Takeaway points from the book From Equity Talk to Equity Walk

When I started my new habit of reading for at least 15 minutes first thing every (weekday) morning, one of my goals was to start chipping away at my growing pile of work-related reading. And indeed, it’s already paid off, because last week I finished the first of my “morning book reads”.

From Equity Talk to Equity Walk: Expanding Practitioner Knowledge for Racial Justice in Higher Education by Tia Brown McNair, Estela Mara Bensimon, and Lindsey Malcom-Piqueux (AAC&U, December 2020) is an accessible guidebook for anyone involved in, or contemplating taking a greater role in, equity work on campus. I don’t remember who originally recommended this book to me (and I suspect it was recommended by a few people), but I’m so grateful that they did. I’m not going to do a full-on book report, but I’ll briefly summarize the premise and then talk about the points that resonated most with me.

While the end of the book offers some specific actions in regards to advising and syllabi, the majority of the book concentrates on dismantling the ways we tend to think about achieving equity on our campuses — focusing on achievement gaps, aggregating data and discussions about “underrepresented” students, operating from a student deficit model — arguing instead for practices and conversations that critically examine how our structures embrace and prioritize whiteness, and how this focus on whiteness racializes everything from campus culture to academic achievement. The language we use when talking about students and their experiences, the way we define (or, more often, fail to define) what “equity” means in our campus contexts, our reluctance to engage in frank conversations about race, all contribute to our inability (or unwillingness, or perhaps both) to see how our institutions are set up with privileged white male students as the default, and to perpetuate this set-up with band-aid fixes to “equity problems”. The book argues that true equity work cannot succeed unless there are shared definitions of equity among campus leaders, and that these definitions are clearly and repeatedly reflected in the institution’s mission statement, reward structure, practices, and conversations.

The book spends a significant chunk of time talking about data and its role in illuminating places where the institution fails students and in fostering faculty reflection. The authors argue strongly for disaggregating data to get a full picture of the current status — that being truly equity-minded means examining differences in outcomes for specific groups so that you can truly understand the sources of the problems. It presents specific examples from campuses on how departments analyzed and discussed disaggregated data, which I found quite useful. Not so much for the actual contexts — it appears the case studies were drawn from schools larger than Carleton — but for modeling how to structure conversations around the data, and how to respond to the “but whatabout” points most commonly raised in such contexts.

There were three points in particular that resonated with me:

Point 1: We need to have frank conversations not just about race, but also about whiteness, on our campuses. This book helped me articulate why I’ve had this gnawing feeling of discomfort and dissatisfaction with the equity work I’m doing individually and as part of larger campus efforts. We focus on the students — as we should — and come up with strategies to “help them fit in” — advising strategies, cohort programs. But often (not always, but often enough), we don’t stop to question why our solutions gravitate towards “fitting students into the existing model” and not questioning the reasons we have a model that requires us fitting in students at all. We accept the systems as fixed. And this is largely because we just accept that “whiteness” is the norm, and not just the norm but the only acceptable norm. I doubt most of us do this consciously, but that doesn’t matter, because the effect is the same. It’s hard to start from a place of “our entire foundation is flawed”, but we’re going to have to go there if we are serious about achieving equity. And that’s going to be mighty uncomfortable and unsettling for a lot of us.

The book wasn’t super specific on ways to accomplish this — which makes sense, because each institution is in a different context and at a different starting point in these conversations. But I did appreciate that the book pointed out contexts in which to start probing whiteness — our everyday practices, our review and promotion processes, and especially the language we use when talking about student outcomes. In this way, it provided starting points for both individual work and campus conversations, something I appreciated very much.

Point 2: Collecting and analyzing the right data is crucial. Being at a small school and in a discipline not really revered for its diversity, I often hear about the “small numbers” problem. “We can’t disaggregate the data because the numbers are too small and we don’t want to identify students.” “The numbers are too small to tell us anything statistically meaningful.” “We can see trends affecting minoritized students better if we aggregate the data.” I get the arguments, particularly the one about aggregating to preserve student privacy. But the book makes a clear and cogent argument for data disaggregation. And in so doing, it highlights one of the many ways we get equity work wrong: we treat “minoritized” students as a monolith, rather than distinct populations with unique and non-overlapping histories with academia (and society as a whole). So we’re back to treating white as default and everyone else as “other”. With aggregated data, we may be able to identify a problem, but are likely to get the remedies wrong. With disaggregated data, we can see exactly who is adversely affected (and who benefits) by various structures and how this manifests itself (in student performance, in retention and tenure rates, etc.). I’m currently working on several initiatives that will require data collection, and this book is helping me think through how to structure our “data ask” and has helped me initiate conversations about data disaggregation in advance of this ask.

