What can we as UChicago CS community do for systemic change with a long-term effect?

@salac shared this on CS Slack:

Quoting from the webpage:

Today, we are issuing a call to action to the computing community to address the systemic and structural inequities that Black people experience. In issuing this call we ask the community to:

  1. Create unbiased and welcoming learning and work environments that allow Black people to be their authentic selves and learn and work without experiencing racism and bias.
  2. Commit to address the systemic and institutional racism that has led Black people in computing to be pushed out of the field or exit the field to pursue alternative careers.
  3. Address issues related to institutional or organizational culture and climate to create welcoming and comfortable spaces for Black people and prioritize the health and well being of all students in computing.

Especially, what we can do in response to this call:

Related: https://www.quantumforblacklives.org

If you prefer peer-reviewed literature, earlier this week @mcnutt had shared these recent papers that the PL/Vis group later discussed. They are worth reading for us in CS academia. I learned a lot from reading them; for example, the second paper includes powerful personal stories of bias and hardships faced by the authors in the CS academia:

  1. When Twice as Good Isn’t Enough: The Case for Cultural Competence in Computing (SIGCSE 2020)


    The commonly documented diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) issues in the computing workforce are the direct result of corporate cultures that benefit specific groups and marginalize others. This culture usually begins in undergraduate computing departments, where the demographic representation mirrors that of industry. With no formal courses that focus on the non-technical issues affecting marginalized groups and how to address and eradicate them, students are indirectly taught that the current status quo in computing departments and industry is not only acceptable, but also unproblematic. This directly affects students from marginalized groups (as the reasons for attrition are similar in both higher education and industry), as well as faculty (as biased student evaluations directly affect hiring, promotion, and tenure decisions). This position paper presents the need for cultural competence as a required focus for university computing departments nationwide. By improving these issues before students complete baccalaureate computing degrees, companies will have talent pools that better understand the importance and necessity of DEI and also work to ensure they help foster a more diverse, equitable, and inclusive environment. In addition, more students from marginalized groups will be retained in the major through degree completion.

  2. Critical Race Theory for HCI (CHI 2020 Best Paper Award :trophy:)


    The human-computer interaction community has made some efforts toward racial diversity, but the outcomes remain meager. We introduce critical race theory and adapt it for HCI to lay a theoretical basis for race-conscious efforts, both in research and within our community. Building on the theory’s original tenets, we argue that racism is pervasive in everyday socio-technical systems; that the HCI community is prone to “interest convergence”, where concessions to inclusion require benefits to those in power; and that the neoliberal underpinnings of the technology industry itself propagate racism. Critical race theory uses storytelling as a means to upend deep-seated assumptions, and we relate several personal stories to highlight ongoing problems of race in HCI. The implications: all HCI research must be attuned to issues of race; participation of underrepresented minorities must be sought in all of our activities; and as a community, we cannot become comfortable while racial disparities exist.

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Please use this space to discuss specific things we can do as the UChicago CS community.

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One thing that got my attention in the first paper was the following text (emphasis mine):

While most university computing departments offer courses on computing ethics[1][2], the overwhelming majority of these courses focus primarily on the societal and legal impacts of topics such as the Internet, privacy, intellectual property, and cybercrime. To the best of the author’s knowledge, only one focused on the biases in academic and work environments that directly impact not only who pursues computing degrees and careers, but also the technologies they create.

A natural question on reading the above was does our department offer a course on computing ethics? Or my previous school, Brown? The answer is no for both as I checked on the links they cited. I am told there is discussion on creating such a course for the Data Science concentration, but if we are not teaching the best of undergraduates about ethical issues in computing, it is no surprise when they are in the industry as either software engineers or people with decision making power, a lot of such issues get sidelined as we learned from the racial bias debacle with a lot of AI research over the past decade (a problem that may only get worse with wider use).

\S5.2 in the same paper suggests a Race, Gender, and Computing course that maps to some of the 2019-2020 ABET Computing Accreditation Commission (Criterion 3) requirements[1:1] which seems like a great suggestion. Currently, our CS program does not conform to this accreditation.

In my understanding, if not a full-blown course on race and gender as suggested in the paper, our curriculum for a computing ethics course could include some instruction and discussion on topics related to these issues. Even that would be a huge step forward.

If not even that, the recently updated (2018) ACM Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct should be included as discussion or required reading in some class within an undergraduate’s CS journey. Isn’t it the least we could ask for and do?

See also (July 6):

Another concrete action, I believe we all can take is not portray the parts of the city south or west of campus in negative light when newcomers to the community ask for advice on safe places to live near campus (something I have often overheard during orientation / visit day events). I have lived in the Woodlawn neighborhood on 64th St for a whole year and now on 67th St (west of Cottage Grove) and often times when I mention where I live to someone from the UChicago community, their remarks reek of inherent (often unknown) biases.

I see little children playing outside of my current apartment almost every day including right now. How could a neighborhood like that be considered unsafe for people to live in?

  1. https://www.abet.org ↩︎ ↩︎

  2. Tech Ethics Curricula: A Collection of Syllabi | by Casey Fiesler | Medium ↩︎

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I just learned that Brown is doing quite a lot and perhaps in a way that’s quite effective:

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Here is another suggestion backed by strong arguments:

SACNAS is mentioned as a good name and abbreviation.

