Diversity of thought in academia

Recent events have highlighted the increasing divide between liberal and conservative ideologies in universities. Some thoughts on how we can move towards making campuses spaces where constructive dialog across political and other ideological boundaries is nurtured.

The latest policical cycle has, among other things, reinvigorated discussion around the role universities and higher education plays in political discourse. Recently we've experienced the controversy of Hamshipre College's decision not to display the U.S. flag, the controvery surrounding events at the University of Oregon and the intersection of free speech, academic freedom, and student comfort, and a couple of notable events occurring at Virginia Tech last year including controversy around a couple of invited speakers of know conservative leanings.

It is no secret that U.S. universities tend to lean to the left, politically, and though there may be justifiable reasons for that, it should be cause for critical inspection that in New England for example, professors who identify as "liberal" outnumber their "conservative" counterparts 28 to 1, and especially so that students are reporting feeling isolated and fearful of how their classmates will react to their conservative views. The irony of this debacle is that most liberal academics you ask, including this one, would make an impassioned argument that universities should be places where conversations about controversial topics, including political views, should (and often do) take place. So where is the disconnect?

To start, universities (and I'm speaking from a sample size of 2 here, but I suspect there are larger data sets to back this up) traditionally do an abysmal job of actually teaching how to have difficult conversations. While we say we want to facilitate these conversations, most of us don't know how, and are likely unaware that some of our behaviors in the classroom might make students feel like their views won't be welcome. This is coupled by an apparent lack of understanding what an actual conversation across differing ideologies realling looks like. The result of all this, I think, are instances like those I cited above, controversies over deeply seated beliefs that are reported only in terms of stereotypes of each side's ideology: liberals criticize conservatives for racist language and White supremacist ideologies, while conservatives seek the sympathy vote by pushing the image of the oppressed voice in a liberal environment. Of course, these outcomes tend not to result in constructive conversation for anyone.

The role of language and discourse

Among other things, a major barrier to constructive communication across political ideologies seems to be one of language and epistemology. This was highlighted during the presidential campaign by the divide around perception of Donald Trump's speech patterns. Many left leaning folks found it both laughable and frightening that the now president-elect would self-contradict himself from day to day, and truly puzzling that he contained to gain popularity. From our own sets of experiences, and the values that are typically expressed in the academic environment, we use language to convey meaning, and it is important to us, to our identities, that that meaning remain consistent across time. We tend to link this rational language with rational thought: we can discern a stable meaning simply by reasoning through each word, how they are ordered, and how the sentence is structured. But Newsweek suggests that Trump's use of language appeals to emotion, rather than reason. In another related piece that I can't seem to find now, an author argued that Trumps speaking style at his rallies was consistent with a performer playing to the audience: he starts by using a wide selection of topics and phrases, finds what the audience responds most strongly to, then repeats those particular phrases and restates those topics in different ways. Because the audience changes with each speaking engagement, so do his words, and it is somewhat beside the point that words he says one day are not consistent with words he said the last, that was never his intent.

Understanding Trump

George Lakoff has written two pieces about understanding Trump, and understanding Trump's use of language, from a cognitive linguistic perspective. Without going into too much detail, since that is in the original, there are a couple ideas from his analysis that help describe what might be going on in academic discourse. The first is his reduction of the two ideologies "progressive" and "conservative" to the family metaphors of "nurturing parent" and the "strict father", respectively. These metaphors describe one's view of the role of authority figures in society through the metaphor "society as family". From the "strict father" perspective, social authority is hierarchical with a strong (male) leader at the top, the "father". Authority is not questioned, disobeying authority is countered with swift and punishment. If society is not going smoothly we just need to enforce the "law and order". The "nurturing parent" ideology, on the other hand, is centered around the belief that the role of authority is to provide the means for your children to thrive in their own way.

Interestingly, we see a similar ideological rift in academia around beliefs about learning. The traditional lecture style of education is tightly aligned with the "strict father" ideology, while newer constructionist inspired pedagogues are more closely aligned with the nurturing parent ideology. It's not that one ideology is objectively better than another, but rather one may be more appropriate than another in a given social context. With the advent of the assembly line, and the explosion in manufacturing jobs the workforce needed workers who could follow instructions without asking to many questions. The "strict father" ideology fit well, and so did the type of learning that is well suited for lecture-based environments: memorization and recall. But with the shifting job market comes a shift in the aught after skills. More recently employers have expressed a need for creative problem solvers and critical thinkers, skills better developed in a constructionist classroom and more nurturing parent ideology.

