Talking about CARS and Proposals

by Lisa Meloncon

The impetus for this post is to only have to write something once. Taking two steps back…the Symposium for the Rhetoric of Health and Medicine 2017 generated a large number of proposals. A pretty sizeable subset of those proposals were submitted by graduate students. This makes my heart get all warm and fuzzy because it means we have a strong next generation of RHM scholars. As I usually do, I offered to give them their feedback, but as I was beginning to copy and paste the feedback from the reviewers and prepared to add additional information, I heard my good friend, T. Kenny Fountain’s voice in my head.

See Kenny and I have talked a lot about proposal writing and writing in general. He’s one of my go to resources for all sorts of things (not to mention he’s just an awesome–and funny–human being), and we have often talked about professional development issues around writing.

So when I was reading the reviews for the Symposium proposals, I kept going back to those conversations and realized that many of the proposals (and not just from the graduate students) suffered from a common proposal problem. They didn’t do what John Swales calls CARS—creating a research space, which he talks about in Chapter 8 of Academic writing for graduate students: Essential skills and strategies. 3rd Edition. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.

And once you start to understand Swales CARS in relation to your specific area in the larger field, it makes writing proposals for conferences (and getting started on journal manuscripts) so much easier. You can find a short summary of it at the UMass Amherst Writing Center.

The TL;DR version:

  • Establish territory
  • Establish a niche
  • Occupy the niche

It’s this last one—occupy—that was a major obstacle in most of the proposals. There wasn’t a clear occupation, particularly the proposal lacked a tentative answer to the “so what?” question. I get it that as graduate students or when working on a new project that you may not know really what the project is doing or what the contribution or implications may be. But, surely, you’ve read enough and designed your study thoroughly enough that you have a tentative answer to what your research question or problem will do for the field.

Reviewers really like to see the occupation, the move toward telling folks what’s important about your work.  Otherwise, reviewers are left wondering if the presentation will provide any value to participants. See, that’s a big key you have to remember. Reviewers and program chairs have a responsibility to try and provide the best program possible. Proposals are what we have to work with so it’s important as the writer of that proposal to hit all three parts of the CARS model.

(A small disclaimer: is CARS perfect? No. Absolutely, no. But if you use it, you’ll get a helluva lot closer to having something that reviewers can understand and act on.)

When you’re establishing your territory and your niche, it’s also VERY IMPORTANT to be clear about what your actual research question is or what problem you’re trying to solve. Folks need to know what’s guiding the actual research process.

So here are a couple of comments from reviewers. These—and variations of them—were written on almost every graduate student proposal (and many of the not graduate student proposals that were not accepted):

 This is an interesting idea, but the bulk of the proposal focuses on providing the background for the case with very scant discussion of what actual research related to the case will entail…the majority of the content needs to focus on the research questions to be address (which is not explicitly stated), describing eh method used, and the contribution/significance of this research in relation to RHM, which is somewhat implied but not central to this entry.

The details of the proposal are not grounded in the research in the field, and the exact nature of the approach (i.e. why certain things are bing done/proposed to be done) is ambiguous and unsupported….one cannot simply say “rhetorical analysis” and assume the reviewer knows what will be done (i.e., how the actual research and analysis will be conducted).

Keep in mind that every conference has a reviewer pool that has senior and mid-career scholars in it. That means that the reviewers can in some ways figure out what it is you’re trying to do. BUT, when your proposal is being rated against other proposals, the ones where the reviewer has to “figure it out” will surely be rated lower than the others.

It’s your job as the writer/author of the proposal to make it clear as to what you’re doing. This is where something like CARS can really come in handy. It can help you get started and also encourage you to ask critical questions of the proposal once you have it drafted.

What makes the work of organizing something like the Symposium worthwhile is being able to get an insiders view to all the great projects in process. I hope this helps y’all the next time you go to write a proposal (or start an outline of a journal article or book chapter).

Happy summer writing!




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