Point 3: We need to be clear, consistent, and specific on what we mean by equity. I feel the need to acknowledge that several trusted people in my life have given me tough feedback on this specific point this year, and that while I heard and processed that information, I wasn’t sure how to move forward with it. The book helped me connect that feedback to concrete actions and steps I could take, or at least advocate for. In fact, at our next STEM Board meeting each of our working groups is going to present their working definitions of equity so that we can see what assumptions we’re all making, where these overlap, and where they conflict. Admittedly, we should have STARTED the conversation there, and not circled back to it as we are. Then again, I’m not sure many of us were ready to define equity until we’d grappled with it in concrete contexts first. As an institution, we don’t have a shared definition of equity, either, similar to many other institutions. This lack of a definition means we can’t really set policies and practices to achieve equity — if we don’t know what it is, how do we know how to get there or know when we’ve arrived? We also need to be specific and granular about equity. What does equity mean for first-generation college students? For STEM degree attainment? For Black faculty? For participation in research opportunities? That said, we can’t get to this granularity until we have an agreed-upon institutional definition of equity as guidance.


I can see this book working for people at different stages in their equity work. I think the book works best for people new to this work — those who have a desire to work towards equity on their campuses but are not sure where to begin. The book is really useful in providing talking points and language to start conversations and to address derailing arguments. (I really like the term “first-generation equity practitioners” that the book uses for those in earlier stages of equity work, and in many ways I recognized myself as a first-generation equity practitioner, too.) For those a bit further steeped in this work, it serves as a reminder of the many ways this work can go off the rails and provides strategies for helping move campus, departmental, and programmatic conversations forward. If you’re looking for a quick fix or the magic incantation that will instantly make your campus equitable — well, this book reminds you that there are no quick fixes, just hard and necessary work.

Have you read From Equity Talk to Equity Walk? If so, I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

#ScholarStrike

On Tuesday and Wednesday, September 8-9, I am participating in the Scholar Strike for Racial Justice, a mass action of higher education professionals protesting racist policing, state violence against communities of color, mass incarceration and other manifestations of racism.

Due to my participation, my email response may be delayed. Let me encourage you to follow #SCHOLARSTRIKE on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, and to engage with the teach-in occurring on the Scholar Strike YouTube channel. I’d also encourage you to read any of the following books, which delve more deeply into the intersection of race and technology:

Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism, by Safiya Umoja Noble

Automating Inequality: How High-Tech Tools Profile, Police, and Punish the Poor, by Virginia Eubanks

Technically Wrong: Sexist Apps, Biased Algorithms, and Other Threats of Toxic Tech, by Sara Wachter-Boettcher

Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy, by Cathy O’Neil

Scholar Strike is meant to disrupt the everyday routines of academia, and to show solidarity with other workers striking for Black lives, particularly the athletes of the WNBA and NBA. On these two days, in a variety of ways, academic professionals are disrupting the status quo and refusing to stand by while racism and violence devastate Black Americans’ lives and communities.

— my email away message

When I originally conceived my #ScholarStrike participation plans, I expected I’d write a blog post in the “teach-in” spirit of the strike, discussing some of the many ways that white supremacy and technology intersect. Instead, I found myself tweeting a bit about educational disparities (as this video highlights, the connections between racist policing and the education system are iron-clad) and amplifying some of the excellent content on the ScholarStrike YouTube channel.

Here are some other ways I’m participating in this two-day action:

  • Donating 2 days’ (gross) pay to organizations working on hunger, educational justice, and development. “Hunger” might seem out of place on this list, but I wanted to do something to address immediate and basic needs in my local community as well as address bigger, systemic changes.
  • Finishing a working draft of our department’s first broadening participation in computing plan. A colleague and I participated in a workshop this summer to help departments develop plans to broaden participation in computing in meaningful ways. As a result of some sustained efforts yesterday, we now have a concrete set of steps to move forward. Our goal is to address a particular course that sets the tone for the major and where we lose students from particular demographics disproportionately. We’ve got a ton of work to do to bring our plans to fruition, but at the same time I’m eager to put this plan into action!
  • Centering anti-racism in my STEM leadership. As STEM Director, I set the agenda and focus for our STEM Board meetings and activities for the year. I’m eager to move some great conversations we started last year into tangible actions to broaden participation in STEM at Carleton, and more importantly to ensure STEM at Carleton is a space where all can thrive. I’ll spend a good chunk of today finalizing our agenda for the year — which is really the culmination of a lot of hard work that the STEM Program Manager and I put in this summer to get to this point.

Admittedly those last two activities don’t exactly scream “strike”. But I see them as foundational to the work I want to do this year to change the systems I participate in. And as someone with some power and privilege in those spaces, I want to be clear in how my intentions manifest into actions. In that respect, the activities fit the spirit of the strike, and thus I feel comfortable spending time doing that necessary work.

If you haven’t been participating in, or paying attention to, the #ScholarStrike, I encourage you to do so today. Take advantage of the incredible educational videos made by academics. Follow along on your favorite (or most tolerated) social media platform. Follow the links, watch, listen, and learn. Educate yourself on what’s happening in your local communities around race and policing. And then, find a way to take action, to put into practice what you’ve learned, to make our systems and our spaces anti-racist.

A rough return to teaching

I’ve spent the past few summers (minus last summer when I was on sabbatical) teaching in a summer high school program. The program consists of 3 weeks of morning classes and afternoon guided research with a faculty member. I really, truly enjoy it. Teaching high school students is an interesting challenge. And by and large the students have been thoughtful, engaged, creative, and eager to learn. (It’s also very gratifying to see some of them as Carleton students post-high school!)

