A visit to Ann Arbor to discuss equity, justice, and engineering education
It’s been a long two years of sheltering in my home office. It’s just been me, my cat, and my wife (who has basically been working two years of overtime as a nurse). Traveling was out of the question, both to protect ourselves, my immunocompromised daughter, and our immunocompromised parents. I survived, but I think my professional network, mostly decayed, as the opportunities to connect disappeared.
In the past month, things have felt a bit safer. Cases have been down across the U.S., vaccines are abundant, and the few professional networking opportunities that I’ve wanted to do have been vaccine mandatory-affairs. I came back from SIGCSE 2022, for example, feeling well, with no reports of positive cases, and on a wonderful high of serendipitous conversation and connection around ideas.
It’s not clear that this is going to last. There are signs of another wave coming soon. My daughter and parent-in-law’s immunity is not yet stable. And, paradoxically, most of the U.S. is abandoning the very protections that have kept cases on the decline. And so it felt strange this morning, heading to the airport to visit the University of Michigan to speak on a panel and do more networking. Is this the responsible thing to do? Am I putting others at risk? How will Ann Anbor’s masking and vaccination be relative to Seattle’s? I really had no idea, given how much is in flux.
But heading to Michigan was strange in another way. My last visit there was in 2017, where I visited folks in CSE and the iSchool. But so much has changed in the past five years:
- I’m Amy now.
- Two leading computing education researchers, Mark Guzdial and Barb Erickson are now at Michigan, after moving from Georgia Tech in 2018.
- CS and the School of Information have numerous new faculty and some problematic faculty are no longer there.
- I do equity, justice, and policy now, and not just programming.
- Oh, and there’s an ongoing global pandemic, war in Europe, a war against trans youth in the U.S., and record inflation.
And so my visit in 2017 and my visit in 2022 were bound to be different. First and foremost, it wasn’t colleagues in HCI and Computing Education who invited me. Rather, it was the Ford School of Public Policy’s Science, Technology, and Public Policy center, asking me to join a panel titled, “Cultivating socially responsible engineers: The role of universities and public policy”, where I would share my perspectives on how to bring topics of equity and justice into engineering education. And rather than visiting with a medley of HCI researchers, my two day visit was full of them, but also an entirely new community of public policy, engineering education, and computing education researchers. Pandemic or not, I was excited.
After a quiet Sunday evening post-flight, I rose Monday morning for a coffee with two childhood friends I hadn’t seen for more than 13 years who now live in Ann Arbor. (Hi Brian and Ursula!). We had a great time catching up, filling in the gaps in our sparse Facebook-fragmented glimpse into each others’ lives. I was so grateful to reconnect and hear about their new home and new jobs.
After, I met Kristin Burgard, STPP’s new Outreach and Partnership Manager, for a casual walk to Weill Hall to settle into my visitor office. It turns out that Kristin grew up in Pittsburgh on possibly the same block I lived in during graduate school. We reminisced about 100 year old homes, the Swissvale school and playground, and I oriented a bit to the Weill hall layout.
After a few minutes getting cozy in my office, I had a lovely meeting with José Zayas Castro, the head of NSF’s Division of Engineering Education and Centers. José has had a medley of professor, chair, and dean roles and recently joined NSF full time. We chatted about the many challenges and opportunities with doing department, university, and field level community organizing. I was particularly intrigued by how he characterized the two main challenges as resources and leadership. We discussed this in the context of some of the overlap between engineering education and computing education, and the tensions between making space for discipline-based education research progress and trans-disciplinary, boundary spanning progress. He predicted that it would take interdisciplinary leaders to reconcile that tension.
