A Day in the HSS Executive Office
by Jay Malone, History of Science Society
Borrowing a page from our Editorial Office, I thought members might be interested in learning more about a day in the Executive Office. I would say a “typical’ day, but none are typical. The activity on this sunny day last Fall was framed by the impending annual audit and the annual meeting in Toronto, which was approaching like a freight train.
During the morning, I made two conference calls, one to Stephen Weldon, chair of our Technology and Communications Committee, and one to Michael Gordin, who is chair of our Committee on Publications (CoP). For the former, I was joined by HSS’s Director of Media and Engagement, Jessica Baron, and HSS’s still-then-new Coordinator, Ryan Feigenbaum. I had arranged to speak to each of our committee and caucus chairs in preparation for their biannual reports, which were coming due. In our conversation with Stephen, we discussed progress on HSS’s statement on digital humanities (part of our strategic plan); the committee’s efforts on digital scholarship, with an ambitious goal of dedicating a portion of our website to digital history of science; the fate of our social media policy, which could be paraphrased as “don’t be a jerk,” and has proven somewhat controversial; possible new members for the committee (I later went in to look at the volunteer spreadsheet, where members offer to help with HSS business (see https://hssonline.org/wpgforms/volunteer-info/), and sent him some suggestions; discussed arrangements for the committee for the Toronto meeting; and various other topics. With Michael Gordin, the conversation centered around the search for a new Society Editor, which has been the Committee on Publications’ focus this past year (we plan to name the new Editor in June 2018). I shared with Michael some of the procedures that we followed in our prior search, along with some of the relevant documents. (The Committee interviewed the prospects in Toronto.) And since the Technology Committee is linked to the CoP, I also relayed to Michael a synopsis of the conversation I had enjoyed with Stephen Weldon.
As a follow up to the calls, I sent a draft of the social media policy to our insurer to make sure that it was in accord with our coverage and also asked our lawyer for a template for such policies so that we could check the draft against the template (I talk to our lawyer more than I speak to my mother on the premise that “an ounce of prevention” is good advice).
I then spoke to our lawyer about a proposal from Unite Here, a union that organizes hotel workers, which had asked HSS to join their Fair Hotel movement. I corresponded with our site selector, Craig Hendrick, on this subject, asking about the ramifications on site selection if we did sign the agreement. I combined their comments and sent them to the chair of Committee on Meetings and Programs, Karen Scholthoff, so that the Committee could discuss this and make a recommendation to Council.
I then followed up with our Reingold Prize winner, Patrick Anthony, whose phone number I had surreptitiously secured so that our Reingold Committee Chair, Helen Curry, could phone him with the good news (Helen, a former Reingold Prize winner herself, remembered her own phone call and thought that this was a happier way to deliver the news than in an email message). As with all prize winners, I asked him for a recent photo, for how he would like his name to appear on the prize plaque, confirmed his invitation to the prize winners’ reception in Toronto, and other administrative tedium. I then relayed the results to a major donor to the Reingold Prize and invited this generous benefactor to the prize reception to meet Patrick. After that, I proceeded to contact each of the 12 students who had submitted an article for the Prize to thank them for their participation in the process, which elevated the overall quality of the Reingold submissions. (If you are a student, please submit your essay for the 2018 prize: deadline 1 June). Members can read Patrick’s essay, “Mining as the Working World of Alexander von Humboldt’s Plant Geography and Vertical Cartography,” in the March issue of Isis.
My next task was to contact the Executive Committee members to confirm their arrival and departure times for Toronto so that we could coordinate their stays with the conference hotel (since the officers arrive the Tuesday evening of the conference week, meet all day Wednesday, and then again on Thursday morning, followed by the Council meeting on Thursday afternoon, HSS pays for expenses that are not covered by their home institutions). For Executive Committee and Council meetings, I work in conjunction with the HSS President to set the agendas, as well as assemble the materials for the briefing books (some several hundred pages). Our officers spend long hours on Society business, and I am grateful for their time.
Other parts of the day featured a mash of fulfilling requests from our auditors, including an estimation of the number of volunteer hours spent on Society business. Since I do not ask volunteers to record their hours, I make educated guesses. For our officers alone that amounted to some 317 hours over the fiscal year. When we include all of the volunteers—Council members, committee members, caucus and interest group leaders, etc.—the total number of hours jumps to 3,475. When I say that the Society could not possibly function without its volunteers, I am not exaggerating.
Finally, because I am always worried about the Society’s finances, I worked with our hotel a/v provider to see if we could save money without compromising quality (I always tell the providers that it is essential that the equipment work properly and that technicians are standing by—presenters at our conference do not get a second chance). Audio/visual and wifi expenses are among the higher priced items at our annual conference, and I was pleased that our final costs came in around $35,000 US, a nice savings over the expected (and budgeted) $42,000 US. The annual meeting has thousands of such pieces, and I am grateful for the wonderful staff and volunteers we have to help assemble the puzzle.
GDPR is Coming
Many of our readers may not be aware of the General Data Protection Regulation that is slated to take effect on 25 May 2018. The GDPR is a part of the Charter for Fundamental Rights of the European Union. Its deceptively simple declaration appears in Article VII of the Charter, stating that everyone has the right of protection of personal data concerning him or her. The Charter was published in 2016 but has assumed a pressing urgency in the wake of Cambridge Analytica, Facebook, Equifax data breaches, and other misuses of personal information. The Regulation will affect all EU countries, as well as Iceland, Norway, and Liechtenstein, and all organizations, irrespective of where they are located, will need to abide by its rules. This is not a cybersecurity regulation but rather an effort to give individuals control over their personal data. Personal data carries a broad definition and includes any information that identifies (or makes identifiable) any person through IP addresses, cookies, location data, and any factor specific to physical, genetic, mental, economic, cultural, or social identity, among other identifiers. HSS is working with the University of Chicago Press to make sure that we are compliant when the regulation takes place. If you have any questions, please do not hesitate to contact the Executive Office at email@example.com or 574.631.1194.