So when my colleague approached me last fall about teaching again this summer, I agreed. The program, I reasoned, would give me the opportunity to ease back into teaching before returning to the classroom in the fall. Plus I already had curriculum and research projects ready to go. What could possibly go wrong?

Suffice it to say that my envisioned triumphant return to teaching was anything but.

The actual mechanics of teaching? That went easier than I anticipated. The rust fell away quickly, much to my surprise. Being in front of students felt natural to me, and I found my teaching groove in short order. Pacing was still tricky at times, but pacing is always a bit of an inexact science.

What I didn’t anticipate, and what was roughest about re-entry: the small but active minority of students in my research group who decided early on that what I was teaching, human-computer interaction (HCI), was not Real Hard Core Actual Computer Science Because We’re Not Programming 24-7. And the undercurrent of disrespect for my authority, and for my RA’s authority (also a female computer scientist).

Now, I should pause and make it crystal clear at this point that THIS IS NOT NORMAL FOR THIS PROGRAM. The vast, vast majority of students are respectful and open to learning, and to expanding their ideas of what computer science is. I can count on one finger the number of research students I’ve mentored in this program who have been actively disrespectful of me and the subject matter. Sure, I’ve had some students in the past who were openly or less openly skeptical about the merits of HCI as a computer science field, but by and large those students at least came to appreciate what I was trying to teach them in the end, even if in the end they decided it wasn’t quite their cup of tea. And I’ve had some really interesting conversations with the objectors that have not only strengthened my framing of my material, but have also led me to reflect on what material I choose to include and how I include it. Both of which make me a better, more effective teacher in the end.

I spent a lot of time and energy during the program reflecting on where this particular strain of disrespect originated. Part of it likely relates to the HCI = Not Real Computer Science attitude, which is certainly not limited to the students in my class (and is still somewhat pervasive in the field, unfortunately). Part of it also likely relates to the general bro-ness and toxic masculinity that has always surrounded computer science, something that’s come into sharp focus lately with any number of recent news stories. Why did it emerge in force this year, and not in previous years? That, I’m still trying to figure out.

It’s been a very long time since I’ve had to deal with this level of disrespect in the classroom. I’ve been at Carleton long enough that I’m part of the fabric of the department — I am “accepted”. Gaining seniority (in age and in status) over the years increased my credibility with the students, giving me more authority in their eyes. The close-to-gender parity we have in our faculty also helps quell at least some of the disrespect. So I was caught off-guard.

Once I recognized what was going on, I went into damage control mode. I summoned up my Authoritative Teacher persona from the depths — she hasn’t been around much since my pre-tenure days. I blinded them with science — or, at least, hit them hard with the scientific basis for every psychological or design principle we discussed. I randomly threw out my credentials, just to remind them that Yes I Do Know What I Am Talking About As I Have A PhD In Engineering And Years Of Experience. I occasionally let out my Inner Bitch and used my Evil Mom Stare with abandon.

But I also second-guessed almost everything that I did, and said. I put up my guard in ways I haven’t had to do in a very long time. Teaching, and every single interaction in this program, took up at least twice as much of my mental and emotional energy. Teaching in this program is normally draining, but this year, at the end of the day, I truly had nothing left in my tank. And that was not fair to my family or to myself.

Lots of people have asked me if I’ll teach in the program again next year. I honestly don’t know. On the one hand, I still believe strongly in this program. I have met and worked with so many incredible teens and young adults in this program. By and large, my students are thoughtful, creative, eager to challenge themselves, whip-smart, and funny. Most of my students did outstanding work on their research projects, and embraced the experience and challenge from start to finish. And I enjoy serving as a role model to high school students, both as a female computer scientist and as an HCI researcher. But on the other hand, this summer exacted a huge toll from me. I was exhausted, and bitter, every single day. Why does it feel like it’s just my responsibility to hang in there, fight the good fight, and change their minds? How productive, and happy, would I be if I didn’t have to deal with this crap?

Hopefully, I won’t experience anything like this in the fall when I return to the classroom full time. Or, if I do, at least I’ll be prepared to recognize it and deal with it. That, I suppose, is the sad silver lining in this experience.

 

Trip report: GHC 2016

I’m writing this post on the plane ride home from Grace Hopper on Friday afternoon. Unlike previous years, I escaped the conference early: a compromise with my kids since I was at a conference last month and will be at a workshop next month. Still, it feels like I managed to squeeze about 10 days into 3, so while on one level I’m sad to be missing the last keynote and tonight’s party (and dinner with Carleton folks present and past!), on another level I’m just done with conferencing.

It’s been several years since I’ve done a proper conference trip report — I used to do them semi-regularly (see here, for example), but in the past few years life’s gotten in the way. But I wanted to honor my time at the conference this year, so I’m resurrecting the trip report tradition.

I should come clean first, though: After last year’s conference, I swore up and down that I wasn’t going to attend this year. I’m not a fan of Houston (sorry, Houston!), and logistically last year was kind of a pain. Plus I knew I wanted to attend Tapia and wasn’t thrilled about going to 2 conferences so close together. But then I was tapped to be Posters Co-Chair, and it sounded like too good of an opportunity to pass up. And then since I was going anyway, I agreed to speak in the CRA-W early faculty career track and volunteer in the Student Opportunity Lab. On top of that, I had my LACAFI booth organizing/setup/wrangling duties.

