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Program Committee: Summer 2013

Over the previous two years the Program Committee has introduced a number of changes in the Annual Meeting itself, and also in the process by which we put together the program. Some of these changes are quite visible, others not so much. So, this seems like a good time to report to the membership at least on the most important ones.

Philadelphia 2012.  The innovations that were introduced in 2012 had to do with the treatment of individual abstracts after they were accepted and in the organization and preparation of panels. In the first place, we made an effort to continue the good work done by previous Committees to group papers into attractive and coherent sessions, but went a bit farther in one respect. Our goal was to organize truly coherent sessions of at least four papers each, with no thematic outliers. Whenever we felt this was impossible, we organized sessions from groups of three papers closely related to one another and then took the additional step of inviting an accomplished scholar to round out this or that panel by contributing either a fourth original paper or a substantial response. Next, the Committee made a particular effort to recruit session chairs (Presiders) who would be willing to work with us and with the Presenters to develop the individual abstracts into paper sessions that would be as coherent and as engaging as possible. This process began with asking the Presiders to check the Program Committee's work by offering their own opinions about the abstracts that we had selected. The Presiders were then asked to contact their Presenters to discuss their abstracts, to make them aware of any issues that might require attention, and to put them in touch with the other Presenters in their sessions. We also required Presenters to exchange finished, or at least penultimate versions of their papers in mid-December, relatively far in advance of the Meeting itself. Presiders also understood from the beginning that their role both in advance of and at the Annual Meeting was to do anything else they could think of to make their paper sessions lively and intellectually engaging events. Finally, we asked the Presiders to evaluate both the success of the individual papers as delivered and that of their session as a whole.

Other innovations included a seminar, organized by the Committee, that was devoted to the discussion of John Miller's Goodwin Award-winning book, Apollo, Augustus, and the Poets, which featured a number of accomplished and well-known interventions by established scholars in several different subdisciplines. (There were actually several precedents for a session of more or less this kind.) This session was very well attended; the interventions were edited into a jointly-authored review article that has now been published in Vergilius; and the event was spontaneously imitated by a seminar organized the following year to discuss Brent Shaw's recent book, Sacred Violence. So, we hope that the membership will come to think of group discussions of important books as a regular activity at the Annual Meeting, and will make more such proposals.

In addition, the Committee selected a number of abstracts for presentation in the APA's first poster session. This impromptu innovation worked well enough that we solicited poster session proposals in 2013. We got no takers last year, but we gave it a go again this year and got a very good response, and there will be a poster session at Chicago 2014.

The evaluations of these measures that we received from Presenters and Presiders has been very positive, and I think the reasons are clear. Everyone knows how easy it is to feel that one's paper didn't get the reception it might have because it was an outlier in a particular panel, or because no one made an effort to ensure a lively discussion, or what have you. Such things can still happen, but asking more involvement on the part of Presiders and Presenters well in advance of the meeting seems to have done something to make such occurrences less common. In addition, by inviting a few additional speakers to increase the number of papers in some sessions from three to four, I believe that the sessions themselves became more robust, and that we did something to address a concern raised from time to time that not enough senior scholars give papers at the Annual Meeting.

Seattle 2013.  The number of abstracts submitted for the 2012 meeting was unprecedentedly high (473), and it remained high in 2013 (454). In order to cope with the enormous number of abstracts that the Program Committee has to read, and also to address the perception of some colleagues that the size of the Committee ought to be increased, for the Seattle meeting we enlisted the help of our at-large members of the Board of Directors and adopted a two-tier system for the vetting of individual abstracts. This involved dividing all 454 abstracts into ten groups of about 45, which were then distributed among the five Program Committee members and five of the six at-large Board Members for preliminary vetting. The papers were distributed so far as possible according to areas of expertise; each individual reader made a simple yes or no decision as to whether the paper should go on to the second round. Just half the papers, 228 to be exact, went on to be read by the five members of the Program Committee and judged in the usual way. There was no possibility of knowing in advance what kind of program this system would produce, and there is no way of knowing in retrospect whether the one we did produce was better or worse, from a scientific point of view, to the one that we would have produced by the traditional method. But there are a number of reassuring indications that the results were broadly similar to what they would have been. In sheerly numerical terms, as we have seen, the numbers of abstracts accepted or rejected were very close to the numbers of the past. When we asked Presiders to comment on the abstracts that were accepted, they approved and disapproved of our decisions at rates comparable to those of the previous year. It is certainly true that having only 228 abstracts to discuss at our second meeting (instead of 473, as was the case the previous year) left the Committee with much more time to give shape to individual paper sessions than we had ever had before, and we believe that this had a beneficial effect — hard to measure, but real — on the program, as well. Committee members also feel that it was an advantage to have the added expertise of our colleagues from the Board, and that the time and effort of these colleagues was put to its most efficient use in helping us to sift out the papers that were the most obvious candidates for elimination, rather than (for instance) by doubling the number of people involved in the final decision, where the goal is to reach consensus about each abstract. So the system that we introduced last year certainly allowed us to do our work efficiently, and it is our opinion that it allowed us to assemble a program that was at least no worse than that our previous year's effort, and that was arguably even a bit better.

