Candidate’s statement, Special Interest Group on Computers and Society
Last spring, Mikey Goldweber, an old friend and the Chair of the ACM Special Interest Group on Computers and Society (SIGCAS) said something to me like
Sam, I really think you should run for the SIGCAS Executive Board. I told him I thought it sounded like a lot of work, but he assured me that it’s not . He also noted that there were no in-person meetings, except for the pre-SIGCSE meeting (which I normally attend), and one other meeting that only one member of the board has to attend. Mikey was not alone in encouraging me; a few other long-term SIGCAS members also told me that they thought I’d do well at the position.
Well, a few months ago, the call for nominations for the board came out, and my name ended up in the ring. It’s now time for me to write my statement. This essay will serve as my drafting table for the statement. In a bit of a play on Paul Graham’s essay on editing, I’m going to include multiple versions of my statement, as well as some additional commentary.
I suppose if I were sensible, I would have gone back and looked at the statements of prior candidates for the board . But I decided that I really did want the statement to reflect my own perspective. I also thought it would be bad to accidentally plagiarize someone else’s statement. And so I did not look for old statements.
We are allowed 200 words . That’s about three paragraphs. Let’s see … one on my view of SIGCAS, one on who I am, and one on what I’d do for SIGCAS. The only problem? I’m not sure that I have particular goals for SIGCAS. But there are some things that SIGCAS can improve, so I can write something about those ideas.
Here’s the first version.
Given the incredible impact of technology on the world, it is essential that computing professionals both assess and speak out about the potential benefits and dangers of this technology. SIGCAS holds an important but difficult position. Our position is important not only because we can serve as one of the key voices of ACM, the worlds largest computing society, but also because we can and do speak to a broad range of issues. Our position is difficult, as we saw in the discussion of a nomination of Edward Snowden for the 2013 Making a Difference award, not only because we do not always agree, but also because our actions can affect the broader ACM membership.
I am a long-term member of SIGCAS and, until its demise, was a lifetime member of CPSR. As an educator, I work hard to help my students and my institution understand the impacts of the technology we build and use. While I am a computer scientist by training and inclination, for many years I served as chair of Grinnell’s program in Technology Studies.
As a member of the SIGCAS Executive Committee, I would work to strengthen SIGCAS’s voice and to carry out the intent of the SIGCAS membership. SIGCAS has particularly strong representation among computer science educators; I would look for ways to increase our reach to both students and professionals. I would also hope to build ties to other organizations, such as EFF, that share goals with SIGCAS.
That’s 244 words, about 20% too long. Let’s see what I can do to cut it down. And yes, I should think about wording as well as length.
We’ll start with the first sentence. There’s a
to be verb, which is weak and also adds an extra word. And
impact is a nominalization. I can certainly do better than that .
Okay, on to the next sentence. I really need some kind of transition. I’ll steal from the next sentence, which needs a lot of work anyway. I really need to find better ways to deal with the important / difficult dichotomy. I’ll try a huge compound sentence. Yes, I realize that’s not usually the best idea, and may not be completely grammatical, but I actually think it may flow better. I thought about moving the Snowden thing to the end of the sentence, but that’s really the focal point of the sentence, so I’d rather leave our impact on the membership at the end.
Here’s the new first paragraph.
Given the myriad ways in which technology impacts the world, computing professionals must assess and speak out about technology’s potential benefits and dangers. As one of ACM’s key voices on these issues, SIGCAS holds an important and difficult position: important, not only because we represent the world’s largest computing society but also because we consider a broad range of issues; difficult–as we saw in the discussion of Edward Snowden’s nomination for the 2013 Making a Difference award–not only because we do not always agree, but also because our actions can significantly affect the broader ACM membership.
I’m not sure that this is truly grammatical, but it’s close enough for my purposes, and it flows better. I’m still not thrilled with the Snowden part, but I feel like it needs to be there, and I can’t find a better place to put it. I did cut about fifteen words, so I’m a third of the way there.
Okay, on to the next paragraph. I probably don’t need to put down the demise of CPSR. I can cut words by saying
X member rather than
member of X. I also don’t like the
I am. The
As a in the second sentence works so much better. But I’m not sure that my membership affects who I am; rather, who I am leads me to be a member. But I guess I can try playing with it. [Time passes.] No, I can’t find a better way to write that. We’ll just have the declaration.
The three parts of this paragraph need to be rearranged. Let’s move TechStudies to the second paragraph, and drop the
even though I am part. I now have two sentences that give a bit about my qualifications.
Do I really need to say that I am a computer scientist by training? No, probably not. So I follow the first sentence with another statement about what I do. I might actually expand that sentence to talk about TEC 154. For cutting words,
I served as chair can be
On to the last sentence. Do I want to say
my institution or
my colleagues? I don’t really speak to the institution; I speak to individuals. Maybe I want to say
my students, my fellow faculty, and Grinnell’s administrators. Yeah, that’s better. Perhaps I should use
strive rather than
I am a long-term SIGCAS member and was a lifetime CPSR member. For many years, I chaired Grinnell’s program in Technology Studies and regularly teach that program’s core course. As an educator, I strive to help my students, my fellow faculty, and Grinnell’s administrators understand the impacts of the technologies we build and use.
