Comments on the 2013 SHOT Draft Report

Response to the Draft Report from the Ad Hoc Committee on Structure and Organization of SHOT

from the Executive Committee of
SHOT’s Special Interest Group on Computers, Information and Society (SIGCIS)

Our parent society, SHOT, recently issued a draft report offering ideas on the challenges it faces and changes that might strengthen it for the future. This is the response of SIGCIS, a contribution to the online discussion of the report requested by SHOT and underway on its website. The draft report discusses strategic challenges and opportunities facing SHOT and it discusses SHOT’s interest groups. What it does not do is put those two things together. We believe that the success of SIGCIS, SHOT’s Special Interest Group on Computers, Information, and Society over the past decade holds important lessons for SHOT as a whole.

SIGCIS appreciates the careful and thoughtful work done by the committee members and shares their concern with improving SHOT’s intellectual vitality and boosting attendance at its annual meetings. We also share the committee’s sense that SHOT can benefit from engagement with “neighboring disciplines.”

What SIGCIS does: SIGICS has grown to more than 300 members around the world. We raised a $25,000 endowment for our book prize, and have accumulated around $15,000 in our Mahoney Fund as a capital base. Each year we make around $2,500 in travel awards to graduate students to help them attend SHOT. SIGICS hosts a full day workshop on the Sunday of each SHOT conference with two streams of parallel programming. We organize or sponsor an average of four panel submissions for the main SHOT conference. The workshop and our lunch meetings each attract around fifty registrants each year. SIGCIS provides a listserv for discussion and announcement among its members and hosts a membership directory, syllabus repository, and set of resource guides on its website at SIGICIS has also served as a voice for the history of computing community, as in recent controversy over the self-proclaimed “inventor of email.”

How SIGCIS benefits SHOT:

  • Between the SIGIS members participating in SIGCIS-sponsored panels in the main SHOT program and in our workshop we have around 40 speakers, chairs and commentators represented. Of course some of these would come to SHOT anyway, but this density of colleagues and relevant papers also attracts a number of SIGCIS members who are not presenting, and ancillary events such as the IEEE Annals of the History of Computing board meeting. Thus we estimate that we bring at least 30 people to SHOT each year who would not otherwise attend. As the report shows meeting registrations slipping to around 200 during the recent recession that’s played an important part in keeping the meeting afloat.
  • The report acknowledges that SHOT has had limited success in attracting participants with geographical and intellectual diversity. Many of the SIGCIS members attending SHOT are not Ph.D. historians of technology and hence might not otherwise participate in SHOT. As we are the only interest group for those with an interest in the history of information technology we have also been able to attract people who identify primarily with business history, labor history, economic history, museum studies, media studies, etc. We also include active members with technical backgrounds and an avocational interest in history. SHOT used to be more open to engineers and non-Ph.D. historians but has increasingly professionalized around the Ph.D. graduates of major history of science, history of technology, and STS programs.
  • One important way SIGCIS has accomplished this is by sharing tacit knowledge about what a SHOT abstract is supposed to look like and how SHOT panels work. This is usually picked up from peers in the aforementioned Ph.D. programs but can otherwise be quite mysterious. Some common features of history conferences, for example the role of a commentator, are also little understood in other disciplines. Knowing how to produce a SHOT-friendly abstract does not necessarily correlate with delivering a great paper, and vice versa, so help in shaping abstracts is a crucial way to address the problems mentioned by the committee with high rates of rejection when scholars from area studies and other fields outside the SHOT mainstream attempt to submit proposals.
  • SIGCIS builds on the SHOT tradition of providing a welcoming and supportive environment for new members. Discussion of the history of information technology was formerly marginal at the SHOT meeting and is now central. In related associations such as 4S, HSS, or the Business History Conference it remains marginal. Thus we attribute some of the progress to things SHOT has done differently to these other associations, including its strong interest group in the area. Because out community is now well represented at SHOT we make sure that those new to the history of technology find their visit to SHOT rewarding. SIGCIS organizes informal dinners and other activities such as hikes as well as its workshop and formal lunch meeting.  This shows that once achieved a critical mass of participants within a particular area can become self-sustaining and improve the vitality of SHOT as a whole.
  • The SIGCIS workshop CFP, our Computer History Museum prize call, etc. are distributed widely and bring additional visibility to SHOT. Likewise, the SIGCIS website complements SHOT’s own website to improve the overall visibility of the society.
  • The report suggests that SHOT should experiment with new kinds of program mechanisms. We support this idea, and feel that SIGCIS and other SIGS could play an important role in organizing innovative panels. However we are perplexed by the suggestion that while SHOT makes “use of SIGs, other societies seem to employ other, possibly more fluid mechanisms for developing new and emergent areas” including substantive sessions for graduate students and work in progress sessions. In fact SIGCIS always includes a precirculated work in progress session in its workshop, usually includes a dissertation in progress session, and has experiments with other formats including roundtables and closing plenary sessions. SIGCIS also has a theme for each workshop, which we ask participants to address and choose a keynote speaker to highlight. This is another areas where innovations pioneered by SIGs are strengthening SHOT as a whole.
  • The report treats internationalization of SHOT as a priority. The membership of SIGCIS is comparatively well balanced over the developed world, and we have a set of regional vice chairs responsible for growing our presence in particular areas.

Thoughts on the future:

  • Supporting SIG initiatives and encouraging their growth will bring new energy to SHOT. Better integrating SIGs into SHOT’s governance can address some of the issues raised in the report concerning the depth of SHOT’s volunteer pool and the narrowness
  • SHOT should continue to offer its interest groups the opportunity to run full day events. The SIGCIS workshop serves as an annual meeting for the history of IT community and thus makes SHOT the centerpiece of this growing field. If SHOT does not harness this energy then another group will.
  • Give people feedback on why their proposal was rejected! Not doing this makes it very hard for those outside SHOT's core community to figure out what they would have to change to get a future submission accepted and puts them off trying again.
  • Currently SHOT recoups costs from SIGCIS for Sunday expenses (coffee, projectors, etc.) but is not willing to add a charge for the workshop to the registration page. SIGCIS has to demand cash from attendees. Adding small charges for SIG events on the registration page could bring revenue for SHOT to share with the SIGs responsible and, from SHOT’s viewpoint, turn the events from expenses into profit centers.
  • Competition for space at SHOT is not a zero sum game. The energy of the SIGCIS community has made IT history the largest single area at SHOT, whereas it was barely represented just a decade ago. That brings people into SHOT would not otherwise be involved with it. We know from the report that the SHOT program committee is alarmed at a lack of suitable submissions, so this growth has not crowded out other fields. Thus the opportunity exists for other SIGs current and future to make SHOT into the hub for other emerging scholarly communities.