Spring sabbatical update: hibernation in war
My sabbatical is slipping away. It feels like just a few weeks ago I was coming back from a wonderful sunny vacation, preparing for winter, and finding a pleasantly low stress vibe in which to carefully and thoughtfully try to build a more just world. My winter was wide open, with 12 weeks of loosely structured time, a lab of wonderful people collaborating on IDC and ICER submissions, and long term research, teaching, and service projects that I hope will bring long term change to my community and the world. At the end, I looked forward to a brief trip to Atlanta to meet the community of other faculty launching pre-service CS teacher education programs, and to the SIGCSE Technical Symposium in Toronto. My hope was some peace, some progress, and to enjoy the last fully uncommitted quarter of my generous 9 month sabbatical.
It was some of those things. Life away from faculty meetings and teaching at scale has continued to be a relief. I’ve found academic leadership roles to be incredibly draining, especially during the past few years of pandemic life, and so stepping away from that for a year (thank you Joel!) has been necessary for me to feel any ounce of motivation to return to that level of responsibility in the coming years. And as much as I enjoy teaching, teaching at scale is not my jam. My lab, with 7–8 people I can know and guide well, is far more enriching than the classroom management and logistics that a 30, 70, or 200 student class requires. It has been a great relief to only have to think about a small group of people with shared goals and interests, instead of 60 faculty and 1,000 students.
But this winter hasn’t quite been the peace I’d hoped for. Amidst everything I’ve been working on, it was hard to ignore the country that I call home wage an all out assault on trans youth, trans adults, queer folks, and women, all in the name of a man and a book that supposedly teaches us love thy neighbor. The overriding sense of the right’s desire to control my body, control where I can and can’t be, who I can talk to, what I can say, and do the same to the millions of people like me around the country in far more vulnerable positions than me, has been inescapable. I’ve spent a hundred hours in the past three months writing state legislators, caring for trans youth, trying to make this assault more visible in the absence of any critical mass of mainstream media or public support. It feels like half the country is trying to kill us, and yet most of the public is oblivious or indifferent. And it feels like no matter how much I say or do, I can’t overcome the wave of hate, fear, and power that seeks to encode the second class status of trans people into law. The silence and indifference has been a knife to my heart.
Not much has given me hope, but some things have kept me moving. Clips of state legislators fighting for our rights, especially cis ones, have been essential. There’s only one of those for every hundred from someone on the right spreading lies and hate, and so it’s hard to derive any hope from that. But knowing that there are at least some people in halls of power using the capital they have to at least speak of the injustice, if not always stop it, has kept me motivated. I still have no idea what to say to the trans folks I mentor, whether faculty, postdoc, student, or youth. What can I say about people being horrible to us at scale, other than “keep fighting,” or “we’ll win someday”, when they’re losing their health care, facing poverty and homelessness, all on top of the existing traumas of being trans, Black, brown, and/or queer, like losing partners, parents, family, or your own life?
I’ve drawn the many skills I’ve learned in the closet to dissociate regularly, carving out space for my passions. These have helped maintain my sense of purpose and agency, while I watch my people’s civil rights slowly crumble outside. Here’s are some of the things I’ve been working on.
Wordplay continues to be a source of joy. If July 2022 — December 2022 was setting foundations, the past three months have been one of polish. I agreed to present at Carnegie Mellon University in April and the University of Michigan in May, and that gave me a good target for feature completeness and stability. The amount of functionality is immense — there are nearly 100,000 lines of TypeScript and Svelte I’m maintaining at this point — but I’m saved by both regularly, where most of my work is redesign and refactoring, not debugging. It will be polished enough for me to do live demos, record a collection of videos of core features, and hopefully share a beta at the end of Spring. Much of what remains is documentation, a backlog of bugs, a thorough verification of accessibility and usability more broadly, and a tutorial, before it’s learnable by anyone in my target group of 11–99.
I launched a beta of Bookish.press recently. It feels great having it in the world, where people can play with it, imagine web-based books that might live and evolve online. We’ll be using it for the forthcoming Teaching Accessible Computing, a book I’m co-editing with Richard Ladner and the amazing Alannah Oleson, along with a beautiful community of more than two dozen researchers and teachers of accessible computing. I’m slowly working towards a stable 1.0, and am excited to have the book launch alongside it. Meanwhile, I’m starting to migrate some of my existing books to the platform.
