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#ShutDownGCCS (#1082)

Topics/tags: Grinnell, things I was writing anyway

Today was #ShutDownSTEM day. From my perspective, the primary idea was to take a day away from our professional responsibilities and to spend the day learning about anti-racism and initiating longer-term action on anti-racist behavior. For most researchers, it’s hard to take a day away from your work. I expect many MAP students were asking themselves why they couldn’t make progress on their projects or get ready for upcoming presentations [1].

I spent most of the morning doing administrative work related to issues of inclusion and then watching videos about inclusion. I particularly appreciated Ruha Benjamin’s NCWIT talk Race to the Future? Reimagining the Default Settings of Technology and Society. I clearly need to read her book. After that, I participated in a two-hour-long departmental discussion among faculty, staff, and students. I learned some things and got some ideas for directions in which we might move.

After that, I spent time trying to arrange my ideas [2], communicating with folks, and reading. I also finished a task I had started over the weekend, that of writing a message to our students about structural racism and our responses. Over the past few days, I’ve gotten suggestions from colleagues.

Normally, when I write a letter, I try it out as a musing first. But I didn’t want to make my draft public. So you’re seeing it retrospectively rather than prospectively. Why am I sharing it with you as all? Because I think that public sharing of documents like this give us an incentive to move forward and because I hope that they can provide others with some encouragement to take their own actions.

Next up: Scheduling some meetings for the faculty to discuss some of these issues. I should also find ways to involve the SEPC. But I’ll wait until after Monday’s faculty and staff panel entitled Beyond Empathy: Sharing Anti-Racist Resources.

Dear Grinnell Computer Science Community,

We write to you to discuss some of the ways we hope to address the issues of structural racism and unequal treatment that have always been present in our country but that are particularly visible at this moment. All of us have a responsibility to address racism, not just now, but especially after the protests die down and change begins.

We apologize for taking so long to write to you about these matters. We, like you, have been struggling to deal with all that we are see and hear right now, even as we deal with the complexities brought on by the pandemic in our personal and professional lives. We began this letter over the past weekend; our participation in #ShutDownSTEM gave us incentive to distribute something today.

We should warn you that our response will be imperfect and incomplete. We would certainly appreciate suggestions of ways we can do better. We also strive to educate ourselves.

As you know, the faculty in the CS department believe we have a special responsibility to try to deal with issues of inequity in our field. Computing is changing the world. Only by having a wide range of people developing computer technology can we ensure that it is just and equitable. It is also the case that, at present, obtaining a job in the computer industry is one of the greatest levers of social mobility. Hence, we have tried to make our department welcoming to and supportive of a wide variety of people. We have not always succeeded, but we have tried.

While it may seem that what we do as computer scientists seems distant from the violence we see against people of color, it is not. For example, sentencing systems, loan worthiness ratings, hiring advice systems, and other technologies clearly do violence. As computer scientists, we have a responsibility to speak out about those injustices and the flaws in the underlying technologies. As computer science educators, we have a responsibility to give you tools to consider and address these issues.

One of the primary ways Grinnell’s CS department addresses inequity is through pedagogy. We choose active learning approaches because of evidence that they support a wider range of students. We explicitly discuss issues of inclusion particularly as we consider pair programming and group work. And we try to provide you with a broader understanding of your ethical responsibilities. We’ve learned in our discussions today that what we are doing is not having enough of an impact.

Another way we’ve tried to address these issues is financially. The CS Broadening Participation Fund (also known as the CS Diversity Fund) allows us to support activities that help students who are traditionally underrepresented in the field, such as scholarships to attend the Richard Tapia Celebration of Diversity in Computing Conference. That fund comes from contributions by faculty, alumni, students, and parents.

We are proud that students in the department have also tried to address issues of inclusion. The most obvious approach is through the CPUs (Computing Peers United) program, which we will continue to embrace and support. For those of you not aware of the program, the goal is to provide students in introductory classes with partners from upper-level classes to provide support and advice.

What is next? On a personal level, each of us is studying and reflecting on new ways to work on anti-racism. On a departmental level, we see two immediate approaches.

First, the faculty of the department plan to self-assess the department using the National Center for Women in Information Technology’s draft Tech Inclusion GPS for Undergraduate Programs. Vrinda Varia, Director of Intercultural Affairs, and Maure Smith-Benanti, Dean for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, have also indicated that they can help us with broader conversations about how the department can and should engage in anti-racist behavior. We also plan to work with our SEPC on these issues. We have a variety of issues we know we need to address, including how we better include discussions of ethics and systemic racism throughout the curriculum.

Second, we plan a fall reading group on issues of race and technology. We are still working to identify an appropriate book or set of readings; we hope to have a title to you by mid-July. And we will provide copies to all interested students. Right now, we are considering Ruha Benjamin’s Race After Technology: Abolitionist Tools for the New Jim Code and Virginia Eubanks’ Automating Inequality: How High-Tech Tools Profile, Police, and Punish the Poor. If you have other suggestions for a book, please let us know.

Beyond those initial activities, we are still considering appropriate long-term changes. We expect to schedule additional meetings with Vrinda and Maure and to meet with our new or interim Chief Diversity Officer about these issues in the commong months. We also look forward to collaborating with you on planning and making those changes.

Since we are, first and foremost, a learning community, the most important thing we can offer at this time is conversation. In conversation, we mutually learn from each other, grow in knowledge about the issues, and arrive at courses of action that we can realistically achieve. We have taken these first steps with our initial #ShutDownSTEM synchronous discussion group, and students are currently planning a regular, weekly discussion group about diversity in the community. We encourage you to participate if you have the time and energy to spare! We’ve also been gathering some of our ideas and challenges on the GCCS Diversity and Inclusion channel on Microsoft Teams. Feel free to take a look and make suggestions. We may also reach out to you as a group or as individuals for your advice on how we move our department forward.

We are also available for individual conversations if you prefer to talk in a one-on-one format about questions, comments, or concerns you have about diversity in computing. These points can be at the level of the Grinnell CS community, the broader discipline, or anywhere in between. Please contact any of the faculty you feel comfortable talking with to continue these conversations. As always, we are also there for you if you want someone to talk to. We won’t always have an answer, but we can be supportive.


– SamR, for the faculty of the Grinnell CS department

[1] The Grinnell CS department holds weekly MAP presentations on Fridays.

[2] Members of the Grinnell CS Team on Microsoft Team can see the Microsoft Planner planning board with some sketches. We also have an active group of students planning to lead their own weekly discussions group over the summer.

Version 1.0 released 2020-06-10.

Version 1.0.1 of 2020-06-10.