From Abby Kaplan:
I’d like to solicit thoughts about the representation of phonology at general linguistics conferences. (I’m thinking particularly of major regional conferences such as WCCFL and NELS.) As I’m sure we’re all aware, the phonology talks are often substantially outnumbered by syntax talks – sometimes so much so that a phonologist may have only a couple of sessions to attend.
This topic has been on my mind lately because my institution hosted WCCFL 34, so I’ve had a front-row seat to some of the raw numbers. This year, there were 157 submissions in syntax and 23 in phonology (plus 2 in both); the composition of the final program reflected this trend. [NB: this is not an official post on behalf of the WCCFL organizing committee, although all the committee members have seen it.]
The situation isn’t new, of course, and I can imagine a few reasons for it. One is simple demographics: there seem to be more syntacticians than phonologists (as suggested by the data here and in related posts). Another is the existence of excellent phonology-specific conferences (mfm, LabPhon, AMP, NAPhC, etc.), which may be siphoning off work that otherwise would have gone to a general conference. I also don’t mean to suggest that the situation is dire. The difference may be more pronounced at some conferences than others; for example, my impression from the last few years’ programs is that there’s proportionally more phonology at CLS and BLS than at WCCFL and NELS. And I certainly saw excellent phonology research at this year’s WCCFL.
I have no problem with being in a smaller subfield; I’m not arguing that we should try to catch up with the syntacticians. And I know that the situation isn’t unique to phonology. But I’d like to hear other people’s thoughts about what this means for general conferences. What happens when the numbers get so small that serious questions arise about the value of a particular conference for phonologists? Is it worth making a special effort to submit to conferences like WCCFL in order to sustain critical mass there? On the one hand, I can see the value in working to maintain a phonology presence at conferences that are supposed to represent the field pretty broadly. But on the other hand, if you want to get the best possible feedback on your work and see what other phonologists are doing, then submitting to a conference that’s light on phonology, just for symbolic reasons, may not do you the most good.