Walk a mile in my shoes

My busiest summer ever is about to end, which has me thinking about one of the tasks that took a large chunk of my time. 2014 is the year that I’m serving as program co-chair of the SIGITE/RIIT conference, as a warm-up for co-hosting the conference in Chicago in 2015. I knew it would be a lot of work, but some aspects of it took more time than I expected. We didn’t recruit enough reviewers so that my fellow co-chair and I ended up doing an absurd number of reviews. We added meta reviewing this year, which pushed a lot of the deadlines to their limit and complicated matters. And the conference submission system was fussier than I expected. While I got through the experience, it was bumpy, which I suppose every program chair ever would probably also say.

What strikes me looking back, since the tasks for 2014 are almost done, is that I learned a lot about what goes into conference organization. Someone justifiably called putting together the program as “sausage making,” something I can’t disagree with. Although it’s not surprising, I didn’t realize that faculty are just as bad about deadlines as students. All people procrastinate, but when you’re caught between the publisher and the authors it’s even more frustrating than when it’s just between you and the students. Trying to organize coherent sessions once you’ve picked the papers can be a challenge, but accepting a paper just because it plays well with other submissions doesn’t seem like a good solution either. You don’t make friends when you reject papers, regardless of what the reviewers have to say about the submission. Yes, you have to keep the acceptance rate low, but that isn’t something you should say to authors because it’s no comfort at all. Being a program chair after the notifications are out is not a way to feel popular.

The experience has put my complaints about conferences into perspective. Yes, I did try to do things that would make the experience better for authors and reviewers, but some things are just an unhappy part of the process. It has given me a lot more sympathy for anyone who serves as program chair, and I’m hopeful that it means I’ll be less grumpy about future conferences I attend. In some ways it reminds me of my short-lived job as a cashier at McDonald’s. That job was stressful and customers were awful, and since the day I quit that job nearly 30 years ago I have done my absolute best to be polite and civil with restaurant workers no matter how incompetent they may seem. Learning the same lesson for my adult career seems well worth the many hours I spent this summer.

Confession: I like research meetings

I have a confession to make that will shock anyone who knows me even slightly: I like research meetings. Why is this shocking? Because meetings are the thing I hate most about my job, even above grading. In the vast majority of cases having a meeting feels like punishment to me: I have to come sit in a small room with a bunch of people who are typically there because they are trying to get me to do some work. As a result I lose one or more hours of my life (plus commute time) at the same time as I gain yet more work.

So what’s different about research meetings? To start with, a large portion of the people I’m having the meeting with are usually in a location (southern Illinois, New York, Finland) that makes an in-person meeting difficult, so typically everyone is pleased with the idea of a virtual meeting. This automatically means I can not commute, wear yesterday’s clothes, not shower, etc. without offending anyone (other than my cats). Being a research meeting, we are also talking about one of my favorite aspects of my job which moderates the whole having-a-meeting thing. But, most importantly, the people I’ve been lucky enough to work on research projects with are just loads of fun. They’re silly, funny, and irreverent, sometimes all at the same time. If we did live closer (or for those who are local, if we had more time), I would want to have dinner with them or hang out at a bar and have a beer or glass of wine. Having a meeting means I get to spend some time with them, and that’s a reward not a punishment.

Gender and our inner five year olds

It’s been a crazy summer for me. Between June 10th and August 9th I never spent more than two weeks in a row in Chicago, and the majority of those trips were for work. But one of the most rewarding experiences I had was at the ITiCSE conference, where I participated in my first working group. My fellow working group members were intelligent, hard working, and a lot of fun, and it was absolutely worth the time away from home to start what I hope will be a longer-lasting collaboration with them.

The topic of our working group was computational thinking in the elementary and middle school curriculum, something I hadn’t explored previously. Because of the targeted grades for our work, the letters “K-9″ appeared in the working group title. At one point our working group leader contacted me about the title, asking if I felt that K-9 conjured up any associations other than the lower grades. I admitted that once she mentioned it I could see the issue, but that I felt it was clear enough from the context. She took my word for it, since English isn’t her native language, and we kept the title.

