Virtual conferencing

This week (and last week, technically, if you count the pre-conference workshops), I’m attending SIGCSE, one of the annual conferences for Computer Science education. I go to SIGCSE most years — although, notably, 2020 was one of the years I skipped, the infamous year where the conference was canceled just before the opening keynote. I go to learn, of course, and to attend at least one affiliated event/workshop, but also, more importantly, to reconnect with friends and colleagues (and make new connections!) who also care deeply about teaching and learning in Computer Science.

(Out of curiosity, I went back and figured out how many SIGCSEs I’ve attended. My first was Dallas in 2011. I skipped 2012 because I was on adoptive parent leave. I made it to all the SIGCSEs from 2013-2019 — Denver, Atlanta, KC, Memphis, Seattle, Baltimore, and Minneapolis. So this is my 9th!)

I’ve attended a handful of virtual conferences during Pandemic Times, but SIGCSE is the first one that’s departed significantly from the “cram everything into the same time frame” model — perhaps because they’ve had sufficient lead time to reimagine it as a completely virtual conference. Events are spread out over 2 weeks, if you count the pre-conference workshops and affiliated events. A conference “day” lasts from noon – 8:45pm CT, with a nice break before the last session of the day built in. Everything is self-contained in a platform called Pathable, and while (of course, because we’re computer scientists) people are complaining about Pathable, I think on balance it’s pretty decent for all that it has to do.

The conference is not over yet, but I’ve already noted some pros and cons of attending a conference that’s been designed for a full virtual experience.

Pros

  • It fits the rhythm of my workday. This point is very time-zone dependent, but as someone in the Central US Time Zone, I’m conferencing in the latter half of my day. I can get the kids on the bus/settled into virtual school, get some deep work done in the morning, and join my family for dinner during the longer break before the last session of the day. And the last session ends right before the younger kid’s bedtime, so I can still say goodnight. Also, I don’t have to hunt down decent coffee. (Or wait for a break to grab a snack!)
  • New affordances = more control over my conference experience. Turns out, video opens up a lot of opportunities to reimagine how one conferences. Most sessions are recorded, so if I need a break or am called away for a kid or work “emergency”, I know I can go back and watch later. All of the talks in the paper sessions are already posted, which means the actual session can focus on Q&A and not rushing through slides. I’m co-chairing a paper session on the day this posts, and my co-chair and I have been able to collaborate on questions to help prod conversation if the audience is unexpectedly quiet. (Also? Watching video talks at 1.5 speed is a game changer!) SIGCSE’s playing around a bit with the medium, too, releasing “Morning Coffee” videos that highlight someone in the community (who, I think, might also be presenting that day?). And apparently someone has re-created the hallway track, although I have yet to check that out.
a computer monitor and a laptop showing a conference talk video and a Google Doc window.
Pre-watching talks and brainstorming questions via Google Docs with my co-chair. Not pictured: all the times I was interrupted to break up a fight between the kids; the loud piano playing in the background; cats wandering in and out of the room.
  • Conversations during presentations. I absolutely love the ability to converse (via chat) with other attendees during sessions. Much more socially acceptable than frantically whispering to your neighbor. It also makes asking a question in public less fraught.
  • Less exhausting (up to a point). Yes, being on video and online all day is its own form of exhausting, but I do appreciate that I’m not conferencing from first thing in the morning to well into the evening. And sleeping in my own bed at the end of a long day = priceless.

Cons

  • Less serendipity. I don’t run into people randomly in the hallways or in line for coffee, which means I’m not catching up with friends and colleagues (unless I message them in Pathable). I miss my people!!! In the past, some of the best sessions I’ve been to were unplanned — I ran into a friend and followed them to whatever session they were headed into, or met someone who mentioned a particular speaker was not to be missed, and followed their advice. I’d pull out a crocheting project while watching a presentation and end up striking up a conversation with random strangers who crochet or knit. That serendipity is missing now.
  • No opportunity to explore, or re-explore, a different city. I really do miss traveling and exploring new cities (or re-exploring cities I’ve visited in the past). I’ve done excellent long runs in Seattle, Atlanta, and Denver; unexpectedly discovered vegan restaurants in Memphis and KC; explored museums and bookstores in every city; wandered for miles just because; gotten lost. I mean, I could get lost in my own neighborhood, I guess, but it’s not the same.
  • A longer overall time commitment. Yes, it’s nice to have things spread out, but that means SIGCSE is a 2-week commitment this year. And while if I were physically at a conference I wouldn’t balk at attending a Friday night or Saturday session or three, it’s harder when you have to pull yourself away from family time to attend a keynote. (Although it did get me out of cooking Sunday dinner last weekend!)
Cat appearances are usually a pro, but cats who don’t honor personal space are definitely a con.

While I still vastly prefer the in-person conference experience (although will that be true post-pandemic? when will I truly feel comfortable in a crowd of strangers, indoors, again?), the virtual experience is … not bad. I’d love for us to find a way to keep some elements of the virtual experience — perhaps retaining video talk uploads and giving more time to Q&A during paper sessions, allowing avenues for virtual attendance for anyone who wants to or has to attend that way (and have the experience be equitably rich), and reimagining the “packed days” paradigm.

