Archive for the ‘academia’ Category

It’s Time to Cancel College Football

November 9, 2015 10 comments

I love football. My husband Pete played right guard and defensive end in high school, and a picture of him in his uniform (#67) is on my dresser. Pete and I were season ticket holders for The Atlanta Falcons for more than a decade. Before that, we were season ticket holders for the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets. I was commissioner of a fantasy football league for more than a decade. I love football, but I have mostly given it up, because it is hurting our athletes.

The evidence is unmistakable: football players can develop traumatic brain injuries decades later, even if they never had a concussion. The NFL agrees that a third of former players will develop serious brain injuries. In 79 brains of former players studied by the nation’s largest brain bank, 76 had traumatic brain injuries. Suicides among former players suffering from brain injuries are rising.

When our oldest son was born, Pete and I had several conversations about whether we would let him play football. Pete showed me his slightly crooked left pinky finger, noted that a jammed finger was his only real injury, and argued that the sport is perfectly safe at the high-school level. That was ten years ago. These days, with every new news report about chronic traumatic encephalitis (CTE), he cowers. He is worried that all those hits as a lineman will catch up with him—and he only played through high school. Not the big hits, but the accumulation of small hits. When our now 11-year-old begged to join a rugby team this fall, it was Pete who said no.

Every time this topic comes up, the phrase “an inconvenient truth” comes to mind. The facts are extremely inconvenient. But the evidence is so clear at this point that it seems irresponsible to continue with the status quo. At minimum, it’s time for major rule changes. But I’m skeptical that rule changes can fix the problem. I’m wondering if it’s time for us to cancel football. Especially college football. As a university, our mission is to nurture our students—to help prepare them for productive and healthy lives as members of society. All of our students—including members of our football team. Can we really say right now that we are putting their best interests first?

Pro football players are adults, and they make their own choices. But in college football, the students have been put in our care. Our responsibilities as a university are different.

Yes, I know what I’m suggesting would cause a firestorm of unprecedented proportions. Yes, I know the alumni will riot. But should we refuse to do the right thing because it’s inconvenient or unpopular?

I admire Chris Borland, who left the NFL after one year out of concern for his health. I admire my colleague Janet Murray, who turned down an invitation to be guest coach for our football team because she feels the damage the sport is doing to our students’ long-term health is unjustifiable. She explained this in a letter to our football coach. More people need to stand up. It’s time for things to change.

It seems likely that over the next several years a series of high-profile lawsuits will lead to multi-million dollar judgments for former players, both college and pro. I wouldn’t buy stock in a company that insures NFL teams. As a state school, Georgia Tech typically doesn’t buy insurance—we self insure, or rely on our sovereign immunity from lawsuits. I don’t understand the legal nuances here, but I wonder what’s going to happen. If state sovereign immunity holds up in court, will our former players get no compensation? If it doesn’t hold up, will we have fewer science labs and student lounges because all our money is going to cover football liability? Neither option is appealing.

After the first round of lawsuits, no doubt the rules of football will be changed to make it safer. I’ll speculate that a few years later, there will be more lawsuits saying, “Sorry, we’re still getting hurt.” And then the rules will change more. And onwards, until eventually the game will be unrecognizable from what it is today. But do we really need to let this whole process take decades? Given that the end seems inevitable, can we speed things up a bit by doing the right thing now?

Georgia Tech’s mission statement says, “We will be leaders in improving the human condition in Georgia, the United States, and around the globe.” I hope we have the courage to lead on this issue. It would certainly make a statement if we said, “We are cancelling football, because it’s not safe.” We can have our homecoming celebration at a basketball or baseball game. They are also fine traditions.

We gave up our NFL season tickets this year, and I don’t play fantasy football any more. I do sometimes still watch Falcons and Yellow Jackets games on television, but feel guilty even about that.

To everyone reading this, especially my fellow faculty members at Georgia Tech, and others schools: If you agree, I hope you’ll say something. Publicly. We need all of us to speak up, if change is to happen sooner rather than later. Before another generation of players suffer the consequences.

