Glencora Borradaile






         Associate Professor & College of Engineering Dean's Professor, School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, Oregon State University

August 19, 2017

The law does not and should not define our morals

I attended the Advanced in Security Education workshop earlier this week where I gave a lightning talk about our Communications Security and Social Movements class.  The last lightning talk (which, unlike all the others, was allowed to go far longer than the 5 allotted minutes), by Anthony Serapiglia of Saint Vincent College, was about his class on forensic training where, as part of the class activities, students retrieve data from old cell phones (mostly flip phones) that are in a variety of states (e.g. seemingly broken, infected with ransom-ware).

Cellphones available from Goodwill for $6.

Serapiglia described how easy and cheaply one can get these cell phones from Goodwill’s online store (“by the pound”).  That’s right, he is using real people’s old phones that were discarded (in many cases it seems that they were discarded because people thought they were unusable), lost or stolen and ended up at Goodwill.  He has students retrieve personally identifiable information from the phones, phones that he himself has not looked at the data on.  He illustrates the retrieved data in a series of increasingly sensationalized photos: a family picnic; a child playing; a full frontal nude selfie; and 4 photos from the same phone of a man and his girlfriend, a hand holding presumably illicit drugs, a bookie sheet, and a man lying unconscious beat up (which Serapiglia describes as the owner of the phone having not paid his gambling debts).

I was feeling increasingly sick as I listened to his talk until he brought up a slide that had some mention of ethics on it, at which point I felt even worse.  His take on the ethical considerations were that of protecting his students from the pictures and other data they would uncover from the phones.  On the one hand, his mention of a media spot that he claimed to have done before the course started describing how easy it is to get data off old phones seemed to be his personal stand-in for informed consent. On the other hand, his saying several times that his university’s legal counsel gave the green light for the use of people’s presumed discarded data in his class, indicated that he was using the law as his moral and ethical guide.  He ended the talk asking us if we would use such real data in our classrooms, and, given the outline of his talk, the only consideration seemed to be out of concern for what the students would be exposed to.

I was relieved that my hand wasn’t the only hand to snap up after the talk.  The first questioner pointed out that such data use would not be legal in Europe and (paraphrasing) that European law, in this case, more closely aligns with morality.  I pointed out that if one uses the law to define ones ethics that you will far short every time and that the law in the US drags behind commonly held societal beliefs.  Another questioner suggested Serapiglia try an experiment to see if his presumed implicit consent closely matches what he would get from explicit consent: put out a call for volunteer cell phones to be used in the same manner; if he doesn’t get any donations, then perhaps he shouldn’t used “discarded” phones either.  Except for one audience member who thought it would be okay to use such an exercise in a graduate, but not an undergraduate, class, everyone admonished the use of people’s old cell phones without their explicit permission.

We have seen more than once, the treatment of electronic data as divorced from the people who created it, claiming at least implicitly that it does not warrant the same level of human-subjects-research protections that we afford people in person.  And while IRBs don’t evaluate non-research use of human data, that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t apply the same principles to our classroom activities.  Perhaps even more importantly we should be aware of the ethics we are implicitly teaching through our classroom activities, as they shape our students.

January 7, 2017

Teaching Communications Security and Social Movements

My reaction to the Snowden disclosures was a mix of “I’m not surprised” with “this is a lot worse than I imagined”.  Not long after, I went to a small workshop and during breaks tried to engage colleagues in discussing the implications of the capabilities of the surveillance state of which we were now at least partially aware.  Responses were at best disappointing.  The near-universal apathy was disturbing.  Most of the people I spoke with teach undergraduate computer science.  If they don’t care about the ethics of a surveillance system whose maintenance and expansion depend on our graduates, what hope would there be for change?

In thinking, “what more can I do from my highly privileged position?”, my partner and I have been teaching activists in social movements to use end-to-end encryption and other online self-defense techniques.  We’ve also designed a freshman course to teach online self-defense.  Since we are in particular concerned with the impact of state surveillance machinery on social movements, the course is offered through the Difference, Power and Discrimination (DPD) program at OSU and so addresses institutionalized systems of power, privilege, and inequity in the United States.  We will be teaching the technical concepts for understanding online surveillance and the encryption tools that can mitigate it alongside the historical and contemporary impacts that state surveillance has had on social movements.  The course will be offered for the first time this coming Spring — CS175: Communications Security and Social Movements.