Back to the problem at hand though: yes, academia tends to attract and retain liberal identified people, but this doesn't mean that we can't create a space for constructive dialog across political ideologies. In order to do that though, we may need to de-center the academic rational discourse and be more inclusive of a diverse forms of discourse and argument. We can do this without throwing out rational discourse altogether, i.e. I'm not suggesting we all adopt a more emotional style of communication in our next journal submission. This also doesn't mean we need to simply accept all forms of language, in particular, those that serve to objectify and dehumanize others. We do need to think how best to communicate why use of language like "illegals" and "alien invasion" to refer to people is destructive and undermines any attempt to discuss controversial topics like immigration and undocumented immigrants.

Feeling uncomfortable is part of the learning process, learning doesn't happen in our comfort zone, but just outside of it. Universities have a responsibility to create an environment suitable for people to step out of their comfort zones, but those us of who feel comfortable within the confines of the academy must be prepared to step out of our comfort zones as well.

Not all differences may be resolved (and that's ok)

It is important to remember that the goal of any difficult conversation generally should not be to change our opponent's mind, that is not likely to happen after a single exchange, if at all. Especially if values are deeply rooted in differing ideologies around power and authority, as in the "strict father" vs "nurturing parent" metephores, changing minds isn't easy, and isn't really desirable if what we are after is fostering an environment for diversity of thought. And this is where strategising becomes particularly hard, at least for me. For instance, George Lakoff discusses how the two ideologies he introduces are aligned with believes about causation. From a "strict father" ideology causal relationships are direct: too many immegrants crossing a boarder? building a wall with stop that. He makes the point that direct causation is built into the grammars of many languages around the world, and thus it is easier to understand and convey. This is true for everyone, regardless of politcal leanings, liberal polititions are often just as guilty has their conservative counterparts when it comes to favoring simple causal reasoning. Lakoff suggests however that those aligning with more of a "nurturing parent" ideology are more likely to embrace the indirect causality we see in complex systems. Unfortunately this is not a simple case of "both sides are equally valid, we just need to learn to listen to one another". The world is a complex place with massivly complex environmental systems that we are only beginning to understand interacting with the massivly complex social systems we have built on top of them. A simple direct causal reduction of a problem will almost always result in a bad solution because by definition it will induce unintended consequences that themselves will be tacked as "new" problems to be "solved" with yet more direct solutions. We really do need to take a more systems view when designing solutions, but this may be at odds with the "strict father" ideology at a deeper level than just "we don't yet have the linquistic tools to communicate these complexities" that everyone struggles with.

Diversity of thought in academia

Recent events have highlighted the increasing divide between liberal and conservative ideologies in universities. Some thoughts on how we can move towards making campuses spaces where constructive dialog across political and other ideological boundaries is nurtured.

The latest policical cycle has, among other things, reinvigorated discussion around the role universities and higher education plays in political discourse. Recently we've experienced the controversy of Hamshipre College's decision not to display the U.S. flag, the controvery surrounding events at the University of Oregon and the intersection of free speech, academic freedom, and student comfort, and a couple of notable events occurring at Virginia Tech last year including controversy around a couple of invited speakers of know conservative leanings.

It is no secret that U.S. universities tend to lean to the left, politically, and though there may be justifiable reasons for that, it should be cause for critical inspection that in New England for example, professors who identify as "liberal" outnumber their "conservative" counterparts 28 to 1, and especially so that students are reporting feeling isolated and fearful of how their classmates will react to their conservative views. The irony of this debacle is that most liberal academics you ask, including this one, would make an impassioned argument that universities should be places where conversations about controversial topics, including political views, should (and often do) take place. So where is the disconnect?

To start, universities (and I'm speaking from a sample size of 2 here, but I suspect there are larger data sets to back this up) traditionally do an abysmal job of actually teaching how to have difficult conversations. While we say we want to facilitate these conversations, most of us don't know how, and are likely unaware that some of our behaviors in the classroom might make students feel like their views won't be welcome. This is coupled by an apparent lack of understanding what an actual conversation across differing ideologies realling looks like. The result of all this, I think, are instances like those I cited above, controversies over deeply seated beliefs that are reported only in terms of stereotypes of each side's ideology: liberals criticize conservatives for racist language and White supremacist ideologies, while conservatives seek the sympathy vote by pushing the image of the oppressed voice in a liberal environment. Of course, these outcomes tend not to result in constructive conversation for anyone.