And here’s a great interview of a professor I know and love to talk to each time I meet him at a conference. Disheartening to hear even he faces issues being a Black person in academia:

I just learned about the Broaden Participation in Computing (BPC) initiative by the Computing Research Association (CRA) with support from NSF’s Directorate for Computer and Information Science and Engineering (CISE):

Especially relevant is this page on department level plans that includes some approved examples:

Update: There are two virtual workshops being organized on departmental BPC Plans in July and August, the deadline for the first one is July 8.

I enjoyed reading the interview with Prof. Garcia. I had not heard the phrase “minority tax” before but it seems something to be aware of.

I don’t know that U of C CS department has a BPC plan but it would seem appropriate to put one together. We may; I am not in on every initiative, but if we do I haven’t been involved. I have been encouraged by the college’s recent offerings summer programs to help students in underrepresented categories* get ready for CS specifically. I believe this summer was to be the third year of that program, although I’m not sure it’s running in 2020.

*with apologies to the author of the first piece, who objects so strongly to that term – I personally find “underrepresented” to be a useful way to name the mismatch between the numbers one would expect and the numbers one actually sees, which seems neutral and constructive to me.

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Can I commend Diana Franklin’s wonderful undergrad CS class ‘Computers For Learning’? It’s where my app homie Aazam & I met: Fast Feed Apps.
On the intersection of sociology & HCI. Specifically focuses on questions like these.

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Hi Adam

Thanks for reading the links here and sharing your thoughts.

I followed up on the department BPC plan and turns out there is one in progress, however, to my (fairly limited) eye it seems to focus mostly on the “Outreach and Recruiting” bracket. I wish more details were available on the department website (I am told they are going to do it soon). I was quite surprised to see that no one among the faculty is mentioned on the department’s Diversity page when I was trying to find this information.

I am afraid that BPC is not a complete solution but only one step for a multi-dimensional problem. We also need to look inward and think about what we can do to improve our own department’s culture for systemic change. This will not happen by ticking off the boxes in the BPC checklist alone. What we should aim for is to do much better than the expectations set for a BPC plan.

I see, for example, what Brown is doing as potentially quite effective. And I don’t speak based on a tweet but a whole transformation I observed in my own self spending two years in that department. For an example, when I was selected as one of the TAs for Software Engineering class, there was a week long TA camp that I got to attend where I got my first intro to diversity and inclusion issues in the US, especially as someone with less than 6 months of experience in the US at the time. It certainly helped me become a better TA than I could have been otherwise to my students.

I came across this article in the CACM sharing how Harvard CS is teaching ethics integrating it in the CS curricula (as Shriram wrote) by partnering with their philosophy colleagues:

The associated video provides a good high-level overview:

The authors of this paper are giving a talk soon at ACM Chicago CHI Chapter meetup:

More details at ACM Chicago CHI Chapter | Critical Race Theory for HCI

As Randy (BPC Director) communicated to me last week, the department has updated the Diversity page to include the Dec. 2019 draft of the BPC plan:

It seems like a good first draft and I would love to see it improved with more context, action items and updated data.

Mark Guzdial, who is an expert in CS Education, has been writing about these issues as well on his blog. His summary article just came out on CACM:

tl;dr version with links to full blog posts about each proposal:

Three proposals to change how we teach computing in order to reduce inequality: An urgent call to action for online teaching

  1. Use research-based methods that advantage the least prepared students
  2. Make the highest grades achievable by all students
  3. Call a truce on prosecuting plagiarism on programming assignments

Our own department’s HCI club is also inviting the authors of this paper next week. Details and calendar event at:

Thanks to @jasminelu for helping organize this.

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Another good article in the September issue of CACM about ethics in CS research:

Another update, the department has released two community input forms for the BPC plan. The primary form is:

If you prefer to be anonymous:

More importantly, the BPC leadership is made public as well: https://computerscience.uchicago.edu/diversity/#leadership

Jean writes on CS Slack:

Passing this along from my friend Dr. Nicki Washington, the author of paper “When Twice as Good Isn’t Enough: The Case for Cultural Competence in Computing”, which I know some of us read in June during the civil unrest. She’s starting the Cultural Competence in Computing (3C) Fellows Program, a professional development for faculty & graduate students on these very issues.

More information on the program (including timeline, FAQ, and application) is available at: Cultural Competence in Computing (3C) Fellows Program

This looks like a useful program for anyone interested in understanding the issues and effecting change in computing education. Open to “K-12 educators, Ph.D. students, postdoctoral researchers, and other professionals who work in computing education”.

Here’s a timeline of events from the program webpage:

  • September 7 : Application opens (Notifications/prep packets sent throughout this period)
  • October 31 : Application closes
  • November 2 : Prep packet progress check-in #1
  • December 7 : Prep packet progress check-in #2
  • January 11, 2021 : Prep packet progress check-in #3
  • February 1 : Program officially begins
  • June 30 : Program officially ends

I didn’t pay attention until Timnit’s talk, but there is a whole series of talks this quarter at CDAC on " Bias Correction: Solutions for Socially Responsible Data Science":

Two more talks left, but previous ones are available on YouTube as linked on the page above.

Follow up from the OP:

For anyone following this thread, Grad Council is organizing a series of events starting later this month. See this event topic for details:

UChicago Juneteenth 2021 — Graduate Council

Just advertising this lecture series: