7 ways ACM CHI has changed for me.

This year was my 9th CHI (what?!!). Despite that I’m categorized as “early career”, my collection of badges somehow puts me in a bin of people who have been to far more CHIs than most. It also means that my CHI experience has changed over the years. While some of these are already being discussed in broader contexts (go fill out the CHI 2030 survey!), here are 7 unordered, loosely related thoughts and observations from CHI 2019.

1. There’s more public tension. I think it’s healthy.

A couple of years ago, I had a conversation with a colleague at CHI about the general civility in the field. At the time, we were comparing HCI to another science that seemed to be full of drama and personal attacks. While we were happy to be spared of that nonsense, there was a haunting suspicion that the lack of tension might underly a lack of critical reflection. It’s not that the ugly spots weren’t there, we just didn’t talk about them openly.

Well, that tension is rising to the surface now. There appears to be more internal criticism, more activism, and more calls for change at CHI. And yes, sometimes it’s painful. Sometimes it probably gets too personal. Sometimes we are probably too eager to assume nefarious motivations in other people. But at the same time, I think it’s shifting the center of gravity of the field towards a more critical reflection of our practice and products.

Just because it’s uncomfortable, doesn’t mean it’s bad.

2. I can’t believe so many people volunteer so much energy to put on this conference.

That being said, I think this shift has increased the emotional labor of people in service positions at CHI. I cannot believe how much work all of you do on top of your existing jobs.

How do you do it? No seriously, how?

Whether it’s Cliff Lampe endlessly responding on Facebook to a thousand posts that make me mumble “good luck solving that problem” or the chairs of CHI’s Late-Breaking work track who dealt with the subsequent chaos from an unexpected 25% (!!!) increase in submissions.

Those stories are everywhere at CHI.

And it’s not just the investment of time (which is crazy). Sometimes it’s the emotional work that comes with navigating a complex international conference that often leaves people on the outside looking in. Sometimes, our volunteers become the focal point of (valid!) frustrations with the community or the profession at large.

It’s a miracle we get people to volunteer for these positions. How do we stop them from burning out?

3. There’s more talk about work-life balance.

Speaking of healthy habits, it’s fantastic how many students are reflecting on their own work-life balance, not only in grad school but also as they head towards the job market. It’s not just them. I had a handful of colleagues this year tell me they pass on my own reflection to their students (wow!). Meanwhile, senior researchers like Geraldine Fitzpatrick and Elizabeth Churchill run podcasts and write blog posts about leading a healthy life.

I think we’ve increased the value of people in our field as people and not just researchers over the past couple of years. We still have work to do, but it’s encouraging.

4. I have no idea what research everyone is talking about because we all talk about different things.

When I was in graduate school, it seemed like I left every CHI with a theme. There was the CHI in which it seemed like crowdsourcing exploded onto the scene and we all talked about its potential. There was another in which social network analysis seemed to pop up everywhere, and we all marveled together at what could be inferred by these interactions (cue ominous, foreshadowing music).

Now, the answer to did you see the talk on… is almost always responded to with a no. This is partially because CHI has gotten bigger and partially because HCI seems to morph and grow into more areas too. Most of that growth is positive, but there is a communal experience at smaller conferences that simply doesn’t exist at CHI anymore. I miss it — both as an attendee and also as a presenter.

23 places to be during 1 time slot.

Is there a level of discourse that is lost in a community event that has become so fragmented? Is that being replicated somewhere else (smaller conferences, twitter)? If not, how do we bring that back?

5. I go to fewer paper sessions.

Early in graduate school, I used to marvel and joke that my advisor seemed to only go to talks when his feet were tired. This was my 9th CHI and I get it.

On the one hand, it’s amazing spending face-to-face time with so many people who inspire me and energize my work. But I also know I can’t sustain paper attention + conversation attention all day long (I don’t know how some of you do it). I need some time away from the chaos to recharge.

Papers get sacrificed more often than I’d like to admit. And if I’m being honest, it’s partially because I have fewer conversations surrounding the shared experience of seeing the same talk.

The good news is that the paper sessions I went to were very well attended (I was locked out of a number of rooms that were full), so this issue might be more personal in nature. But if it’s not, I increasingly fear that the prestige of our conference does not align with the same promise of attention that comes with other premiere venues. What can we do to remedy that?

6. People seem more interested in teaching impact.

I’m at a more teaching oriented institution, so admittedly, people tend to find me more often than others to talk about teaching… but I had a lot of conversations about teaching at CHI. Whether it was about the ethical CS modules I’ve been developing or the HCI course I run, people seem to be investing in teaching more than I remember.

Many of us are researchers because we’re interested in impacting the world in one way or another. But there are many forms of impact. I find it encouraging to see non-research impact expressed in our prestigious venues. Is this something worth amplifying?

7. We’re bad at reaching students early in our pipeline. This is bad for our field.

It is really hard for students other than funded, presenting graduate students to attend CS conferences. A direct consequence of Computer Science’s conference prestige model is that it introduces barriers other sciences don’t have.

I’m working on a full post that explores this topic more, but the tl:dr is this:

  • The prestige model of CHI publications has made even low-barrier entry extremely competitive — filled with mature research from seasoned researchers (look at how competitive our Late-Breaking work track is)
  • The lack of these low-barrier participation points at CHI means fewer students from outside the dominant HCI pipelines (large, well-known universities).
  • HCI is still a young field in CS. We are missing an extraordinary number of students are small colleges/universities without significant HCI faculty presence (I am the only HCI faculty at my institution). Even as HCI grows, I’d argue our pipeline is bad.
  • This is bad for our early-career faculty. At the same time, our brilliant, early-career faculty are having a miserable time recruiting Ph.D. students. This is partially because of industry forces, but partially because not enough undergrads are exposed to HCI.

I wouldn’t blame you if you argued that perhaps this isn’t CHI’s role, and that perhaps we should explore other ways to solve this problem. That’s fine, but I also want to point out that it leaves us without a valuable point of engagement that many of our science colleagues rely on.

As a prof at an undergrad institution, I envy my non-CS colleagues who bring teams of undergraduates to their conferences. They all present posters because posters are supposed to be low-barrier… and they are.

Their presentations unlock university funding mechanisms that aren’t accessible to the rejected papers of my students. Their presentations assign them value in a conferences that can be otherwise overwhelming. They leave the conference with renewed sense of purpose and accomplishments in their field. And I can’t help but watch and think — why can’t I do that more for my students? (I have some half-baked ideas here… if you’re interested, let’s chat!)

I am an Assistant Professor of Computer Science at Bucknell University, a liberal arts university in central Pennsylvania. You can learn more about me on my website or on Twitter.