The role of language and discourse

Among other things, a major barrier to constructive communication across political ideologies seems to be one of language and epistemology. This was highlighted during the presidential campaign by the divide around perception of Donald Trump's speech patterns. Many left leaning folks found it both laughable and frightening that the now president-elect would self-contradict himself from day to day, and truly puzzling that he contained to gain popularity. From our own sets of experiences, and the values that are typically expressed in the academic environment, we use language to convey meaning, and it is important to us, to our identities, that that meaning remain consistent across time. We tend to link this rational language with rational thought: we can discern a stable meaning simply by reasoning through each word, how they are ordered, and how the sentence is structured. But Newsweek suggests that Trump's use of language appeals to emotion, rather than reason. In another related piece that I can't seem to find now, an author argued that Trumps speaking style at his rallies was consistent with a performer playing to the audience: he starts by using a wide selection of topics and phrases, finds what the audience responds most strongly to, then repeats those particular phrases and restates those topics in different ways. Because the audience changes with each speaking engagement, so do his words, and it is somewhat beside the point that words he says one day are not consistent with words he said the last, that was never his intent.

Understanding Trump

George Lakoff has written two pieces about understanding Trump, and understanding Trump's use of language, from a cognitive linguistic perspective. Without going into too much detail, since that is in the original, there are a couple ideas from his analysis that help describe what might be going on in academic discourse. The first is his reduction of the two ideologies "progressive" and "conservative" to the family metaphors of "nurturing parent" and the "strict father", respectively. These metaphors describe one's view of the role of authority figures in society through the metaphor "society as family". From the "strict father" perspective, social authority is hierarchical with a strong (male) leader at the top, the "father". Authority is not questioned, disobeying authority is countered with swift and punishment. If society is not going smoothly we just need to enforce the "law and order". The "nurturing parent" ideology, on the other hand, is centered around the belief that the role of authority is to provide the means for your children to thrive in their own way.

Interestingly, we see a similar ideological rift in academia around beliefs about learning. The traditional lecture style of education is tightly aligned with the "strict father" ideology, while newer constructionist inspired pedagogues are more closely aligned with the nurturing parent ideology. It's not that one ideology is objectively better than another, but rather one may be more appropriate than another in a given social context. With the advent of the assembly line, and the explosion in manufacturing jobs the workforce needed workers who could follow instructions without asking to many questions. The "strict father" ideology fit well, and so did the type of learning that is well suited for lecture-based environments: memorization and recall. But with the shifting job market comes a shift in the aught after skills. More recently employers have expressed a need for creative problem solvers and critical thinkers, skills better developed in a constructionist classroom and more nurturing parent ideology.

Back to the problem at hand though: yes, academia tends to attract and retain liberal identified people, but this doesn't mean that we can't create a space for constructive dialog across political ideologies. In order to do that though, we may need to de-center the academic rational discourse and be more inclusive of a diverse forms of discourse and argument. We can do this without throwing out rational discourse altogether, i.e. I'm not suggesting we all adopt a more emotional style of communication in our next journal submission. This also doesn't mean we need to simply accept all forms of language, in particular, those that serve to objectify and dehumanize others. We do need to think how best to communicate why use of language like "illegals" and "alien invasion" to refer to people is destructive and undermines any attempt to discuss controversial topics like immigration and undocumented immigrants.

Feeling uncomfortable is part of the learning process, learning doesn't happen in our comfort zone, but just outside of it. Universities have a responsibility to create an environment suitable for people to step out of their comfort zones, but those us of who feel comfortable within the confines of the academy must be prepared to step out of our comfort zones as well.

