How I spent my time at SIGCSE 2016

Each year in March, the Special Interest Group on Computer Science Education (SIGCSE) hosts the Annual Technical Symposium on Computer Science Education, SIGCSE for short. SIGCSE is a medium-sized conference; the final registration count for SIGCSE 2016 was 1243. It’s usually in a medium sized city big enough to have a convention center, but not too expensive for the high school and community college teachers who often don’t have institutional support to attend. This year it was in Memphis. Don’t ask me about Memphis: As usual, I didn’t see much beyond the convention center.

My objective for SIGCSE 2015 was to recruit candidates for visiting and tenure track positions—a venture at which I was ultimately successful (hi, John!) My objective for this year was to reconnect and renew my soul. I think I succeeded at both. I’m tired, but satisfied. And (thank goodness) it is only one more week until spring break.

SIGCSE 2016 was also unusually thought provoking. In more than one session, I thought, “I should blog about this.” Look for more from me over the next few weeks.

This post is going to be a brain dump: I’ll document how I spent my time at the conference. Please don’t be offended if I leave you out; this is all retrospective. There are lots of people who I remember talking with, but not exactly when.


12:00 midnight. Arrived Downtown Memphis Sheraton after a mostly uneventful trip. Checked into my room. Unpacked, showered, and went to bed.

6:30 a.m. Awake with the sun, 15 minutes before my alarm.

7:05 a.m. Downstairs to the lobby. Right away I run into John Glick (University of San Diego), who interviewed me when I was on the job market in 2005. Immediately thereafter I’m greeted by Richard Ladner (UW), who helps me find the conference center (across the street) and the registration desk (in the lobby). I get my badge even though registration is not officially open yet; in trade I tell Cary Laxer where the speakers’ breakfast is.

7:15 a.m. I arrive at the speakers’ breakfast and sit next to my former colleague, Sam Rebelsky, with whom I have a panel at 10:45. The other panelists, Christine Shannon (Centre College) and Jim Kiper (Miami University), arrive. I finally get to meet them for the first time in person. I pass my laptop around so that Jim and Christine can make some final additions to their slides.

8:30 a.m. Opening plenary. The usual housekeeping. I learn SIGCSE 2017 will be in Seattle! A thought-provoking talk by John Sweller (University of New South Wales) on “Cognitive Load Theory and Computer Science Education.” More on this in a later post.

10:00 a.m. Coffee break in the exhibit hall. I realize I have reached the SIGCSE event horizon: There are more people I want to talk with than there is time at the conference.

10:30 a.m. I look at my watch and dash to the room downstairs where the panel will be held, which is in the farthest corner of the conference center. Christine is already there.

10:45 a.m. The room is too big for the audience, but there is an audience. I recognize a lot of people, but not everyone. We begin as soon as Jim arrives. I introduce the panel. We decide not to take questions on Twitter (that was optimistic!) but to take 1-2 questions from the audience after each panelist statement. We each give our statements in about 10-12 minutes, leaving plenty of time for a lively Q&A session at the end.

11:55 a.m. No more questions. We conclude the panel. My duty for this conference is done.

12:00 p.m. Raghu Ramanujan (Davidson College), Kim Bruce (Pomona College), and Bruce Maxwell (Colby College) meet me for a program-builders’ lunch. We wander up Main Street and find a cafe. We compare notes. Most useful advice: One step at a time. Most surprising advice: Use standing-height desks in teaching labs to avoid looming over students.

2:05 p.m. I leave the paper session on “Engagement and Diversity” for the session next door on “Pair Programming,” which also has a lot to say about engagement and diversity.

3:00 p.m. Coffee break. I talk with lots of people, including Amy Csizmar Dalal (Carleton), who has taken over LACAFI sponsorship of GHC and Tapia. Over the coffee line, I meet one of our Skype interviewees who has accepted another position. We chat a bit. I observe that I am already losing my voice on the first day of the conference, a personal record. (Like spring in Walla Walla, my spring allergies started early this year.) Perhaps unwisely, I decide to skip the late afternoon session to talk with more people in the exhibit hall.

5:00 p.m. I arrive for the Liberal Arts CS (LACS) meeting. Rich Wicentowski (Swarthmore) and I are the first ones there. The purpose of this meeting is to set the agenda for the summer meeting, which Andrea Danyluk will host at Williams College in June. I ask for a session on senior assessments, which Andrea adds to the agenda. I am volunteered to host LACS 2017.

5:35 p.m. The LACS meeting breaks up. I arrive late to the session on “Mentoring Student Teaching Assistants”, which I had told Peter-Michael Osera (Grinnell) I would attend. I join the small group discussing how to start a new mentoring program. The group fissions when we realize the three of us at small schools have quite different issues from the other two at large schools. The lessons we share with the group: Know what function you want TAs to serve; start small and build up; make space for TAs to reflect together.

