“There are people in the world that do not love their fellow human beings—and I hate people like that!” — Tom Lehrer
I confess that I was a little late doing my freshman reading. Before freshman year of college, I made a deliberate decision not to read the optional summer reading we were suggested. My teenage self reasoned: Only a total tool would do the optional summer reading. I’m too cool for that.
Twenty-nine years later, as my 25th college reunion was approaching, I thought: Why was I such a dolt as a teen? Some nice people put a lot of effort into suggesting books for me. Ones that would open my horizons to different approaches to knowledge. So I went back and read one of the books—Lucy by Donald Johanson. It was great (though out of date by the time I read it). I’m still trying to find out what the other assigned books were.
This month, a number of incoming students at Duke University are busy not doing their freshman reading as well—but for another reason. They are offended by it. Among other books, the university assigned Allison Bechdel’s Fun Home, a coming-of-age memoir that deals with the author coming to terms with her identity as a lesbian. The book also contains explicit sexual content.
In the wake of student protests about the book, a number of members of my social network posted indignant messages, outraged that the Duke students were offended. One went as far as to suggest that those students’ admission to Duke should be rescinded. Really?
I served on Georgia Tech’s committee to pick the freshman reading last year, and we found it a challenging task. The freshman reading is not just any reading—it has a special status. It says to people “This is the kind of place you are coming to.” With that in mind, I argued against a reading that I thought was too nerdy. Imagine someone who had mixed feelings about coming to a tech school, thinking “I’m not part of the pocket protector set… will I fit in?” Now imagine them opening their uber-nerdy pre-frosh reading and banging their head on the table, “What have I done? What kind of a place am I going to?” Fear of nerdiness can particularly be an issue for young women, and it’s part of why we don’t have more women in computer science and other fields. If you want to teach that same reading in a literature class, that’s great—go for it. But the freshman reading has a special status. Students should absolutely be required to read things in college that make them feel uncomfortable—but not for the freshman reading.
I really feel for the Duke students who got their copy of Fun Home and were distraught. Duke freshman Brian Grasso’s article in the Washington Post is quite eloquent about it. Our students at Georgia Tech are politically diverse, and I have come to love that diversity. Each fall I teach an ethics class, “Computers, Society, and Professionalism.” The diversity of views is an asset—I count on it to get really thought-provoking conversations started. I ask my students to keep an open mind and really listen to views different from their own, and I try to do that myself.
The irony of this entire incident borders on absurdity. Some people are decrying the controversy over Fun Home in the name of diversity and acceptance of people who are different from you. But aren’t conservative Christians part of that diversity?
It’s easy to turn the tables and imagine a book about someone coming to terms with their identity as a born-again Christian. Would you assign that as pre-freshman reading? Of course not. Would you assign it in other classes like theology or literature? Of course. And the same goes for Fun Home.
If anyone remembers what the freshman reading for the incoming Harvard class of 1987 was, send me a message—I’m a bit behind finishing it.
When an individual … makes an implicit or explicit claim to be a person of a particular kind, he automatically exerts a moral demand upon the others, obliging them to value and treat him in the manner that persons of his kind have a right to expect. – Erving Goffman, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life
Issues of personal identity—who we are and how we present ourselves to others—are foundational to the field of online community design. So it is with no small amount of amusement that I have been watching the controversy about Rachel Dolezal, a white woman who passed as black for a decade. The coincidence of this hitting the media shortly after Caitlyn (formerly Bruce) Jenner appeared on the cover of Vanity Fair magazine has led many people to draw comparisons. As Goffman says, claiming to be a particular identity is a moral demand to be treated in a particular way. Under what circumstances is it OK for someone to ask to be treated as a particular race or gender? Why is Rachel’s demand being demonized while Caitlyn’s is lauded as heroic? What does it mean to “be” a particular race or gender?
Some time in the late 1990s, Brenda Laurel and colleagues designed a virtual reality art installation focusing on themes of embodiment. Aiming to make users feel embodied, the simulation changed if you took on the body of the snake, coyote or eagle. Brenda and collaborators used elements of Native American stories and images in the design. When they showed the work, some members of the local intelligentsia criticized the work for “appropriating First Nation’s art.” (You can imagine that symbols of sacred importance to Native Americans often get used by outsiders in haphazard ways that feel disrespectful.) Brenda went to meet with the critics, to try to communicate how much her art was meant to show respect. In the course of the conversation, Brenda mentioned that she is one-sixteenth Cherokee. In response to that, she says, “Suddenly the tone changed, and it was OK for us to have done what we did.”
What does it mean to be Cherokee? Does having one great-great grandparent who was a member of a group make you a member? Brenda didn’t exactly grow up on a reservation. She never even met her Cherokee ancestor. Would you feel any differently about Rachel Dolezal if she were one sixteenth of African descent? One thirty-second? Evolutionary biologists tell us that everyone is likely of African descent if you go back far enough. Genetics seems like a weak heuristic for identity.