Categories: academia, sports Tags:

The Irony of the Controversy Over Duke’s Freshman Reading, “Fun Home”

September 4, 2015 1 comment

There are people in the world that do not love their fellow human beings—and I hate people like that!” — Tom Lehrer

I confess that I was a little late doing my freshman reading. Before freshman year of college, I made a deliberate decision not to read the optional summer reading we were suggested. My teenage self reasoned: Only a total tool would do the optional summer reading. I’m too cool for that.

Twenty-nine years later, as my 25th college reunion was approaching, I thought: Why was I such a dolt as a teen? Some nice people put a lot of effort into suggesting books for me. Ones that would open my horizons to different approaches to knowledge. So I went back and read one of the books—Lucy by Donald Johanson. It was great (though out of date by the time I read it). I’m still trying to find out what the other assigned books were.

This month, a number of incoming students at Duke University are busy not doing their freshman reading as well—but for another reason. They are offended by it. Among other books, the university assigned Allison Bechdel’s Fun Home, a coming-of-age memoir that deals with the author coming to terms with her identity as a lesbian. The book also contains explicit sexual content.

In the wake of student protests about the book, a number of members of my social network posted indignant messages, outraged that the Duke students were offended. One went as far as to suggest that those students’ admission to Duke should be rescinded. Really?

I served on Georgia Tech’s committee to pick the freshman reading last year, and we found it a challenging task. The freshman reading is not just any reading—it has a special status. It says to people “This is the kind of place you are coming to.” With that in mind, I argued against a reading that I thought was too nerdy. Imagine someone who had mixed feelings about coming to a tech school, thinking “I’m not part of the pocket protector set… will I fit in?” Now imagine them opening their uber-nerdy pre-frosh reading and banging their head on the table, “What have I done? What kind of a place am I going to?” Fear of nerdiness can particularly be an issue for young women, and it’s part of why we don’t have more women in computer science and other fields. If you want to teach that same reading in a literature class, that’s great—go for it. But the freshman reading has a special status. Students should absolutely be required to read things in college that make them feel uncomfortable—but not for the freshman reading.

I really feel for the Duke students who got their copy of Fun Home and were distraught. Duke freshman Brian Grasso’s article in the Washington Post is quite eloquent about it. Our students at Georgia Tech are politically diverse, and I have come to love that diversity. Each fall I teach an ethics class, “Computers, Society, and Professionalism.” The diversity of views is an asset—I count on it to get really thought-provoking conversations started. I ask my students to keep an open mind and really listen to views different from their own, and I try to do that myself.

The irony of this entire incident borders on absurdity. Some people are decrying the controversy over Fun Home in the name of diversity and acceptance of people who are different from you. But aren’t conservative Christians part of that diversity?

It’s easy to turn the tables and imagine a book about someone coming to terms with their identity as a born-again Christian. Would you assign that as pre-freshman reading? Of course not. Would you assign it in other classes like theology or literature? Of course. And the same goes for Fun Home.

If anyone remembers what the freshman reading for the incoming Harvard class of 1987 was, send me a message—I’m a bit behind finishing it.

Categories: academia

Style and Substance in Presentation Style

March 27, 2015 6 comments

I first realized that my style of giving a talk was old-fashioned when I spoke at TEDxNYED in 2010. During setup, I asked for a lectern–I wanted to be able to see my slides while I talked. The staff argued with me–are you sure? I was sure. My slides–horrors!–had bullet points of text on them, and few images. I was the only one. Everyone else had slides with single images that faded from one to the next, or perhaps a single evocative word.

The current fashion in presentation style is a triumph of style over substance. When I design slides, I use text to emphasize the main points. If I am telling a charming story, the point is on the slide. This is why I am telling you this story. My talks have content.

Of course images can be content too. Sometimes pictures are actually data. A couple nice examples come to mind from the recent CSCW conference in Vancouver. Nicki Dell from UW presented a paper about people in developing nations struggling to fill in paper forms, and photos of her subjects with giant stacks of paper told the story better than words. Similarly, Lynn Dombrowski from UCI discussed how hard it is to help people to sign up for public assistance. She didn’t have photos from her field site she could put in a presentation, but she was able to find images of real people in similar situations–freely available with a Creative Commons license. I’m more a verbal person than a visual one, but even I get the value of well-chosen images. But a photo that is actual data or closely related is not the same thing as one that just sets a mood. Raise your hand if you’re tired of flowers and mountain streams used to evoke abstract concepts in computing. Sometimes I want to ask, is this a research presentation or a greeting card?