Apparently my conference motto is: If you’re going to attend, be busy!

The days and weeks leading up to the conference were busy: working with my co-chair to select and assign ACM Student Research Competition (SRC) poster and finals judges; working with my co-presenter on our slides and role-play scenarios for our CRA-W session; stressing over whether we had enough people to cover the booth during the Expo hours. (This year a lot of our usual booth-staffing suspects took GHC off, either because they were at Tapia and/or they’re going to SIGCSE. We missed you, intrepid volunteers!) Then there were receptions and breakfasts and meetups to keep track of. I actually had to put everything on my calendar and set multiple alarms so that I knew exactly where I had to be and when. It was looking very likely that I was not going to make it to any sessions that I was not leading or speaking at, so I didn’t even bother to look at the program.

To add more excitement to the mix, I realized a few days before the conference that my constant desire to sleep and my low-level ever-present funk was not due to recovering from the marathon I had just run, but was in fact my depression flaring up. Good times. I was worried, because I knew I’d have to be “on” a lot of the time I was at GHC, and was starting to dread going. I decided to give myself permission to skip out on anything that was not absolutely necessary if need be, to be a hermit when I needed to, and to escape the conference when possible, to recharge and try and keep the depression at bay. I’m happy to say that my strategy worked, and I was able to cope and function at a decent level. The knowledge that I was leaving the conference early also helped. This meant that I didn’t seek out people I knew to the extent that I normally do, but it was worth it for self-preservation.

I arrived in Houston on Tuesday afternoon, along with what felt like half of the 15,000 attendees of the conference. I was hoping to have some time to relax before attending the HP Inc reception as an NCWIT member that evening, but a longish wait for my luggage and a taxi meant I had enough time to quickly unpack and then head to the reception. The reception was at a really cool place, and I spent a lot of time chatting with someone I haven’t caught up with in a while. It was weird to be at an HP reception, given my former life as an HP Labs post-doc, but it was neat to hear about what HP’s up to now and to share stories about my time there. All of the HP women there were so friendly and welcoming, and it was a lot more fun than I expected.

I skipped the keynote on Wednesday morning, sadly, to set up our LACAFI booth. I had to get more creative than I intended with our limited space, but I made do. Once the Expo opened, our swag disappeared quickly, so we’ll definitely have to bring more next year.

I knew that the afternoon/evening would be crazy full, so I escaped the conference for a while to recharge and grab some cheap Tex-Mex food. Once the Expo opened, I came back to check on our booth, then wandered around the Expo. I kept running into alums, which was awesome. I promised some of them I’d find them later, a promise I did not keep. (Sorry, alums! Nice to see you briefly, anyway!) I also randomly ran into my posters co-chair, whom I’d never met in person, so we chatted for a bit. She is awesome, and I hope I get to work with her again someday.

Wednesday afternoon was the poster session and the first part of the SRC. Hilarity ensued (only hilarious now in hindsight) when the first poster judges came back to tell us that they could not find the poster numbers we assigned them — turns out we had posters listed by submission IDs, but they were actually numbered by position in the hall, and there was no easy mapping between them. Whoops! Luckily our judges did not revolt, and were super patient as we figured things out. (We joked that we gave them an encryption problem to solve before they could judge the posters.) Judging took way longer than we expected, but we finally figured out the finalists from the judges’ scores and got that info to our awesome ABI contact. At this point, my co-presenter for the CRA-W talk showed up so we could go over our slides and plan for our talk the next morning, after which we headed to a reception for CRA-W scholars. The reception was a great end to the day, but I was totally wiped afterwards, and collapsed into bed as soon as I got back to my room.

Thursday morning began with our CRA-W talk on balancing teaching, research, and service in academia. The talk was way better attended than I expected given the early hour and intended audience. And the role-plays we planned (my co-presenter’s idea) were a hit! The audience was game to participate, asked great questions, and offered great tips and advice to each other.

Afterwards, I met up with my colleague David, who was wrangling the students this year, and chit-chatted about sabbatical and department stuff. While I’m really enjoying sabbatical, I do miss the day-to-day encounters and conversations with my colleagues, so it was nice to reconnect. I then escaped for a bit to recharge, then headed back to the Expo to snap up some swag for my kiddos and chat up some people at the booths.

Thursday afternoon was as tightly packed as the previous day. We had the undergraduate and graduate SRC finals back-to-back, one of my duties as posters co-chair. The talks were fabulous and our judges were simply amazing and thoughtful. (One of my regrets for missing the Friday keynote is that I was not able to see these six incredible finalists receive their awards.) My co-chair and I then headed to one of my favorite annual events, the NCWIT reception. I met new people and caught up with some colleagues from liberal arts schools, took a picture with the rest of the CRA-W speakers, and got to hear a surprise speech from Megan Smith, the US CTO, who stopped by the reception. I always love what Megan has to say, so that was a fabulous treat. By this point, I was exhausted and my brain was mush, so I again collapsed (after stopping for gelato on the walk back to my hotel — priorities!) as soon as I got back to my room.

