Diversity at SFPC

This is an edited transcript of a talk I gave at “Diversity: Seven Voices on Race, Gender, Ability & Class for FLOSS and the Internet” at Carnegie Mellon University on May 26, 2015. The video of this talk is also online.

I’m honored and excited to speak at this conference among some of my heroes and inspiration. Thanks to Lauren McCarthy and Golan Levin for inviting me to participate.

The first day of SFPC Fall 2014

Today I’d like to talk about the gender diversity at School for poetic computation and especially the gender diversity among students.

The diversity within a community is a broad and complex issue that’s not limited to gender. It includes, but is not limited to, race, access to technology and financial resources. Also gender diversity is also not defined by the binary division between female and male, it is more of a spectrum of sexual orientation and identification. However, within the scope of this talk, I will place focus on gender ratio to open up more conversation and explore about the true meaning of diversity.

First I’d like to introduce myself and also acknowledge this perspective of diversity is my own, including potential bias and shortcoming of understanding.

My contribution to p5.js has been mostly through illustrating the basic concepts in comics. Lauren asked me about a year ago if I’d like to make drawings about a new JavaScript library she’s creating. I was immediately drawn into the project because of its philosophy and approach, and I’ve been producing comics for a book on learning to program which we will publish together with help of the Studio for Creative Inquiry in the near future.

I’m an artist and hacker. I make computational objects.

This is a shift register made of D-type flip flops

I hand make computers from discrete components for a few reasons. I’m inspired by the potentials of computation beyond programming language. I’d like to diversify the way we work with technology. And these art objects and installations are tools for us to rethink and reinvent computation, especially focusing alternative computing, and the kind that’s not driven by the military agenda or corporate mass production.

Handmade Computer that can compute 8-bits is installed in the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in South Korea

The core mission of my work is about demystifying technology for people like me, who do not come from technical background. I studied fine arts and I find beauty in computation, especially the repetition and abstraction, which once you observe closely become quite fascinating.

Public engagement is a very important part of my practice. I like to work with youth and adults in and out of art venues and museums. Teaching is an effective tool to build communities and share knowledge.

Today, I’d like talk about the School for poetic computation which began in 2013. I had the honor of co-founding the school and working with three individuals who I respect.

SFPC

Zach Lieberman, who has been actively contributing to the open source community via openFrameworks, Amit Pitaru, who is a user experience designer, musician and inventor, and Jen Lowe, who is a mathematician and data visualization artist. We started the school for a variety of reasons with a shared goal of making an open source school for art and technology. We wanted a school where new ideas take shape and collaborations begin.

I was unsatisfied with teaching at schools that were becoming increasingly expensive for students. I didn’t like the idea of introducing these amazing tools and ideas and leaving them in the wild world, burdened with debt. I respect people who teach and administrate the universities for their dedication to the field and students. I continue to teach in various universities as an adjunct professor. However I think there is a need for alternatives to further enrich the ecosystem of learning.

SFPC is a hybrid of school, research group and artist residency. We focus in teaching Code (functional, imperative and scripting languages), Theory (critical, aesthetic and poetics) and Hardware (physical computing and electronics). The SFPC Steering committee, which consist of few teachers and alumni, and a small administration team run the school.

Becky Stern artist talk
Human Fax Machine exercise

Our classes are unconventional. We think that best students are the best teachers, and vice versa.

For example, we teach the concept of binary numbers on the very first day. The first student assignment is to create a game to be played in order to teach the concept of binary numbers on the very next day. In this very fast process of learning and teaching, we empower and encourage the students to teach. It has been an effective way of engaging difficult materials in an integrated and fun manner.

Some of the class material can be found here: Allison Burtch’s class Critical Theory of Technology, Ramsey Nasser’s Radical Computer Science and Surya Mattu and Ingrid Burrington’s Network Geography.

We also release most of our financial data, which is different from most universities. We believe financial transparency is important in making the school more open. For example, you can see how much I got paid in past few years.

Now we’ve run the school four times — three times for ten weeks and once for two weeks. Each time 15~18 students gather from around the world. They are artists, engineers or somewhere in between. This is collaged picture of the students and teachers of the class of 2015 which just finished a few days ago.

Diversity among the students and faculty has always been an important aspect of the school. It makes the school more inviting for wide range of people.

In the very first term, we had 54 applicants, which was a surprisingly large number thanks to the mainstream press we got when we started the school. There might have been a slight misconception among some applicants that the school was a code bootcamp. In reality, we are more like an art school that uses code and hardware for creative expression. The gender ratio between the applicants was divided by 61% male and 39% female. A group of faculty chose 15 students based on their essays and work sample. The gender ratio was split between 47% female and 53% male.