It was only once I got to the conference that I understood why she was concerned. More than one person mentioned dogs when we were discussing our work, which was annoying to say the least. I was eventually reminded of the behavior I used to see in my daughter’s classmates, where one or two children find the most annoying thing they can mention about something and then bring it up over and over, stifling giggles along the way. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to tell them to restrain their inner five year old, but I plan to the next time someone mentions it.

Reflection after the fact has led me to a bigger question. Two pieces of information are relevant: (1) All of the people struggling with their inner five year old were male. (2) A majority of our working group members were female. Now I don’t believe that the people mentioning the title were targeting us because so many of us are women. I know all the men involved, and I don’t think that any of them have more gender bias than anyone else. But the behavior of mentioning something annoying over and over is something that disproportionately targets children who can be singled out for some reason: their hair, clothes, name, behavior, whatever is different from everyone else. And women are a small minority in computing. So I have to wonder how often it is that women end up being on the receiving end for these things, simply because they do stand out.

A benefit to stubbornness

I just got back from the 2014 International Conference on Frontiers in Education: Computer Science and Computer Engineering (FECS) held in Las Vegas every year. I’ve previously written about my mixed feelings toward the conference, particularly with respect to the different culture from the ACM conferences. This year I concluded that their approach to organization just makes it too hard to meet people, especially since the breaks this year were very poorly attended. I’m not sure I’ll be going back to the conference.

But I have to say that the conversation inspired by the second of my talks, entitled “Building a Linked-Courses Learning Community for Introductory Development Majors,” was a high point of the conference. There was a miscommunication on the part of the conference organizers so that on the last day of the conference the program posted didn’t list my talk. I made a big fuss, and they responded nicely making sure that it got changed. As it turns out, I traded with another speaker so that there were plenty of people in attendance when I spoke. One of the people attending the talk was one of the organizers, and he asked a lot of questions afterward about the broadening participation aspects of the project. It surprised me a bit that he, and the rest of the audience, knew little about the literature, but I was happy to discuss it.

One of the things I discussed was girls’ attitude toward failure, which is highlighted in a recent CNN opinion piece provocatively titled “Why Do Women Fail”. Reading the article on CNN and recalling the conversation I had with the organizer and other members of the audience reminds me that I am gifted (cursed?) with a large stubborn streak. I only minored in computer science in college, and my computer science classes were my hardest and earned me the lowest grades. But I didn’t hesitate for a minute to go to graduate school in CS rather than math because I thought it was more fun. I’m sure that the same phenomenon was at work when I learned to climb despite being desperately afraid of heights. The things I find hardest also inspire me to push myself as I stubbornly refuse to give in to early failure. Of course, it also makes me nearly impossible to deal with at times, as the people closest to me know too well.

Give me flexibility or give me death

The middle of July has rolled around, which means it’s finally starting to feel like summer for me. Yes, I have a lot more work to do this year than during previous summers, including multiple conference presentations, conference organization, and work on at least four research projects, but I’m also doing things like blowing off an afternoon to watch the World Cup. A couple of things have recently reminded me how much I prize the flexibility I have in the summer.

First, I had a meeting with someone from the company where I have my retirement accounts. They have wealth management services, which is as near as I can tell is a way of checking that you’re not delusional about your retirement saving plan, and I finally made the time to schedule a meeting. During the meeting she asked me if I consulted and she also asked if I taught during the summer. The answer to both is a clear no, mostly because I have no interest in burning valuable summer hours on things other than research and important service projects. She was sympathetic, although I suspect that was mostly her doing her job of being charming.

