The Universe of Discourse

Fri, 27 Jul 2007

Conference talk brochure descriptions
I just got back from doing some tutorials at OSCON, which were generally well-received. Sometimes it goes better than other times; this time it went pretty well, I thought, except that I was seven minutes late to the Tuesday morning one, through a tremendous series of fuckups beginning with the conference hotel not being able to find my reservation on Saturday night, continuing with my barely missing two unrelated streetcars on Tuesday morning, and, let's not leave out the most important part, my forgetting that the class started at 8:30 and not at 9:00 until about 8:00.

I've written before about the general worthlessness of the attendee evaluations, so maybe I won't go into detail about them again. What I want to complain about here is the descriptions of the classes that appear in the conference brochure and on the web site.

One of the things that Nat (the program committee chair) and I have commiserated about in the past is that no matter how hard you try to make a clear, concise, accurate description of the class, you are doomed, because people do not use the descriptions in a rational way. For example, suppose I happen to be giving the same class two years in a row. The class title is the same both years. The 250-word description in the brochure and on the web site is word-for-word identical both years. Nevertheless, you can be sure that someone will hand in an evaluation the second year that complains bitterly that the class was a waste of time, because they took the class the year before and there was no new material. I vented about this to Nat once, and the look of exhausted disgust on his face was something to see. Because I only have to read my own stupid evaluations, but Nat has to read all the stupid evaluations, and he probably sees that same idiotic complaint ten times a year.

Here's one I was afraid I'd get this year, and, who knows. It may yet happen. I sent the program committee seven proposals. They accepted three. One was for the Advanced techniques for Parsing class; one for for Higher-Order Perl. There was significant overlap between these two classes; the last third of the Higher-Order Perl class is about higher-order parser combinators, which are the principal subject of the advanced parsing class. This puts me in a difficult position. The program committee has accepted two classes that overlap. I have to deliver the material that I promised in the brochure, which people paid money to hear. I cannot unilaterally eliminate the overlap, say by substituting a different topic into Higher-Order Perl, because then someone in that class might quite rightly complain that they had been promised a section on parsing techniques, had paid for a section on parsing techniques, but had not been delivered a section on parsing techniques. But some people will sign up for both classes, and then will inevitably complain about the overlap, even though it should have been clear from the brochure that the classes would overlap.

The only way out for me is to try to get the program committee to agree beforehand to let me change around one of the classes to remove the overlap, write one-third of a new class, and document the change in the brochure description before it is published. That is a lot of work to do in a short time. Some people write their class slides the night before they give the class. I don't; I take weeks over it, revising extensively, and then I give a practice session, and then I revise again. So the classes overlapped, and I'm sure there were complaints about it that I haven't seen yet.

My favorite complaint of all time was from the guy who took Tricks of the Wizards and then complained that the material was too advanced.

This year I had the opposite problem. I gave a class on Advanced techniques for Parsing, and the following day I read a blog article from someone who had been disappointed that it was insufficiently advanced. This is a fair and legitimate criticism, and deserves a reasonable response. The response is not, however, to change the class content, because I think I have a pretty good idea of how sophisticated the conference attendees are, and of what is useful, and if I made the class a lot more advanced than it is, hardly anyone would understand it. But I did feel bad that this blogger had mistakenly wasted hours in my class and gotten nothing out of it. That should have been avoidable.

The first thing I did was to check the brochure description, to see if perhaps it was misleading, or if it promised extra-advanced material that I then didn't deliver. This sometimes happens. The deadline for proposals is far in advance of the deadline for the class materials themselves. So what happens is that you write up a proposal for a class you think you can do, that people will like, and that will appeal to the program committee, and you send it in. A few months later, it is accepted, and you start work on the class. Then sometimes you discover that even though you proposed a class about A, B, and C, there is only enough time to do A and B properly, and to cover all three in a three-hour class would just be a mess. So you write a class that covers A and B properly, and has an abbreviated discussion of C. But then there will be some people who came to the class specifically for the discussion of C, and who are disappointed. It is a tough problem.

Anyway, I thought this time I had done a reasonably good job of writing a class that actually matched the brochure description. So I wrote to the blogger to ask how the description could have been better: what would I have needed to say in it that would have tipped him off that the class would not have had whatever it was he was looking for?

The answer: nothing. He had not read the description. He attended the class solely because of the title, Advanced techniques for Parsing, and then after two hours figured out that it was not as advanced as he wanted it to be.

Not my fault! Not my fault!

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