No one has one identity. We all are different selves in different parts of our lives. Amy the professor and Amy the mom are different, and I switch between those roles fluidly. And some of those roles are more comfortable than others. Even though Amy the professor is at ease in front of a large audience, Amy the bride was terrified to appear in that fancy dress in front of family and friends. Our many selves complement one another, and over time we may cultivate some more than others. Caitlyn and Rachel both made decisions that a very different sort of self, at odds with their genetics, would be more comfortable for them.
The rhetoric that Bruce found her “true self” in becoming Caitlyn is nonsense. There is no such thing as a “true self.” We should say, rather, that the personal identity that Caitlyn chose to embrace is so much more comfortable for her that she was willing to go to great lengths to embody it.
Why does Rachel’s situation seem so much more problematic? Racial “passing” is by no means new—it just usually goes in the other direction. Part of the problem is a question of honesty—she lied. Lindsey Van Gelder’s epic 1985 Ms. Magazine article “The Strange Case of the Electronic Lover” tells the story of a male psychiatrist, “Alex,” who pretended to be a disabled woman, “Joan,” to get closer to women on an early CompuServe bulletin board. Joan refused to meet her online friends in person, but did tell a few about this great guy she knows, Alex. Alex went on to have romantic relationships with some of Joan’s online friends. While some people believe that BBS members were angry at Alex for gender swapping, many have a simpler explanation: they were angry at Alex for being a manipulative liar. As people were angry at Alex for lying, are people angry with Rachel for lying? That’s certainly part of the picture. But returning to the question of the comparison to Caitlyn, are people just beginning to transition to a new gender “lying”? While they may choose to be honest with family and friends about the beginnings of their transition, they certainly can’t give a full explanation to every retail clerk and waiter they encounter day by day. Are transitioning people “lying”?
Another part of the consternation about Rachel is that she assumed an identity that has been traditionally oppressed and consequently under some circumstances is entitled to special treatment. If she took any financial benefit by pretending to be African American, then that constitutes fraud. Is that true of Caitlyn as well? If Caitlyn Jenner now accepted a scholarship for women, would that be OK? Can you medically become another race in the same sense that we recognize that someone may medically become another gender? If Rachel could have permanent skin darkening treatments, would it be ethical for her to accept a scholarship for minorities? The complexities are dizzying.
Most of the time, the right answer is “Who cares?” You can present yourself however you like. The absurdity of trying to determine what race a particular person belongs to is poked fun at in a Dave Chappell video on the “racial draft.” Like a sports draft, African Americans take Tiger Woods (who is half Thai) with the first pick; Jews take Lenny Kravitz (half Jewish) with the second. The question whether someone “really” belongs to a particular group is absurd.
However, there are special situations—like scholarships for minorities—where eligibility is restricted to certain groups. Sometimes you have to decide. In her 1998 book Cyberville, Stacy Horn tells the story of having to decide whether to let a transitioning person, online nickname “Embraceable Ewe,” into the women-only forum (“WIT”) on her Echo bulletin board system. Stacy wonders, “If I let her into WIT, will it feel like there is a man in the room, or a woman?” It’s impossible to answer the question of whether Embraceable Ewe should be allowed into WIT without exploring two underlying questions: what is a woman, and what is the real purpose of single-gender space? Although initially Stacy declares that Embraceable can join WIT when her transition is complete, later she relents. She concludes, “It’s not up to me to tell anyone who they are. I am not the one to decide anyone’s gender.” Ultimately for Stacy, accepting people for who they say they are is simply good manners.
As Goffman points out, assuming a particular identity is making a moral demand to be treated in a particular way. If we all simply treat everyone with respect all the time, maybe some of the need to pin down who-is-what will fade.
Thanks to Josh Berman, Oliver Haimson, Stacy Horn, Brenda Laurel, and Pete Weimann for their help with this post. (Edited with comments from Stacy and Oliver–further comments appreciated!)
Dear Nonprofits: Software Needs Upkeep (Why we need better education about software development and professional ethics)
A friend who is president of a nonprofit came to see me last week with a problem: he doesn’t know how to maintain their mobile app. They worked hard to get a grant, and used the money to hire a web design firm to make them a mobile app. Seems like a nice idea, right? Except one problem: they don’t have ongoing funding for software updates and design changes. They had a one-time grant, and they spent it all on their first version. The first version is not bad–it works. But that’s kind of like saying “we made a version of Facebook that works years ago, so we’re done, right?” That doesn’t explain what all those employees in Mountain View are doing, working sixty-hour weeks.
Anyone who works in the software industry knows that software needs ongoing love and care. You’ll never get the functionality quite right–design has to evolve over time. And even if you do get it mostly right, there will be new releases of operating systems and new devices that break the old code. It will need to be updated.
Giving someone a first version of software and walking away is rather like selling them a horse knowing that they have no barn and no money for grooming or hay or vet bills. The upkeep is the issue, not the cost of the horse. The well-known web design firm that sold my friend a horse with no barn should be ashamed. Because they knew.
Nonprofits are particularly vulnerable when they have limited in-house technical capability. They are completely dependent on the vendor in every phase of the project. Dependent on the vendor’s honesty and forthrightness as well as the quality of the product they deliver.