Then yesterday I had a meeting that couldn’t be made virtual, so I had to head downtown. I was so resistant to this. The only way I found to make it tolerable was to bring my daughter, who has a gift for turning ordinary experiences into fun adventures. Without her I would have spent the entire time being resentful of the fact that I was commuting or having to be in the office, which is a huge overreaction to a commitment that was in total four hours long. That experience was yet another sign to me that having the ability to decide when and where I do my summer work is the absolute biggest benefit of my job. I’m also reasonably sure that it means I will never (ever) take an administrative position.

Thanks for doing the right thing

As anyone who stands still long enough to hear knows, I’m serving as a program co-chair for SIGITE/RIIT 2014 this year. While it’s a ton of work, it’s been a great experience so far. Seeing the entirety of submissions for two conferences gives me a lot more perspective on how conference programs are put together and on the type of research that’s being done in IT and IT education. I’m glad I volunteered to do it.

Of course there are aggravating things too, as anyone who’s helped with conference organization knows, and my latest annoyance is reviewing. Anyone who submits to conferences has their favorite story about the horrible and/or contradictory reviews they’ve gotten, but my current issue isn’t even that. I don’t think anyone but a member of a program committee knows how many people simply don’t do their reviews. It’s such a known problem that almost all conferences have a pool of emergency reviewers to handle the spillover from the slackers. But this year we’re adding meta-reviewing to the conferences, so many of the people we would have used for emergency reviews are already signed up to do that. As a result we as the program co-chairs are having to do an almost absurd number of reviews, which would have only been worse if the SIG chair hadn’t sacrificed part of his vacation to help us out. I think I’ll volunteer to recruit reviewers for the conferences next year to make sure the next program chair has an easier time of it.

But the biggest thing I’m taking away from the experience is a sense of gratitude for all those people who do the right thing when it comes to the small things in our jobs. I have a new appreciation for people who sign up to help with conference reviewing, ┬áthe reviewers who complete their work on time, and even for the colleagues who answer their email in a timely fashion. The small things are easy to not take seriously, but it makes my life (and many other peoples’ lives) easier when someone does. So thanks to all of you who do the right thing. I hope it helps to know that someone is paying attention.

Disagree with me

I returned from ITiCSE 2014 last week, but this is the first chance I’ve had to catch my breath. Jet lag combined with a nasty allergic reaction and piles of work that greeted me when I landed have conspired to keep me from thinking much about the conference. But my allergy is calming down and I’ve adjusted to the time change, so I have space to think about the conference a bit.

I had two main things to do at the conference. The first was participate in a working group, which I had never done before. The group I chose was the one on computational thinking in the K-9 curriculum, and my group was fantastic. We worked together well, and while our report still needs some edits I think we’ll have something nice to send to the reviewers by the end of this month. It was a good stretch for me to think about CT in the context of elementary education, and I’m hopeful that we’ll continue to collaborate even after our report is done and published.

The other task at the conference was a panel. The topic was motivation and programming, and my fellow panelists were everything I could have hoped for. I had never met the third panelist until it was time to present, but the second panelist chose (him) well and I think we gave a cohesive and thought-provoking presentation. I say this in no small part because the discussion after our panel was quite lively, stopping only when I called it because it was time for lunch. A good number of the comments afterward indicated that the person speaking disagreed in some way with what we (ok, mostly me) had to say, but that was fine. As I told people afterward who asked about the panel, I would rather have people disagree with me vocally than stay quiet. So I deem the panel to have been quite successful.

Thinking about my reaction to the discussion after the panel made me realize that I’ve come a long way in my response to disagreement. It used to be that I shied away from arguments and conflict, but increasingly I’m finding that I enjoy it as long as the person who is disagreeing with me has interesting things to say and keeps it civil. In fact, one of my new collaborators this past academic year is most notable for his tendency to constantly disagree with me, and I find that I absolutely love it. It keeps me thinking and interested, and I think I learn a lot more than if he were agreeing with me all the time. That I would learn to embrace disagreement the way I have is something my younger self would have never predicted.

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