Another measure taken specifically in the interest of boosting the intellectual experience of the program was the introduction of a mandatory 20-minute length for papers in individual sessions. This very visible change has been very well received by Presenters and members, so we are continuing the 20-minute standard slot for the next Annual Meeting.

We made a few modest efforts at promoting the Seattle Annual Meeting via social media. The bulk of these efforts took place in the three months just before the Meeting, when the various attractions of Seattle itself were posted to the APA Facebook page, along with one-a-day notices about specific panels and paper sessions that were posted to Facebook and Twitter, as well. These measures definitely helped attract more attention to our social media efforts — we now have many more friends and followers than we did, and there was a lot of positive comment about many of our posts and tweets.  Some other social-media efforts took place during the Annual Meeting itself. At the end of each day, registered participants received an email message asking them to vote, via Survey Monkey, for the best paper in each session and for the best session in each of the three time slots throughout the day (morning, mid-day, and afternoon). This isn't the sort of "honor" that I would ever expect to see on anyone's CV, but most members reacted to it in a spirit of fun and that it added a bit of buzz to the experience of the Meeting. Again, I would like to continue doing this in future meetings.

Chicago 2014.  The main innovations in connection with the Chicago meeting have to do with back-office work, although some of these have been visible to the membership, as well.

The first thing is the new web interface for submitting and handling proposals for panels and individual abstracts. This system, created by APA Information Architect Sam Huskey and a consultant, Alex Ward, has given us a much more responsive technical staff and a much better system. In addition, the new system cost much less than the old one.

Another change that saved some money, although that was not its primary purpose, was our decision to try to conduct the Program Committee's business this year in a single two-day meeting rather than two meetings of one and two days, respectively. The reason we did so is because a couple of innovations introduced in previous years. A small one that I have not mentioned is that we began to vote numerically on panel submissions for the 2012 Meeting. This streamlined the discussion of panels considerably, and may also be partly responsible for the relatively high rate of acceptance for panel proposals in recent years. The bigger innovation was the introduction of a preliminary round of voting on individual abstracts for 2013, as discussed above. Because of these measures, we had a relative abundance of time left over in both of our meetings in preparation for 2013, so that we thought it was worth trying to do everything in a single meeting in preparation for 2014. An additional benefit of going to a single meeting this June was that we were able to extend the deadline for panel proposals from March to April, and this may be the reason why we received such a large number of proposals this time around.

Speaking of panel proposals, we accepted a very high percentage of the panels proposals of these this year (30 of 34). We did not do so by any prior agreement; I should note, however, that we accepted a relatively high percentage of panel submissions for the 2012 and 2013 meetings, and I suspect that the higher acceptance rate may in part the result of introducing numerical grading of panels. Be that as it may, to me it makes sense in any case to judge panels on the same general basis as individual abstracts, and all the members of the Program Committee came to the spring meeting having individually decided that most of the panel proposals we received were very good. Accordingly, almost 90% of them were accepted. There is obviously a possibility, at least in theory, that next year we will accept only 25% of the panel proposals we receive, and that there will a member uprising against us. But I think the possibility is pretty remote, and that we should stay with this way of doing things.

Here I will just mention that we continued this year to use the system of categorizing individual abstract submissions that we introduced last year. Members will recall that the new system contains about twice as many categories as the old system, so that individual abstracts can be classified with somewhat greater precision than had been the case, and that it is more flexible in that it involves two systems of classification, one mandatory and one optional. We introduced this system in response to long-standing complaints by some members that the old system was too restrictive. Anyone who was familiar with the workings of the Program Committee knew that the old system did not affect the acceptance or rejection of abstracts in any way, and as we expected, the new system did not really change anything. But it does demonstrate responsiveness to the concerns of our members, and it not actually interfere with the committee's work, nor will it cost anything to continue with it. So we will continue, although probably with a reduced number of categories, since there are now some that receive very few or no submissions.

As for the meeting itself, the main new initiative is that we will be sponsoring a new session format, one involving a debate between Jonathan Hall and Walter Scheidel regarding the relative merits of qualitative and quantitative approaches to Ancient History. In fact, we have been trying to get this going for several years, and for one reason and another it has been delayed till now; so, it is not a new initiative from the Committee's point of view. But it will be new to the members, and we hope it will be a success. The challenge at the moment is to come up with a worthy successor to this event, assuming the format does prove popular.

Another new initiative is that the Presidential Panel this year will be audio-recorded, and video-recorded if it is financially possible, and then made available on the web at a later date. The panel on "study abroad" sponsored by the Education Division will be audio-recorded and then posted to the web, as well. I do not have much more to say about these initiatives, but once we have followed through on them we should have some information about whether they are worth the time, effort, and expense involved (as I believe they will be) and about whether we should continue and extend our efforts in this area (as I believe we should if at all possible).

Joseph Farrell


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