This particular vendor just informed the nonprofit that they would not be able to support future software changes because “their business is going in a new direction.” Now there’s a line for you. They knew that supporting the nonprofit was a losing proposition, from a financial perspective. It’s the business equivalent of a one-night-stand: that was nice, but I don’t want to see you again.
For those of you running small organizations, please think hard about how you are going to maintain any software you buy. For those of you running web design firms, think hard about whether you are serving the best interests of your clients in the long run. I imagine the staff who sold my friend the app are thinking “we delivered what we agreed to,” and don’t see any issue. But you know better and need to hold yourselves to a higher standard.
This is not a new phenomenon. Cliff Lampe found the same thing in a study of three nonprofits. At the root of the problem is two shortcomings in education. So that more small businesses and nonprofits don’t keep making this mistake, we need education about the software development process as part of the standard high-school curriculum. There is no part of the working world that is not touched by software, and people need to know how it is created and maintained. Even if they have no intention of becoming a developer, they need to know how to be an informed software customer. Second, for the people at web design firms who keep taking advantage of customers, there seems to be a lack of adequate professional ethics education. I teach students in my Computers, Society, and Professionalism class that software engineers have a special ethical responsibility because the client may not understand the problem domain and is relying on the knowledge and honesty of the developer. More people need to get that message.
Responding to an earlier version of this post, Jill Dimond makes the excellent point that part of the problem is with funders of nonprofits. It’s more appealing to fund something new than to sustain something already funded. Funders should take a lesson from Habitat for Humanity, who make sure to give people a house that they are financially able to maintain. Most funders are acting more like reality television shows who give people a mansion they can’t afford. And then we all act surprised when the family loses the home in bankruptcy. Funders need to plan for the long-term, or else why bother at all?
I first realized that my style of giving a talk was old-fashioned when I spoke at TEDxNYED in 2010. During setup, I asked for a lectern–I wanted to be able to see my slides while I talked. The staff argued with me–are you sure? I was sure. My slides–horrors!–had bullet points of text on them, and few images. I was the only one. Everyone else had slides with single images that faded from one to the next, or perhaps a single evocative word.
The current fashion in presentation style is a triumph of style over substance. When I design slides, I use text to emphasize the main points. If I am telling a charming story, the point is on the slide. This is why I am telling you this story. My talks have content.
Of course images can be content too. Sometimes pictures are actually data. A couple nice examples come to mind from the recent CSCW conference in Vancouver. Nicki Dell from UW presented a paper about people in developing nations struggling to fill in paper forms, and photos of her subjects with giant stacks of paper told the story better than words. Similarly, Lynn Dombrowski from UCI discussed how hard it is to help people to sign up for public assistance. She didn’t have photos from her field site she could put in a presentation, but she was able to find images of real people in similar situations–freely available with a Creative Commons license. I’m more a verbal person than a visual one, but even I get the value of well-chosen images. But a photo that is actual data or closely related is not the same thing as one that just sets a mood. Raise your hand if you’re tired of flowers and mountain streams used to evoke abstract concepts in computing. Sometimes I want to ask, is this a research presentation or a greeting card?
It’s not really pictures I object to–use a sunset if you must. I object to the absence of words. Sometimes the cliché “a picture is worth a thousand words” is simply not true.
The image-focused style of giving a talk goes back to the introduction of the Pecha Kucha presentation style in 2003. It was originally intended to keep talks fast paced and engaging. Don’t get me wrong–I believe talks should be entertaining and engaging. And I’m not advocating a return to overhead transparencies. But I prefer to engage people by presenting content that is meaningful and relevant–not just pretty. Text on slides helps keep people focused on the ideas I’m trying to convey.
I’m proud to use an old-fashioned talk style. Maybe in the future it’ll become hiply retro.
I went to wash my hands the other day, and saw that my husband, Pete, had left something soaking in the sink. OK, I’ll use another sink…. But wait! What is that soaking? It was the charger for his electric toothbrush (unplugged, of course). You know how those get kinda gross, covered in white gunk? I try to clean mine now and then–usually with a bleach wipe. It helps, but it never gets it really clean. Later that day, I saw Pete’s toothbrush and charger positively gleaming. Wow! It wouldn’t have occurred to me to soak something electrical, but I guess you can do it. I was inspired, and soaked mine. It worked like a charm.
Let’s look at this as an episode of learning. Pete and I haven’t exchanged a word about the toothbrush–this post will come as a surprise to him. But through observation, I both developed motivation to do something positive, and learned a new method for approaching it!
Of course you know this post isn’t about toothbrushes. My question is: In what ways do students in face-to-face classes have opportunities for this kind of learning? I don’t take it for granted that this happens a lot–I think sometimes we romanticize the traditional classroom. I’m always surprised at the end of the term when I’m teaching a small class and know everyone’s names, and realize they don’t know one another’s names. They often just know the name of one or two classmates. Though sometimes the support from those one or two friends is critical.
If we could understand more about social and observational learning in the traditional classroom, then we could try to recreate the positive aspects in the online classroom. Or better yet, to go beyond being there (thank you, Jim Hollan), and invent even better mechanisms. This is what my PhD student Joe Gonzales and I are trying to do.
How would you approach it? Leave me a comment, and tell me about your cool work!