Friday started early with the CRA-W scholars breakfast. I sat with my posters co-chair; a colleague I see every year at GHC, SIGCSE, and NCWIT’s Summit; and some very enthusiastic students. If I have to be at something that early, it’s worth it when the conversation is that fabulous. I then went to an actual conference session (on motherhood in academia), then volunteered at the Student Opportunity Lab talking to students about how to get into undergraduate research, in somewhat of a speed-dating format. One last check of the LACAFI booth and the handoff of exhibitor’s credentials and I was on my way to the airport and back towards home.

My relationship with GHC has definitely changed over the years. While I think the conference is now way too big and way too career-fair focused, and while I think these are detrimental changes, I’m still surprised by the ways in which the conference rejuvenates me. What I get out of the conference now is very different from what I used to get out of the conference, and changes every year. This year, I definitely felt like my role was to mentor and give back to the community, but in giving to others in this way I was immensely fulfilled. I networked less, but felt more fulfilled by the interactions I chose to have. This year’s conference reaffirmed that GHC does still hold relevance to my professional life — maybe not on an every year basis anymore, but definitely within a rotation of conferences.

By the numbers

As chair, I spend quite a bit of time with numbers of various sorts. There are budget numbers and enrollment numbers. There’s the number of sections of courses per term and per year. Relatedly, there are FTE numbers, or how many warm bodies do we have to teach courses and how many courses are they teaching at any given time….you get the idea.

At this time of year, when sophomores declare their majors, I hyper-focus on numbers related to the sophomores. This includes the number of students who’ve declared as computer science majors, the difference between the size of this year’s class and the previous few years’ classes, the percentage of women and underrepresented minorities, and the “yield” from certain courses, among others. Looking at these numbers gives me the opportunity to assess the state of the department on a mini-scale: a quick way to determine if we’re where we want to be and heading in the right direction.

In many respects, our numbers are excellent. My quick and possibly inaccurate sampling of the usual suspects indicates that we are now the largest department on campus in terms of majors in the sophomore, junior, and senior classes (tied with Biology), and that we have the largest number of majors in the sophomore class (followed by Biology and Economics, who if memory serves are tied). At the time of this writing, we have 50 majors, which is right in line with the past 2 classes (55 in the current junior class and 54 in the current senior class). I suspect we will stabilize in the mid-50s once the double majors declare—there are some omissions from our current list that I’ve already talked with about double-majoring, so I am just waiting for them to come to me with forms in hand at some point over the next few weeks.

There is one number of which I am insanely proud: I taught a first-year seminar in the fall of 2013 on Human-Centered Computing, and 7 of the 16 students in that course (who are now sophomores) declared as computer science majors. I was hoping for a good yield from that course, but frankly I was stunned at just how high the yield was! What an argument for the importance of teaching courses outside the major sequence. (Note to self: remember this when putting together the 2016-17 schedule!)

There are some numbers that concern me. Our major population is diversifying, but we could definitely be doing much better in this regard. Also troubling: after 2 years of 30-35% women majors, our sophomore class is just 20% women. Again, these numbers might creep up a bit once the double majors declare, but the percentage is not going to change significantly.

The decrease in the percentage of women has me pondering the possible reasons. Has there been a culture shift in the department? Are we doing something differently in Intro or in our “first-tier” required courses (data structures, math of CS, organization and architecture) that we weren’t doing 3-4 years ago? Are the larger class sizes off-putting more to women than to men? Are there things that we’re neglecting to do, now that we’re swamped with students, that we used to do, to foster community? (For instance, I used to send short, personal emails to Intro and Data Structures students encouraging them to take more CS courses, but I don’t always remember to do that to the same degree as I did in the past. What effects does this have on retention in the major?) In short, what’s changed?

Another factor I pondered on my walk across campus to class today: what effect does having senior faculty teach some of those “key” courses have on recruitment and retention? Now, we have a vibrant cohort of assistant professors and visitors who are doing a fabulous job, and many of them are teaching those key courses. But I think it’s important, for many reasons, to have us old fogies the senior, tenured folks at these entry points, too. And that’s the problem: we are so busy and so over-committed as a senior group that we’re teaching many fewer courses. For instance: There are 4 tenured professors in my department (2 full, 2 associate). The normal teaching load per tenure-track professor is 5 courses a year (2-2-1 or some variation). So among us, we should be teaching 20 courses. Next year? We are teaching 11. One person is on sabbatical all year, one is essentially teaching half-time because he was elected faculty president, and two of us have a course release (me for being chair, another colleague for chairing a large campus committee). And two of us are leading senior capstone groups as one of our “courses”, which means that we’re teaching 2 fewer “classic” courses. And because of scheduling and expertise constraints, with maybe 1-2 exceptions we’re teaching all upper-level courses.

So what are my take-away points, after this navel-gazing romp through the numbers?

