy for me to be philosophical about it. But there are younger scholars for whom a paper at SMT can have enormous implications for a job, tenure, and/or promotion. Every year I hear many excellent papers by young scholars at regional conferences, and every year I find out (primarily through social media) that proposals for these papers were rejected for SMT. To me, we are at a point where the competition has become so great, and the sub-fields have become so numerous, that we need to rethink what our conference should be like. Echoing some comments above, and with my own 2 cents, some modest suggestions:

      1. 45 minutes is just too long for a paper. Without trying to get snarky, I can usually tell after about 5 minutes where a paper is going. Shorter papers (and sessions, for that matter) prompt us to get to the point quickly, and, where examples are involved, to choose examples judiciously.

      2. Adopt the AMS rule disallowing a member from giving a paper two years in row. We are a larger society than we were 20 years ago. We need to learn to spread the wealth.

      3. Disallow papers that have already been accepted for publication. I have seen several papers in the past that appeared in print within months of the SMT conference. Echoing a comment above: what is the point of giving a paper at SMT when you already know it's going to be published? To me, the most important part about a paper is the oh-so-terrifying Q & A. That's when you find out what reasonable people might object to in your work (okay, sometimes they're unreasonable). This would be a difficult rule to enforce, I realize, but I think we might reach some consensus that it's just bad form to give a paper that people can read in a journal in a few short months.

      4. Emphasize teaching your research over presenting it. I know it's nerve-wracking to talk to your peers without a script, but being talked to, being taught, is much more rewarding (on both sides) than being read to. What if you were told "you've got 15 minutes to teach your peers the most important thing about your research right now; and if you like, you can even tell them about the problems you haven't worked out yet." You (we) might approach the whole conference experience in a different way. Teach for 15 minutes, and then engage in a discussion with your peers for 15 minutes. I'd go to see that.

      Number four would be really difficult to judge through a proposal, I know. What is the best part about going to a conference? Meeting your friends. Sharing your work with them. Asking them how they might approach the problems you're having in your research (okay . . . there's the drinking, too). What if we found a way to do this in a session? What if we emphasized the Q & A over the presentation, teaching over talking at, sharing ideas over shooting them down? Then the best part of the conference would be every part of the conference.

    • Having been on three separate SMT Program Committees (in 2000, 2015, and 2015--I won't be on any more!) I have some insights into how things work with the SMT Program Committee, which I discuss in various posts on my blog. http://president72.wixsite.com/smt-president-blog .

      The SMT Board had discussed at great length alternatives to the way the Program Committee is set up; and they might still consider alternatives. One thing that was discussed (and rejected) was possibility of getting feedback from the Program Committee.  However, everyone should realize that there are plenty of other ways to get feedback, including from the Professions Development Committee.

      Another way to get feedback on your proposals is to ask me: for the past two years I have offered such feedback, as I have mentioned on my blog and on Facebook. A number of people--from grad students to senior scholars--have taken advantage of this opportunity. For those who are mystified why your proposals might have gotten rejected, my offer for feedback still stands.

      As I explain on my blog, in many cases I have no idea why a proposal was rejected. But many times the reason why a proposal was rejected is obvious when seen by other eyes. A mistake a number of people make is to send their proposal for feedback only to those who are experts in their particular area; it is important to send your proposal to non-experts as well.

      I realize that getting feedback doesn't solve the larger issue of ways we might have alternatives to the SMT's current vetting process. But if anyone does want honest feedback for why their proposal this year might not have made it, feel free to contact me or (if you would rather get feedback from someone else than me) the Professional Development Committee.


      Poundie Burstein


    • Thank you Trevor for bringing up this important issue and being so forthright with your personal story. It's refreshing and more than a little heartening, as someone who's faced my share of crushing rejections too. Overall, I find many of the points raised here regarding presentation length and every-other-year-submissions to be very well taken.

      However, I must take issue with this statement: "In other words, we shouldn't have a program committee that is looking for any and every tiny little excuse to reject a paper because the acceptance rate is so low." 

      The programming committee's task is immense and thankless, and I don't believe anyone is served by making such paranoid recriminations. They are not the enemy. There's a difference between expressing a need for real structural change in the way SMT crafts its program, and mere sour grapes. I hope we can keep our eye on the ball here (as I at least see it): ensuring our society is as inclusive as possible where it comes to underrepresented perspectives, marginalized repertoires, and non-traditional scholars & scholarly approaches.


    • I've resisted participating in this discussion because it's clear that there's much frustration with this process among those contributing, and I have trepidation that my own thoughts will be dismissed because 1) I did get a paper accepted to this year's conference, and have had relative success over my career in that regard, and 2) I am a recent officer of the Society, and thus have potential to be viewed as an accomplice to or complict in a system described here as arbitrary and unfair. But it seems to me that the perspective I can offer to this conversation is needed, so I here provide it before diving under the bed.

      First, I'm pleasantly surprised at the civil tone that this thread has enjoyed, despite the strong feelings clearly bubbling underneath. One of those feelings, I suspect, is that the "establishment" of SMT—however that's construed—is either oblivious or indifferent to the issues being discussed here. After finishing a four-year stint as SMT's secretary last fall, I can assure you that nothing could be further from the truth. Every Executive Board meeting that I've had the fortune to attend, in addition to countless email exchanges among its members, have noted the current state of affairs, bemoaned it, and included debate and brainstorming about possible solutions (and for that matter, about what the central problems really are). Without meaning any disrespect to those who have commented upstream in this conversation, I can assure you that there's not been a single solution offered in this thread that hasn't already been proposed and discussed by the Executive Board over the last several years.