From the reading that accompanied the development of this course and our trainings, it became clear that teaching CS175 through the DPD lens was a good move. Muslim populations in the US are subject to heightened surveillance, scrutiny, infiltration, provocation and entrapment.  The Department of Homeland Security monitors those involved with #BlackLivesMatter.  Historically, we know that surveillance is key to suppressing groups that challenge the state (for example, the Black Panther Party and the American Indian Movement) and the mass collection of data on targeted populations has facilitated genocide.  Mass surveillance doesn’t affect us all equally — mass surveillance is disproportionately directed at marginalized groups such as people of color.

To hear about this in our College’s new podcast, start listening here at 15:10.

May 21, 2016

5 talks in a lecture series at OSU. Only 4 are promoted on OSU’s YouTube page. Why?

Filed under: Silent Glen Speaks @ 1:31 am
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4623949606In fall 2015, a student group, Allied Students for Another Politics (ASAP!), on campus organized a series of five panels called “Radical Visions Towards Another Politics”:

  • Revolutionary Unions and the Abolition of Wage Slavery
  • “We Won’t Pay!”: How Debtors’ Unions and Strikes Can Lead the Fight for Tuition-Free Education
  • Racism, Capitalism, and the Prison Industrial Complex
  • From Baltimore to Palestine: Israeli Apartheid and the New Jim Crow
  • The Burdens of of Climate Change and Economic Growth: Visions for Social and Environmental Transformation

With the support of the School of History, Philosophy and Religion, the panels were all taped and promoted on the OSU School of History, Philosophy and Religion YouTube page. Well, actually, all the panels were recorded, but only 4 of the talks made it onto the OSU YouTube page.  Can you guess which talk did not?  Thankfully, one of the student organizers was able to get a hold of the video of the From Baltimore to Palestine talk and make it available here.

I won’t comment on why this one particular talk was not made available, as I have only heard second-hand the reason.  But hopefully we can as a campus bring light to why, or have the fifth talk promoted with the same level of support of the other four talks.

May 20, 2016

OSU faculty call for fossil fuel divestment in open letter

Filed under: Silent Glen Speaks @ 3:17 pm
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[from the press release]

More than one hundred members of the academic community at Oregon State University have signed an open letter calling on the OSU Foundation to divest from fossil fuels. Signers include professors, staff and graduate students from across a wide range of university departments. They include 14 faculty from the College of Occean, Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, which is recognized for its world-class climate science. A committee of the Foundation will meet on Friday to discuss the question of divestment.

Among the signers is Kathleen Dean Moore, Professor of Philosophy at OSU, and author of a recent book, Great Tide Rising, on how to respond to the climate crisis. When asked about divestment at OSU, she said that the arguments made against divestment are riddled with flawed logic. “Divestment is about saving your own integrity,” she said. “Divestment will not bring down the fossil fuel industry, but it might allow the university to claim that it really is acting in the interests of its students.”

Another signer is Peter Clark, Professor of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences. He recently led an analysis, published in the highly-regarded journal Nature Climate Change, which found that without a rapid transition to non-fossil energy systems, emissions from burning fossil fuels in the coming decades will commit us to dramatic changes in climate and sea level that will last for the next ten thousand years and beyond. According to the open letter, “divestment is one action among many that will be needed to shift the social logic away from coal, oil and gas, and propel our economy toward cleaner sources of energy.”

Ben Phalan, a Research Associate in the College of Forestry who wrote the letter with colleagues Glencora Borradaile (College of Engineering) and Ken Winograd (College of Education), said: “each of the last two years were the hottest since records started in 1880, and this year is on course to be hotter still. Divestment alone will not stop climate change, but it is an important step in the right direction. It sends a message to companies that it is unacceptable to make short-term profits at the expense of poorer countries, future generations and other species, all of whom are hit hardest by climate change. And it gives a mandate to governments to increase support for low-carbon energy and fulfill the pledges they made in Paris.”