I only cut nine words, but this new paragraph seems better. Not great, but better. I can probably drop the
For many years, if necessary to cut three more words. I do worry about the tense switches in the first two sentences. It may be okay in the first sentence, but not the second. I’ll use
Now on to the last paragraph. Do I like the transition from
As an educator in the previous pargraph to
As a SIGCAS Executive Committee member? In some ways, it’s awkward, since they are describing two different roles. In others, it actually makes a reasonable parallel. I can’t think of something better, so I’ll keep it.
I don’t really like
carry out the intent of the SIGCAS membership. Maybe I should change
SIGCAS’s voice to
the voice of the SIGCAS membership. I probably should tie into the next sentence withand to expand that membership
, but perhaps that gets included implicitly instrengthen the voice". Let’s see how that flows. ’Eh, not too bad.
But then there’s that last sentence. I don’t like it. I do think that SIGCAS should build or strengthen ties with other organizations that share our goals, such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation or POSSE . But I’ve already said
strengthen. Maybe I should change the first appearance to
enhance. I don’t like
would. Maybe I should take myself out of the sentence:
SIGCAS should build or strengthen ties. No, I don’t like that. Maybe
collaborate with. Let’s see how that works.
As a member of the SIGCAS Executive Committee, I would work to enhance the voice of the SIGCAS membership. SIGCAS has particularly strong representation among computer science educators; I would look for ways to increase our reach to both students and professionals. I also expect to consider ways SIGCAS can better collaborate with other organizations that share our goals.
That seems to flow better. But the change only cuts seven words. I’m still long . Maybe I really should take myself out of the last two sentences. Maybe I can even combine them. Let’s try.
SIGCAS has particularly strong representation among computer science educators; we should increase our reach to both students and professionals and better collaborate with other organizations that share our goals. Fail. The second half has nothing to do with enhancing membership. Or maybe it does, since we could draw membership from those organizations. No, I don’t like that. Maybe if I switch the sentences. Nope, that didn’t work. Let’s try in the original order and a bit more wording change .
As a member of the SIGCAS Executive Committee, I would work to enhance the voice of the SIGCAS membership. While SIGCAS has particularly strong representation among computer science educators, we should increase our outreach to both students and professionals. There are also opportunities to better collaborate with other organizations that share our goals.
Okay, I’ve now cut thirteen words from this paragraph. Let’s see what the total is like. [Sam pauses to do a word count.] I’m at 206 words. That’s much closer. What else can I do? I can remove myself completely from the last paragraph, and just speak about the SIGCAS executive committee. Let’s give that a try.
The SIGCAS Executive Committee can strengthen the voice of the SIGCAS membership. While SIGCAS has particularly strong representation among computer science educators, we should increase our outreach to both students and professionals. There are also opportunities to better collaborate with other organizations that share our goals.
That cuts it to 199 words. However, Joe Williams would not like that sentence, since the verb is
are and the real action of collaboration is in a
to-be form . Let’s try again.
The SIGCAS Executive Committee can strengthen the voice of the SIGCAS membership. While SIGCAS has particularly strong representation among computer science educators, we should increase our outreach to both students and professionals. We can broaden our impact by collaborating in new ways with other organizations that share our goals.
That’s better. I’m pretty sure that Williams would also tell me to work on transitions between paragraphs, but I don’t have the space for those transitions and, in a three-paragraph statement, I’m not sure the transitions are necessary. Williams would also tell me to consider the flow of information in each sentence. Am I moving from old to new? Am I repeating appropriate the primary actors? I’m doing well enough, and I’m too lazy to do a sentence-by-sentence re-read .
But I’m up to what
wc thinks are 202 words. Just a few to go. What were those words I could delete? Oh, yeah, I know!
For many years,. Cut! Down to 199 words. Let’s see what ACM thinks. Whoops! Almost forgot, I needed to spell check. Amazingly, I have no spelling errors.
Okay, it appears that ACM counts differently than
wc does. They see 206 words. Let’s see what I can do. Will changing the double-spaces to single spaces make a difference? Nope. I have to cut six more words. Let’s see
as we saw in could be
as revealed in, but that only cuts one word and I don’t think it flows as well. Maybe I’ll cut the part about CPSR. If I recall correctly, it appears elsewhere in my application, and the
was a lifetime member feels awkward . But that makes me want to rearrange that paragraph.
How am I doing?
wc thinks I have 192 words. ACM thinks I have 202. I’m getting closer.
voice of the SIGCAS membership can become
SIGCAS membership’s voice. I don’t like it quite as much, but it will suffice.