      The reasons that you haven't seen these solutions tried out are as varied as the solutions themselves. I won't launch into a point-by-point description of those reasons here, out of respect for both the individuals who have participated in those debates and for my own time (I simply can't devote the hour to constructing such a description for this forum). But to take one: Trevor's recent proposal to "simply" replace 45-minute slots with 30-minute slots and add two rooms to the conference is, if you consider it from the perspective of our Executive Director, not "simple" at all. Despite the seeming consensus on this thread, there are plenty of members of SMT who treasure the "elbow room" of a 45-minute slot, and would argue (have argued, in fact) that this is an element of our conference that makes it special. Whether I share that opinion or not, I can certainly respect it; in any case, enough such people float through our leadership ranks that they would need to be convinced of the stronger merits of 30-minute slots. And adding each room to the conference, alongside the equipment that must be rented to run sessions in it, costs thousands of dollars. Insisting that the hotel in which meet have facilities to accommodate seven simultaneous sessions (for solo conferences—I can't comment intelligently about whether this would create additional pressure on facilities for joint conference with AMS) makes it that much more difficult for a society of our size and draw to find appropriate and affordable venues.

      My rejoinder to Trevor's most recent post is not meant for a moment as a criticism of the ideas themselves. Nor is it meant to minimize the problem that prompted him to start this conversation. Rather, I want to testify that the leaders of the Society are acutely aware of it, and that solutions that might seem obvious—especially to those who feel marginalized by a history of rejection notices—are often complex and raise new issues that deserve consideration as well.

      I do find some of the suggestions made in this thread persuasive, and think they're worth trying. So have some others in SMT leadership positions when these discussions took place—and I'm absolutely convinced our current SMT leaders are reading this thread and nodding, looking ahead to the next chance to debate them. (I also find certain suggestions upstream not so advisable, but I'm going to choose not to wade further into the weeds here.) Try to keep in mind that our officers, program committee members, and Executive Board members are scholars just like you, who had to climb the same mountain to an accepted proposal before taking on leadership roles, and they'll be back slogging up the hill with you when their terms expire. They're just as interested in getting this right as you are.

      Finally, and on a different track, I would urge caution in using anecdotal data (especially the n=1 type) as the basis for perceiving trends in proposal acceptances/rejections. Getting an article published in a top-tier journal is different from getting an article published in a subdiscipline-focused journal is different from getting a paper accepted at Rocky Mountain SMT is different from getting a paper accepted at MTSE is different from getting a paper accepted at SMT is different from getting a paper accepted at EuroMAC. The number of variables involved is enormous: the format of the submission (whether proposal, abstract, or article draft), the make-up of the program or editorial committee (which changes every year for most conferences), and the selectivity of the journal or conference, to get started. Crucially, the skill set and strategies that point toward success in one of those settings do not necessary transfer to the next. I've never served on SMT's program committee, but I have for Music Theory Midwest, and I've also counseled countless students and colleagues on their proposals over the years. In those contexts, I've seen top scholars who couldn't write a convincing proposal for what might have been an outstanding paper, mediocre papers that looked great as proposals, ungainly failed proposals developed into outstanding publications, and fantastic papers that fall a little flat when expanded into full-length articles. The selection process in every case is subjective, unpredictable, and—yes—always, in some way, and to some extent, unfair. With all these moving parts in play, it's just not very meaningful to say "I have success elsewhere, so I should expect success with SMT."

      Your mileage may vary. Whenever I find myself banging my head against an editorial- or program-committee wall, I tuck my project away for awhile; then, get it out, read it anew, solicit opinions from people I trust, and make the best decision I can about what to do with it (and what to do the next time I approach that particular wall). But even after I do all those things, I still must keep in mind the unpredictability and subjectivity of the whole process. Your mileage may vary is a really important mantra.

      I'm never done kicking the tires of my own work, of the presentation of my work (which is not the same thing), and, yes, of the acceptance mechanisms to which I subject that work. But there's no way this is ever going to be anything but hard, subjective, and—to some extent, from someone's perspective—unfair. That's just how it works.

      Ok, diving under the bed now.

    • Thanks Trevor, this is really interesting. I want to second your call for shorter paper slots.

      Here's another related thought: Texas SMT gives feedback to the authors of all their rejected proposals, I recently found out, and I very much appreciated just a couple sentences of feedback. Sometimes, when you feel your proposal could not have been better, you're left wondering if it's you or them, so to speak. I realize this is something that's probably not feasible for the volume of proposals that SMT gets, but in a perfect world, this would be nice. e.g., I'd like to know if my proposal didn't get in because it "doesn't engage with ____'s work," or if it "just doesn't fit on any panel," or whatever. 

      Megan L. Lavengood  |  Assistant Professor, George Mason University

    • Hi Trevor,

      Thanks for starting this discussion. I’m glad you’ve been so active in print, as I’ve deeply appreciated and admired your scholarship over the these last many years. I can’t complain about my own rate of success with the SMT program, but I suspect that, in contrast to Brad Osborn, promising to say something significant is a particular talent of mine.