It’s not really pictures I object to–use a sunset if you must. I object to the absence of words. Sometimes the cliché “a picture is worth a thousand words” is simply not true.

The image-focused style of giving a talk goes back to the introduction of the Pecha Kucha presentation style in 2003. It was originally intended to keep talks fast paced and engaging. Don’t get me wrong–I believe talks should be entertaining and engaging. And I’m not advocating a return to overhead transparencies. But I prefer to engage people by presenting content that is meaningful and relevant–not just pretty. Text on slides helps keep people focused on the ideas I’m trying to convey.

I’m proud to use an old-fashioned talk style. Maybe in the future it’ll become hiply retro.

Categories: academia

CSCW 2012 Update (Guest post by Jonathan Grudin)

January 3, 2013 Leave a comment

A guest post by Jonathan Grudin.

A summary of events since CSCW 2012 as we head toward CSCW 2013.

The publication culture of computer science received unparalleled attention in 2012. Experiments in conference reviewing and a new ACM policy signal that past approaches aren’t seen to be working well. Some changes are more radical than the CSCW 2012 revision cycle, which has been used in at least four other conferences such as SIGMOD.

How is CSCW 2012 looking? Downloads and citations are imperfect measures of impact, but they are the available lamppost. ACM’s CSCW 2012 downloads exceed 25,000, more than CSCW 2011 has accumulated over two years or CSCW 2010 over three years. This is a dramatic increase in conference impact. (In comparison, CHI 2012 has about half as many downloads as CHI 2011.)

Citations accumulate more heavily in the second and third years after a conference. That said, there are now five times as many ACM-recorded CSCW 2012 citations as CSCW 2011 citations a year ago (with a higher per-paper citation rate than CHI 2012, though the latter was a couple months later). In a couple years, frequency distributions will provide a more nuanced sense of the effects of doubling the CSCW acceptance rate to 40%.

A panel at the biennial Computing Research Association conference at Snowbird discussed conference-journal and open access issues. In November, 30 senior researchers attended an invited three-day Dagstuhl workshop on the same issues. ACM released a policy aimed at preventing certain kinds of conference-journal hybrids and encouraging others. CACM published many commentaries on these topics, including one this month by Gloria Mark, John Riedl, and me that describes CSCW 2012 and other experiments. I have an essay in the current Interactions that suggests an evolutionary biology analogy. Links to all this stuff are below.

Some core CS areas can experiment more easily than SIGCHI because their prestigious conferences are smaller and they have members who like building tools. At Snowbird and Dagstuhl there was appreciation for the CSCW 2012 experiment and negligible concern for acceptance rates. Some conferences maintain low acceptance rates primarily to maintain a single track conference; their organizers realize that they reject high quality work, at a price. My view is that low conference acceptance rates are a cancer with a higher mortality rate than most of us survivors realize, but not all of our community agrees.

I hope to see you in San Antonio. — Jonathan

Below are links to event materials and documents. The first two papers will be freely accessible at when ACM Author-izer permits, in about a month.

Conference-journal hybrids. Grudin, J., Mark, G. & Riedl, J. January 2013 CACM.

Journal-conference interaction and the competitive exclusion principle. Grudin, J. Jan-Feb 2013 Interactions.

Snowbird panel (6/24/2012) on publication models in computing research.

Dagstuhl workshop (11/2012) on the publication culture of computing research.

List of CACM articles with links (2009-2013) on publication issues, and other resources.

2012 ACM policy on conference and journal reviewing practices.

Categories: academia, conferences, CSCW

At the end of fall semester….

December 19, 2011 Leave a comment

At the end of fall semester, my Institute gave to me:

12 Hours of grading
11 Recommendation letters
10 Student excuses
9 Screens of email
8 People coughing
7 Committee meetings
6 Thesis chapters
5 Papers to review
4 Holiday parties
3 CHI rebuttals
2 NSF proposals, and
A case of academic dis-honesty!


(Happy winter break everyone!)

