The Oregon Convention center, empty.

SIGCSE 2020 trip report: viral edition

Amy J. Ko
Amy J. Ko
Mar 12 · 5 min read

The annual SIGCSE Technical Symposium on Computer Science Education is a curious one. It’s the oldest ACM conference, held since 1970, and yet it is also one of ACM’s least research-oriented conferences, with more than a thousand attendees, mostly educators sharing their experiences in scholarly ways. I started attending since pivoting to computing education research, and have worked hard to carve out a bit of space for more more conventionally rigorous work on CS teaching and learning (you know, the kind rooted in skepticism, data, and theories, rather than experience).

I was particularly looking forward to this year’s conference. My lab was presenting a couple papers, I was speaking on a panel, I was celebrating the release of the Cambridge Handbook on Computing Education Research, and I had numerous meetings planned with past, present, and future collaborators to plan grants, start research, and improve our community. The diversity and scale of the conference is its greatest strength. That it was being held in my beloved hometown of Portland was a special treat! I was excited to share my city with my community, and adventure through it, one great meal and neighborhood at a time.

Then came the novel coronavirus.

The rumblings started a month ago. It was clear that the Wuhan outbreak was growing exponentially. It was clear it would make it to the U.S. eventually, but it was not clear when. Then the first reported case appeared in Seattle. Then other cities. Then my university went fully online. Then others. Ten days out from the conference, calls began for the SIGCSE board to cancel; tense discussion between safety and SIGCSE’s financial solvency ensued. My doctoral students and undergrads, 10 strong, slowly canceled their attendance.

Meanwhile, as my many collaborators canceled, they reached out to me. Can you chair this session? Can you present our paper? I can you take this person’s place on this panel? Still feeling confident that I would be safe to attend, and that my personal hygiene and 2-weeks of self-imposed social distancing have kept me from contracting the virus, I said yes to them all. By yesterday, I’d gone from having responsibilities in 2 sessions to having responsibilities in 7.

As late as the Monday before the conference, I was beginning to wonder: 1) would they cancel just before, 2) should I still go, 3) if I don’t go, how in the world will I cancel my participation in these 7 sessions, 4) will the return train be too packed to be safe? I eventually realized that, aside from the train to and from Portland, if I really didn’t feel safe at the conference, I could always hide in my hotel room and have a writing retreat. And so I departed.

Of course, as everyone now knows, it didn’t last long.

SIGCSE board meeting

The SIGCSE board was having a hybrid online and in-person meeting to connect with all of the relevant groups planning activities. I came for a quick 20 minute chat about ICER 2020 planning. After discussing the likely significant amount of decision making to do around the virus, we had a meaty discussion about the division of decision making power between ACM, the SIGCSE board, and the ICER organizers, and the need for some clarity about which things conference organizers can just do, versus which things need to be approved by the SIGCSE board or even ACM. It’s a complex thicket of norms and conventions that’s not really written down anywhere; that makes it very hard (and very slow) to plan. We brainstormed opportunities to write some of those things down to streamline our communication and decision-making. Go SIGCSE!

Wednesday dinner

I originally had a dinner planned with several collaborators focused on improving the experiences of computing education doctoral students. That dinner was canceled since everyone that was coming had canceled their trips. Instead, I headed off to Little Big Burger to get a tasty little gourmet burger and fries. But then I ran into Austin Corey Bart by the Motel 6 and he invited me to have dinner at an Irish Pub with several Virgina Tech students and faculty, and Michael Ball from Berkeley. We found a large table with elbow room to mitigate transmission, ate shepard’s pies, talked about Portland, online teaching, and big dreams of CS teachers in every K-12 school talking about the weaponization of algorithms. As we parted, I had a sense I might see them again for a while.


I woke up early to go to the speakers breakfast. But on my way out, Sarah Heckman, one of the program co-chairs, caught me, and told me they were just about to cancel it. Then I heard that the Oregon governor had banned events 250 and larger. And then SIGCSE was canceled.


What followed was a bit of chaos. I cleared my calendar. People started reaching out about meeting up for coffee. I changed my train to leave at noon. People on Twitter started sharing the news. A colleague with an undiagnosed illness blocked me on Twitter for some public health advice I was giving. A conference I was giving a keynote at canceled in May. Another gathering I was going to speak at was canceled in March. I went to Starbucks to grab some lunch to go for the train, taking care to use contactless payment. I had a grant planning video call with some new collaborators, and we struggled through some flimsy wifi. I told my wife I was headed home. I walked to the train station 30 minutes instead of taking light rail. I watched a hundred faces on the street amble, seemingly aimless and bewildered. I heard a woman on her cellphone crying to her boyfriend about her grandmother having a fever.

There’s a lot of content that won’t be shared, and if it is shared, it won’t be found. And that’s probably okay; conference presentations aren’t the only way to learn and workshops aren’t the only way to connect. They may be relatively efficient ways, but they aren’t the only ways. For now, we’ll all pause a bit, reorient, and find some new ways. Maybe they’ll even be better ways.

Meanwhile, find a cozy spot at home. Upgrade your broadband. Keep your hands clean and moisturized. Distance yourself socially, but pace yourself. It’s going to be a very bumpy month and a long recovery. Education, and scholarship about how to do it, will have to wait.

Bye Portland, it’ll be awhile.

Bits and Behavior

This is the blog for the Code & Cognition lab, directed by…

Amy J. Ko

Written by

Amy J. Ko

Associate Professor @uw_ischool , @uwcse . Parent, scientist, teacher, inventor, feminist. Obsessed with programming + learning + interaction. Trans; she/her.

Bits and Behavior

This is the blog for the Code & Cognition lab, directed by professor Amy J. Ko, Ph.D. at the University of Washington. Here we reflect on what software is, what effects it's having on the world, and our role as public intellectuals in help civilization make sense of code.

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