      The exclusivity is indeed a problem with SMT. When I compare SMT to other organizations, I see three big differences, all of which contribute to the exclusivity.

      1. 30 minute presentations when 20 is sufficient.

      2. No published proceedings: If we published proceedings (say, 2500 word papers), our discipline would be more visible, our productivity would be more obvious to administrators and promotion/evaluation committees and, most relevant to this discussion, demonstrably valuable and worked-out ideas would have a better chance of getting through.

      3. (This relates strongly to #2): A miniscule program committee. National conferences in the social and computing sciences (e.g., SMPC, ISMIR, etc.) have large committees of 20–40 people. Each member of the committee reads ~12 papers, and only reads papers that pertain to their expertise. The role of the program committee chair is to assign proposals to readers and intervene when no consensus emerges among specialists. This means that proposals that sound promising to non-specialists but have serious defects that are apparent to specialists have a harder time getting through. It would also help with representation from areas that don’t yet have widespread support. (Of course, if you’re going to ask for complete papers at the proposal stage, you need a much larger committee to read them).

      The number of proposals to SMT has increased by ~50% since I started applying to SMT in 2007. It seems impossible that our current way of doing things could accommodate, say, 600 proposals. We’ll be at that level within the next decade and something will need to be done. I believe more sessions, shorter papers, published proceedings, and an expanded programming committee would go a long way to addressing this problem.

    • At AMS, you are prohibited from submitting a proposal if you were on the previous year's program. This gives more people a chance to present. I have also presented at national meetings in other fields where the rooms are smaller, and thus there are many more parallel sessions. I'm sure there are other ways to increase the acceptance rate at SMT. It would be nice if these were taken up for discussion.


    • Hi All,

      At risk of wading in without adding substantially to the discussion, I'd like to add my support for several ideas that have been presented here:

      1. Shorter papers, ideally 20 minutes.  And more alternative-format sessions.  I've been to several very successful special sessions that have experimented with a variety of formats and really gotten a lot from them; these can also be great opportunities for conversation and workshopping ideas rather than merely presenting polished papers.

      2. SMT would surely benefit from switching to the every-other-year rule like AMS.  (Presumably we could make an exception for special sessions.)

      3.  Break up the work of the program committee by having proposals evaluated by specialty.  I have no doubt this would be a logistical nightmare, and certainly it's the responsibility to the proposer to demonstrate what's interesting about their work to a non-specialist audience.  But we're not all conversant in the terminology, details, and central debates for all subfields--say medieval music, music cognition, corpus analysis, and jazz.  What if the pool of proposals was winnowed down by several mini-committees of one or two area specialists, and subsequently evaluated by the pool as a whole?  Proposers could even select two or three appropriate areas from a drop-down list (i.e. rhythm and meter, renaissance music, corpus analysis) to aid in the intial sorting process.

      SMT is always the highlight of my year, and I find it most exciting when truly in-progress work is more or less workshopped in the Q&A.  Perhaps some changes in these directions would encourage more conversation along the lines of what Trevor and Michael have proposed.

    • I sympathize with all the arguments presented here, but I also see value in a selective process. People with higher teaching loads often don't have the time to craft a perfect 8,000-word article with no guarantee that it will ever be accepted, but may have time to write up a great idea in 500 words, then develop it if accepted. The selectiveness of the process is of immense value to these people (that includes me).

      On the other hand, I do see the value of 20-minute presentations, and the every-other-year rule. And I agree that it would be great to give more people an excuse to get travel funding.

      One other idea (not sure if it's a good one or not, just throwing it out): what if you could submit proposals, in different formats (say, 600-word and 300-word), to two different selection processes: one for 30 minute presentations (basically our current system), and one for 10-minute quick talks on ideas that are promising but not necessarily fully worked out with 10 minutes following for discussion. Each could have its own program committee with different priorities: the 30-minute committee would look for polished ideas, while the criteria for the 10-minute committee could be presentations that would most likely engender productive discussion. (This might be a nice format for pedagogy presentations.) I know the committee already allows and encourages alternative-format proposals, but currently those are typically complete sessions, and having a separate process with different review criteria might be more welcoming.

    • Hi All,

      I'm in agreement with most here: shorter papers and many of the other suggestions. Although I've been invited to participate as part of special sessions, I've never had a paper accepted blindly by an SMT program committee (I've probably submitted 10 times). This is despite working with mentors to perfect proposals on several occations, and proposing papers on ideas that are fully fleshed-out as [unpublished] papers rather than just pitching an idea. Like Trevor, I have good sucess with presenting at other societies and conferences.. Granted, I work on "fringe" topics, but that shouldn't be what's preventing SMT program committees from accepting my work--at least I hope not.

      I'd like to directly address Trevor's subject line: many of us have simply stopped sending proposals altogether because we are frustrated by the annual rejection letter. Instead, we focus on submitting to other conferences because we know we'll have a better chance of acceptance. I typically can only afford to travel to conferences at which I'm presenting because I'm not institutionally funded, meaning I haven't even attended the national conference in several years. If many junior and mid-level theorists are no longer submitting proposals to SMT's annual conference, and perhaps, like me, not even attending, we certainly have an Exclusivity Problem, and that needs to be addressed as the society turns 40.

