2020 Programming: Panels

At Sirens, programming means the dozens of hours of papers, lectures, panels, roundtable discussions, workshops, and afternoon classes that make up the heart of Sirens. In our 2020 programming series, we’re doing a deeper dive on each presentation format; this information will both help potential presenters select the proper format for their concept and provide details on proposal requirements. We also suggest that potential presenters read how Sirens programming works and our tips, tricks, and frequently asked questions. Last week, we took a deep dive into papers and lectures; later this month, we’ll review roundtable discussions and workshops/afternoon classes. You can submit a proposal any time from March 16 to May 15.

At Sirens, panels are a group of 3–5 presenters discussing and debating a given topic.Unlike papers or lectures, where the primary purpose is to convey information to the audience, panels are all about robust dialogue among panelists. Panels are led by a moderator, who will guide the discussion and may ask questions of the panelists.

The strength of a panel depends on two things: the skill of the moderator and the inclusion of different perspectives on the panel.

  • Skill of the moderator: The moderator is responsible for eliciting thoughtful discussion among panelists, which means preparing questions in advance, ensuring that all panelists have a chance to speak, and keeping the conversation flowing. Moderators may also participate in the discussion if they wish, and may take questions from the audience as well, though the bulk of the time should be reserved for panelist discussion. For Sirens, the moderator must submit the primary panel proposal on behalf of the group.

  • Different perspectives: Because panels are designed for discussion and debate, a panel’s success generally depends on the inclusion of panelists with a variety of perspectives and opinions on the given topic. If your panelists all agree, or have similar perspectives, you’ll be conveying information rather than engaging in robust dialogue—and we strongly encourage you to consider a co-presented paper or lecture instead.

Panels are always 50 minutes long.While your panel may feature brief opening position statements by the panelists, you should use most of your time for your panel’s discussion and debate.

Panels should have three to five total panelists, including the moderator.Panels must have only one moderator. If your panel has only two panelists, you might consider co-presenting a paper or lecture, since you’ll likely be spending more time conveying information than debating your topic. You only have 50 minutes for your panel, so we cap panels at five participants to ensure that everyone gets to participate in a meaningful way. In the past, we have found that panelists on larger panels often come back to us with the feedback that the panelists didn’t have enough time to contribute individually, while audience feedback indicates that larger panels end up lacking the depth everyone hopes for.

Proposal requirements include presenter biographies (50–100 words), a presentation summary (50–100 words), a primary abstract (300–500 words), and supplemental abstracts (300–500 words).We will publish the biographies and the summary on our website and in our program book to help attendees navigate our programming and decide which presentations they’d like to attend.

The moderator must submit the initial proposal and should provide their own biography, the panel’s summary, and the primary abstract. Each additional panelist will provide their own biography and supplemental abstract.

The abstracts are for the vetting board. The primary abstract should explain your topic and approach and be far more in-depth than your summary. If the moderator prefers, the primary abstract may be a summary paragraph and a series of at least ten questions for the panelists (with appropriate follow-up questions) rather than a more traditional abstract. To provide the vetting board with insight as to the direction that the panel will take, each panelist must provide a supplemental abstract demonstrating the thoughtfulness and experience that they will bring to the panel, perhaps by answering a question or two from the question list. The vetting board will consider all abstracts (including any missing abstracts) in making its programming selections.

Moderators are responsible for ensuring that their panelists submit their confirmations and supplemental abstracts through our online system by May 15.This means that moderators should make sure that all panelists know what is required of them in advance!

Room set-up includes several microphones, a podium and table, projection equipment, and a small dry erase board and easel.We can accommodate a variety of presentation styles, and we ask that, as part of your proposal, you specify how you will use projection equipment so that we can prioritize it for presentations that particularly need it. Presenters are welcome to stand or sit, though we do require that you use the microphone, as it makes your presentation more accessible to the audience.


Looking for help or inspiration?

  • Join us for a programming chat! Anyone interested in submitting a proposal can stop by to brainstorm, find collaborators, and get one-on-one advice from our programming staff. They don’t make the selection decisions, but they’re full of thoughts that might be helpful! Chat will be held here at the following times:

    Sunday, March 22, 2–4pm Eastern (11am–1pm Pacific)
    Monday, May 4, 9–11pm Eastern (6–8pm Pacific)

  • Free Topics: Throughout March and April, we’ll be tweeting programming topics that are free for you to take, develop, and use in your programming proposal. You might take them as is, you might use them as inspiration, or you might find that they get your brain moving! Follow us on Twitter @sirens_con or check out #SirensBrainstorm.

  • More Questions: Email us! You can contact our programming team at (programming at


Examples of summaries of past panels from Sirens:

  • Poor Unfortunate Souls: Women, Magical Power, and the Idea of Evil; Nicole Brinkley, E.K. Johnston, Katherine Locke, Natalie C. Parker, and Shveta Thakrar: Traditionally, women with magic in fantasy media are presented as evil: a witch that steals away the innocence of a princess without power, or an evil queen set up against a pure-of-heart prince. But women with magical power being classically seen as evil is being subverted and challenged in today’s fantasy stories. This panel will discuss how and why women with magical power were traditionally seen as evil, and what happens when you overlap women with power with other marginalizations: queer women with magical power, women of color with magical power, and—heaven forbid—queer women of color with magical power, as well as favorite magical ladies who got the short end of the proverbial stick.

  • Conversations with Octavia Butler; K. Tempest Bradford, N. K. Jemisin, and Kiini Ibura Salaam: Octavia Butler’s novels have taken millions of readers on a fantastic journey—but what about the woman herself? This panel will give participants a glimpse into Octavia Butler, the individual. Through audio clips, we’ll hear from the woman who has brought the world fantastic vision, as Sirens guest of honor, novelist N.K. Jemisin, and two speculative fiction writers, Kiini Ibura Salaam and K. Tempest Bradford, engage in conversation with Butler’s ideas, visions, and brilliance.

  • Why We Write About War; Cass Morris, Tina LeCount Myers, Rook Riley, Cristal G. Thompson, and K.B. Wagers: Why do we write about war? With such a vast quantity of fantasy novels with war as either the primary focus or the landscape is there something particular that makes writers—even those without military backgrounds—come back to war stories again and again? Do we write about war because we are writing fantasy? Or do we write fantasy so that we can write about war? This panel will discuss not the reality of war, but the writing of it.

  • Are You Experienced: The Gendered Sex Gap in YA Fantasy; Kate Elliott, Mette Ivie Harrison, Robin LaFevers, Anna-Marie McLemore, and Rebecca Kim Wells: There has been a long tradition of heroines in young adult literature having minimal sexual experience. Unlike in male-centered stories, these heroines’ early sexual experiences are not celebrated as heroic accomplishments or rites of passage in a bildungsroman. What are the cultural, societal, and historical roots of this experience gap? Why is sexual inexperience still such an important component of a likeable heroine? Do heroines in fantasy have more latitude in closing that experience gap? This panel will discuss how issues of sexual experience play out in works of fantasy and how the genre reinforces or subverts them.

For more examples of past programming, visit our archive.


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