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AFS Review: Reports

Preliminary Report on the 2015 Annual Meeting: Response and Outcomes

Thursday, November 19, 2015   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Lorraine Cashman

The Society held its 126th annual meeting, on the theme "Ecologies, Encounters, and Enactments," on October 14-17, 2015, at the Westin Hotel in Long Beach, California. California is the home to more AFS members than any other state, but it hasn't hosted an AFS meeting since 1990, when the meeting was held in Oakland.

The complete program book, including the schedule and abstracts, can be found with all the other posted meeting information on the 2015 Annual Meeting webpage, at

A full summary report on the meeting program and the effect of the labor dispute will be available in the coming weeks.

Labor Dispute: Preliminary Impact and Outcomes

Thanks to the support of AFS members and meeting participants, and of both UNITE HERE! and the Westin management, the Westin labor dispute caused limited quantifiable damage to the meeting.

Attendance: Meeting registration was lower than in recent years with 541 registrants, but within expectations for an average AFS meeting. More than a quarter of all attendees were students, and the percentage of international participants continued its recent rise, accompanied by an increase in the number of new professional and retired attendees.

Program: The number of proposals submitted was down from the beginning, 15% less than Providence in 2013 (the last coastal meeting), but attendees were as divided as ever among the number of panels in general sessions: with 456 individual presenters accepted in the spring, the program offered its customary 14 concurrent sessions.

However, there were more gaps within panels than usual, as presenters withdrew after the program was posted. This is a problem every year, but the normal attrition rate (withdrawals due to funding cuts, schedule conflicts, etc.) was higher than usual (6%, compared to a more typical 4%), and that decline was doubled with the addition of withdrawals due to the labor dispute (7% of presenters). This total 13% attrition rate includes the withdrawal of five panels, as well as individual papers.

Further disruption was felt since two paper panels met elsewhere, and the three Cultural Diversity Committee-sponsored panels were rescheduled and moved off-site to avoid meeting in the hotel. The social program took a hit, too, as the university-sponsored receptions withdrew, and plans for the Saturday dance party were abandoned because of difficulties caused by the dispute.

Financial: Although final figures are not yet available, registration revenue was sufficient to cover necessary charges like the hotel and audiovisual bills. AFS incurred no penalties from the hotel, which waived its food/beverage minimums in light of the labor dispute, and the AFS group filled our original contractual obligation to use guest rooms. Therefore, the bottom line of this meeting is comparable to most annual meetings, in finishing more or less at the break-even point.

On October 14, in cooperation with UNITE HERE!, the AFS Executive Board agreed to send a written statement of its position to Utah Retirement System, a chief investor in the Westin Long Beach, and Long Beach Mayor Robert Garcia. The letters, delivered October 15, reaffirmed that AFS will "incorporate, whenever possible, UNITE HERE!'s recommended protective language in contracts for our annual meetings" and "give preference to unionized hotels in our annual meeting site searches for 2018 and beyond." The letters stated that "We also believe very strongly that hotel workers should have the right to an environment free of all types of abuse, and the right to a reporting process for such incidents that is free of retaliation."

Representatives of UNITE HERE! and the staff of the contested Long Beach hotels, including the Westin, participated in the panel "Cultural Diversity and Local Realities: AFS and Community Engagement," sponsored by the AFS Cultural Diversity Committee. Early next year the Committee will present its report and recommendations to the Board regarding diversity and local cultural issues at AFS annual meetings.

About a dozen AFS members met with Westin General Manager Ken Pilgrim on Saturday, October 17, to express their support of the Westin workers' efforts to unionize.

UNITE HERE! did not picket the Westin for the run of the conference.

Participant Survey Results

Following the annual meeting, meeting participants were surveyed concerning their experience of the meeting, and panel chairs were asked to report on session logistics.

We received more than 80 wide-ranging responses from participants, most of whom gave the meeting high marks (71% rated it 8 or higher on a scale of 10).

As is true every year, when asked to say what they enjoyed most, participants gave equal weight at the top of the list to panels (25) and to the social dimension (24). The other most frequently cited favorites were plenary sessions (15), section-sponsored lectures and events (14), and the Fellows-sponsored opportunities for students (11). Participants reported that the location worked very well (16), and they appreciated the scheduling of free time (8).

As is also true every year, the most-cited problem was having too many sessions to choose between (15); if participants could change one thing, the most cited correction would be to reduce the number of concurrent panels (6).