Next I met with STPP faculty affiliate and research scientist Denia Djokić, who studies social and environmental justice aspects of the governance of nuclear energy technology. Denia talked about her journey through nuclear engineering, to where she is now, trying to engineering discourse move beyond more superficial rhetoric about clean energy to deeper framings around justice and exploitation. In our conversation, we found so many fascinating overlaps between computing and nuclear engineering: 1) solutions, 2) engineering neutrality, 3) a focus on triage and repair over refusal to build, and 4) the way in which computing and nuclear engineering both have hidden structural dependencies that only become visible in failure. But we also talked about some of the disciplinary differences. For example, computing is very much in public conversation, creating pressure; it is also a younger discipline, with an orientation towards change, which creates space for conversations about changing what is taught and how it is taught. Denia noted that nuclear engine, in contrast, is largely invisible to the public, and so any pressure that exists is primarily internal, making change even harder. The most interesting idea we encountered was the the pedagogical shifts required in all of this: it’s not just about teaching different things, but deconstructing students’ identities, which are often defined by solutionism and neutrality. How does one help students’ embrace the disciplines as ones that permit refusal, while preserving their motivation to participate in the discipline?
After a short break, I met with STPP faculty affiliate Ben Green, a postdoc with a background in CS, but who now focuses on social and political impacts of algorithms in government. We explored the need for algorithmic bias discourse to be more focused on the systems of incentives and governance and less on technologies themselves, but also on the requisite literacies for decision makers to be able to effectively manage public technology investments. We talked about, for example, how many technologies are only effective when deployed well and with expertise, and how many cities are not positioned to execute deployments with those skills, ultimately leading to poorer quality outcomes. We lamented the lack of efficacy studies about the risks and failures of technologies, rather than on best case deployments.
I then had a wonderful lunch with postdoc Johanna Okerlund, who has been studying how to incorporate ethics and justice throughout Computer Science curriculum, and Electrical and Computer Engineering PhD student Trever Odenberg. The three of us were at substantially different places at our careers, Trever just navigating the disparate links between computer engineering and public policy, Johanna just having wrapped up a public policy postdoc at STPP after starting in CS and HCI, and myself nearly 20 years in to a career studying programming, learning, and belonging. But we found common ground around the many challenges of participating in emerging interdisciplinary spaces: the risks, the difficulty building community, and but also the great opportunities. Much of the advice I gave centered around finding others with shared interests to take risks with, but also the privilege I have in saying that, as a tenured professor. This also connected to our experiences trying to help undergraduates navigate the tensions between doing the work they want to do at the intersection of technology and justice and the work they can be paid handsomely to do (e.g., making Google Search a bit faster).
I had the afternoon before the panel free, but with a few research meetings. I met briefly with some colleagues in psychometrics and AI to sort out trajectories for a grant that examines how to use AI for equitable CS assessments. I synced with my research-practice partnership team on the launch of our new CS endorsement in our College of Education’s Secondary Teacher Education Program. I coordinated on some of the final projects on our programming strategies work with my colleague Thomas LaToza at George Mason. And I submitted Winter quarter grades for my class, User Interface Software and Technology. It was strange doing my faculty job from a visitor’s office in a School of Public Policy!
I headed down for the panel around 4pm, which was held in the beautful Betty Ford auditorium. It went by quickly, even though it was 90 minutes of talking and Q&A. We covered a lot of ground, including the many diverse perspectives we spoke from, our thoughts on equity and justice pedagogy for engineering, the structural and cultural issues we see for change, the tensions between bottom up and top down change, the role for students to play in advocating for change, and more. I found Johanna’s points about the need to teach engineering humility particularly compelling, Associate Dean for Undergraduate Education Tim McCay’s points about orchestrating cross-disciplinary co-teaching promising, and Jose’s points about bringing communities through funding essential. Dean of Engineering Alec Gallimore was a fantastic moderator, making room for everyone’s perspectives. I did my usual shtick, talking about identity, belonging, faculty professional development, and capitalism. I also said something about every solution being a problem (in reference to the engineering mindset of every problem having a solution). You can see the full panel here:
The day ended with dinner at a cute Korean restaurant called Miss Kim, with the panelists and Shobita Parthasarathy, who studies comparative and international politics and policy related to science and technology, and STPP managing director Molly Kleinman. Shobita and Molly were our STPP hosts and I got to sit next to them throughout dinner, talking about engineering culture, computer science culture, public policy culture, interdisciplinarity, leadership, power, Autism, trans issues, and more. It was lovely company and a wonderful way to end a stimulating day!