Categories: academia

Laptops in Class

January 24, 2011 5 comments

At the first class of each semester, I raise the issue of laptops in class.  Here’s my rant:

When I go to a meeting, I almost never bring my laptop. I have a light one and I could easily bring it along. But I know that if I do, I will not pay attention. <class laughs> I am terrible that way. Someone will start saying something redundant, boring, or irrelevant, and I’ll take that moment to  look down at my laptop. I’ll check my email. I’ll check Facebook or Twitter. <class laughs> My attention will stray, and when I look up again I will find that the boring/irrelevant moment is long over, and I’ve missed something significant.  I’ve missed part of the point of why I bothered to be there in the first place.

I know some of you genuinely find it helpful to take notes on a computer. I also know that others really do use your computer to look up more information about what we’re talking about. And sometimes those contributions are invaluable to the whole class. I also know that some of you are on Facebook or checking email. You need to ask yourself a question: What do I want to get out of being here in class? Can I better  accomplish that with our without my laptop? For me, there’s no contest–I’ve got to have it closed or I might as well not come. You may be different. Think about why you are here and how best to accomplish your own goals for being here.

There’s just one thing I ask: if you do decide to use a computer in class, please do not use it for anything that might distract your fellow students. In particular, please do not play any real-time games during class. <class laughs> I’ve had multiple complaints on my course evaluation about students playing games during class. Whether you pay attention is your choice, but please don’t distract everyone else.

There’s a short version of this on my syllabus as well. I have been fairly successful in getting rid of folks playing first person shooters in class with this speech.  Whether it’s had any impact on how much attention people pay, I can’t say for sure.  I’m cautiously optimistic that it helps.

How do you handle laptops in class? Are there other issues of misuse or overuse of mobile and social computing that you’ve tried to address with your students? With your peers? With your family?  We are still in the early stages of understanding the choices we all make about best use of these new technologies.  Let’s share strategies!  Leave me a comment–I’d love to hear what people have tried and what seems to work.

Research Topics: The PhD Student’s Passion or What We Have Money For?

October 26, 2010 7 comments

Yesterday I found myself face to face with a lost sheep: a PhD student who wants to do research on a topic we currently have no funding for.  He’s got a reasonably cool research idea, and I like the guy. He’s sharp. A few years ago, I would have said “OK, let’s start meeting weekly and work to refine the idea. I don’t have funding for this at the moment, but you can be a teaching assistant for a while, and we’ll look for money later. We need a better idea of what you’re doing before we can look for money for it.”  That is the way of the past. As funding gets tighter, the faculty have been informed that we can no longer have unfunded students, even temporarily. So instead I said to him yesterday, “I don’t suppose you have any interest in broadening participation in computing? Cause we have money for that….” Nope, what I have funds for has no relation to what he wants to work on. Can I help him with what he’s really passionate about? Nope, no money.  “Try asking another faculty member,” I advised him.  Everyone else told him the same thing.  There’s no way any longer to support *his* idea–it’s got to be faculty member’s idea that already has money in hand.

Selecting a topic for your PhD dissertation is critical. You need something promising, but do-able within the time available. It has to be something you really care about, but also something that your advisor cares about and is reasonably knowledgable about. It’s already a highly constrained problem.  Needing funding from Day One complicates things further. If I need to find the money before the student, then I need to organize PhD admissions around finding the best fit for my particular project. That may not be the best student available–it’s just the one who fits.  It feels backwards–buy the shoes first, and then look for someone with the right size feet.  It’s also not a time efficient process. If a grant proposal takes six months to be evaluated and I can’t hire someone until the money is in hand, then I may have to wait up to a year to find the person who fits in those shoes.  My annual report for year one I fear will end up saying “so far I think we’ve found someone who might want to work on this. We haven’t spent any of the money yet. Can you give us an extra year?”  And what if I make an offer of admission to the one person who fits those shoes, and they choose a different graduate program?  My fear is that this will lead to 1) lots of unhappy students working on projects that are not their first choice, and 2) lots of projects with no labor available for a medium to long amount of time.

Are other departments restructuring the relationship between PhD students and funding?  How are you approaching it? Our system is in flux, so all suggestions are appreciated.

Categories: academia Tags: ,
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