In the past two years, the OSU Faculty Senate and the ASOSU Senate have passed resolutions in support of divestment. A ballot of OSU students last month found that 78% supported divestment from the top 200 publicly-traded fossil fuel companies.

[see the full letter with all 101 signers here]

April 30, 2016

Fossil Fuel Divestment at OSU: A Brief History

Filed under: Silent Glen Speaks @ 8:46 pm
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Students march on OSU campus, demanding divestment from fossil fuels.

Students march on OSU campus, demanding divestment from fossil fuels.

For nearly 3 years, I have worked with faculty, students and community members on fossil fuel divestment at Oregon State University, asking the Foundation (who manages OSU’s half-billion dollar endowment and manages much of the university’s messaging as an independent entity) to stop investing our endowment in the fossil fuel industry. In fall 2013, the Faculty Senate at OSU passed a resolution demanding the Foundation divest from fossil fuel investments. In winter 2014, the Student Senate passed a resolution demanding the same. After months of trying to get a meeting with the OSU Foundation, in spring 2014, two Foundation Trustees and several staff members met with a half-dozen students and faculty to discuss the possibility of divestment.

coal-delivery

Students deliver a Christmas gift of coal to the Foundation.

The meeting was a non-starter. One of the Trustees, Greg Merten, was a climate-change denier. Not an anthropomorphic climate change denier, but a flat-out, belligerent climate change is not happening clinger-onto. On the one hand, this was disrespectful. Here, a group of people were hoping for an honest conversation about the actions we can take to support mitigating climate disaster only to have an instrument of our own university send someone who wouldn’t let the conversation even start to discuss supportive actions because there is no need to do anything in response to something that is not happening. On the other hand, this was down-right embarrassing. For a university, where so much climate research is done, where so many of the confirmations and consequences of climate change have been discovered, to have their messaging being managed by someone who doesn’t believe in the very science that comes from our institution is … well, frankly unsurprising. After all, Greg Merten is wealthy.

Needless to say, our request for divestment was denied, citing ‘fiduciary’ responsibility. Dollars ahead of ethics. Well done, Foundation.

A simulated oil spill on campus.

A simulated oil spill on campus.

Fast forward two years. After a hottest year on record, renewed student interest, two fun protests on campus, and a student referendum in which 78% of students demanded fossil fuel divestment, members of the OSU Divest student group were recently graced with another meeting with the Foundation to revisit the issue of divestment. Only two students from the OSU Divest student group were intended to meet with two trustees and several employees of the Foundation. In a show of strong solidarity, another 10 or so students and faculty, members of Allied Students for Another Politics! and Rising Tide Corvallis, also attended the meeting. The Foundation was clearly caught off guard, quickly pulling more chairs up to the table and more mugs to the coffee stand.

Despite a lack of preparation time, the students at the meeting did an amazing job of holding their ground, not backing down to a weaker proposal, not letting falsehoods be perpetrated by Foundation trustees and staff. Compared to the meeting in 2014, the Foundation seemed more prepared to listen, although one trustee was, while not an outright climate denier like Greg Merten, in favor of pointing a blaming finger at the global south for future emissions.

Molly Brown, a director at the Foundation, made reference to those contacting the Foundation asking them to not divest. Immediately before our 2014 meeting, the Foundation met with a group of unnamed people who, reportedly, gave arguments for not divesting. Molly Brown also referenced people opposed to divestment who had contacted the Foundation in the last two years. I don’t doubt that this has happened. When I first got involved in fossil fuel divestment, I received a couple of nasty emails from College of Engineering faculty members (a nerve-racking experience for my pre-tenure self). It took but two seconds to discover that these same faculty members enjoy direct funding from the fossil fuel industry for their research and summer salaries. Since divestment has been a topic at OSU, there have been three letters in the alumni magazine opposing divestment by two people (and 4 letters in favor, by 4 different people); a few clicks on a search engine uncovered that divestment opponents have direct financial conflicts-of-interest with the fossil fuel industry: Barry McElmurry is now retired from Fluor Daniel Inc (oil & gas infrastructure construction company) and Mike Moehnke is a district manager of Columbia Steel (“well-known in surface coal mining for its dragline chain”). I’m sure that all those who are vocally opposed don’t have such egregious conflicts of interests — surely some of them are just clinging desperately to neo-liberal ideology so they can maintain their excessive lifestyles without guilt.

