Computing + learning + design + justice
A screenshot of Google search with the query “is google oppressi” and the suggestion “what is oppression google scholar”
A screenshot of Google search with the query “is google oppressi” and the suggestion “what is oppression google scholar”
Don’t change the subject Google.

I spent this summer reading a lot about race and technology (McIlwain, Eubanks, Benjamin, Costanza-Chock, and more). Most of my reading has been broadly scoped, focusing on all of technology and its historical and present day interaction with race. In some ways, this has been transformative, giving me an entirely new lens with which to think about the past and the present, and my role in it. But on other ways, this has been overwhelming, since it’s meant grappling with the entire history of technology and race in the United States, particularly computing.

To give myself a break—if I can call it that—recently I turned my attention to a more narrowly scoped book, Safiya Umoja Noble’s Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism. Dr. Noble is a professor at the UCLA Department of Information Studies, where she directs the Center for Critical Internet Inquiry. She is a colleague in one sense, as we’re both professors at information schools. But in other ways, we are worlds apart. Her background was in library and information studies; mine was computer science. She’s had eclectic academic appointments in African American Studies, Information Science, and Gender Studies across three institutions; I’ve only ever been at an information school. She identifies as Black; I as White and Asian. And yet, through the wonders of interdisciplinarity, I find myself reading her work, building upon it, and teaching it. …


A Scratch program that, when clicked, redundantly updates a character’s speech bubble to say “editor!” 28 times.
A Scratch program that, when clicked, redundantly updates a character’s speech bubble to say “editor!” 28 times.
When I say block-based, you say editor. Block-based! Editor! Block-based! Editor!

I’ve been writing about some heavy things lately—race, gender, politics. As passionate as I am about these large issues in society, I occasionally need an intellectual palate cleanser. Something light, small, maybe even trivial, maybe even pointless. Tackling these little things like like a cool down after a workout: it’s a way to slow down in a measured way from something intense, before finding a more peaceful resting state. Like Thanksgiving weekend.

What better than a rant about word choice? I am an academic after all, and so this wouldn’t be an academic blog if I didn’t at least occasionally get far too annoyed about the words that people use. …


A photograph of a display showing a slide titled “Critical Computing Education”, with an iPad hovering above showing Zoom.
A photograph of a display showing a slide titled “Critical Computing Education”, with an iPad hovering above showing Zoom.
This is what an invited talk looks like now.

For researchers like myself, one of the major disruptions from the pandemic has been the loss of travel. Most years, I would fly more than 50,000 miles a year, attending 4–5 conferences to share research and network, visiting universities to give invited talks and meet new faculty, and also spending a good amount of time at the National Science Foundation, evaluate proposals by my colleagues. This travel would take me all over the world, including Europe, Asia, Australasia, and sometimes South America and Africa. I’ve always tried to make the most of this incredible privilege to roam, learning about the countries I visited, deeply networking with its scholars, and building on those in-person encounters online. …


A photo of a Black Lives Matter protest showing a row of police on the left and a row of protested on the right
A photo of a Black Lives Matter protest showing a row of police on the left and a row of protested on the right
Photo by Koshu Kunii on Unsplash

I am no expert at managing conflict. For most of my life, I’ve avoided it, and when I find myself immersed in it, I get scared, anxious, overwhelmed, and consumed by it. At best, I’m unconstructive and at worst, I’m combative and destructive. The only thing that saves me is that I’m usually self aware enough to know I’m doing these things that I can pull myself out of the situation.

Unfortunately, avoiding conflict is no way to make change. Our long unjust history in this country has shown that change doesn’t come from everybody avoiding their disagreements. We have to engage hard topics, and that can be uncomfortable, as it can involve strong emotions, arguments, protest, and more. …


An illustration of a Terminator robot with a thought bubble that says “IF OBJ.IS_HUMAN DESTROY OBJ
An illustration of a Terminator robot with a thought bubble that says “IF OBJ.IS_HUMAN DESTROY OBJ
Is the Terminator is coming for your curriculum?

In case it hasn’t been obvious, I’m really interested in computing education right now. There are so many things I like about: a growing and inspired researcher and practitioner community, an abundance of hard, unanswered questions, and—as someone who identifies fundamentally as a human-computer interaction researcher—phenomena rich with people interacting with computers. I’m all in!

However, as some people know, I’m also quite fond of being contrarian, taking something widely accepted or cherished and questioning it as deeply as I can. This includes my own ideas and passions. …


The top of the cover of McIlwain’s book, showing the title “BLACK SOFTWARE” and a pixelated fist.
The top of the cover of McIlwain’s book, showing the title “BLACK SOFTWARE” and a pixelated fist.
Yes, I still by print and no, I didn’t buy on Amazon.

I teach undergrads. And with few exceptions, most of them are just barely 20, only just aware of themselves, let alone the world, and the histories that have shaped it. Because I teach about computing and information, the gaps in my students’ knowledge become clearest when I speak of my own history with technology: one that started with no internet, no smartphones, no apps, no data. I talk about how my early childhood was one of creative play within limits, because my access to information and games was bounded by my access to libraries, newspapers, magazines, floppy disks, and trips to Incredible Universe. I contrast that with my young adulthood, in which IRC, Compuserve, AOL, and Lycos connected me to meme proto-cultures, chat rooms with creepy adults talking to teens, and the earliest of gender non-conforming online communities. …


Image for post
Image for post
A figure from Benji Xie’s 2019 paper “A Theory of Instruction for Introductory Programming Skills”, which has formed the basis for much of our work on the grant in the past 3 years.

Ever since I started writing proposals to government research foundations—primarily the National Science Foundation (NSF)—I’ve felt a strong civic responsibility to be as public as possible about what I’ve done with the money. NSF itself builds in some of this in its requirements, asking investigators to write short 500 word project outcome statements, which appear on its websites. But that format always seemed so limited and formal, preventing me from telling the full story behind a grant. To supplement this, I started blogging about grants that have ended, both as a way of telling this backstory, but also as a way of marking a milestone in my professional career, as grants tend to have a major impact on my ability to conduct research, mentor students, and have impact. …


A photograph of the cherry blossoms in the University of Washington quad.
A photograph of the cherry blossoms in the University of Washington quad.
“University of Washington Cherry Blossoms by Michael Matti” by Michael Matti is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.

Most people know the story by now. George Floyd was at a convenience store and allegedly used a counterfeit $20 bill. The store owner, following store policy, called the police. The police came, interrogated Floyd, and then police officer Derek Chauvin wrestled Floyd to the ground and knelt on his neck for 8 minutes while Floyd repeatedly expressed that he could not breathe. Floyd called for his mother, got quiet, and then died. The other officers did nothing, local protests ensued, and what is likely the largest protest against police violence in U.S. …


The cover of the book, “Automating Inequiality: How High-Tech Tools Profile, Police, and Punish the Poor”
The cover of the book, “Automating Inequiality: How High-Tech Tools Profile, Police, and Punish the Poor”
The blunt title of the book, made spicier by alliteration.

My parents grew up poor. My Dad told me stories about his childhood bedroom, which was a broom closet with a small mattress in his parents’ laundry business backroom. Some of his first memories were waking up on his back, staring at the flickering pull-string light bulb, with the smells of cleaners and mold and stale water. As a small child, his parents would send him out for the day to capture pigeons in downtown Portland so they could have fresh eggs for breakfast. Similarly, my Mom told me stories of playing in the fields on her parents’ farm with her dozen siblings. Everyone shared one bathroom, and on hot summer days, she was trucked miles from home to pick berries on her neighbors’ farms for 8 hours with her nine sisters. She later learned that this helped her Dad pay the utilities. …


Building community and brainstorming concrete ways to support D&I in software

Last Thursday, a tweet floated across my timeline with an invitation: On Monday, August 17th, we’re having a virtual workshop on Software Developer Diversity and Inclusion Research. Join us, won’t you?

Following the accompanying link, I found out about the second annual Workshop on Software Developer Diversity and Inclusion (SDDI 2020). With a self-stated goal of “rais[ing] awareness about developer diversity and inclusion challenges faced by industry today” and a public attendee list of software engineering and human-computer interaction researchers I’d heard about and read work from, this seemed like a great opportunity. On top of that, it was free to attend and open to all through virtual participation! …

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