For more than a year now, I’ve been carefully searching for ways to address the reviewer shortage in my community of peer review. Everyone is burned out, declining review invitations, and review quality has suffered. This has also demoralized authors, who are often waiting an extra 3–6 months for reviews, and then getting feedback of highly variable quality. And my own role as Editor-in-Chief of ACM TOCE has become a weekly grind of tracking reviews and recommendations that are often months overdue. My sense, and others’, is that peer review is crumbling. Last week I shared the culmination of my diagnosis of the problem and my proposed solution, a simple accounting of reviewing labor in the form of review tokens. I’m now starting to advocate for it, and see if what scale I might be able to implement it, before my field collapses under fatigue. The politics and implementation are going to be messy, but necessary.
And my lab, my wonderful lab, has forged ahead on so many fascinating projects. We’re examining student assets in critical CS pedagogy, the risks of student surveillance in assessment, the role of funding in refugee support agency’s entry into CS education, the rhetoric behind cheating and rigor, the role of neurodiversity in CS education, the role of AI in creativity support, and how assessments amplify inequities. I’m happiest when my research is eclectic and unexpected, with my students and postdocs pursuing their emerging passions. It can be a fun challenge fundraising to support this diversity of work, trying to opportunistically find support for projects that I genuinely want to do, but that also provides support for the creative, unexpected, and bold directions that my lab could only do with freedom from funding constraints.
In all of these projects, anti-racism, decolonization, and disability justice have been central to my thinking. Wordplay, as much as it might seem like a playful diversion, to me represents an expression of what programming might be if computer science saw the entire world and it’s languages and abilities and cultures as first class, rather than just centering white cis Western normatively-abled mathematicians. I want youth to see their languages, cultures, and identity in the code they write in it, and in what they make. Bookish, as much as it might seem like a niche vision for sharing knowledge online, is fundamentally about creating accessible forms of knowledge that aren’t beholden to the for-profit whims an inaccessible media of traditional publishers, who tend to be white folks gatekeeping what knowledge does and doesn’t count and publishing it in forms many disabled folks can’t use. My work on peer review, as much as it might seem like a wonky problem of academia, is really about trying to bring a respect for people’s humanity and labor to an institution that has for too long centered exploitation and gatekeeping. These projects are deep in the weeds on creating more equitable infrastructure for expression and knowledge, even though they aren’t easily seen that way.
My winter ended in Toronto, at the SIGCSE Technical Symposium. I came with a mindset shaped by all of the above, an existential fatigue from loss of civil rights and care work, and a tenuous drive to try to make a more equitable and just world where I can. And so as I wrote about my experience at the conference, I couldn’t help but see it in these terms. And of course, as is true every day, attendees were a constant reminder, most oblivious or indifferent to the war being waged on trans folks globally. I spent most of my time doing more care work, spending time with the small community of trans and queer students, postdocs, and faculty in computing education research, teaching, and advocacy.
I wish I could spend my time just living, and blissfully pursuing more lighthearted things. But as anyone on the margins knows well, this shitty world doesn’t give us that luxury. It forces us to exhaust ourselves, fight, and justify our humanity, just to hold on to even basic unequal rights, and dream of incremental generational progress. It doesn’t matter how many times, or how carefully we explain how White supremacy, transmisogyny, ableism, and capitalism intertwine to create this world, the majority will shrug and go back to gleefully destabilizing the world with generative AI, financial instruments, and other forms of extraction and exploitation, and ruthlessly seeking White power by stepping on the necks of everyone else.
And so my Spring will be busy. I’m frantically fixing bugs in preparation for my visits to CMU and Michigan in the coming months. I’m preparing to teach 14 pre-service CS teachers this Spring with my wonderful STEP CS team, as wrapping up our NSF grant that catalyzed our justice-centered pre-service program. I expect and hope to network broadly, making people uncomfortable with my ideas, but also maybe uncomfortable with theirs. I’ll squeeze in a trip to Chicago to attend my first AERA, which I hear is a chaotic hum of equitable education musings. I’ll likely wind down from those four weeks in Pittsburgh, Chicago, and Ann Arbor by settling back home, preparing to share Wordplay, pulling out my summer clothes, and taking a deep breath as I start bracing for a return to industrialized academia in September.