On my second day, Mark Guzdial arranged an eclectic schedule of HCI, Programming Languages, and Computing Education faculty. After a brisk walk to return the visitor room key I forgot to leave in Weill, I checked out and met Mark for breakfast. We had a far ranging conversation about academic program administration, faculty cat herding, academic cults that grow around different theoretical perspectives, and the joy of trying to create computational media that resonate with specific groups, rather than claiming to be universal. Mark also showed me the view of North campus, where CS resides a few miles away from central campus.
I then met Assistant Professor Cyrus Omar, who works on innovative interfaces for programming languages. This is a topic I worked in back in the early 2000’s and still have a lot of fond interest in. I was excited to hear that Cyrus and his PhD students were building upon some of my work, but also going well past it, inventing new structured editing paradigms that ensure well-formed programs while also enabling seamless editing. We talked about some of the contexts in which meeting these constraints could be particularly valuable, such as collaborative editing contexts, and also ways to allow for ill-formed structure, but incentivize quick repair (like much more aggressive syntax error messages).
After meeting with Cyrus and his students, I met with a group of four of Steven Oney’s PhD students, April Wang, Lei Zhang, Ashley Zhang, and Rebecca Krosnick. We talked a bit about their fascinating work on programming interfaces for collaboration, data science, web macros, VR, and AR, all of which go far beyond the kinds of conventional programming that most research has explored (including mine). We also talked about the many tensions between making research prototypes and having impact; I shared my perspectives on viewing prototypes as knowledge and focusing on how they might impact what others build, rather than worrying about trying to reach scale ourselves without sufficient resources.
Afterwards I met with PhD student Jane Im, who is exploring how to make online spaces safer. We had a wide ranging conversation about the relationship between safety, consent, and computing literacy, exploring the ways in which literacy might change the kind of consent that users demand, the kinds of consent that designers and engineers offer, and the kinds of collective expectations that the public has about safety online.
Next I met with Assistant Professor Xu Wang, who studies the intersection of learning, HCI, and AI. Xu shared her many creative explorations into question generation and HCI education scaffolding, applying many data and machine learning driven techniques to try to automate some of the many tasks involved in supporting active learning in CS education, HCI education, and education more broadly. We talked about the many challenges that automated techniques face in supporting students at the margins and some of the methods in HCI that might be more amenable to streamlining, including some of the work to appear by my student Alannah Oleson on assumption ideation.
Next was Mark’s PhD students, Tamara Nelson-Fromm (who studies non-computing professionals conceptions of CS concepts), Emma Doodo (who has just begun studying multilingual programming), and Bahare Naimipour (who is leading some of Mark’s work on teaspoon languages in social sciences). All three talked about the challenges of interdisciplinary; I shared my experiences finding and making community around interdisciplinary subjects and encouraged them to begin to bring together everyone as a virtual community on top of the many departments engaged in computing education work.
As it turns out, my visit and lunch was exactly that opportunity: many of the folks I’d met, as well as other faculty and students, joined for lunch. I declined to give a talk — I was too short on prep time, alas — and so instead I offered to give a lunch “un-talk”, speaking impromptu for 10 minutes and then having a group conversation. I talked about my journey from programming productivity, to learning programming, to liberatory and justice-focused computing education, explaining the need for critical consciousness about computing in society and the role of teachers in fostering this. After giving several examples, we had a conversation about the many changes of enacting social change, from classrooms to curriculum to communities. I called upon many of the faculty to take a stand against some of the neoliberal encroachment of industry on classrooms, by setting demands if industry wants access to recruiting fairs, for example, or by changing their classroom environments.
