Sound Matters: The SEM Blog

The official blog by the Society for Ethnomusicology


Stefan Fiol – Encouraging dialogue: A new workshop format at SEM conferences


I have long felt the need for another kind of forum at conferences—supplementing paper sessions and roundtables—that encourages more intimate and sustained intellectual discussions between scholars with overlapping interests. As President of MIDSEM in 2013 I had the opportunity to introduce a new workshop format called Ethno in the Rough at the Midwest Chapter Meeting at the University of Cincinnati. The idea was to create an opportunity for junior scholars (including students as well as pre-tenured faculty) to present research projects that were in progress and to gain critical and constructive feedback in an informal, conversational setting from peers and at least one senior scholar in ethnomusicology. I want to tell you a little bit more about what we did in the hope that others can adapt and build upon our experience, which was overwhelmingly positive.

Several weeks prior to sending out the Call for Proposals, I confirmed the participation of nine senior scholars in the region (the only criterion in this case was that they have tenure), and I included their names in the CFP as extra incentive for proposals. The CFP asked junior scholars to submit an abstract of 250 words addressing main research objectives, overview of research methodology, and challenges and remaining questions. The Program Committee then grouped the abstracts on related research topics (no more than three junior scholars were combined in a single group) and paired the groups with a senior scholar who has expertise in that area. As expected, defining area was sometimes a challenge for the Program Committee, but they did their best to match people on the basis of concepts and theoretical approaches first, and geographical area second. Selected participants were then asked to expand their abstracts into research prospecti of approximately 2000 words and circulate these among their assigned group members several weeks prior to the conference. Group members were asked to read each other’s prospecti in advance of a 90-minute workshop, where participants spent approximately thirty minutes at a table discussing each research project in turn.

We solicited anonymous feedback on the workshop after the conference. One junior scholar wrote “Submitting to anonymous peer review is often deeply demoralizing! This workshop provided a low-stakes chance to get specific feedback. If I have the opportunity to attend another Ethno in the Rough in the future I will jump at the chance.” Another wrote “Having the perspective of, and one-on-one time with, a senior scholar was golden. It was really helpful to have time to go into depth about issues raised in the prospectus, and to be able to flesh them out in a low-key, conversational fashion. I think the prerequisite prospectus idea worked well, since it gave us all a foundation to work with. Even though I receive stellar academic guidance for my research, it’s still really valuable to hear how another scholar outside my committee but in my field thinks of the subject.” One recommendation was to allow the circulation of longer research submissions (e.g., chapters, articles, or research proposals in progress) between group members prior to meeting.

I was initially skeptical that I would get enough senior scholars to volunteer their time to read prospecti and attend the workshop. I need not have worried. I was overwhelmed by the positive response of ethnomusicologists in the region, including Bruno Nettl (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign), Thomas Turino (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign), Adriana Helbig (University of Pittsburgh), Joanna Bosse (Michigan State University), Louise Meintjes (Duke University), Inna Naroditskaya (Northwestern University), Christopher Scales (Michigan State University), and Gabriel Solis (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign). (Thank you all!) A number of these professors welcomed the opportunity to have sustained mentoring opportunities with students outside of their program, and many noted the particular benefit of this workshop to students and faculty in small programs or programs with less ethnomusicological activity.

Curiously, the number of student submissions for the workshop was low—only nine (compared with thirty paper proposals)—and we were not able to use the services of all the senior scholars who graciously offered their time. I tack the low number of submissions up to fear of the unknown and also a frequent need for students and faculty to present 20-minute papers in order to receive funding from their home institutions. (We did not restrict people from submitting two abstracts—one for the workshop and another for a paper presentation—and three people ended up doing both.)

Eventually, I would love to see such a workshop format introduced at our national SEM conference. Having greater numbers of participating junior and senior scholars would result in closer matches in areas of interest. The SEM Council has had some discussions about this, but it may take time to implement, given the already bloated schedule at the national meeting. At present, it may be best to keep trying out such a workshop format at regional meetings, tweaking it as we go. If this strikes you as a worthy enterprise, please spread the word, and if any of you have done something similar or feel up to trying it out, please share your thoughts and experiences!

Stefan Fiol

College-Conservatory of Music, University of Cincinnati