      From what I understand from my colleagues in other fields, they aren't experiencing this level of exclusivity at their national conferences. But perhaps a survey of other national societies' acceptance rates would be helpful for comparison? I also think we might want to form some kind of "SMT Turns 40: Who Are We?" Committee. Poundie: thoughts on this?



      Heather Laurel

      Adjunct Faculty of Music Theory

      The City College of New York and New York University

    • Does anyone know of other fields where the standard conference paper is 30 minutes (with 15 more minutes for discussion)? I have asked colleagues in other areas and they almost always say that a conference paper is 20 minutes. The only other conference I can remember submitting to where the slots were 30 minutes is AMS. As for interest groups presentations that are not vetted by the program committee, the SMT provides guidelines for how to cite these presentations on our CVs in order to differentiate them from those that are on the program proper: https://societymusictheory.org/administration/groups. I don't think there needs to be any consternation about people presenting to interest groups as long as they follow these guidelines. 





    • Trevor,

      Thank you for posting this much needed discussion (especially considering the amount of traction this has received in just one day!) There are a few points I'd like to articulate as well.

      In response to Danny's comparison with AMS, I personally am hesitant to want to compare our process to AMS's in any capacity. Yes, there may be provisions to help generate new faces at the conference, but AMS's conference does not follow a purely blind review. There are just criticisms that privilege senior faculty spots on their program, which they claim is an effort of "balance." It is of my opinion that AMS's procedures should not be our measurement if we're aiming for inclusiveness.

      To all who write that 30 minutes is too long, I'm in fervent agreement. In some cases, a 30 minute paper makes sense. But I feel like the vast majority of presentations I've seen in the last few years seem extra fluffed up. Considering that a good chunk of these presentations originate from 20 minute proposals for other conferences, it's a fair criticism to have. In our lightning session for Palestrina's Pope Marcellus Mass, I felt a huge burden lifted off my shoulders to skip the fluff (read: lit review) and talk about music. I, for one, come to SMT to listen to people talk about music--not necessarily listen to people talk about people who talk about music. There's an audience for that kind of discussion, but it does seem to dominate the national program.

      If SMT presentations were rejected because there wasn't enough room to program all of the good proposals, then there is an issue. I think one of the great things about conferences is that it is a space to engage in open dialogue with colleagues across the country. If we're denying that opportunity to some because there isn't room, then we're stifling the magic that makes conferences such a great experience. To agree with Michael, there have been many presentations that feel too rigid--reading a paper rather than presenting research. We're all performers--let's perform our papers! 

      The one question I have is if adding more specialists really would help this issue. I'd argue it might actually hurt it. The issue isn't having a more stringent review process. The issue is about having a broader scope of what is conference-worthy. I fear if you add too many specialists, you invite criticisms that promote exclusivity. Also, how many specalists will serve? Music theory is such a broad field these days, it seems that there will always be some subfield that is underrepresented. Maybe I'm naive to believe that senior scholars can judge proposals on areas outside of their expertise. It should be easy: 1) does the proposal have something interesting to say, 2) is the proposal well organized and clearly articulate its thesis, 3) does the proposal have value in advancing the field of music theory? I would hope that those who are sitting on the program committee for our national conference can make these determinations, regardless of subfield and without prejudice.

      Devin Chaloux

      Indiana University

    • A think a fair distinction to make is that selectiveness is not the binary opposite of inclusiveness. The program committee can still be selective. I think Trevor's concern is that there may be proposals that meet the committee's threshold for selectivity, but cannot be scheduled because of lack of room (feel free to correct me if I am wrong). 

      Devin Chaloux

      Indiana University

    • As I've been following this thread, I've been wondering about another angle on this. So far the discussion has encompassed individual paper proposals, and interest group sessions, which often organize sessions with parallel, separate vetting processes (which in my corners of the discipline are not necessarily any more statistically forgiving than the standard process -- the joint Ludomusicology IG session in Vancouver had around a 10% acceptance rate, as I recall).

      But what role do proposed panel sessions play? They seem like they have a certain potential to help like-minded scholars band together and propose a complementary group of papers that might be accepted. CFP guidelines, at least for the 2017 conference, indicate that these can be either a tightly-integrated set of traditional papers, OR a non-traditional format -- something many in this thread are calling for. I have no idea how many traditional 4 x 45 minute sessions originate this way at the moment, but in looking over the 2015 St. Louis program (easier to parse through a solo SMT year), I count 6 obviously non-traditional sessions out of 35 regular program panels (i.e. excluding IG sessions, whose presenters do not appear by name in the program, and daytime sessions captioned "Sponsored by interest group X")

      I would call for a stronger emphasis on group panel proposals as a low-friction way to address the concerns in this thread -- something that wouldn't require significantly changing the proposal process, merely recalibrating it, and thus might be implemented quickly -- EXCEPT that it raises a different concern over inclusion/exclusion. As a graduate student, I've sometimes kicked around the idea of organizing a panel session, yet the only way I can imagine doing so is to reach out to those in my immediate circle, or slightly adjacent to it. Such a practice -- which I can only assume is how most people assemble panels -- would seem to be counterproductive for forging new connections within the discipline, and for creating panels with diverse perspectives. A colleague of mine once pointed out to me that the major scholarly organization in the history of science evaluates panel sessions partly based on their inclusion of both men and women, grads, junior, & senior scholars, and representatives of various -- and various types of -- institutions.

