2020 Programming: Roundtable Discussions

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. Previously, we’ve taken a deep dive into papers and lectures and panels; later this week, we’ll review workshops/afternoon classes later this week. You can submit a proposal any time from March 16 to May 15.

Sirens roundtable discussions are moderator-led conversations with a participating audience of roughly 25 people. These presentations approximate college discussion sections, and because of this format, are best suited to topics where everyone in the audience is likely to have something to contribute. A discussion of the merits of various social media platforms for reading groups, a dialogue about effectively retold fairy tales, or a conversation about ideal books for introducing new readers to the fantasy genre could all be excellent roundtable topics.

Roundtable moderators lead the discussions through a series of questions and are responsible both for facilitating the conversation and keeping the audience on track. Moderators who wish to tackle an esoteric topic or convey their research, analysis, or viewpoint should strongly consider presenting a paper or lecture where their knowledge can shine, instead of a roundtable discussion—here, it’s essential that the audience not need an introduction to the topic.

Roundtable discussions may have only one presenter. Since the moderator is the facilitator in a roundtable discussion, we limit this presentation format to only one presenter.

Roundtables are always 50 minutes long. Presenters should plan enough questions to fill the entire time. As audience participation is the heart of this presentation format, presenters need not save time specifically for audience questions. Usually, ten solid questions and follow-ups will be more than enough for a 50-minute discussion.

Proposal requirements include a presenter biography (50–100 words), a presentation summary (50–100 words), and a detailed abstract (300–500 words). We will publish the biography 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 abstract is for the vetting board. It should explain your topic and approach to the vetting board and be far more in depth than your summary. Roundtable abstracts may be in the form of a series of at least ten questions (with appropriate follow-up questions), rather than a more traditional paragraph format, if the presenter prefers.

Room set-up includes tables and chairs arranged in a square or U-shape. As the rooms hosting roundtables are small, no audio-visual equipment will be provided. However, a small white board and an easel will be available.


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, 2–4 p.m. Eastern (11 a.m.–1 p.m. Pacific)
    Monday, May 4, 9–11 p.m. Eastern (6–8 p.m. Pacific)

  • Free Topics: All through 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 roundtable discussions from Sirens:

  • Can You Go Home Again?: Fantasy, Re-Reading, Childhood Favorites, and Nostalgia by Faye Bi: This roundtable will explore the transformative joy of re-reading an old favorite, as well as the flip side of discovering that a beloved book is no longer a favorite. With influence from Jo Walton’s and Laura Miller’s ideas on re-reading, we’ll delve into the books read long ago and see how time, successive reads, and reading companions change our relationships with them.

  • Female Game-Changers by Sherwood Smith: Let’s talk about heroines as catalysts in revolutions. Not all heroines are battle commanders, though we can take time to appreciate the ones who are. Many begin with little besides their wits and skills. Some have special gifts, some do not. Some are born to rank, others are outsiders in various ways. In this roundtable discussion, we will talk about the different ways heroines in genre literature bring about change.

  • Obligatory Horrors by Jen Michaels: Daughter, sister, girlfriend, mother, wife, companion, princess–murderer. Fairy tale stories have always had a dark side, but in a number of new story collections, such as Angela Slatter’s A Feast of Sorrows: Stories and Daniel Mallory Ortberg’s The Merry Spinster, a repeated commonality between protagonists in roles traditionally held by women in fairy tales is how choices and circumstances lead them to murder. In this roundtable discussion, we will examine how societal expectations and obligations are the true horrors in many of these stories and how the authors enable us to root for those who might have been portrayed as villains in traditional fairy tales.

  • Reinventing the Literary Canon—Why Don’t We Teach That? by Katie Passerotti: In high school English classes, students are required to read books considered classics within the literary canon. With few exceptions, these books are written by white, cis-het men. The adherence to this list is stifling today’s students. The world is changing and the current educational system no longer meets the needs of its students. This discussion will examine how the needs of students are evolving, what the purpose of English classes should be going forward, and ways to expand the curriculum to include more diverse books that better represent not only the student population, but the world students live in.

  • The Socioeconomics of Magic: Correlations Between Class Structure and Use of Magic in Fantasy Narratives by Emma Whitney: In the struggle for power that constitutes the plot of many fantasy novels, magic is often the primary tool. This use of magic generally confers a particular social status to the user. Frequently, especially in classic “epic” fantasy, this is an elevated status, but that is not always the case. In this roundtable we will discuss how magic is used to reinforce or break down social structure, and what this might say about how we view class distinctions.

  • There’s No I in Hero: A Discussion of Communities as Agents of Change by Jennifer Shimada: One of the most pervasive American myths is the idea of “rugged individualism”–that individual heroes can save the world or push their society toward progress. However, real, lasting change never comes from a single hero fighting on their own, or even from a small band of heroes working together. Real progress and change comes from movements and communities, with many people working together and separately over a long period of time. In this roundtable, we’ll discuss the problems with depending on individual heroes to save the day, and the ways in which fantasy stories can center movements and communities instead./p>

For more examples of past programming, visit our archive.

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