Two years later, for spring 2015, we had 31 applicants, who are 62% male and 38% female. Although the number of applicants decreased, the selection process was still difficult.

Every term, we had more male than female applicants. Our applicant pool is also limited to the people who can come to New York City for ten weeks and have a full time commitment to learning.

In spring 2015, the initial demographic of the accepted students are 48% female and 52% male. However, not every student we accept could attend the school for variety of reasons. Part of the reason is that we charge tuition (around $5000 for ten weeks program), which helps us run the school independently but also raises the level of entry. Also, taking ten weeks out of someone’s personal and professional life is not an easy decision. We noticed that many women we accepted could not come to participate.

In the end, we had 44% female and 56% male among 18 students.

We realized the diversity was an important issue and have been consciously trying to improve and reach out to a wider range of communities. We continue to adjust the language and images on our website to better represent our community, and also offer work-study scholarships to women, people of color and those in need of financial assistance. Also, inviting diverse teachers and visiting artists to the school has been a way of establishing a culture that celebrates diversity.

This gender ratio alone may not look terrible. However, we have realized we are working against a structural inequality that’s beyond our immediate vision.

So I looked at the two worlds that our school lives in.

Art world

The Guerrilla Girls is a historic Feminist Activist performance art group who have been creating posters as a method of data visualization showing the inequalities in the art world.

This is a recent work from this year, in which they recreated a poster they made in 1985 about women artists who had solo exhibitions in the major museums and commercial galleries in New York City. For this version made in 2015, the numbers have not changed so much, and we see not much has changed in three decades.

Tech world

The tech world is really imbalanced in terms of gender diversity in education and within industry. “Where are the numbers?” is an ongoing research project by Tracy Chou about the number of women working in tech start ups.

She has a repository where she keeps updating the numbers as more companies open up their diversity data. As you can see, the last commit was only twelve days ago.

For example, Dropbox has total of 275 engineers and only 26 female engineers. The tech world clearly has a long way to go. (Data)

Future world

What is the future we would like to see? That was the question that was given to the presenters today.

The future that I don’t want to see is the world of long-tailed otherness. Haiyan Zhang, an interaction designer writes about the Long-tail of Otherness.

The Long-Tail is subtle and harder to spot — it’s moments like being diverted to home economics classes instead of wood shop, it’s not having female engineering role models, it’s being told you look too young and too much like a girl to be taken seriously as a professional, it’s finding out you’re not being paid quite as much as your male colleagues.
We’re all immersed in this long-tail. It’s like the background radiation from the big-bang of the women’s rights movement.
And the impact of this long-tail over the course of someone’s life is the same — a loss of voice. A loss of confidence and potential.

A female engineer grows up in such a world.

The world we want to see, through the School for poetic computation, is one empowering our students to teach and lead their own schools.

This is Rachel Uwa, an alumna from the Fall 2013 who started her own school, School of MA, in Berlin. You can read my interview with her on this post.

I think people like Rachel, as well as other alumni like Tega Brain and Sarah Groff-Palermo who are in attendance at this conference, are the new leaders in the worlds of Art and Technology. Through their work as artists and educators, we will step closer to creating more diversity and equality.

I encourage everyone in this room to start a small organization for yourself and your community. I ask everyone to support new leaders from diverse backgrounds by giving them more opportunities to speak, teach and exhibit, which in return will inspire more diversity in this emerging field.

I’d like to end by opening our conversation to the wider issues of access, audiences and building the commons.

We’ve been trying to take an approach of working with local communities in New York. The poetic science fair was a day where we invite local communities to come hack with us, and it was an opportunity for our students to meet and teach younger and older folks. It was a day-long free event at the Silent Barn in Bushwick.

Poetic Science Fair photos by Tod Seelie

We organize events like these as they are opportunities for our students to engage and teach to new audiences through playful exercises and workshops. Also, it is often the first introduction to art with computation for many local communities.

Please get involved with our school by applying, making your own schools, and building a network of schools around us. Our call for Fall 2015 students is open until June 15th.

Thank you so much for having me here

If you are interested in helping underwrite scholarships or in supporting our school through sponsorship, please contact info@sfpc.io for more details.

Special thanks to Juliana Wang, Tega Brain, Ellie Irons, Maya Man, Jason Alderman for their critical feedback and help fixing my grammaarr☺