Not all differences may be resolved (and that's ok)

It is important to remember that the goal of any difficult conversation generally should not be to change our opponent's mind, that is not likely to happen after a single exchange, if at all. Especially if values are deeply rooted in differing ideologies around power and authority, as in the "strict father" vs "nurturing parent" metephores, changing minds isn't easy, and isn't really desirable if what we are after is fostering an environment for diversity of thought. And this is where strategising becomes particularly hard, at least for me. For instance, George Lakoff discusses how the two ideologies he introduces are aligned with believes about causation. From a "strict father" ideology causal relationships are direct: too many immegrants crossing a boarder? building a wall with stop that. He makes the point that direct causation is built into the grammars of many languages around the world, and thus it is easier to understand and convey. This is true for everyone, regardless of politcal leanings, liberal polititions are often just as guilty has their conservative counterparts when it comes to favoring simple causal reasoning. Lakoff suggests however that those aligning with more of a "nurturing parent" ideology are more likely to embrace the indirect causality we see in complex systems. Unfortunately this is not a simple case of "both sides are equally valid, we just need to learn to listen to one another". The world is a complex place with massivly complex environmental systems that we are only beginning to understand interacting with the massivly complex social systems we have built on top of them. A simple direct causal reduction of a problem will almost always result in a bad solution because by definition it will induce unintended consequences that themselves will be tacked as "new" problems to be "solved" with yet more direct solutions. We really do need to take a more systems view when designing solutions, but this may be at odds with the "strict father" ideology at a deeper level than just "we don't yet have the linquistic tools to communicate these complexities" that everyone struggles with.

“We’re taking these symbols, and we’re wrapping our own ideas around them ? that are heavily racialized,” he said. “They’re just zero and ones. But we take zeros and ones and we wrap meaning about them. It flies in the face of technology and computer code being neutral and value-free.”

The Power of storytelling, Ursula Le Guin, and Black Lives Matter

Robbing one of one's stories is a form of violence; instead we must listen.

For a while now, I've been musing about the concept of power (the social kind, not V*I), as it pertains to my research. Before that, a more central focus of interest around the time of my switch to the Engineernig Education program was that of narrative, inspired and shaped largely by Janet Murray's Hamlet on the Holodeck. Mixed up in there has been an interest in interplay of gender and language, which led me to Ursula Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness.

It was then quite serendipitous when I came across a blog post by Maria Popova weaving all these ideas together. I had been sitting on this idea for a post for a while, not quite sure where to take it beyond "isn't it nice that all of these things that have been increasingly meaningful to me are brought together so neatly by Maria Popova", but over the past few weeks with yet more murders of Black men at the hands of police officers and subsequent demonstrations and shows of civil unrest I've been thinking about the power of telling ones story, and the oppression (also a form of violence, as Paulo Freire argues) of suppressing one's story. Many White people in the U.S. do not necessarily view recent events in this way. Rather, they seem to have a troubling detachment from the history of our country, a history that Le Guin summarizes beautifully:

My country came together in one revolution and was nearly broken by another.

The first revolution was a protest against galling, stupid, but relatively mild social and economic exploitation. It was almost uniquely successful.

Many of those who made the first revolution practiced the most extreme form of economic exploitation and social oppression: they were slave owners.

The second American revolution, the Civil War, was an attempt to preserve slavery. It was partially successful. The institution was abolished, but the mind of the master and the mind of the slave still think a good many of the thoughts of America.

The exploitation of Black lives runs deep through the history of our nation, yet many White people continue to condemn any form of protest to this exploitation that they do not deem "acceptable" (i.e. any form that succeeds in broadcasting the personal stories of pain, fear, and distrust of authority), yet every July 4th continue to proudly celebrate the violence they perpetrated in response to "stupid, but relatively mild social and economic exploitation."

Ultimately, these shows of violence can be seen as acts of storytelling. That is, after trying unsuccessfully share the narrative of oppression to enact meaningful change through lobbying government, having it fall on deaf ears while Black lives continue to be stolen by institutional authority, the only recourse is to share that story in a way impossible for the oppressors to ignore.

This aspect of the conflict is poignantly demonstrated by the Black Obituary Project as a direct response to not only the taking of Black lives by state-sanctioned violence, but also the larceny of those lives' stories by White media outlets that focus on any past criminal record, no matter how irrelevant, and the possibility the victim had a weapon, no matter how unfounded, rather than what that live was, and what it meant to their community.

I certainly don't know what all the answers are to the present unrest we have been experiencing, but I do know that to move forward we need to start listening to each others stories more closely, and with intent. This is not a "their problem", this is our problem, or perhaps more optimistically, our challenge. The exploitation of Black lives that will always be a part of the ugly and uncomfortable foundation of our country, we can't change that, and we must not forget that. While continuing to keep an eye on the past, how can we envision a future in which together we insure that this exploitation is contained in the past?

Rethinking bias

There are at least two ways we use the word "bias", one of them comes with its own implicit assumptions of worldview and epistemology. But we often forget this.