A big point to fight against, for me, is the fact that the Foundation is placing the back-door, face-less anti-voices on (at best) an equal or (more likely) a higher footing than our organized, public movement of thousands of faculty, staff, students and community members who have voiced their opinion through petitions, letters, protests, referendum, and resolutions. Again, I am not surprised. The anti voices are telling the Foundation what they want to hear. They also probably have more money.

In the meantime, the fight continues. We are currently collecting faculty and staff signatures on an open letter to the foundation demanding divestment (soon to be released to the public); we currently have nearly 100 signatures with many from the researchers whose work tells us how big a disaster climate change is bringing.

March 10, 2016

Faculty hiring decision processes

Filed under: Silent Glen Speaks @ 11:19 pm
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In a recent faculty meeting, we discussed the process by which we make hiring decisions.  A college-level rule seems to dictate that the faculty provide feedback on the candidates for a given position, without ranking the candidates, to the unit head.  It seems the unit head then has final decision on the order in which offers are made.  While I disagree with the latter (no one should be surprised), I agree with a decision-making process that avoids rankings.  While I understand that at some point one needs to pick one candidate to make the first offer to and that very much seems like ranking, I think it is in the interest of ensuring unbiased hiring decisions to delay the discussion of ‘first offer’ as much as possible.  At the faculty meeting I tried to offer a process for discussing hiring decisions with this in mind, but since I hadn’t prepared and didn’t ‘have the floor’, so to speak, my comments were somewhat disjointed.  I will try to describe my thoughts and motivations here as succinctly as possible.

First, I would like to propose a consensus-based decision process for determining a subset of acceptable candidates – candidates that our faculty would be okay with joining our ranks.  Note that a consensus decision isn’t necessarily your favorite decision but a decision that you are okay with moving forward with.  There are three concepts (abstaining, blocking and consent) which I will describe in the context of hiring. I think one should abstain from participating in discussion if you have not spoken with the candidate and not seen the candidate’s talk.  (Note that our faculty candidate talks are video-taped and I do not think it too high a bar to expect one to watch the talk if they were absent for the interview before participating in the discussion.)  If one blocks a candidate, one is saying that they are absolutely unacceptable to hire – this is non-consent to hiring and should be taken seriously.  In this case, I think one should have to articulate, in front of the faculty, why you are blocking and the other faculty should be allowed to discuss whether or not the block is valid.  For example: if an AI faculty blocks a PL candidate because their publication record isn’t strong enough but all the PL faculty disagree, this wouldn’t be a valid block; if the members of the graphics group think that a graphics candidate is impossible to work with because they couldn’t hold a conversation for more than 5 minutes and didn’t have any common research interests, this would (probably) be a valid block.  The third option is consent: if you aren’t abstaining and you aren’t blocking, then you should be okay with the potential hiring of this candidate (even if there is a different candidate that you prefer).

At this point, we have a list of acceptable candidates – note that the discussion focuses more on eliminating candidates for being unacceptable and that they should only be considered unacceptable for serious concerns.  My argument for doing this is to minimize bias in faculty hiring decisions.  There are many, many quantitative studies that show that people (male and female, white and black, to greater and lesser degrees) think less of job applicants from non-dominant groups than dominant groups (in terms of social, racial, gender identity).  Rather than comparing the candidates pairwise and asking “better or worse”, if we consider each candidate on their own merits and ask “acceptable?” we are less likely to see impacts of implicit (or explicit) bias in our decisions.