      Now, I mirror Devin's earlier comment in being very wary of a non-blind review process, but I wonder if the SMT networking on professional development committees might be able to develop some sort of matchmaking system for those who would be interested in organizing or joining a panel session? I'm not sure what this would look like. I suppose that interest groups might be the right level at which to facilitate something like this, particularly if their meetings included time for open discussion, planning, and networking rather than only hosting paper/lightning talk sessions.

      In the end, I suppose this is falling more into the 'comment not a question' genre, but I wonder if highlighting, promoting, and potentially re-examining the role that special sessions play in the annual conference might be useful, and if there are concrete steps that SMT can take to open them up as a viable option to help more people share more of their work at the annual meeting.

    • Trevor,

      First, let me echo what many others have said and thank you for drawing attention to this issue and speaking so openly about something that most people probably just feel awkward discussing.

      But I also have to say that I view the "arbitrariness (or unnecessary level of subjectivity)," as you put it, as pretty much endemic to MOST conferences and program committees at whatever level.  I don't know much about the national SMT committee, but having served on several program committees (and having chaired the program committee for a regional conference), my impression is that there may always be a few proposals that truly stand out as "superior" and almost anyone would take them.   But the unanimous votes often make up a minority of your program.  After that, there are generally a rather large proportion that are "good" and certainly seem promising, but you never seem to have enough slots to program all of them.

      I'll come out and admit some personal stats here -- although I've enjoyed success (as you have) at national and international, as well as specialist, conferences in terms of getting accepted, AND I've presented a number of times at national SMT and AMS conferences -- I have never had a proposal accepted for a regional theory conference, despite applying probably close to a dozen times over the years.  Many of those same proposals (with little change) went on to be accepted at national and international conferences.

      I'm not claiming my experience is likely to be representative or common, but it speaks to the difficulties that program committees at all levels deal with and the tough choices they need to make.  When I was a graduate student and faced years of rejections from regional conferences, I assumed I was doing something "wrong."  Then one year I submitted many of the same proposals to four national and international conferences (including national AMS and SMT, that year meeting separately) happening during the same month (!), and they all were accepted.  At that point, I realized the acceptance criteria are frequently much more about the committee than about some sort of objective "quality" of proposals.

      None of this is likely any comfort to us when we face a rejection, but I guess I've just accepted the inherent subjectivity to the process (at any conference level).  My consistent personal rejection by regional conferences probably makes as little sense as your consistent rejection at national SMT, given our successes elsewhere -- but I don't think that necessarily means the national SMT's methods are more flawed or less "inclusive."  Instead, my guess is that it means we're both statistical outliers.  And given this inherent subjectivity, I don't know that it's logistically feasible to suggest SMT accept ALL proposals that could meet a minimum "good" standard, unless we all want sessions with 5 people in attendance or extend the conference to be a week-long event.

      All of that said, I'm also very much in favor of many proposals here that could increase participation at the national SMT conference.

    • If recent Program Committees can assure us about this, we seem to have enough strong proposals to warrant a second conference, meeting some other time of year and in some other place. It would have to start small and cheap--just like MTO did when it started up-- but it could be a way to try out some innovations mentioned in this thread and experiment with new ways of sharing ideas. (I've gone so far to imagine the "SMT Summer Jamboree" held at the KOA in Duluth, Minnesota....)

      SMT officers could commission a feasibility study carried out by an ad-hoc committee, "Small and cheap" still requires resources and effort--as anyone who's done local arrangements for a regional meeting knows! It would be interesting to cost out alternatives. Maybe something could work.

    • Hi, all.

      It might be worth examining how our sister society, AMS, has reacted to substantially the same issue that Trevor raised. I would encourage you all to have a look at Martha Feldman's President's Message on p. 2 of the very recent AMS Newsletter.

      With best regards,

      Michael Buchler, Florida State Univeristy

    • Hi, all.

      It might be worth examining how our sister society, AMS, has reacted to substantially the same issue that Trevor raised. I would encourage you all to have a look at Martha Feldman's President's Message on p. 2 of the very recent AMS Newsletter.

      With best regards,

      Michael Buchler, Florida State Univeristy


      Thanks Michael for linking that - it was a thoughtful piece.


      However, in other news (and not to poke the proverbial dragon), I'm finding that the late release of this year's program may be providing a new issue of inclusivity. A number of subvention grants have had their deadlines pass and we have still yet to see a list of papers to be given. I can't help but wonder what effect this has had on the possible attendance at this year's meeting. Food for thought...

      EDIT: And with that said, the program has been released!

      Devin Chaloux

      Indiana University

    • Hear, hear!

      I think your point is well taken, and will garner "likes" from many of us in the theory community.

      I think one also has to be cognizant of the fact that the peer-review process for big conferences is a somewhat absurd one: each year, we put our fine-tuned proposals up against several hundred others, and, odds are, we will be rejected quite often.

