Right now I’m particularly eager to see what the AMS meeting in Philly will be like. Last year, the AMS asked for input on the conference–what works, what doesn’t, and how it can be changed for the better. Here’s what I wrote then:
I would like to see more transparency in the planning process. Currently, members not privy to the paper and session acceptance process know only what we are told by the committee and by Bob Judd on the AMS site: that there are “144 daytime papers in 45-minute slots, with 120 chosen on a blind reading and 24 added with authors’ names revealed; panel discussions in the evening, etc.” We do not know how the decisions are made: is there a scoring process? Do you make three stacks: Yes, No, and Maybe, and then reduce from there? How much discussion is involved? How is the program committee chosen? Are particular topics and approaches more heavily weighted than others? Does the existence of other societies mean that topics handled by those societies are not as frequently accepted? Why are its members almost exclusively from PhD-granting institutions? I think members need to know exactly how the business of creating the national meeting is conducted.
Transparency is also needed in regard to several committees related to the annual meeting: What does the Committee on Diversity do the rest of the year? Why doesn’t the Committee on the Status of Women address the disparities found within the program of national meeting itself? When the AMS CFP writes that a successful paper is “typically creative, original, eloquent, and well-written,” to what papers and abstracts are they referring? We have all heard bad papers at the national meeting, and, given the lack of diversity on the program, I think many of us wonder if a truly “creative” paper or approach would be noticed. Kate van Orden has made pleas for more creative and diverse articles for JAMS; the AMS national meeting needs to make clear that it too embraces a similar broadness in approach, topic, and methodology.
We need more statistics to show who and what is accepted—not just a breakdown by topic era, but statistics that show how many minority presenters there are, how many women, what kinds of institutions they come from (are they from community colleges, 4-year colleges, universities, or independent scholars?), and what kinds of topics are being accepted, with greater specificity than “Renaissance.” We need to know this because women and minorities are disproportionately unrepresented among junior and untenured faculty; papers also seem to come predominantly from scholars at PhD-granting institutions. There seems to be an agreement that work by scholars from smaller schools is inferior to those at R1s, when this has been shown untrue. There is a catch-22 at work here; women and minorities tend to get tenure less than their rest of their cohort. In order to get tenure, they need to be on the program, yet untenured women and minorities appear on the program less frequently, again, than their cohort.
I would recommend ending the practice of taking 120 papers “blind” and selecting the rest from identified papers. To my knowledge, this practice was instituted in order to give lesser-known scholars a chance to present while not alienating “big names” if their papers were not accepted—the “big names” could be chosen when the papers’ authors were identified. This has, in actuality, resulted in serious resentment by “unknown” scholars who view the practice as catering to big donors and scholars with more power within the discipline. It also results in the programming of “big names” during the same time slots as up-and-coming scholars; at AMS 2008 in Nashville, Carolyn Abbate was scheduled in a small room while a lesser-known scholar was put in a ballroom. Abbate’s paper had an audience that overflowed into the hallways; every session scheduled against her presentation was virtually empty, including the poor guy left alone in the big ballroom. If AMS wants to feature its well-known scholars fairly, then they should be given plenary sessions that do not compete with other sessions. Plenary speakers could be (self-)nominated or invited by the program committee.
I would also like to see a return to the 250-word abstract and 20-minute paper. Thirty-minute papers are too long; too often they delve into minutia and speakers are discouraged from presenting clear and concise material. I have been at many sessions in which the paper was stretched beyond reason to meet the 30-minute mark and there were few or no questions afterwards. If the program returns to a 20-minute presentation/10-minute question format, there will be time for more papers to be presented, and will encourage crisp, succinct writing.
Evening sessions could also benefit from rescheduling and timing. There is an enormous loss of audience after 5 p.m.; evening sessions are ghettoized in a slot from 8-11 p.m. that is, for many, difficult to attend. Evening sessions appear to have gained momentum in the last several years; surely some of the sessions scheduled for this slot could be “mainstreamed” into the daytime program? The same applies to special interest groups; what makes a session on Broadway or prima donnas so much more valuable than one on diversity in the classroom or popular music (to draw but two examples from the Nashville program)?
Tamara Levitz has written a report on this year’s selection process, but it focuses mostly on how papers were categorized or not categorized. Levitz indicates that the “hot topics” of the ’90s seem to be fading when she writes that
I also noticed a distinct patriarchal frame to the composer list: there are very few women on it. When women were forefronted in the abstracts, they were often cordoned off in their own category of research, or considered primarily as singers and pianists. I used the rubric “Women in Music” to describe this category in the newsletter, because the authors within it discussed just that, women who make or compose music, rather than feminist theory of any kind. Similarily, there were only a tiny handful of abstracts submitted on issues of gender and sexuality, or LGBTQ history. The list was also very circumscribed in terms of race and class.
Indeed it is, and Levitz notes that while “that people who submitted abstracts felt relatively relaxed about what might constitute a “canon” in musicology,” this occurs “within a certain frame.” This apparent lack of concern about promoting or keeping to a canon, however, doesn’t come across in the program. Levitz raises a number of intriguing issues in her report: that there “was little attempt to move beyond the work into the realms of performance, production, society, or music-making”; and that a “carefully circumscribed and limited geographical frame” has surpassed the “Western canon” in terms of serving as a limiting factor for acceptable and accepted work. I wonder, though, how much of these two issues is the perception that the AMS isn’t the best conference to try to place work on studies that are anything but composition-centered; as well, if you work on African music, the AMS has not traditionally been the place to submit that work. I’m curious to see whether, in the days before the SAM split off from the AMS, if there were more or fewer American music sessions as there are now. If other organizations are covering wider topics of music and wider geographical territories, why should the AMS take those papers/why should scholars submit to the AMS? Clearly this goes both ways in perception of what the AMS usually accepts–what is “acceptable”–and what the program committee might feel is better presented elsewhere.
And, finally, on a personal note, there’ll be a reception at AMS to celebrate the publication of my new book, Shakespeare, Madness, and Music: Scoring Insanity in Cinematic Adaptations, on Thursday, November 12, at 8 pm in the Philadelphia Ballroom North. Consider yourself invited for cake, champagne, and music from great Shakespeare movies.