6:20 p.m. I wisely decide to skip the second flight of BoF sessions to answer email and rest my voice in my hotel room.

7:35 p.m. I arrive at the conference reception, which is in a noisy cavernous room. I learn that Andy Danner (Swarthmore), who considered visiting Whitman during his sabbatical, decided to get married instead. I spend quite a while talking with Jessica Wu (visiting at HMC), who I first met at GHC in October.

9:30 p.m. First ever meeting of the SIGCSE Liberal Arts Committee. I am surprised by the formality of the meeting room, as I had expected a continuation of the reception. (Without beer? I should have known better.) Doug Baldwin calls the meeting to order. We all introduce ourselves. He asks what the committee should work on. People share ideas that range from finding an inclusive definition of “liberal arts” to raising awareness among grad students of liberal arts careers (one of my personal hobby horses).

10:30 p.m. I’m exhausted and cranky, even though it’s only 8:30 Pacific Time. To my room and to bed.


6:30 a.m. Awake with the sun again.

7:05 a.m. I meet Sam Rebelsky, my former colleague at Grinnell, for breakfast at the hotel restaurant. We share news. For him, the spring semester has been easier than the fall; for me it has been harder. I learn about his son’s college search. We are seated near the entrance and Valerie Barr (Union College) sits down to chat with us for a while; I had gotten to know Valerie when we both participated in Whitman’s Symposium on Computer Science in June 2014.

8:30 a.m. Plenary session: award winner Jan Cuny. I sit next to Ursula Wolz (Noyce Visiting Professor at Grinnell), who is sitting next to my former colleague Henry Walker. We comment on the presentation, annoying the people in front of us. We decide we have a lot to talk about.

10:00 a.m. I’m late to meet Paul Tymann at the NSF booth to discuss plans for nominating Henry for ACM Fellow. I look over and realize he is also still in the plenary session room. After agreeing to breakfast with Ursula on Saturday, I walk over to the exhibit hall with Paul. We meet Doug Baldwin there and develop a plan for rounding out the slate of endorsers for Henry’s nomination.

10:20 a.m. Our business is efficiently done. Chatting with Tammy VanDeGrift (U. Portland), we agree we should reprise our 2006 paper “The Journey to a Teaching-Oriented Career” now that we have both chaired search committees.

10:30 a.m. I am starting to get tired of being asked how the program-building is going. My answer: It’s a hell of a lot of work. But teaching two courses that are both new to me and to the institution, because they are the right courses for Whitman right now, is a lot more work than any of the administrative business. I’m going to have a lot of empathy for our new hires this fall. Melissa O’Neill (HMC), who will be next chair of CS, asks me (!) for advice. My answers: (1) delegate and (2) find someone to ask questions about how administrative things work.

10:42 a.m. The crowd thins. I catch Ruth Anderson (UW) as she is getting coffee before leaving for the next session. I ask where she’s going. She says something like “to see the Stu-Colleen smackdown.” That sounds entertaining, so I decide to join her. The actual title of the panel is “Why Don’t Some CS0 Students Succeed? How Important are Background, Experience, Culture, Aptitude, Habits and Attitude?” I am not disappointed. More on this in a later post.

12:00 noon. Meet my former colleague Henry Walker at the registration desk. Walk down Main Street and end up having a rather nice lunch at Felicia-Suzanne’s. We catch up. He asks me how the house building is going. It’s refreshing to be asked a personal question after so many have asked how the program building is going. Henry recounts how he and Herb Dersheim did an external review of computer science at St. Olaf, which resulted in a 19-point list of recommendations that Dick Brown took to his administration and checked off one by own. (I am reminded of the myth of Martin Luther nailing his Ninety-Five Theses to the church door.) Henry suggests I ask Dick for that list as I might also find it useful.

1:30 p.m. I stop by my room to take some pseudephedrine in hope of stopping the post-nasal drip.

1:40 p.m. Run into Brian Railing, who I met two years ago in Atlanta. We chat about his new position at CMU. I head to the exhibit hall to meet Darakhshan Mir (Bucknell), but she’s not there yet, so I look around. It’s very quiet. I stop by the CS Teaching Tips to collect Colleen Lewis’s handouts, and she recruits me to “host” the annual Harvey Mudd College dinner that evening.

1:50 p.m. Darakhshan arrives. We sit down at a table behind the research posters and settle in for a long chat about our new positions. I am surprised to learn we share many challenges around teaching intro CS and building community for computer science students.

2:03 p.m. I get a text message that I think is from my former colleague Jerod Weinman, who I agreed to meet this afternoon. I reply with my location.