      I would say, let us relish the acceptances we can get elsewhere, and let not the aura of exclusivity that surrounds SMT bother us. It is there, but it is not the be all and end all of our scholarly relevance. 



    • Dear Trevor,

      Thanks for being brave enough to share something that, I am sure, a lot of people feel. Like you, I have not had a *solo* paper accepted at SMT-National in a long time, but have, in that same period, had several high-level publications.

      I just assume it's because I'm better at writing things than promising to say them—which is to say I could use some help from SMT's vast proposal-mentoring network! 




    • Ok. Interesting point, Trevor. I do sometimes wonder how our method of selecting papers through a single program committee (developed when SMT was much, much smaller, I think) compares to the selection process of other academic societies in the humanities, sciences, etc. Would be worth looking into, I think.

      However, I must take issue with something else: was surprised to read that the author had proposed a presentation on an paper that he had already submitted for consideration of publication.

      What, then, would be the point of reading the article at a conference? If the author is confident enough to send it off to a journal, then surely it is past the conference stage. Would it not be a better idea to present topics that are still in developmental stages?

      Curiously, the conclusion states "our national conference should [offer] a chance to present work in progress."

      So perhaps shorter slots in general is a better idea. If the slots were short enough (say, 15–20 min.), many of us wouldn't even read papers at all anymore, but feel free to extemporize from general outlines. This has the added bonus of not wearing out one's audience by reading an academic paper to them. 


    • Keith,

      It seems that research needs to be at a pretty advanced, developed, and polished stage to be accepted by SMT, considering the low acceptance rate. Based on that, last year I figured I would try submitting a proposal for a paper that I was also submitting for publication. The fact is, I would like to submit less developed stuff, but then I fear it would not be developed enough to get accepted. So where is this perfect stage of research where it's so highly developed as to get into SMT but not so highly developed as to be not yet ready for publication?

    • Brad,

      I doubt the reason you are not having wild success with solo SMT proposals  is because you are better at writing something than proposing something. I think the low acceptance rate has us all doubting ourselves, when what we should be doubting is the organization and structure of our national meeting.

    • Mark,

      You're definitely right that we should not let our SMT rejections get the better of us, and  that instead we should focus on our successes in other areas. But come on, the national meeting is the one time we all have a chance to get together and see old faces and hear what each other is up to, both in general as well as academically. When people's proposals don't get accepted, they don't go. Sure, people can go every year and pay out of pocket. But when you are working on an Assistant Professor salary, spending that $2,000 to attend a national conference on your own dime is hard to justify to your significant other. And so I know a lot of people that don't go each year, and that's really too bad. (There's more to it than that, but that's definitely part of it.)

    • Danny,

      Yes, as someone who has admittedly presented a slapdash lightning talk at an interest group, I know about the guidelines with regard to how to cite interest group presentations differently on one's CV than a main program paper. (Interest group papers are obviously considered "less than" main program papers.) But at the end of the day, someone is presenting something at SMT through a back door when, to be frank, better and more developed research is not being presented even though (and this is important) it may be in the same topic area. So, for example, my popular music proposal was rejected this year, but I presumably won't be able to present it at the popular music group interest meeting because there is going to be some specific theme or format to that interest group meeting (which has not yet been publiciized) into which my polished paper would not fit.

    • Great points, Mitch, and I agree with all of them, especially the idea of dramatically increasing the program committee and having papers read by more specialists than non-specialists. But the acceptance rate is the biggest problem, I think. If there are 150 great proposals and only 85 slots, no amount of slicing and dicing the data will help that.


    • Bravo Trevor! Apparently you're not using enough complicated graphs and diagrams, convoluted insider language, writing about avant garde music only performed once in the last 50 years, or arguing whether a chord from the 1700s is consonant or dissonant, etc. Only some humor folks! Get on the groovy train man!

      Yes, I was once told by a member that since I am not a PhD I do not belong in SMT.  My response was If I were a doctor that would be true (and I would not have attempted to join in the first place).  To the best of my knowledge Frank Zappa wasn't a PhD, nor was Arnold Schoenberg.  No offense against any PhD, I love and respect education and academic achievement.  However, not all art (or anything for that matter) comes from academic environments (I am from an academic environment having studied music my entire life including cello, jazz, theory, history, ethnomusicology, and composition at the university level).

      While I understand that SMT is a professional organization and publisher of professional level material, it would be nice to hear some other perspectives, other points of view, hear what theorists are working on, encourage musicians to enter the field.  

      We have a wonderful Composer's Music Salon in Seattle and everyone can present compositions and do.  We've had John Adams (yes, that John Adams), PhD faculty composers from the UW, Cornish Arts faculty composers, students, untrained musicians all present work and it's a wonderful environment and very inclusive.  It is always well attended and we hear everything from the sublime to the ridiculous.  

      BTW, I had two articles published last year on cello technique and jazz bass technique in the national Blog Musika.  If you care to read them go to Musika and search for Carson Farley. 

      Finally, I have no quarrel with SMT - I am here to learn, to expand my mind and participate in my life long passion - musical theory.  The members I have interacted with are wonderful people and minds.  