  • We have a vibrant department. Our enrollments are healthy and strong, and this is translating into majors. And our majors are awesome—I’m very excited about our newest class!
  • We need to continue to prioritize “outreach” in terms of first-year seminars and similar courses. It’s definitely worth it, even it if means offering one fewer course for our majors per year.
  • We need to take a closer look at our culture. I’d like to informally talk to students to get a sense of what’s happening “on the ground”. In particular, I want to chat with the leaders of our 2 student groups, particularly our Women in Computing group, and our SDAs (student departmental advisors) and get their thoughts on what we’re doing well and what we might do differently.
  • Similarly, we need to individually look at what we’re doing as faculty to encourage our students to explore computer science, and make sure all those best practices we’ve honed over the years are still in play.
  • Frankly, I’m not sure what to do about the overcommitted senior faculty issue. I sense this issue is not going to go away anytime soon—to be honest, I’d be shocked if one of us old fogies is not tapped for an administrative post in the next 3-5 years. But are there ways we can work with the faculty affairs committee, for instance, to ensure that we can both serve the college *and* staff our courses appropriately? (For instance, could this committee check with departments before allowing a nomination for a major campus position to move forward, to make sure they are not inadvertently causing a staffing crisis for that department? In short, could opportunities be timed better for *all* parties involved?)

The CS department is a totally different place now than when I first arrived. We worked hard as faculty to grow what we hope is a welcoming, open, fun culture. I am confident that we can continue this moving forward, but just as it took lots of energy and commitment to get us here, so too will it take energy and commitment to keep us here. I hope we’re up to the task.

Male allies, trusting the system, and tone deafness at GHC

Every year, I look forward to attending the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing. I enjoy being in a space with so many other talented technical women at all stages of their careers, from students to CTOs, where I can network, meet new people, meet up with old friends, hear about some cool research, get advice, and learn new things. One of the aspects I most enjoy is the “safe space” aspect—it’s nice to be in a space where I am not “other”, where women’s voices are heard and cherished.

When I first looked at the program a couple of weeks ago, I noticed an increased male presence on the program. Which, ok, fine, involving men in the discussion about diversity in tech (or the extreme lack thereof) is in theory an excellent idea, and can be done well and thoughtfully in practice. But there are many, many ways in which these conversations can be executed poorly, and I’ll admit to some trepidation about some aspects of the program.

Unfortunately, these conversations at Grace Hopper were executed poorly, with a level of overall tone deafness that I find astounding. (I’m not surprised at the tone deafness itself, but rather at the level of tone deafness exhibited.)

First, there was yesterday’s Male Allies panel. Full disclosure: I did not attend this talk, but you can read about it in all its spectacular train wreckiness. One of my students showed me a filled out Bingo card from the event. The only positive thing I can say is that at least the most egregious things on the card were not checked off, but other than that….ugh. If these are our male allies, then we’re in big, big trouble.

But wait, there’s more! This morning’s keynote promised “Satya Nadella [CEO of Microsoft] in conversation with Maria Klawe [President of Harvey Mudd College].” In reality, it was “Maria Klawe [the flippin’ President of Harvey Mudd College, let me remind you!] Asks Satya Nadella Questions from the Twitterverse.” Yeah. It wasn’t all a train wreck, I suppose. Until Satya made a comment about how women should trust the system and not ask for raises. Yes, that’s right, women in tech, if you just work hard enough then the universe will recognize your contributions and you’ll get your due, so don’t make a fuss and put your head down and get back to work, sweetie!

Yep. Tone. Deaf.

Frankly, I am disheartened, and most of all disappointed, in the Anita Borg Institute and the program committee. Is it important to involve men in these discussions? Yes. Is it important to have panels on male allies? Absolutely. But for the love of all that is good and holy, let’s make sure that those allies actually act like allies and have a clue. Let’s make sure those discussions don’t continue the stereotypes and tired tropes. Let’s get people who actually know what they are talking about, who follow and promote best practices, who don’t put all the burden/blame on women (and who understand the very real consequences that women experience when they do choose to speak out and speak up), and most importantly, who know their blind spots and are willing to listen and learn and improve.

Let’s let Maria Klawe and Satya Nadella have an actual, substantive, and frank conversation about how the culture in tech is not all that it could be and discuss concrete ideas for how that might change. Let’s have women on the male allies panel, or better yet, have a male allies workshop and better equip men to be effective allies. Let’s vet these things better, for pete’s sake!

Please, just please, organizers of GHC, let’s not have a repeat of the train wreck this year. I expect much better from you.

This is not an Ada Lovelace Day post

October was gearing up to be a great month. It started with the always fabulous, always inspiring, always rejuvenating Grace Hopper Conference, which was here in the Twin Cities this year. (4800 technical women in one venue! Can’t get much more awesome than that.) Then earlier this week was Ada Lovelace Day, a day in which we’re all supposed to share stories of women scientists, engineers, mathematicians, computer scientists, etc—essentially, reminding the world that women have and continue to contribute great things to these fields. I’ve always found Ada Lovelace Day inspiring and was looking forward to working up a (belated) post this year.

But sometimes the world has a way of kicking you in the gut. And that’s certainly what this week has felt like in the science/tech blogosphere.

