Thursday, January 29, 2009

Calling for Greater Transparency

An odd thing happened recently that got me thinking about a bigger issue in academic culture. I applied for both a seminar and a workshop at the Rhetoric Society of America's summer institute. I was accepted into the week-long seminar on visual rhetoric, which made me really happy. I knew it was going to be competitive, but I also knew I had to try. Every time I read the description, I got excited. I was rejected for the weekend workshop on performance studies and rhetoric. I was a little surprised by that because I think my work aligns pretty closely with that topic. But rejections happen.

With my rejection, though, came a note saying that I could be considered for other workshops that still had openings. The problem is that the workshop to which I applied was on that list. I sent an email asking if there was some mistake, and I received one back saying that it was an error for that workshop to have been listed as an option for me.

My problem is that, to be accepted into another workshop, those of us rejected from workshops just have to send an email back listing the workshop (and alternatives) that we'd like to take. It says nothing about writing a statement or providing any justification for why we want to take that workshop, which is what we had to do in our original application. In other words, I was rejected for the workshop based upon what I had written but other people can be accepted into it without having to write anything.

I'll admit, that irks me. I would have had a better chance of getting in if I'd applied for another one and been rejected from that. And I have not gotten any explanation for why that is. I understand that it's pretty common to get rejected for jobs, from journals, and for other programs and have no reason given. I've had that happen a lot. It just feels odd to be rejected when I submitted a full application knowing that others will now be accepted without having to take the same steps.

Perhaps the workshop leaders of the new workshop to which we would apply will receive our original application. The problem with that, though, is that our original application was created with a particular workshop in mind. So it says little about our expertise on other topics. If I apply for the one on Lincoln's rhetoric, my application about visual rhetoric and performance studies would be irrelevant, yet I might get accepted because space remains. That's all well and good, except I hate the idea of taking a spot from someone who really wants to be there and really tried to be there knowing I didn't try as hard or take as many steps as they had to take.

And this all relates to a bigger issue that I encountered during the tenure process, the need for greater transparency in the application and submission process. For my tenure application, I wrote to all of the editors and workshop leaders with whom I worked asking about the acceptance rates. And I was surprised by how few I heard back from or how vague the information was. One journal that published my work would not give me the acceptance rates at all, and that came up in my tenure review. I had all the emails I sent asking for the information to prove that I wasn't trying to hide anything, but I shouldn't have had to do that.*

Not everyone was like that. The American Society for Bioethics and Humanities actually told me that 33% of proposals were accepted for the conference one year I presented and 50% another year. Other places said that the applicant pool was "competitive" or "very competitive." An essay collection that published my work gave me the number of proposals submitted and accepted. But a lot of places said nothing.

In talking about this with people, we discussed several reasons why. Perhaps some journals, workshops, or conferences are embarrassed that the rates do not sound as competitive as they would like. But 1) it seems like everyone has an ethical responsibility to be upfront and 2) maybe word getting out might help make the rates stronger. If a journal has a 90% acceptance rate, I can think of a lot of junior faculty and graduate students who would send something that way, which would make the process more competitive because submissions would increase. Plus, again, I think we just have an obligation to be honest about the process.

This may sound like sour grapes for not getting accepted into the workshop, but I have been rejected from many things in my life. And I was accepted into the seminar, which really makes me happy. But I've been on the other side, too. I have co-edited a collection of essays and organized panels and workshops. I have sent rejections to many people. But when I've done that, I've been very aware of the golden rule, treating others as I'd want to be treated. In a lot of cases, I was upfront about the number of submissions so people knew that they were not alone in their rejections. Many times, I did offer a line or two about why I rejected them specifically. I can remember asking myself, "What kind of rejection would I want to receive in this case?" And I wrote that kind of rejection. I'm not saying they were perfect, but I am saying that I tried.

Knowing that I was rejected from this workshop and that other people will be accepted without having to submit what I had to submit (which was not a huge amount, I will admit) feels wrong. In that case, I think there should be some reason. Maybe, "You do not have as much experience as we would like participants to have." Or, "You have more experience than we would like participants to have." Or, "We want to get as many people involved in the entire institute as possible. And since you were accepted into the seminar, we did not let you into the workshop" (but then why tell me I could take others?). Or, "You work is in an area of performance studies and rhetoric that we will not be covering." Of course, all of those reasons are a bit invalidated considering that people will be allowed in without having to say anything about their experience or research.

Ah, well. What I have learned from this is that I need to remember the golden rule. When I send rejections, I need to send what I would like to receive, and that means being as transparent as possible. And I will have a great time at the seminar, I'm sure. I love being a student. It's why I'm auditing the class at NYU and applying for all these things constantly.

But I do wish we had greater transparency in general. I think we can only benefit from it, that the resulting discussion would be a good thing. Certainly, though, I welcome other perspectives.

*Yes, I know that there are places online and in print that publish acceptance and rejection rates, but this particular journal was listed in none of them.


  1. Is it possible, though, that the workshop you originally applied for was full and the others didn't have enough applicants? So that no one else is getting into "your" workshop, either? Either way, it would be nice to know for sure.

  2. No, it's not full. That's why it was on my list of alternatives. The institute leaders did confirm that with me. So, again, I wonder why others will be allowed to enroll without having to complete the same application process I did.

    But the larger point of this entry is a call for greater honesty and transparency overall so that such questions and problems would not arise. Rather than remove the workshop from my particular list of options, it makes more sense to say, "Though others will be allowed into this workshop since space is still left, we have rejected your application because of x, y, and z." Sure, that would such in a lot of ways, but it would be harder to argue with.

  3. I absolutely agree with you, Nels. On the other hand, I never received ANY word about my application, which, of course, leads me to believe that I wasn't accepted to the seminar I applied to. Talk about a lack of transparency (and communication).

  4. You heard nothing, really? Wow, maybe there is something specific going on here and it's not a larger issue of academic culture as I thought.

  5. Rejection sucks. You guys should send in your rejection stories anonymously to this rejection blog and complain about it there.