After lunch, Mark drove me and two other students (Aadarsh Padiyath and my former undergraduate Anne Drew Hu, now a PhD student at Michigan State) back to North Quad, where I first met with Kaiwen Sun, who studies HCI, children, smart homes, and privacy. She was actually in Bellevue, ironically, across the lake from my home in Seattle. She shared fascinating ideas about how much control to offer children and the kinds of knowledge they need to use access control safely. We talked about the different literacies around safety, computing, and AI, and how distinguishing them isn’t always helpful in learning, as many of the ways that people experience them are as intersecting and holistic.
I then spoke to Assistant Professor Barb Ericson, who has long led broadening participation efforts and recently pivoted to research, studying CS assessment, learning analytics, and (not surprisingly) broadening participation. Barb and I talked about the transition back to campus, the struggles with teaching diverse prior knowledge, the opportunities and challenges with hybrid, and the many work/life balance tensions that emerge in faculty life (especially as parents).
Afterwards, I met with Aardarsh Padityah, iSchool PhD student with interests in AI literacy. He shared some of his emerging work on finding ways to make space for equity and justice perspectives in conventional forms of CS education through writing, helping groups often marginalized in CS to find space to explore these issues in dominant structures. We talked about the ways that equity and justice learning might need to be differentiated based on people’s identities and positions in society (e.g., privileged white men probably need different lessons that transfer students of color).
After, I caught up with Gabi Marcu, Assistant Professor in the iSchool, who studies digital health interventions. We hadn’t seen each other for years, since she was a PhD student. We talked about grant writing, career proposals, and in support of her developing CAREER proposal idea, the differences between experience reports on teaching and research on teaching, and the many kinds of professional development necessary for supporting teaching.
My last meeting was with Assistant Professor Nazanin Andalibi, who studies emotions, identity, and social computing. Naz also had grant writing on the mind, and so I shared some of the jigsaw puzzle metaphors I use to think evaluate proposals (great proposals are almost finished puzzles with significant but interesting missing pieces and a compelling final image; bad ones have pieces that don’t fit and a boring picture). We also talked about the numerous intersections between privacy, surveillance, and literacy.
Well, Naz wasn’t quite my last meeting: Assistant Professor Oliver Haimson, who studies social computing and trans technologies, was generous and drove me to the airport. We talked about his fascinating interview project on trans technologies, the book he is planning on writing about them and their creators, and the many fascinating methodological and positionality questions in doing research on trans issues and content moderation.
And then I had McDonald’s at the airport, because that’s all that was open.
Like many of my visits during the pandemic, one thing was clear: the discourse in CS, the discourse in iSchools, and the discourse on social sciences such as public policy, are incredibly far apart. CS is still largely framed as a problem solving discipline, and struggling to make space for other epistemologies and other people. The iSchool sits in the middle, with faculty that have exposure to these broader critical perspectives in computing, but also a foot in computing, trying to reconcile their tensions and find space for both in classrooms and faculty decisions. And public policy, a new field for me, is deeply engaged in asking critical, often radical questions around power and governance, but only recently engaging data and algorithms as a source of power.
That I had the opportunity to connect with all three of these communities and find clear intersections between their concerns is a testament to interdisciplinarity. And yet, at the same time, I’m one of the few on this trip that really got to connect all three — I think perhaps my former undergrad Anne Drew was the only one I saw in all three spaces. And so while Michigan is beginning to bring these groups together in conversation to meet with me, I wonder about its capacity to bring these groups together in conversation with each other. That’s not to say that I’m doing it any better, or that my institution is; rather, I think Michigan just reflects all of the challenges that universities have in fully grappling with the transdisciplinary ideas like equity and justice in inherently disciplinary structures. I hope I can come back in 5 years and find an even more radically different changes!