Finding other Christians in Computer Science at CHI 2016 | MIT Center for Civic Media

Finding other Christians in Computer Science at CHI 2016

Academic conferences offer many great moments to connect with other people who share passions and interests. In that spirit, Robin Brewer (PhD candidate, Northwestern) and I hosted a coffee break for Christians at CHI 2016 this year.

Christian Coffee Break at CHI 2016

Before posing for this photo, we paused to pray for each other and for everyone attending the conference. It can be hard to convey the remarkable sense of peace and encouragement that something simple like group prayer can bring.

It's like being a traveler far from home, in a place with local cuisine of great depth and variety, a place that already satisfies you. Then one day, someone sets your table with a dish from your childhood, a meal that renews in a deep, mysterious way through its smells, tastes, and familiar nourishment. That's what our time of prayer felt like to me -- acknowledging a deeply important part of my life and nourishing me to enjoy the wider world with a renewed spirit and perspective.

Before I started blogging about Christianity and technology in my first year at MIT, I didn't know a single Christian who I could talk to about the issues and ideas in my research. Christian teachings and traditions speak into every conversation I've taken up in my work, including cooperation, gratitude, equality, and justice. Yet when I looked around me, I couldn't find anyone who could speak intelligently to the academic questions while also participating in the long conversation within Christianity on these issues. Across my work, I tend to focus on public-interest, non-partisan, non-religious projects, so I haven't always fit the mold of apologists for Christianity that are typically more visible within academic Christian culture. That left me unconnected within my field and within my faith alike.

As I continue to be honest about my Christian faith in my blogging and social media use, I have discovered that I was far from alone. Many other Christians have found themselves drawn to social computing because it offers an opportunity to reflect on the moral and social dimensions of technology. Over the last year, several gradstudents and I have been hosting semi-regular Google Hangouts of Christians in computer science and HCI, building a community for prayer and encouragement. And since Robin and I were both presenting multiple papers at CHI, we decided to try an experiment: could we find out who else were Christians by advertising a coffee morning?

 

Once we decided to go ahead, organizing the gathering was straightforward. After finding a core group, we picked a time and location and advertised the gathering on Twitter. One of the conference organizers was kind enough to share our announcement on social media.

Reflection, Encouragement, Community among Christians at CHI

I found myself deeply encouraged to sit in a circle with so many other computer scientists from so many different cultures and geographies who also share a Christian faith in some way. In our brief conversation, we talked about things that Christians in many fields discuss:

  • Ways that our faith has shaped our research and career
  • Challenges and support for Christians in academia (our Namibian colleague reminded us that in some countries, Christians are the majority of computer scientists!)
  • Ways to carry out our calling to love others within an academic context
  • Avenues to support and serve Christianity in particular through our research and skills

Continuing the Conversation
We're planning to continue the conversation we started at CHI this year, so if you're a Christian in HCI, social computing, or computer science more broadly, contact me and I can add you to our mailing list. We have no boundaries of denomination or belief; everyone who has a connection to Christianity is welcome.

If you're not in computer science and want to try something similar, consider reaching out to InterVarsity's Emerging Scholar's Network, Black Scholars in the Academy and Professions, the American Scientific Affiliation, which all facilitate relationships among Christian academics.

I hope this note inspires other people, whatever your identity or belief, to think about ways that a similar approach might help you connect with others in your field who share your interests and beliefs. If you're at MIT or within HCI and would like some feedback or support in your own efforts, let me know. I would be delighted to help, whatever your faith or identity.