For those of you not following along on Twitter or in the blogosphere, a quick recap:

  • Danielle N. Lee, biologist and blogger extraordinaire, turned down a request to blog for free on Biology Online. In response, the blog editor who sent the request called her an urban whore. As if that’s not bad enough, she posts about the incident on her blog (hosted by Scientific American), only to have Scientific American take the post down for shady and shoddy reasons (and a shifting story). Eventually the editor was fired and Dr. Lee’s blog post reinstated.
  • Several stories emerge about Bora Zivkovic, a highly influential person in the science blogging community, as a harasser of women. Bora resigns from the ScienceOnline (the conference he co-founded that brings science bloggers together) board. (update: also resigns from Scientific American, as more allegations come to light).
  • Twitter and the blogosphere erupt with stories from women and men about sexual harassment and microagressions, at once heartbreaking and, unfortunately, familiar.
  • I become aware of a certain unsavory tumblr. I refuse to link to it here, but let’s say it rhymes with “mop fleck lemminism”, and it’s peddling a lot of the same sexist bullsh*t that’s been running amok in the tech field lately (and forever).

Early on in my career, whenever I had a really bad day (or week, or month), I would cope by doing one of two things. I’d either compose my resignation letter in my head, or I’d come home and declare “That’s it, I’m not advising any one else to go into this stupid, stupid field.” (Yes, I tend towards the melodramatic—why do you ask?) There’s been a lot of that going on in my life this week. I’m demoralized, I’m saddened, and I’m furious. I’m reminded of my own experiences with harassment over my career, and sickened that this type of stuff is still happening and that the same sort of victim-blaming and gaslighting and minimizing of experiences I’ve experienced is still going strong. The last thing I want to do is think shiny, happy thoughts and write shiny, happy stories about women in science and tech, because I’m reminded of just how toxic both science and tech can be towards women.

But there is some good coming out of all this mess and yuckiness. Because people are talking. People are sharing their stories and experiences. #ripplesofdoubt is hard to read, but it’s trending strong on Twitter as I write this, and it’s so, so important to read and digest. The science blogging and tweeting communities are actively talking about this. Talking about privilege and power. Talking about allies, and decency, and what we should do when a “good person” behaves “unexpectedly”. Talking about what trust means, and safe spaces, and the power of listening, really listening. Not shying away from the tough questions and discussions. Just talking.

I had a conversation with my husband last month in which I told him about an unsettling story I heard about an interaction between a student and a professor, a typical microaggression. He said something like “I can’t believe that happens!” I looked at him and said, “What are you talking about? Of course it happens. It’s happened to me many times.” Now, my husband is a feminist and I consider him an ally, and yet he had a very real blind spot about this. My statement shocked him. I’ve thought about that conversation many times this week, about the importance of continuing to talk and educate even though it feels like we’ve been talking and educating forever.

We as a community need to keep talking, and telling our stories. The shiny, happy, Ada Lovelace Day ones and the ones we’d rather forget ever happened. We need to name names, too. This is how we bring to light what’s really happening. Most people, men and women, in science and tech are good people who want to do the right thing. Our stories hopefully help them begin to see beyond their privilege, and hopefully empower them to start asking “what can I do? how can I help?” I know that’s not nearly enough, but it’s a start.

The annual obligatory pre-Grace Hopper Conference Post

Eight.

That’s how many Grace Hoppers I have attended, counting this year.

I joke every year that the more Hoppers I attend, the fewer Hopper sessions I attend. That is certainly true this year. While I’ve done a somewhat decent job in my work life and my personal life this year in terms of curating my commitments, I’ve apparently not done the same thing with this conference. I’m definitely overcommitted, although each of the things I’m committed to are worthy and fun in their own right:

  • I’m on a panel! (Hence the badge.) I get to talk about what it’s like to be a faculty member at a liberal arts college, with some powerhouse women as my fellow panelists. (Seriously, I got imposter syndrome just reading their bios!). The presentation looks like it will be a lot of fun and we’ll hopefully have plenty of time for Q&A. (11:45am Thursday, MCC 200 H-J.)
  • I am also on the posters committee and will be judging the student research competition on Wednesday evening (6:30-9, MCC Halls B-C). I love the poster session and I love talking to up-and-coming researchers, so this will be a lot of fun.
  • My NCWIT Academic Alliance duties continue on the recruitment and engagement front. We’ll have our usual reception for faculty (Thursday evening, 6:15, MCC 205 C-D). In addition, my co-team leader Doug and I will be in the NCWIT lounge Thursday and Friday afternoon demoing something new that we’ll be rolling out to Academic Alliance members soon (if you were at the Summit, you saw an early version of this). Look for the lounge and look for us there!
  • I’m helping staff the LACAFI booth. This year LACAFI’s a silver sponsor, which hopefully means our booth will be somewhat easy to find. Stop by and say hi when you find us!

This year’s conference is special. It’s in our backyard, practically! We have the biggest group in Carleton history going: 13 students, 3 faculty, and at last count at least 4 alums. (I’m sure there are plenty more, so Carl alums: If you’re reading this and will be at Hopper, email, tweet, or DM me! We’d love to get together with you and we have something planned, even.) It will be admittedly a bit weird to have the conference in our fair city, but not losing a day to travel is definitely a nice bonus.