Second, I would encourage a discussion about the merits of each candidate in the acceptable list in terms of what they would add to our department.  In the faculty meeting I picked a colleague and said the “best” candidate may be a clone of this colleague, but wouldn’t add much to the department, since we already have one.  I would encourage people to avoid using bean-counting (papers, money, etc) and instead think about certain research talents/abilities, teaching capabilities or interests, and yes, identity characteristics.  For example, say we have two candidates; the first candidate is a black woman with 10 papers in good venues and does research that we are interested in and the second candidate is a white male with 20 papers in good venues and does research that we are interested in.  I would argue strongly that the first candidate would add more to our department; this may also counter any additional challenges that she overcame (as supported by data, studies, etc) in getting to where she is compared to her white, male counterpart.  At the end of this discussion, we haven’t ranked the candidates, but for each candidate we would have a list of what that candidate would add to our department.

At this point, it seems that our administration would want us to stop.  But since I believe in non-hierarchical organizing, I would like to imagine a world in which the faculty get to decide who gets the first offer to join them as faculty.  (I didn’t really get to this point in the faculty meeting.)

So, third, based on the discussion of what each acceptable candidate would add to the department, we could start the ‘first offer’ discussion.  I would hope that the second-phase discussion would help narrow down the candidates for ‘first offer’.  The lists of what each candidate adds may even be considered a start of a ranking, although not all additions may be considered equal (or positive).  It might be helpful to take a temperature check: for each candidate indicate yes/no/neutral as to whether you would be okay (again, expressing consent not preference) with them receiving the first offer.  For each candidate for whom there isn’t consensus in this temperature check (all yes/neutral or all neutral/no), one may delve into a deeper consensus-developing process (which I think I will keep for another post in the interest of length); this would be necessary if there is no candidate for whom everyone is yes/neutral.  However, if there is one yes/neutral candidate, then this might just be the first-offer candidate.  If there is more than one, more rounds of discussion and temperature checks might need to happen … as with most things, without trying it out, there is no saying how it would work and (in my opinion) there is little point in developing a process further without actually putting it into practice.

Much of what I have said is based on my 7 years of experience in faculty hiring discussions at OSU and thinking and reading about (and using, in community groups) decision-making processes.

February 25, 2016

Graduate Teaching on Diversity: Recap

Filed under: Silent Glen Speaks @ 11:30 pm
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This review of the diversity & ethics class is much delayed.  Partly this is because in the last class I gave a survey to the students asking about their experiences in the class — it was an in depth and targeted student evaluation of teaching and I hate looking at these evaluations.  I think I always fear the worst.  Maybe due to some highly sexist comments from the past (“she looks better in a skirt”, I kid you not).

I shouldn’t have been so fearful — the surveys were taken very seriously and I learned a lot from going over them that I hope will shape a permanent course in our department.

I’ll try to summarize here:

What did you get from the course?

I asked several questions along the lines of what did you get from this course? The answers to these questions (*) helped me to uncover how I did in delivering on the pilot learning outcome:

  • Recognize difference, power and discrimination within social systems and their influence on people of diverse backgrounds both inside and outside their discipline.

A vast majority of the students reported an increased or new awareness of explicit and implicit biases in our perception of others along with the ability to better empathize with people who are different from themselves.  Many students reported that they would be a better ally to others experiencing discrimination and that they would have less fear in engaging and expressing oneself.  Several students commented on the ethics content of the class as well, that the online Responsible Conduct of Research modules were informative.  Based on this, I would give myself a B in delivering the learning outcome; I think I didn’t do a very good job on focusing on these issues within electrical engineering and computer science.

Many students commented on the soft skills they improved upon in the class: new mechanisms for group discussions, communication skills, reading skills.  A few students commented that the material and the way the class was delivered was ideal for improving on these skills, and I would agree!

Which readings were most helpful?

A majority of the students commented on the first-person narratives being most helpful, and I am not surprised.  I think I would like to add in some more ‘formal’ readings to give more broad context to the course material, but I would try to be very careful to keep the balance on the narratives.   A significant number of the students also commented on the reading Never Meant to Survive;  I think this was a great reading, but I think it stood out in students’ minds because there was a very focused deep reading assignment that went with it.  I would like to do something like this for every reading (or group of readings).

