Bits and Behavior
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Bits and Behavior

Amy in sunglasses, a sun cat, against a backdrop of sand, waves, and blue skies.
On the beach in Oceanside, working out the intricacies of multilingual bindings in functional closures.

Autumn sabbatical update: Reconnecting, reinventing, recovering

About three months ago I started my 2022–23 sabbatical. At the time, I framed my goals around three things:

  • Slowing my communication (e.g., reducing email to once a week, getting off social media, writing fewer blog posts).
  • Rebuilding community (especially face to face).
  • Quietly making (a new creative coding platform that centers accessibility and language inclusion, but really as a form of art therapy for myself.)

Throughout all of the above, I’ve also have an overarching goal of centering racial, gender, and disability justice in all of my work. For me, that’s meant that if I can’t find a direct line between the work I’m doing this year and one of those intersecting forms of justice, and it doesn’t advance one of the goals above, I’m not doing it. (Sorry to everyone I’ve said no to in the past three months!)

As I’ve been chipping away at these goals, I’ve been trying to think of ways to ensure I’m achieving them. These quarterly updates are going to be my way of self-assessing, but also making sure that my community knows what I’m up to.

So here’s a list of things I’ve been doing, in no particular order, and how they connect to the goals above.

Designing and building Wordplay. My new creative coding environment, which I’m calling Wordplay, is coming to life. In centering accessibility and language inclusion, it’s been a fascinating and frustrating journey so far: there’s almost nothing to reuse! Nearly every library and toolkit out there is ignorant of language differences and ability differences. I have found some things to build upon: Svelte, for example, has lots of accessibility linting built-in, and browsers only recently started supporting more advanced awareness of grapheme segmentation for the many scripts in Unicode. But other than that, I’ve needed to build everything from scratch, to avoid inheriting the ableist and colonialist histories of API for programming language and user interface implementation. But I’ve made good progress: I have a mostly built and entirely new programming language that is purely functional, typographically beautiful (to me!), language inclusive, and as far as I can tell so far, highly screen readable, for those who rely on screen readers. And I’ve also begun inventing a new kind of code editor that simultaneously supports text editing, drag and drop editing, and menu-based editing, with no modes, ensuring that anyone of any ability can read and write Wordplay code.

Building equitable pathways for a more diverse CS teacher workforce. After launching our new secondary CS teaching pre-service program in Spring, one thing become crystal clear: we need lots of money to subsidize tuition and cost of living in order to meaningfully engage teachers with group identities underrepresented in computing. Fortunately, in the past three months, we’ve successfully raised $200K from our provost, $200K from NSF, and $400K from industry, which should help us fund around 100+ new middle and high school CS teachers in the next decade, particular those who are Black, Latinx, Pacific Islander, Native American, and/or disabled.

Broadening conceptions of computing. I’ve been going around trying to give talks for the past few years about the importance of fundamentally broader and more inclusive conceptions of computing. In the past three months, I’ve continued this in a few ways: I brought these ideas to a Dagstuhl on educational programming languages, I gave a talk at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver BC on the topic, I will give a talk soon at MIT CSAIL, and I will also be speaking to the many pre-service teachers in the UCLA STEM+C3 program across California. Jayne and I gave a fun session on critically conscious computing at CSTA in July. And my whole lab spent the summer aggressively pursuing research on this theme, studying youth conceptions of algorithmic fairness, our field’s toxic conceptions of “cheating”, opportunities for culturally responsive CS pedagogy in language arts, the role of TAs in creating cultures of belonging, the deceptively destructive role of algorithmic hiring in perpetuating privilege, and the centrality of neurodivergence in computing culture. We’re hopeful we get to share all of this wonderful work with you in the coming months!

Epistemological pluralism in peer review. Computing education research must welcome all forms of discovery, especially if we have any hope of understanding the systems of oppression built into our communities, institutions, and processes. But it has a long history of really only accepting narrow forms of invention and quantitive empirical studies. In my role as Editor-in-Chief of ACM Transactions on Computing, I’ve been working to dismantle all of these barriers to discovery about diversity, replacing them with new structures, new board members, and new opportunities for scholarship that reshape our knowledge of computing education.

Teaching accessibility. As part of my role in AccessComputing, I’ve been working with Alannah Oleson and Richard Ladner to kick off a new book project to help CS faculty in higher education integrate accessibility concepts and skills into CS curriculum. We just started the first cohort of writers, and hope to have a complete book by Spring. As part of this, I’m also working hard to finish a public version of my book writing platform, Bookish.press, an accessible place to write and maintain online books. Look for a beta in Winter 2023.

Welcoming new doctoral students. I’m excited to welcome two new PhD students to my lab! Megumi Kivuva was an undergraduate researcher in our lab last summer, and just joined as a PhD student in the iSchool. They are starting up new work examining refugee experiences at the intersection of schools and computing, which I’m hoping will be a powerful multimarginalized lens in the many intersecting structures in public education, public services, and computing literacy. Eman Sherif is coming from UC San Diego as a new PhD student in the Paul G. Allen School. She has broad interests in justice-centered computing education, mentorship, identity, and belonging.

Communicating less frequently. My experiment of only doing email and social media on Friday mornings has worked out so far. I miss a few urgent emails, but mostly people who send them to me alert me through other channels, or just miss out on my response. It’s reminded me a lot of my pre-internet childhood, when I used to gather up all of my physical mail in a pile on the weekend, opening it, replying to it, and cherishing its physicality (e.g., mostly magazines and letters from grandparents). I’ve also really enjoyed the pace: it’s slowed most of my work down, but not in a way that’s really hindered progress, since most of my collaborators don’t reply for 3–4 days anyway. And it’s greatly reduced my communication stress.

I have of course done other things this summer: vacation, lots of reading. I’ve learned that my form of rest is still a kind of busyness, but one with fewer obligations, fewer deadlines, and more opportunity for serendipity, surprise, and wandering. In some ways, it feels like the what professoring is supposed to be, but is no longer, due largely to a century of industrialization of higher education. I’m grateful for the chance to be reminded of what is possible in academia with the right balance of structure, time, and opportunity. It gives me a vision for what I hope I can create for others when I return to more teaching, administration, and service.

See you in three months with another update! And for all those taking on some of my load in my absence, thank you for the privilege of time and focus. I hope I can repay it when I return!

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Amy J. Ko

Amy J. Ko

6.6K Followers

Professor of programming + learning + design + justice at the University of Washington Information School. Trans; she/her. #BlackLivesMatter.