Timing-wise, the conference is ideal this year. Recently I’ve had a series of borderline-demoralizing, unbloggable encounters that alternately have me feeling like I’m shouting into the wind, or I’m a fish way out of water. I need to recharge my batteries, and Grace Hopper always does that for me. I don’t know if it’s the energy or the speakers’ passion or seeing colleagues from other institutions or just the sheer joy of not being the only or one of few women in the room. Probably all of the above. Whatever it is, I need it this year, badly.

If you’ll be there, I hope to see you! If not, you can vicariously experience the conference through my tweets—assuming I can find some time to tweet. Grace Hopper, here we come!

 

Role modeling starts early

Grace Hopper in front of the UNIVACI have a t-shirt from Grace Hopper 2010 in Atlanta. The t-shirt (I believe it was the one from Google that year) has the famous picture (shown here) of Grace Hopper and the UNIVAC.

Recently my daughter started asking me “who is the lady on your shirt, Mommy?” when I wear the shirt. Usually I just say “That’s Grace Hopper. She was a famous computer scientist.” Yesterday she pressed me for more info, so I explained a bit more about who she was, how she was one of the first computer programmers, etc. I showed her the clip of Grace Hopper on David Letterman. During this whole exchange, my son sat nearby, listening intently.

Later that afternoon, as I picked my son (who’s not quite 3) up after his nap, he took a good long look at my shirt, pointed to the picture, and said as clear as day, “Grace Hopper.”

Now where did I put that Ada Lovelace shirt….?

NCWIT Summit 2013 trip report

ImageThe 2013 NCWIT Summit wrapped up yesterday, and as always it was time well spent. This is my 4th NCWIT summit, and my 3rd as a member*—Carleton joined, I believe, in 2011. It’s always great to see old friends and colleagues from other schools and these summits are always in great locations (this year’s setting, in Tucson, was especially nice). But the main draw, of course, is that I learn so much and take so many ideas back from these summits, year after year after year.

There was so much that went on at this year’s summit, but here are a few of the highlights from my perspective:

  • NCWIT is big on “best practices backed up by research” and so every year we hear from social scientists on relevant research (stereotype threat, implicit bias, etc). These talks tend to be very powerful, and this year was no exception. On Tuesday, David Neal spoke about disrupting habits, and how our habitual self combined with familiar surroundings can make even the best intentions from the best people go awry. (He used a great study to illustrate his point, in which people in a movie theater setting would eat stale popcorn in rather large quantities, even moreso than fresh popcorn if memory serves. Here, the theater is the trigger to eat popcorn, even if the popcorn is yucky.) This of course has implications for changing attitudes and culture in STEM: even if your entire organization is on board, if your cues are the same and the environment hasn’t changed, you’ll keep doing what you’re doing, pretty much subconsciously. Food for thought…er, no pun intended. Wednesday’s plenary featured Carol Dweck, who spoke on fixed vs. growth mindsets (i.e. do you believe that intelligence is something you’re born with or something you can develop?) and how fixed mindsets can not only harm learners, but basically have the same effect as stereotype threat. It was an amazing talk, and one of her last slides was the most powerful. She showed that the more a field believes that “raw genius” is required for success (*cough* CS *cough* Physics *cough* Engineering) rather than effort, the fewer female PhDs the field has. It’s definitely made me think about ways I can give feedback to my students….and to my kids, too….that will help them adopt a growth mindset. (Hint: Focus on the process, not the outcome.) I also loved her anecdote about the Chicago school that swapped out their F grades with “Not Yet” grades, and what effect that’s had on the students *and* student achievement.
  • Speaking of plenaries, Michael Schwern, Perl developer extraordinaire, gave a truly fascinating (and often depressing) talk about his own experiences in open source, which has a notoriously dreadful diversity record. He had some great insights about how to talk about privilege with people who don’t want to hear about privilege, and in general about getting the conversation started with people who don’t want to or don’t feel the need to have these conversations. He also brought up Nóirín Plunkett, technical writer and open source contributor extraordinaire, who spoke in very real and very raw terms about her (often awful) experiences in the open source community. This was one of the more powerful talks I’ve seen recently, and unfortunately shows just how far we have to go still to broaden participation.
  • Capitalizing on last year’s wildly successful flash talks, this year also featured flash talks, and they did not disappoint. Funny, touching, poignant, funny….did I say funny? Awesome.
  • This was my first year as a project team leader, and so I got to see things from “the other side”, as it were. Our project team (recruitment and engagement) was very busy this year, running 2 sessions during the Academic Alliance meetings. We rolled out a new goal-setting initiative (our big project this year!) and kicked it off with a great panel featuring three institutions that have done some really neat things with NCWIT seed funds and resources. They were inspiring and frank. And we also got to have breakfast with the newest Academic Alliance members, which is always fun. In general, it was interesting to see how the decisions the co-chairs and project leads made about the summit in the months leading up to the summit played out (mostly fine).

I head back home today, full of new ideas and new contacts and a renewed sense of optimism about what we can accomplish. And as always, I’m already looking forward to next year’s summit!

* Genius move: I went to my first summit in Portland in 2010 as a guest (the regional women in computing conference coordinators were brought in as guests that year), and of course the whole thing was so fabulous and I learned so much and promptly went back to my institution and said “We need to be a part of this.” Smart recruiting move, NCWIT!