    • Poundie, I really, really, really do appreciate your desire to help people craft the best proposals possible and your open-door policy for that. Just to clarify, I have in the past sent SMT proposals to other, more senior scholars for feedback, and this year had feedback from a number of senior scholars. But my more basic point is that it shouldn't take this level of super-duper, high-level tweaking and futzing to get a paper on the program at our national conference. The proposals that I've sent to other national and international conferences simply report on my research and get accepted. In other words, we shouldn't have a program committee that is looking for any and every tiny little excuse to reject a paper because the acceptance rate is so low. Give us a chance to present work that is in progress. Isn't that the whole point of a paper presentation? If it wasn't work in progress, I would just publish the darn thing and move on. 

    • You've hit the nail on the head, Devin. The low acceptance rate means that the program committee has to inherently reject proposals that look like they would be good papers. Poundie's point on his blog (point 1 from his Dec. 23, 2015 post) that a proposal will get rejected one year but then the exact same proposal with no change will get strongly accepted by next year's committee exposes the arbitrariness (or unnecessary level of subjectivity) of the decision-making process when the committee is faced with many good proposals but not enough slots. Again, I am in no way trying to disparage the work of the program committee. I think they do the best they can given a non-ideal situation.

    • I think you might be a statistical outlier, John, in that you've had much success at national and international conferences but not at regional conferences. (I suppose that depends largely on your region.) But I don't think I'm an outlier for having success pretty much everywhere except SMT. I think a lot of folks fall into that category.

      I've served on a couple program committees myself as well, and I think it would be naive to say there is not signficant subjectivity in the process, no matter what the acceptance rate. But I would disagree on one point you made: Specifically, I believe SMT's methods are less "inclusive" (by definition) if the acceptance rate is very low. And so it seems to me that the easiest path to increasing inclusion, without getting into the morass of diversity and subjectivity, is to dramatically increase the acceptance rate. For example, simply shifting from a 45-min slot to a 30-min slot would increase the acceptance rate by 50%, given the same amount of time. With two additional rooms (beyond the four used in 2015) plus the shortened slots, we could DOUBLE the acceptance rate. As a point of reference, EuroMAC has as many as TEN parallel sessions going on at any one time.

    • Two other issues to throw into the conversation:

      1) In regard to Danny's point about citing an interest group presentation differently than a presentation on the main program...this is certainly true, and appropriate.  However, at my school, I'm not going to get funding to travel to SMT if I'm not presenting.  But as Trevor indicates, this can work as a "back door" -- I *can* get funding if I'm presenting as part of an interest group, or as part of the poster/interactive session(s).  

      2) I've never served on a program committee, so I'm a little out of place here, but I wonder how much the categorization of papers plays a role.  Certainly, some sort of categorization is necessary (I think?), but it seems like there are a couple possible concerns there.  First, we all know there's going to be a "math session," a "Schenker session," a "pedagogy session," a "atonal/serial session," and probably some others.  This seems to compartmentalize the competition for acceptance.  I'm not sure if that's problematic or not -- my Friday afternoon brain isn't able to work through the repercussions.  But second, I've definitely been to sessions where there are three really fantastic papers, and one that's just...well...not fantastic.  It seems like a shame to accept a paper for the sake of having four of a kind, where another really good paper might be left on the pile, just because it doesn't connect to three other proposals.  I do appreciate the "short sessions" for combating this...maybe we need more of those?


      Thanks for bringing this up, Trevor.  It's a worthwhile topic, for sure!



    • This will get radical, but please hear me out. Perhaps the problem is that SMT is trying to fit everyone under one umbrella organization -- still trying too hard to justify the break from AMS which, after all, was essentially a fight over the importance of teaching analytical/compositional theory and gaining (advanced degree) crediblility for analytical/compositional theory as a sub-specialty in the academy. That fight may be the origin of what I sense as the pedagogical background noise often drowning out music theory as a serious research discipline. While they are certainly related and at times co-dependent, music theory research is not the same as music theory pedagogy & certainly not the same as research in music theory pedagogy.

         First, forget American Musicological Society as any kind of reference point for now (we may be able to teach them something - if we manage to come out with a viable model on the other side), and try to look elsewhere for possible models. In the mathematicians' world in the U.S., there are two primary organizations - their interests overlap, but their focuses are different.

      From Wikipedia:

      'The American Mathematical Society (AMS) is an association of professional mathematicians dedicated to the interests of mathematical research and scholarship, and serves the national and international community through its publications, meetings, advocacy and other programs.'

      'The Mathematical Association of America (MAA) is a professional society that focuses on mathematics accessible at the undergraduate level. Members include universitycollege, and high school teachers; graduate and undergraduate students; pure and applied mathematicianscomputer scientistsstatisticians; and many others in academia, government, business, and industry.'

           Research/scholarship and pedagogy are not incompatible, but they are certainly different.

          In SMTDiscuss, posts and threads in different topics very often bleed into one another. For instance, my pet peeve, it is almost impossible to begin or comment on a 'pure theory' research topic without pedagogy looming or even inserting itself bluntly - as if 'what to teach & how to teach it' was the only relevance to many participants. I understand this, because probably 90%+ of SMT members have, will have, or have had a career interest in teaching, especially at the undergraduate level.  And SMTDiscuss is a reflection of the music theory academy itself and, I think, real issues such as the presentation problems broached by @trevordeclercq. I'd be hard pressed to come up with an example of a 'research university' in music studies of any kind, let alone music theory.

