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.