With 679 total attendees, a near 10% increase from last year, the 2017 HSS meeting in Toronto attests to a growing, strong interest in the history of science. Additionally, over 82% of attendees were HSS members, which is higher than usual and indicative of attendees’ commitment to the discipline. (See Figure 1 for more attendee demographics.)
Not only was the meeting well attended, but it was also enjoyable, at least according to the 237 attendees who responded to our post-meeting survey. Over 92% of them rated their experience positively, and not one person rated it negatively (See Figure 2). In particular, attendees enjoyed the meeting program, quality of papers, layout and services of the hotel, charm of the host city, mentorship opportunities offered by the Graduate and Early Career Caucus (GECC), rooms designated for quiet study and nursing mothers, engaging plenary and distinguished lectures, and much more. The book exhibit, deftly organized by Michelle Marvin, was again a hit, with over 90% of attendees paying it a visit. Many of the visitors were bibliophiles, apparently, since over 40% bought one or more books. Additionally, about 85% of respondents welcomed the alteration of the meeting program so that Saturday evening was open, and over 87% of respondents favored the continued inclusion of a Poster Reception. As pleased as we are with these results, we hope to better the experience for next year, which is why we solicit and carefully consider the responses to our post-meeting survey.
This year’s responses highlighted several areas for improvement. Though the meeting program was generally praised for distributing similar topics and providing a diversity of themes overall, some attendees noted that, at times, we double-booked sessions with the same topic or contained too many concurrent sessions. Attendees remarked that these arrangements led to a diminution of the audience in certain sessions. Respondents also mentioned the inconvenience of slow elevators in the Richmond Tower; the lack of coat room(s), signage, and adequate information for session chairs (especially regarding the technology available in breakout rooms); and confusion over the opening and poster receptions. Finally, many had very strong opinions about coffee: there was too little, too infrequently! In all seriousness, though, we read these criticisms and suggestions actively, and we are already incorporating changes based on them into our planning for the meeting in 2018 and thereafter.
Accessibility is another area in which we hope to improve the meeting. We are again indebted to Kate Jirik for providing an accessibility report concerning the accommodations provided (or not provided) by the Sheraton Centre Hotel, the city of Toronto, and the Society. In her estimation, the hotel was hit and miss; for example, while the accessible room offered ample space to move around, bars for hanging clothes could not be reached from a wheelchair. She found Toronto to be a “very inaccessible city.” Lack of elevators and other accessible pathways, especially for public transit, made navigating the city onerous and expensive. On a whole, Jirik noted, the Society could provide more and better information to improve meeting accessibility. This could be facilitated, she recommended, by reaching out to those who use wheelchairs in future host cities, as well as to local Disability Centers. In addition to Jirik’s report, we also received several suggestions from survey respondents about limiting flash photography because of light sensitivity, better labeling of food at receptions, and more accommodations for food allergies.
Though our Society’s bailiwick may be the study of the past, we are not opposed to embracing the future. We employ several digital and technological resources to organize and facilitate the annual meeting and to communicate with attendees. Part of our post-meeting survey sought information about which resources attendees used and their satisfaction with them. The survey revealed that attendees used the PDF of the printed program more than any other resource, followed closely by the meeting Wi-Fi. While most respondents were very satisfied with the digital and technological offerings, several people expressed concerns that the PDF of the printed program was not available soon enough and that the meeting app (Guidebook) initially contained errors in the schedule. We have already taken steps to address these concerns by reviewing and simplifying internal workflows, the results of which will be apparent to attendees at the 2018 meeting in Seattle.
The benefits provided by these digital and technological resources also extend to the environment. Digital programs and the continuation of our paperless discount reduced the environmental cost of printing and shipping paper programs. By improving our digital offerings and maintaining a paperless financial incentive, we hope to provide further inducements to forgo the paper program altogether. We also continued our policy of having the hotel refrain from distributing bottled water, which significantly reduces plastic consumption. Ideally, attendees will reuse their name tag holders year after year. Sometimes, however, that is not possible, which is why we are happy to report that this year’s name tag holders are fully biodegradable. They can even be safely discarded in a local compost bin. The HSS has a responsibility, in the words of our distinguished lecturer, Sverker Sörlin, to “do more,” because a large academic conference, by nature, is environmentally resource intense. We thus remain committed to making the meeting more sustainable wherever possible, and we welcome any suggestions toward this end.
The HSS meeting also requires resources of another kind: that of the scholars who produce the research and writing at the heart of each day’s sessions. It is likely no surprise, then, that when asked why attendees go to HSS meetings, they responded, “To hear and share history of science scholarship!” Yet, this was not the most frequent reponse. While attendees mentioned other motivations like the book exhibit, host city, prize ceremony, and Council responsibilities, the most frequent reason given for attendance was to network with colleagues. At HSS 2018 in Seattle, we intend to encourage the growth of our amiable community by offering attendees more opportunities for networking with fellow historians of science. Our new abstract management and meeting registration system allows attendees to connect, share which sessions they are attending, and much more.