3:00-ish The candidate who turned down Whitman’s offer turns up. We have a good heart-to-heart conversation and agree we are still friends. The conversation expands as we are joined by Sam Rebelsky and several others. I discover the text I received earlier was not from Jerod but from the candidate, so I actually do text Jerod to ask when and where we should meet up.

3:45 p.m. Jerod and I meet outside the exhibit hall to catch up. We have a good conversation, definitely worth skipping the afternoon session for. He wasn’t as central a figure as Sam or Henry in my Grinnell experience, but I am grateful for what a good friend and colleague he’s been.

4:30 p.m. I head back to my room to get my backpack and head to the restaurant.

4:55 p.m. I’m the first to arrive at the HMC dinner; 15 other alumni and faculty trickle in. “Hosting” pretty much means making sure everyone gets a name tag. I have some good conversations, but I don’t get to talk with everyone.

7:00 p.m. I’m late for the workshop on “Rubricking Like a Boss” where I hope to learn some new tricks for grading faster. I walk back to the conference center with Tum ’14, now a grad student at Stanford, who is using big data techniques to learn about students’ course and career choices.

7:20 p.m. Don Blaheta (Longwood U) hands me my packet without missing a beat. I work through the example rubrics that he and Adrienne Decker (RIT) provide, amazing my table-mate with my speed. Over the break, I run into Dick Brown, who says Henry already asked him to send me the 19 points. After the break, I ask Don a bunch of questions about his rubric design principles and then get down to work on a rubric of my own. It’s not easy, but I figure out a rubric that seems to work. For the first time ever I leave a workshop energized rather than exhausted.

10:15 p.m. I arrive in my room, excited to apply the rubric to student work. I can’t think of the last time I was excited to grade.

11:00 p.m. I process a few emails and reply to my new colleague John Stratton’s text about meeting tomorrow morning. We had bumped into each other a few times over the past two days, but hadn’t sat down to talk.

11:10 p.m. I shower and go to bed.


7:05 a.m. Waking up is hard. I pack and lock up my room. I stash my bag in the luggage storage room, which is not yet staffed.

7:30 a.m. Breakfast with Ursula Wolz. I learn how she is teaching Algorithms with collaborative, peer-based learning techniques. I tell her about what John is doing in his Algorithms course at Colgate U. and we agree they should meet. We chat a bit about yesterday’s plenary, a bit about our life stories, and a bit about opportunities for outreach to middle school students in Walla Walla.

8:30 a.m. I check out of my hotel room and head over for the morning sessions. I go to the Gradescope sponsor session, but it quickly becomes clear their product is aimed at faculty with good rubrics and lots of students, not faculty who are still developing the rubrics. I duck out and cross the hall to the annual Nifty Assignments session, which is much more inspiring now that I am teaching CS1 in Python and not Scheme.

9:30-ish. I decide to leave the Nifty Assignments session after the CS1 assignments are done. The fire alarm sounds. I head out of the building, encountering John Stratton and later joined by Brian Railing, his friend Dave, and Melissa O’Neill. We chat outside. The fire trucks are as loud as the alarm, but not as piercing. The alarm ends just in time for the 10:00 coffee break.

10:45 a.m. After the coffee break, John and I meet up outside the exhibit hall. We head over to the Sheraton lobby to discuss Whitman CS business in peace and quiet.

11:50 a.m. Winding up our conversation, we get our luggage and head over for lunch. I see Bob Beck (Villanova U., HMC ’63) sitting alone and we decide to sit with him. We are quickly surrounded by liberal arts folks, including John’s former colleague Jaime Spacco (Knox College). The closing plenary by Karen Lee Ashcraft (UC Boulder) is, once again, very thought-provoking. More on this in a later post.

2:20 p.m. I sit next to Rich Wicentowski on the airport shuttle bus. He is better about getting out and seeing the city than I am. He tells me about the wonders of the Bass Pro Shop (not joking—it’s a giant glass pyramid).

2:50 p.m. I run into Bob Beck and Steve Wolfman (UBC) in the C terminal. I saw Steve several times during the conference but hadn’t made it over to talk with him. I’m grateful for this last chance to catch up.

3:10 p.m. I see Donald Chinn (UW Tacoma) at my gate and sit down to chat with him for a few minutes. I remember meeting him a long time ago, but he doesn’t remember me. I see Melissa O’Neill trying to catch my eye and go talk with her until boarding.

3:40 p.m. I discover Donald is seated next to me on our flight to Denver, and Peter Drake (Lewis & Clark College) is seated behind us. We talk the entire flight, clearly annoying the poor man sitting next to Peter. Possibly more on this later, too.

7:00 MST. I draft this post on my flight to Pasco.

8:20 PST. I settle in at the Pasco airport to wait for my husband, who is flying in from SFO in a couple of hours, and finish this post.

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