           So my question is this... In October SMT will be celebrating its 40th anniversary. Wouldn't this be a good time to do a bit of soul searching about how the Society has grown and morphed, really, into two distinct but overlapping, mutually supportive groups somewhat similar to those available to professional mathematicians &/or math teachers-professors. Simply read the above definitions from Wikipedia, substituting 'music theory' and 'music theorist' for 'mathematics' and 'mathematician' & think of the possible release of internal pressures that might bring.

    • Devin, just to be clear, I did not advocate that SMT adopt a partially blind review process like AMS has. I have no sympathy for that approach. I do think that SMT should consider prohibiting those who present at a given year's meeting from proposing the next year, which AMS does.

    • I do think that SMT should consider prohibiting those who present at a given year's meeting from proposing the next year, which AMS does.

      And that seems easy to implement -- during the online proposal process, there could be a question that says "Did you present at SMT last year?"  (not counting interest group presentations, or chairing a session).

      And maybe also ask "Have you submitted this paper for publication, or do you plan to do so before the SMT meeting?"

      If the answers are "yes," those applications get dumped...

    • At the risk of having missed the party, I wanted to share my two cents. I've enjoyed reading your thoughts on the value of having an annual meeting and the purposes of our society more generally.

      While I don't think that having a selective program committee is inherently problematic--I think there is value in that rigorous aparatus--I do welcome ideas for broadening and varying the ways we share our research.  

      My thoughts echo many already presented:

      • disallow proposals for traditional paper sessions from people who read a paper in the previous year (but keep fully blind review process)

      • shorten all papers to 20m, but keep questions at 15m

      • offer more concurrent sessions

      • include more vetted types of proposals to validate different types of sharing, such as:

        • research workshop (I love M. Klein's "teach" your research suggestion), with plenty of time for Q+A

        • pedagogy workshop/demonstration, focused on sharing ideas that have worked in the classroom (especially as connected to MT Ped outreach)

        • scholarship of teaching, focused on sharing current research about teaching and learning 

        • etc

      I agree with S. Soderberg that this is a good time for us to reconsider how our annual meetings look. To me, it means increasing the number of nontraditional paper sessions, and making the most out of what is special about SMT meetings: theorists being together in the same place at the same time and thinking about the same things.  

      Maybe it's not so important that all presentations be polished papers with a thorough literature review.  Maybe we can let some of that go in the interest of including presentations in varied formats that can foster a more robust academic dialogue.  

    • Devin, just to be clear, I did not advocate that SMT adopt a partially blind review process like AMS has. I have no sympathy for that approach. I do think that SMT should consider prohibiting those who present at a given year's meeting from proposing the next year, which AMS does.

      No worries Danny! I think that suggestion is a good one myself. This was the first year that I didn't apply--and I have to say that it was actually kind of a relief :) 

      Devin Chaloux

      Indiana University

    • In these posts, scholars have revealed one of the primary challenges for both writing and evaluating submissions. Despite the fact that the actual scholarship behind these proposals may range from “merely an idea” to publication-ready, we must create the illusion that our work more resembles the latter. Then our practice dictates that once chosen, all types of papers are given equal time at the conference.

      What if we gave scholars the freedom of transparency by officially recognizing multiple stages of development? A single session could include two papers that are in (self-identified) early stages of development and only require 15 minutes to present the basic idea and one or two papers that are fully developed and worthy of a full 30 minutes.

      A typical three-paper session now taken two hours and fifteen minutes. In nearly that same time, we could offer two 15-minute papers with 10 minutes of discussion (50 minutes) and two 30-minute papers with 15 minutes of discussion (90 minutes).

      This would accomplish two issues decried in these posts: 1) Adding even a single paper to nearly every session would greatly increase the inclusivity of the society. 2) Scholars would neither  have to hide the infant stage of their research nor compete against publication-ready proposals. 

      It also might give a nice flow to sessions. We hear both the established thinking on the topic and the up-and-coming research,                                                                                  

      *Note: This idea is still in its own infant stage and may very well have been practiced elsewhere and/or considered by various executive boards.





    • Trevor - just to be clear, I wasn't claiming that our "statistical outlier" status was on the same level.  I trust my experience is at least a sigma more off the norm than yours (if not more).  (By the way, I've applied to at least three different regional conferences, so my experience wasn't just about a particular area.)

      I guess I was saying that the "clustering" of rejections is likely at least somewhat anomalous, given your successes elsewhere.  (I'm absolutely positive that my clustering of rejections is anomalous.)  I'm sure you're right that others have experienced long stretches of SMT rejections (as some people have personally noted here), but I think it's important to differentiate between the amount contributed by systemic exclusivity or bias in the system vs. potential individual outlier statistical factors.  (Though obviously falling into the latter category doesn't make it feel any better to receive a rejection email.)

      I agree that it's very likely that we'd have a lot fewer such outliers if we increased our SMT proposal acceptance rate, perhaps with some set of possibilities others have outlined here (like the ones you've highlighted).  But I also stand by my assessment that I doubt we'll ever be able to accept all proposals that seem merely "good" without making the conference unwieldy in some way or that any given program committee will ever agree on a universal delineation of "good" proposals.