This upcoming week in class we will be discussing implicit bias, the subconscious attitudes and stereotypes that affect our choices and behavior towards other people. This prompted me to finally try and write out a post about what "bias" is, and what assumptions, or even, implicit biases, are activated when we use the word "bias" in our every-day conversation. There are several definitions of "bias", the two that we use often in everyday speech are

  1. a tendency to have a particular outlook due to personal beliefs rather than "objective" facts, often considered the antonym of "impartial"
  2. treating a person or groups of people unfairly, associated with prejudiced

I think the two definitions are similar in some ways which I will explore later, first I want to dig into the first definition a bit.

Recently I've been re-reading Rethinking History, by Keith Jenkins. It's a great read if you really want to question some assumptions you might have about how it is we come to know about history, what history is, and what it isn't. To this end, Jenkins critiques the common believe that history is meant to sift out the "facts" of what "really" happened in the past, often using "evidence". I put those words in quotes because it turns out, they're actually quite problematic. The problem can be boiled down to an analogy Jenkins uses: a geographer, a sociologist, and a historian all looking out the same window at the same landscape.

A geographer, sociologist, and historian walk to a bar with a single window. What do they see?

Fist of all, we can note that none of the three can see the whole picture, the framing is in this case, quite literally, accomplished by the window frame. Second, we can imagine that each of the three will find different elements of the scene noteworthy: the geographer may note differences in agricultural vs. forested land, the sociologist my notice what family structures are common in the homes, population distributions, etc. The historian may be keen on observing how any of these other qualities change over time, what conditions might precede certain changes, etc.

The point is, all three of them are making "correct" observations, but all different observations. Though this is before Jenkins brings up the discussion of "bias", we might ask, would we consider each of those different views out the window "biased"?

A slight aside

You may see where this is going: "bias" only makes sense under the underlying assumption that there is an objective Truth out there for which any one of us could be expected to observe the same thing. This is in fact, not how we observe the world to work. But this idea that there is an objective reality out there, and we can discover it through observation forms the philosophical underpinnings of the scientific method, something that has been enjoying quite a shining reputation for providing the plethora of modern-day conveniences that we just could not live without. We could have a lively, and productive debate on whether or not science really has provided us convenience (and if so, who it has provided that convenience for... and who has it not), but for the time being let's just say that science has been successful because it "works" in the sense that if has allowed us to achieve a particular goal of understanding the properties of the world around us to the extent that we can manipulate that world to better suit our (but who is "us"?) needs.

Formally, the philosophical underpinnings of science that I eluded to earlier is known as empiricism. It defines a particular way of viewing the nature of reality and knowledge: that reality exists, and we can come to know the true nature of that existence through making observations and collecting evidence.

Back to bias

Jenkins makes a rather profound observation: "bias" is an artifact of an empiricist worldview. It functions as a mechanism to ensure internal consistency in the underlying assumptions about the way the world works. Consider this scenario: Alice and Bob both believe that a single objective reality exists that we are all living in, an we can come to know the truth of this reality by making observations. Both Alice and Bob's own sense of self and belonging in society depend on this believe, so there's a lot riding on it. A corollary to the assumption that there is an objective reality that be observed is that it doesn't matter who does the observing (baring any relativistic effects, let's assume both Alice and Bob are traveling at the same relative velocity). If evidence can be collected through observation, and that evidence tells us something about reality, then anyone collecting the same evidence should come to the same conclusions regarding reality. So Alice and Bob happen to be in the same place and the same time, making the same observation. Perhaps they are interested in the color of the sky. "My, what a nice blue sky that is," declares Alice. Bob, somewhat sheepishly and somewhat confused asks "yes, but I'm sure you mean 'celeste', not 'blue'."

Assuming Alice is about about her 'blue, not celeste' conclusion we are faced with two logical conclusions:

  1. The underpinning assumptions about the nature of reality, that it is objectively observable, are incorrect, or
  2. Reality is just as objectively real as ever, there must be something wrong with the people observing it.

Well, it wouldn't make much sense for a worldview to self-contradict itself out of existence, so 1 can't be true. That leaves us 2, something is going on in the observers to prevent them from making truthful conclusions about reality. Let's label that effect "bias".