Several students commented on the fact that there was too much reading.  Although the surveys were anonymous, based on their other comments, these were English-language learners that were finding the reading burdensome; I am not sure how best to react to that.  Some of the same students reported that their reading skills improved, so perhaps it is a hurdle that is worth having.

How did the classroom mechanisms work for you?

If you’ve been reading these posts, then you know I made an effort to have the classroom be interactive as much as possible and I experimented with different ways to do this.  I asked the students which classroom mechanisms were most helpful, most enjoyable, least helpful and most challenging to them.  For details on these mechanisms, please read my earlier posts. Some patterns that stick out based on this:

  • A majority of the students found the small group discussions to be helpful, for multiple reasons (hearing other students ideas, not having to speak in front of the entire class, practicing communication skills, etc).
  • Many students found the spokescouncil discussions challenging and I think this reflects students being pushed out of their comfort zones.  Other students found this helpful and enjoyable.  I think it is definitely worth trying this again (with more than one hour to hold it).
  • Many students found the silent discussion to be least helpful or challenging.  The detailed comments reveal that many students had a hard time with the questions used for this.  As I reported earlier, I felt at the time that some better readings would hopefully prepare the students to better engage in these questions.  A few students commented that they liked the silent discussion because they felt more comfortable expressing themselves in writing than in speaking.  As we try to accommodate different learning styles (e.g. oral vs. visual) I think it would be good to use a silent discussion again to meet the needs of students who would enjoy this method of communication.  I think the silent discussion could be improved by having a post-assignment that requires students to synthesize the net comments made, to try and have the students engage more deeply in the listening side of this discussion.
  • The reaction to the round-robin discussion was mixed.  Those who liked it, liked it because it helped them learn the material better (the vocabulary for diversity) and that it forced them to talk to a lot of different students.  Those who didn’t found the task not that deep.  I think there is a split along comfort in English here …
  • Finally, the lecture and faculty panel evoked rather amusing responses.  Students enjoyed that they were hearing from other people and from experts.  Many students commented on how they could sit back and not engage — and there were students who liked that, and students who didn’t like that.  I’m not surprised.

What would you like to see?

I really enjoyed reading the students’ suggestions here.  Some topics that were mentioned (some more than once): income inequality, religious bias, non-conforming genders, ethics of human and animal experimentation.  I would love to cover more breadth of discrimination as highlighted here!

A few students asked for more experiential learning — there is a great exercise that illustrates structural discrimination before learning about structural discrimination that would be a great early-in-the-quarter exercise, for example.  One student asked for better moderation of discussions (which I would love to work on too!) and another asked for more positive content, which … well, would be challenging.  But perhaps it would be good to talk about the response to discrimination from large social movements, like Black Lives Matter, to see that one can fight against this.

Another few students asked for an introduction to US culture, which left me stymied. How?  But then another student’s comments came to the rescue: have a classroom discussion with US students comparing their culture to international students (and vice versa).  Again, this would be a great way to start the class, I think.  Along these lines, one student asked for more mixed group activities; they noticed as I did that students tended to cluster along cultural lines for small group discussions.  I suppose, again, one would want to allow this sometimes but that it might be good to mix the mechanism up and force students to talk with students they normally wouldn’t.

 

Several students asked for some true orientation content.  Things like information about funding, what grad classes are like, a campus tour!, panels with senior graduate students.  I’m going to chew on all this information for a while, but I have been thinking about proposing a 3 credit (3 hours per week) class that takes the place of our graduate seminar, TA training and this class that would allow for the time for orientation content, soft skill development, and more in-depth coverage of the material.

(*) Specifically:
What were the most useful skills or tools that you learned in this class?
How will what you learned in this class prepare you for your time here as a graduate student and your future career?
How has this class affected (or how will this class affect) your own personal behaviors and actions? Why?
If you were trying to convince a fellow student to take this class, what would you say?