The next most common complaint this year was that there were not enough programmed opportunities to meet (9); in particular, participants would like to have a closing social event (5).

Five survey respondents also wrote that they missed media and diamond sessions (there were 2 and 1, respectively), or that they would like to see a wider variety of presentation formats.

A half-dozen participants named the labor dispute as a chief problem with the meeting; however, 14 participants praised AFS leadership for its handling of the situation, and 4 expressed approval of the Board's decision to prefer union-approved protective language in future contracts.

A number of respondents noted that the meeting suffered from labor dispute-related disruptions: too many cancellations (4), too many events off-site (4), and a decline in attendance (4).

The survey of panel chairs collected information that helped us understand perceptions -- and misperceptions -- of attendance patterns, as well as data to test them. The comments of the 39 responding panel chairs suggest that AFS attendees believe that very few people turn out for the Saturday, 2:00 pm slot, or for 8:00 am sessions. As a matter of fact, though, panel attendance was actually higher in general on Saturday than Friday, and the Saturday 2 pm slot was better attended than any Friday time slot.

Moreover, though it can't be denied that 8:00 am sessions reported overall lower attendance than later sessions, most 8:00 am sessions attracted a reasonable number of audience members. Given the wide range of audience numbers for the meeting as a whole, the average session attendance was 22, but the most common audience size across the board was 15. Most of the early morning sessions attracted this typical audience. Six of the 39 reporting sessions attracted fewer than 10 audience members, and those sessions were evenly distributed throughout all the time slots; no time slot had more than one audience of fewer than 10 members.

Plans for the 2016 Annual Meeting

Next year's meeting will be a joint meeting with the International Society of Folk Narrative Research, which should bring roughly 150 more meeting attendees, mostly from Europe, and a significant number of additional panels on narrative topics. To accommodate the growth in the program, the meeting will add time slots by adding an additional conference day. General sessions will begin during the day on Wednesday, October 19, with the opening ceremonies that evening, and conclude as usual Saturday evening, October 22.

Please bear in mind that the audience will be increased by a larger share of non-native English speakers -- have mercy, and don't speed read your presentations! (Three survey respondents mentioned bad presentation style or excessive speed as a problem with the meeting.)

Given the planned increase in the number of presenters, it is unlikely that 2016 will be a year to achieve fewer concurrent session; in fact, there will almost certainly be more than 14 given the typical rate of submission to AFS meetings. Moreover, it isn't clear that the will of the membership is to cut the number of concurrent sessions: in the most recent membership survey (2011), 36% of respondents wanted the "size" of the meeting to stay the same, and 24% wanted it to increase; only 10% wanted it to decrease. In the next member survey, which will be conducted in 2016, we will ask members to be more specific about what they mean by "size": should we concentrate on the number of concurrent sessions, or of presenters, audience members, time slots, or days of the meeting?

AFS staff and the local planning committee will give consideration to the desire expressed in the survey for more social events; at minimum, we will be sure to schedule a closing cash bar in the meeting hotel after the final plenary lecture on Saturday.

The variety of presentation formats is determined by the proposals that are submitted; we encourage you to "be the change you wish to see," and submit alternative presentations for 2016; please contact Lorraine Walsh Cashman at if you would like to propose something other than a standard forum, paper, diamond or media session.

We have also been concerned about gaps in panels due to withdrawals (see Annual Meeting Policies on Cancellations and No Shows.) We intended to introduce a cancellation fee for the 2015 annual meeting, but deferred that decision until 2016 in light of the labor dispute. The new policy reads as follows:


Once a paper or session is submitted, it is expected that the author(s) will present at the conference if the proposal is accepted. Participation in the conference is competitive, and a cancelled presentation eliminates a spot that could have accommodated another scholar. As a courtesy to AFS members, conference presenters, and attendees, AFS strongly discourages presenters from canceling their participation in the conference after proposals have been accepted. Those who find that they can't attend the meeting are encouraged to find someone else to read their papers. Please notify AFS of any changes to the program as soon as possible.

Starting in 2016, the refund policy is as follows:

  • Program participants (chairs, presenters, discussants) may request a refund of meeting registration fees until August 31, but a $50 cancellation fee will be retained ($25 for students and low-income participants) if they must withdraw; after that, no refunds will be issued.
  • Registrants who are not named on the program may receive a full refund until August 31; after that, no refunds will be issued.
  • Additional penalties may be applied for presenters who withdraw after October 1.

Find all information concerning the 2016 AFS/ISFNR Joint Annual Meeting as it unfolds at

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