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Inside the APA: Secrets of the Pacific Division Revealed!

by Dominic McIver Lopes

In a few days I step down as secretary–treasurer of the APA’s Pacific Division, and I’ve been asked to write a blog post. But a reminiscence would be all wrong. I took on the job ten years ago ready to roll up my sleeves and do what it takes to extend the division’s track record of putting on intellectually and socially lively meetings. In the same spirit, now’s the time for an insider’s exposé.

I confess that the word “secrets” is bit of bait and switch. I’ve always been happy to share what I know with anyone who asks, and many have, but information never spreads far enough through emails and conversations.

Spreading the information would be a good thing, because the success of the Pacific Division’s meetings is not thanks to only one person, or even a few. The division is a co-op, run mostly by volunteers, dependent on the goodwill of everyone—especially you, if you’ve ever attended the meeting, or if you’re thinking of it.

So I asked around to find out what people wanted to know. What are some questions about how we operate that I could answer to raise the level of transparency and perhaps help things go even better in the future? I got three questions—and it turns out that the answers bring out some of the division’s core values.

Why doesn’t the program have more of philosophy subfield _____?

As I see it, the question is functionally equivalent to “why have a general philosophy conference at all?” Every year, dozens of smaller events concentrate the efforts of specialists working on a topic, with measurable and immediate impact. Who needs the APA when we have the PSA, the SPP, SPEP, the ASA, and all those summer workshops? Surely the answer must be that none of these give us a picture of the whole of the discipline and none promise fruitful exchanges between philosophers with different specializations. Don’t we, as a discipline, prize our breadth along with our depth? Don’t you want to present your work to more than the usual suspects? Supposing that we value intellectual diversity, the engineering problem is how to get it.

All three divisional meetings have two programs, one organized by the division, the other by affiliated groups. If you belong to a group of folks who share a philosophical interest, then give yourselves a name and affiliate with us. You get space, a listing in the proceedings, and, potentially, an audience.

The Pacific Division goes for bottom-up decision-making when it comes to the divisional program too. Each member of the program committee referees submissions in their areas of expertise and is also given carte blanche to organize one or two invited sessions. All they’re told is: don’t duplicate each other’s efforts, and try to push the boundaries. We rely entirely on individual best judgement.

If the division expects a diverse program committee to echo the diversity of the discipline, then how does the program committee get put together? The executive committee maintains a very long list of philosophers who have been approved for service on the program committee, paying meticulous attention to diversity of all kinds. Each year’s program chair selects new committee members for three-year terms. The chair’s goal is to ensure that there is enough expertise on the committee to referee submitted papers, where nobody referees more than fifteen or twenty papers. As a result, the pool of submissions directly determines the competence profile of the committee and indirectly shapes the invited program.

In response to inquiries about certain subfields, I’ve run the numbers, and it turns out that acceptance rates for those subfields are in line with the overall acceptance rate. Subfields with less space on the program are subfields where there are correspondingly fewer submissions.

Take home lesson: if you want more of philosophy subfield _____ on the divisional program, whip up your peers and send in papers. The division will respond by putting one of you on the committee to referee the papers and mount invited sessions. In time you will prime the pump.

How do you choose the meeting dates? Why are the meetings always at such expensive hotels, in such expensive cities?

The Pacific Division meeting has grown by a third in (paying) attendance since 2006, but taking accessibility seriously means grappling with real-world constraints. When it comes to site selection, we have three options:

Option one is to use hotels with conference spaces large enough to fit our program. The APA is unusual because we use many small rooms, rather than a few ballrooms. This kind of space is only found in a category of hotels that caters to business travelers and large conventions—Hiltons, Hyatts, Marriotts, Sheratons, and Westins. Through a competitive bidding process, we contract with the least expensive unionized properties that are located close to plenty of low-budget alternatives. Only five west coast cities have suitable hotels and are attractive to our members: Vancouver, Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and San Diego. (Member surveys rule out Las Vegas and Phoenix for now.)

Option two is to use convention centers in smaller cities like Oakland and Salt Lake City. Convention centers are empty boxes that need to be “dressed” with walls, carpeting, and electrical power points. The cost is high, the result is unpleasant, and the logistics are simply beyond what can be accomplished by volunteers.