November 30, 2015

Graduate Teaching on Diversity: Week 8/9

Filed under: Silent Glen Speaks @ 12:53 am
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Because of Thanksgiving, we only met in Week 8.  We had a guest lecture by Anne Gillies from our Office of Equity and Inclusion.  Anne gave an overview of implicit bias, what it is, how it arises and how we can overcome it.  It was the only full lecture we’ve had in the class so far, and it will be interesting to see what students prefer — I will be surveying students next week on various aspects of the course.  I think I would prefer, as a student, discussion-based classes, but students may be more comfortable, in a university setting, in a more standard lecture-based scenario.

But then this class is all about getting students out of their comfort zones.

Anne has attendees take some Implicit Association Tests before discussing implicit bias, which I find an interesting tactic.  Anne also came to our faculty retreat at the start of the quarter to give a too-short (not her choice) version of her talk.  There was some resistance from faculty to the notion of implicit bias and that the implicit association tests may say anything about one’s implicit biases. I had the same concerns when I first took these tests.  So, before the class, I asked Anne if she had some readings about just that, to preempt people’s scientific skepticism: this is a technical article and this article is less technical (and resulting Q&A).

There weren’t many questions, but of course, we didn’t have much time for questions (again, we need more time for these topics!).  I am reminded that, when inviting a guest lecturer, I need to do a better job of explaining the audience.  I fear that the majority international, many of whom are English-language learners, audience may have had difficulty with the pace of the lecture and the American cultural references.


I also looked over a short assignment to the class.  I had students read Never Meant to Survive: A Black Woman’s Journey: An Interview with Evelyn Hammonds, which my colleague Padma Akkaraju pointed me to.  It is an interview of a black women who studied physics and eventually left physics, despite academic success, in graduate school.  When I read this interview, I was struck by how many aspects of discrimination were described and yet, because it is an older article and an interview as opposed to a scholarly article, it doesn’t use a lot of the terminology that we use today (such as implicit bias and intersectionality).  So, as an assignment, I had students read the article and underline and annotate instances corresponding to a short vocabulary for diversity we studied in week 1.  Overall, there were quite thoughtful annotations and several students annotated similarities to their own experiences at OSU.  In future renditions of this course, I would put this assignment much earlier in the course — in week 2, for example.  I also quite liked this mechanism for an assigned reading, so will likely use it again (and recommend it for others).

November 19, 2015

Graduate Teaching on Diversity: Week 7

This week, I turned to dealing with incidences of ‘local’ discrimination.  I asked students to read these guidelines on how to challenge oppressive moments before class, with the goal of instilling the idea that it is not enough for one to not engage in racist or sexist behavior, but one must also respond to such acts on the behalf of the oppressed group.

I think something that is difficult for members of the dominant group to understand is that while any given racist or sexist incident can be written off (‘ignore it’, ‘treat the offender with the disdain they deserve’), for those in minority and underrepresented groups, these incidents can happen on a daily basis.  They build up to create an oppressive environment that is unwelcoming, at best, and threatening at worse.  In the university context, this environment supports the stereotypes that cause quantifiable reduction in academic performance. (I also asked students to read this overview of stereotype threat.)

At OSU on Monday, we were reminded of the impact of constant, background oppressive moments during a student-organized speak out for students of color.  Students bravely spoke in front of a mostly white audience of 500 about their daily lived experience on campus and how the daily micro-aggressions rise to make them not feel safe and invoke ideas of arming oneself in self-defense.  Unfortunately, but not surprising, at least to me, the daily acts of racism were not limited to coming from fellow students.  One student spoke about an instructor identifying black people by the n-word; another identified undocumented workers as illegal people and yet another, in teaching a Spanish language class, led a discussion that justified Cortés’ conquering of Mexico.