What have your virtual conference experiences been like? What’s worked better than you expected? What do you miss the most? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

CHI: A newcomer’s perspective

Last week I attended my very first CHI. CHI is the big ACM conference on human-computer interaction, and although my research is half in this area, I’d never attended, much less submitted a paper, before. But this year, our research progress aligned with the late-breaking work deadline, so we submitted it and it was accepted. So, off to “HCI Disneyland” it was for me!

It’s been a while since I’ve been to a new-to-me conference, as I alluded to in my previous post, so I wasn’t sure what to expect. In some ways, CHI was exactly what I expected, but in other ways, it was vastly different. So here are some of the highlights, lowlights, and lessons learned from my first CHI experience.

Cliques and shadow programs and lingo, oh my!

The biggest surprise? CHI is very, very cliquey. As someone new to CHI and who didn’t study HCI as part of my PhD, I felt very much like an outsider. I found it extremely difficult to strike up conversations with people I didn’t already know, unless I was introduced to them by someone I did know. CHI seemed very much to be about reuniting with who you know and reinforcing those ties, and less about forging new connections. Because of this, I am super grateful for the colleagues from other schools who saw me floundering and made sure to introduce me around and check in on me. If not for them, I might have been tempted to hide in my hotel room for more of the conference.

The second biggest surprise: the shadow program. I found it odd that there were so few things scheduled in the evenings…until someone clued me in to the concept of “CHI parties”. CHI has (early) receptions on two of the conference nights, but most of the post-session socializing exists in smaller parties sponsored by different organizations or collections of people. To be fair, CHI does now put these on their website, but I still found the idea odd. And again, I did not feel comfortable just showing up at a random place in the evening in an unfamiliar city, and then finding my way back to my hotel afterwards, so I skipped out on this aspect of the conference — and probably lost some valuable opportunities to make new connections.

Visuals are key

I guess it’s no surprise that at a conference concerned with designing tech for humans, the slides would be well-designed, too. (Interestingly, this did not always extend to the posters, which overall still seemed text-heavy, but perhaps not as much as at other CS conferences.) In the same vein, all of the talks I attended were interesting and clear. I’m not sure if I just got really lucky with my choices or if CHI talks are generally pretty solid, but it was a welcome change from talks at other conferences I’ve attended in the past.

I tried to be cognizant of the amount of text on my poster. Designing good posters is hard!

It’s also no surprise that a design-focused conference should be demo-heavy, and as a newbie this was the most fun and interesting part of the CHI experience. I didn’t try out as many things as I’d like due to the crowds, but it was fascinating walking around and seeing all the creative, tangible things other researchers were working on.

Things I did right

  • Attend an alt.chi session. The best way to describe alt.chi is that these are the papers that don’t neatly fit into the normal academic paper box. I saw 2 alt.chi presentations, one on deciding not to design, and one on lying to your devices, and both were fascinating. I wish I’d had room (or made room) in my schedule to see more.
  • Sign up for a lunch@CHI group. I signed up to eat lunch with several complete strangers on the first day of the conference. Finding people to eat lunch with at conferences is one of the most stressful parts of a conference for me, so I jumped at the chance to not have to think about this for one of the conference days. CHI matched people up and made reservations at nearby restaurants, so all I had to do was show up (and pay for my lunch). I wish more conferences I went to had this option!
  • Realize when I’d reached my limit. I presented my poster on Wednesday, during the 2 coffee breaks. After the first break, I realized that I needed to do some major recharging before the second break to engage with people on my research. So even though it was raining and even though there were a bunch of sessions/papers I wanted to see, I skipped out for a few hours to go mural hunting in City Centre. Bonus: I did a ton of walking and found a tiny vegan place for lunch…and returned to the conference refreshed and reinvigorated.

Newbie mistakes

  • Failure to pace myself. I failed to take any breaks on the first day, and did lunch@chi on top of that. There were just so many new things to see and do and learn! By halfway through the reception, I found myself wandering around like a zombie, looking for desserts to give my brain a quick sugar hit. I ended up leaving the reception early and crawling directly into bed as soon as I got back to my hotel room.
  • Not attending the Sunday night Newcomer’s Reception. In my defense, I’d spent the entire day wandering the city and was still somewhat jet lagged, so I skipped out on this. In retrospect, this probably would have been a gentler introduction to CHI.
  • Planning meetups in advance. I ended up running into people I knew serendipitously, but I also ran into people I did not expect to see. But if I’d sat down before the conference and sent out some targeted emails, I probably would have known that, say, one of our somewhat recent alums was there and schedule a coffee meet-up.
  • Plan out which posters to visit. The poster sessions were larger than I expected, and were crowded and noisy affairs. I’m sure I missed a lot of excellent posters as a result. In the future, I’ll be a bit more intentional about which posters to visit.
  • Not engaging with more demos. Really, this was just sheer laziness more than anything else, but I regret not trying out some things (like the VR swings, for instance).

Final thoughts

Despite some of the hiccups along the way, I am really glad I was able to attend CHI this year. Frankly, it’s been some time since I’ve attended a pure research conference (I’ve been on the GHC/Tapia/NCWIT/SIGCSE circuit primarily, lately), and it was fun to engage with ideas in this realm. I have several notebook pages filled with new ideas for projects, papers, and other fun things (and not enough time to pursue them all!), and several more pages filled with reflections on what I could be doing differently in my research and in my academic civic engagement work more generally. I did make a couple of connections that may very well bear fruit at some point. And, of course, it was nice to return to Glasgow and actually remember some of what I experienced this time.