Option three is to shrink the meeting. Smaller meetings have their attractions, but the division’s mission is to provide as much space as possible for philosophers to present and discuss their work. (That’s why we don’t have breaks, except for one hour at lunch. No room should go empty when we are turning away good work.)

As to dates, when we request bids from hotels, they only offer us Easter. Convention business is slow at this time and hotels are delighted to sell us what would otherwise be empty space. To compete with corporate business off Easter, we would need to commit to massively higher levels of spending. It’s not just a matter of tote bags, but all that comes with a corporate convention—champagne breakfasts, banquets, golf excursions…

More on Meeting Dates and Meeting Locations

Why don’t all the sessions have AV equipment set up?

The upside would be that nobody would have to remember to request AV. The downside would be that we would go from about five AV setups, which account for $10 in registration fees per attendee, to fifteen setups, which would mean a fee hike of $20. Meanwhile, most of that equipment would sit unused.

Being a laid-back west coast outfit, the Pacific Division likes to follow flexible practices and defer to individual discretion, and it tends to avoid voting in policies. Yet, being a tree-hugging west coast group, we do have a sustainability policy. We campaigned for electronic submissions and a meeting app, we offer green discounts to those who can manage without a printed program, and we don’t see the point of buying equipment knowing it won’t be used. We’d much rather reduce costs for students and the underemployed.

You are a member of the co-op. If you need AV, just ask (before the deadline)!

More on AV at the APA


One of the beauties of the APA is that it has three divisions that can, and do, operate slightly differently. To riff on Liz Anderson, we can have experiments in living together as a learned society. Who knows whether the Pacific Division always does what it does as best as it can be done? What matters is that people of goodwill contribute their ideas and their labor. Becko Copenhaver takes over as secretary-treasurer on July 1. She has some terrific ideas, and she’ll welcome yours and share them with the executive and program committees.

Dominic McIver Lopes teaches at the University of British Columbia and works mainly in aesthetics. His books include Understanding Pictures (OUP, 1996), Sight and Sensibility: Evaluating Pictures (OUP, 2005), A Philosophy of Computer Art (Routledge, 2009), Beyond Art (OUP, 2014), and Four Arts of Photography (Wiley-Blackwell, 2016). He serves on the editorial board of JAPA, the APA’s committee on lectures, publication, and research, and the executive committees of the Canadian Philosophical Association and the American Society for Aesthetics.


3 thoughts on “Inside the APA: Secrets of the Pacific Division Revealed!

  1. Dominic,

    Thanks for your service to the division. Two queries, out of curiosity:

    Is there a basis, aside from past practice, for the Pacific meeting to be on the West Coast? (I do recall a meeting Albuquerque about a decade ago.) I would expect that Denver and Salt Lake City would make for attractive settings, perhaps without some of the challenges mentioned in your post.
    Would it be possible to hold the meeting (at least in part) at a university? Attendees could stay in university housing (cheap!) and sessions could be held in classrooms. Not as swanky, I know, but if the meeting could be timed to coincide with the spring break at a large university in the region, is that a realistic option?

  2. Thanks for the post, and your willingness to answer all of our questions!

    I’m commenting because I was surprised that member surveys indicate folks don’t want a Vegas convention. If anyone reads this, I want to let you know that Vegas hotel rooms are extremely cheap, and the proximity of all the hotels to each other makes it easy to stay where you like and get around easily. During the week prices can be as low as $40 a night for a nice hotel in the center of the strip, and it is also much cheaper to fly there for most of us than it would be to fly to most of the other usual Pacific APA cities. It’s basically as if an entire city was set up just to host conventions like this. The big downside as far as I can see is that there are generally too many people at any given hotel to give the lobby that feel of philosophers are taking over and it is easy to run into people randomly. (I kind of like that at other APAs.) But to me the cost upsides outweigh that. I hope to convince you!

  3. Thanks for your comments, Michael.

    APA bylaws say the Pacific Division meeting needs to be “on or near the Pacific coast,” but we interpret that fairly broadly. Pacific would consider SLC but there are no hotels big enough at the moment. The Central Division has considered Denver (there are no specific borders between the divisions, and that’s one of the cities that could go either way), but the deals haven’t been good enough.

    Unfortunately, meeting on university campuses isn’t feasible for meetings as large and complex as ours.

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