So, last Friday, I had my graduate students break into small groups of ~5.  Each group was given a scenario describing a real incident of sexism or racism that has happened at OSU or another institution that I have been at. I will list some of these incidents here that are sufficiently deanonymized, already publicly known, or that happened to me; that is, those that I feel I have the right to publish online:

  • A female student raises her hand in a tutorial (recitation) session and asks a question. A TA, instead of answering the student’s question says “Little girl, you will have to work a lot harder to keep up with the men in the class.”
  • A small group of graduate students are talking informally about their job prospects. One student says to a female student “well, you don’t have to worry, you’ll get a job through affirmative action.”
  • Graffiti has appeared in multiple bathrooms in KEC. The graffiti encourages violence against minorities and uses racial slurs.
  • In a small group with several graduate students and one faculty member, the faculty member indicates that the black student in the group was admitted because he was black.

Each group was asked to brainstorm ways in which they would respond to these situations if they were, for example, a fellow student, a TA, or simply a member of the community.  After 15-20 minutes of small group discussion, we went from group to group, sharing the incidence each group discussed and their ideas on responses.

IMG_20151113_165717 IMG_20151113_165724

There was some thoughtful discussion on when is the best time to respond, with some (possibly often valid) concern that responding in the moment could, in certain situations, make matters worse.  We also discussed, in the graffiti example, whether one should draw attention to it, so that people know this kind of thing happens, or if one should quietly remove it, to minimize the damage it does.  As with many things in the class, there isn’t a yes or no answer.  (Teaching algorithms is so much easier.)  I did, however, encourage students to report incidents, no matter how small they think they are, to the Office of Equity and Inclusion so that they can help determine how serious the matter is and whether it belongs to a pattern of behavior on campus.

I highly recommend this kind of activity.  I think it is very helpful to (a) hear about bigoted moments (b) imagine what it would be like for these kinds of things to happen on a daily basis and (c) prepare oneself to respond as an ally.  In the incidences of sexism that I have suffered, I felt utterly alone as those around me failed to respond.  I am hoping that with a little preparation, our graduate students will have the confidence to speak out against bigotry.  On the other side, I have also felt utterly unprepared, in the past, to respond to sexist comments.  I have had one student request that we have a short meeting for women in EECS to workshop how they could respond to sexist comments and behavior, which hopefully will happen next quarter.  OSU offers a retreat called Racial Aikido that helps students of color learn how to respond to racism that was referred to positively on Monday’s speak out session.  It is interesting that students of color are encouraged to spend two days learning how to respond to racism and other students are not expected to spend any time learning to not dish it out.

 

November 11, 2015

Graduate Teaching on Diversity: Week 6

Filed under: Silent Glen Speaks @ 10:17 pm
Tags: , ,

Today, we held a discussion specifically on (overt) sexism in sciences.  I assigned three readings on recent-ish occurrences describing Nobel-Prize winner Tim Hunt’s comments, Satya Nadella’s advice to women to not ask for raises and Larry Sommer’s views on women’s ability in STEM fields.

I used a spokes council discussion, as I described two weeks ago, to have students work on the following task:

You have come together to decide if and how to respond to sexist statements made by notable academic, industry and political leaders. Try to build consensus in the classroom on the proposed responses. Use the three articles as examples in your discussions; that is, how would you respond to these incidences as part of a group effort.

Some observations this week:

  • It was clear that the students did not as universally read the given articles and strayed far from the task.  I decided not to steer the conversation back to the task at hand, but let it flow.  I am not sure I would do this again.  Of course, this is a common difficulty with having readings being necessary for a discussion.
  • As I wanted to get at least three rounds of small group + spokes council discussions, I tried to moderate the length of time in each: 10 minutes + 5 minutes.  I think the discussion two weeks ago was a little more interactive without light time moderation, so I am not sure I would do this again.  To me this points again to the necessity of having a longer class period.  1.5 hours would be better and possibly sufficient.

The opinions that were voiced during the spokes-council were mixed at first;  there was an opinion of protecting free speech and one that ‘damage control’ should be sought to detach the commenting individual from the institution.  There was some discussion around why these statements are still made (which points me to doing more work in presenting arguments why this continues to happen).  While a specific consensus action was not decided upon, opinions did converge on acting, noting that the statements by notable, high-profile people rises from ‘protected free speech’ to the creation of hostile environments.  This sets my mind at ease, that given time to discuss issues people will generally agree with supporting minority rights.

 

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