Caroline Payant, MA TESL Director and Assistant Professor of TESL at the University of Idaho and President-Elect of WAESOL, shares insights and practices of her recent study, “The Dynamic Rhetorical Structures of TESOL Conference Abstracts” (2016), coauthored with Jack A. Hardy.
Sherry Blok (SB): Your recent article, entitled “The Dynamic Rhetorical Structures of TESOL Conference Abstracts” (2016), will be of great interest to many TESOLers as your study examines the rhetorical style of previously accepted TESOL abstracts and presents guidelines for writing successful conference proposals. What prompted your study?
Caroline Payant (CP): Our audience was MEXTESOL at first, but what really prompted me was working with my own grad students and being a proposal reviewer for MEXTESOL and TESOL. The more I reviewed proposals for MEXTESOL, although I found some great ideas, the more I found they could be presented in really confusing ways. So, when I was putting on my TESOL reviewer hat, I thought that there is no way these proposals would be accepted. I felt really bad thinking that, but that was the reality. So, when I read proposals and the 50-word session description and had no idea what they were talking about, they were of course scored negatively. Some writers focused on the literature review for 250 words out of the 300 and didn’t tell me anything about the session. It should not be a guessing game for the reviewer.
SB: Everyone knows that it’s quite difficult to get a proposal accepted for the annual TESOL convention. Even though guidelines and rubrics are provided to help write a conference abstract, many face rejection more often than acceptance. Based on your research, how competitive is it to get accepted to present at the annual convention?
CP: In the paper, we cited 2012. TESOL used to provide the acceptance rates in email communication upon acceptance. I’m sure we can find out, but I think it ranges between 15–25%. Teachers submit to present at their local conference and they are almost always accepted, then they try at TESOL and often get rejected….It’s competitive. In a sense, I don’t see it getting less competitive in the future….As teachers, we get disillusioned if we do not get accepted at TESOL. It’s important to continue applying to your local conference and the international conference, but these are two different beasts—keep trying!
SB: How do you encourage professional development with your students?
CP: When I talk to my students, I stress early in their professional development that they don’t just attend conferences, but also present. I’ve been recently appointed the Director of the TESL program at the University of Idaho and I work really hard to sequence and scaffold their professional development in the first year. I want my students to become aware of the small scale conferences out there.
SB: Tell us about your study.
CP: We wanted to focus on research-oriented presentations for two reasons. One, we think it is important for teachers to do this type of research. Two, I want to help people publish their own research.
One interesting finding was the importance to establish credibility, making reference to previous work. Some people overdo it. In two sentences you should show a specific niche and who you are addressing. Some people start way back in the big picture; you have to assume that the reader knows where you are coming from. There was a lot of consistency across the successful proposals—identifying previous research, gaps, goals. All of those elements are helpful.
In your methodology, you need to say what the audience is going to listen to in a 50-minute session. You want the reader to know how you are going to set it up, like a lesson plan, and you can even suggest timing.
Successful proposals included an explicit and transparent statement of how the audience is directly going to benefit from attending your session. You need to make that extra connection for your audience.
SB: Are reviewers supposed to give feedback on rejected proposals?
CP: Feedback should be a learning opportunity for the writer with feedback that is helpful. I think the review process is good; however, when people get bad or unhelpful feedback it makes it frustrating and becomes a kind of deterrent from reapplying. People will eventually give up and that is not okay.
SB: What are the implications for nonnative-speaking teachers from TESOL affiliates who wish to present at the international conference yet struggle writing in English, let alone writing conference abstracts?
CP: Basically, they have to find people who are willing to give advice or feedback, or sometimes you have to find native-like readers, writing teachers, or a writing center. We are all learners; we are all students. Ultimately, they should start way in advance of the deadline and find someone to review it. There are a lot of journals through the local affiliates. They could turn to the editors and reviewers from their local chapters, shoot an email and ask people if they would give feedback on their proposals. These people have experience and a sense of what the reviewers are looking for.
SB: What advice do you have for novice writers of conference abstracts based on the findings from your research?
CP: Identifying the topic is obviously very important, and people interested in presenting should cross-check, examining what people are presenting on in your context or abroad. Most conference books are online. Skim through them to see what people are talking about and which ones are on the downside. Not all proposals need to be cutting edge—find an old topic with a new twist. Some topics are always really important. Corrective feedback doesn’t go away. It is a recurring topic and topic of interest. The sessions are always well attended because there is always a need for that. But you want to add something new to it, a new angle.
Attending the local conference is also a great way to see what people are talking about.
SB: What other suggestions do you have for those looking to improve their skills in writing conference abstracts?
CP: If you go to a TESOL session, speak to the presenters afterwards. Maybe they are willing to share it with you. Establish rapport with that person and say, hey I am interested in your topic. I think there are people who are willing to share their materials. Get a couple of them and then analyze their rhetorical moves.
I give my own successful proposals to my students who come to the workshop I offer. They have to highlight and analyze two to three successful proposals to see the moves come alive. Based on those, they find a formulaic approach. I don’t want to take away from the creativity, but there is a formula.
People should join local affiliates to hear conversations about how conferences are set up to gain an appreciation of what it means. They can give their name for proposal reviewer for local affiliates; taking a role as a volunteer increases awareness of professionalism.
I also encourage people to consider presenting in a group to collaboratively write proposals. People should also submit more than one proposal; it increases their chances of being accepted.
Read Caroline and Jack’s full research paper in the BC TEAL Journal: “The dynamic rhetorical structures of TESOL conference abstracts“