Here’s the final version.
Given the myriad ways in which technology impacts the world, computing professionals must assess and speak out about technology’s potential benefits and dangers. As one of ACM’s key voices on these issues, SIGCAS holds an important and difficult position: important, not only because we represent the world’s largest computing society but also because we consider a broad range of issues; difficult—as we saw in the discussion of Edward Snowden’s nomination for the 2013 Making a Difference award—not only because we do not always agree, but also because our actions can significantly affect the broader ACM membership.
As an educator and long-term SIGCAS member, I strive to help students, faculty, administrators, and community members understand the impacts of the technologies we build and use. My efforts go beyond CS; I chaired Grinnell’s program in Technology Studies and regularly taught that program’s core course.
The SIGCAS Executive Committee can strengthen the SIGCAS membership’s voice. While SIGCAS has particularly strong representation among computer science educators, we should increase our outreach to both students and professionals. We can broaden our impact by collaborating in new ways with other organizations that share our goals.
Wow! That was a lot of effort . What do I think about the result? The original statement was decent, workmanlike prose. The final statement is also decent, workmanlike prose. It’s better prose, but it’s not particularly exceptional. So, I may have answered one of my questions about writing: If I spend more time editing, I can write better, but I can’t necessarily write at the level of people I admire. Of course, this example was a short piece of writing, and I did not have the opportunity to think more broadly about structure and transitions and such. I may try again with a longer piece, but I’m not sure I’ll want to record what I’m doing and thinking so carefully.
You know what? If I were sensible, I would have asked Mikey, Janet, and some other friends to read that over. Oh well. Too late now. And, in any case, I spent way too much time on it.
I wonder if my Tutorial students  are amused by this essay? It certainly reflects many of the things I comment on their essay drafts, including (a) using forms of
to be as the main verb, (b) tense switches, (c) information flow, (d) nominalizations, (e) use of
this as a pronoun , (f) transitions, (g) knowing your audience , (h) regularly considering alternatives to some words, and (i) thinking about parallel structures .
There are also a number of things that I normally tell my students that did not come into play in writing the statement . They should pay attention to the sources they use and how those sources can support their argument. They need not write
I think or
I believe, since it’s pretty clear that what they write is supposed to be what they think (unless they are told otherwise) . And, of course, that all of these are minor if you haven’t firmed up your thinking about the topic and picked an appropriate overall organization for your essay . There are probably others, but none come to mind at the moment.
And then there are the things I tell myself while writing, such as
You start way too many sentences with . What else?
Think about what it would sound like if you read this aloud.
Don’t be afraid to go back and throw things away if they don’t work.
Do you really need another endnote ? I know there are others, and I won’t remember them until a week after I post this essay.
In any case, you now know a bit more about how I write and edit. But I guess you already knew a lot about how I write and edit .
 Of course, Mikey has even more trouble than I do at saying no to things, so perhaps his
not too much work is actually a lot. But I don’t think so.
 Given my inclination to keep email, it’s likely that I have at least of a few of them buried somewhere in my inbox. Or does ACM just post them online?
 How you know that a computer scientist designed the form, it says
All platform statements are limited to 200 words (token word - space before and after).
The Professors’ Open Source Software Experience, not the foundation that helps students from underrepresented groups succeed in college.
 I think I did. See below.
 Or, more precisely, I think the essay is still longer than two-hundred words.
 Sorry, it’s hard to record all of the changes.
 I’m not sure how Joe would feel about the split infinitive. But he wouldn’t like the infinitive in the first place.
 Yes, I should do such a re-read. But I have limited goals for this statement.
 It also turns out that the term is
 That minor editing includes editing that happened while I was writing the initial version. Some of that editing was at the word level: I went from
Technology Studies concentration (accurate, but confusing to non-Grinnellians) to
Technology Studies minor (less accurate and less confusing) to
Technology Studies program (reasonably accurate and reasonably understandable). Some involved sentence rearrangement (and even deletion).
 And my children.
 Maybe I didn’t comment on using
this as a pronoun. Don’t use
this as a pronoun, because the resulting text tends to be ambiguous. But you can use
this as an adjective, as in
this concept or
this difficulty. I tend to self-correct whenever I use
this as a pronoun, not least because I know that Middle Son will comment on that use.
 Whoops! I missed that one, too.
 I like the dual
not only .. but also forms in the
important and difficult paragraph. Your mileage may vary.
 Some came into play when writing this essay.
 I was also going to say something like
and this is a reflective essay, but that would suggest that I really don’t need to say
I think. Time to go back and do a bit more editing.
 Unfortunately, my mind is such that I end up looking at many of the small details before I can look at the big issues. That’s clearly the wrong direction, since once you fix the big issues, lots of the parts get cut, so it’s not worth identifying small problems.
 Including this one.
 At least if you’ve been reading these essays regularly, you know a lot about how I think about writing.
Version 1.1 of 2017-01-13.