The point, already

What I hope this point illustrates is the claim Jenkins made about "bias", that it is a construct that serves to maintain internal consistency with a particular worldview, namely an empiricist worldview. That is, rather than being a product of the world itself, "bias" is a product of the way we choose to view it. Jenkins then criticisms the use of "bias" to describe other worldviews, e.g. "feminists are biased." It makes no sense to say that, he claims, because it implies that empiricism isn't just a particular worldview but is THE way reality works. Using "bias" like this prioritizes and normalizes empiricism. Jenkins concludes

thus, the problem of bias is specifically an empiricist one but because it is the dominant approach then its problems get distributed as if they were everyone's. But they are not. Of course -- and this must be stressed -- other discourses have their own problems of internal coherence, etc., but bias is not the way they are expressed.

I particularly like Jenkins word choice: bias is an expression of an empiricist worldview. The point then, is that by casually using the word "bias" in our daily discourse, we are implicitly operating from within an empiricist frame of reference. While operating within this frame has proven to be incredibly successful (when we define 'success' in certain ways, from certain peoples perspectives) in the realm of science, it would be naive to assume this way of viewing the world should work ALL the time. This isn't to say that empiricism is bad, or other ways of conceiving of the world are "better", as Jenkins states, these other philosophies, including for example those that form the basis for feminism, have their own constructs to ensure internal consistency, they're just not called "bias".

You want the truth? Who's truth do you want?

One of Jenkins' central claims through the book is that rather than trying to answer "what is history?" we should be trying to answer "who is history for?" This idea can be extended to other fields of inquiry as well, it means changing the question "what is the truth" to "who is this truth for?". Who is science for? Who is feminism for? Who is grad school for? Who is DiversityEdu for? What this allows us to do is move beyond arguments of who is "really" correct, which tend not to end with anyone satisfied, and to embrace the idea that just like the geologist, sociologist, and historian looking out the window, we can all have different narratives describing what we see, we are all "correct", and by taking account of all those narratives we can begin to paint a more complete picture of what we all see.

Wait, so if "bias" is just a made-up thing...

I'm not saying that we should just stop using phrases like "implicit bias" when describing peoples unconscious assumptions and stereotypes, and I'm definitely not saying that because "bias" is a made-up construct that it some how makes the effects of something like "implicit bias" less real, or less legitimate.

When I first had the idea to write this post it immediately after getting frustrated at a number of political stories about which politicians lied the most. Now in many cases, I'm sure politicians do lie, in the sense they say things that they know are contrary to their own observations of the world. But I suspect many times politicians arrive a different conclusions not because some are lying and some are telling the truth (which would assume an objective reality), but that each may be truthfully describing their own reality, and it just might be that different realities conflict with one another.

And that's ok. I suspect that to make progress in the quest for social justice (who is "social justice" for?) we can not limit ourselves to empiricist views of the world. We must be open towards other ways making sense of our experiences, and how we come to see reality through them. We must be aware that just like "bias", any other worldview will have its own internal-coherence mechanism, and we need to be aware of it, and its function. Because we can't fall into the trap of assuming a particular worldview is in fact reality itself. That never ends well for anyone.

Conference talk: Programming education

Background

My background is in computer engineering. At the time I was making such decisions, my naive young mind associated "computer engineering" with hardware, and "computer science" with software. I thought the interesting stuff would be in hardware. The software would just kind of happen along the way.

Of course, it's not that simple. While I did have a couple of programming courses as part of my ECE curriculum, when it came to actually having to write software as part of my graduate work I came to realize I still had a lot to learn. And yes, there was a lot of interesting stuff going on in software.

Also, during this time, purely by accident I found myself teaching a programming course in a required sequence of programming courses for the computer engineering majors. It is widely regarded that the best way to learn something, is to teach it, and this experience was no exception. In addition to the many nuances of programming itself, I learned that teaching programming is rather difficult. Some of the challenges I faced:

  • handing the wide variation of prior-experience that entered by sophomore-level course,
  • how to balance limited course time across abstract concepts, philosophy, and design thinking, professional tools, and the coding process,
  • how to answer the question 'why is this important if I don't plan to become a software developer?'

Along with these questions was the more meta-level question: is this just me, or are others facing similar challenges teaching programming?

Bigger picture

It is all the more critical that we wrestle with these questions now in light of the continuing trend to make programming education available to a wider audience. Recently, President Obama announced the CS for all initiative which aims to "to empower all American students from kindergarten through high school to learn computer science and be equipped with the computational thinking skills they need to be creators in the digital economy..." While the intent seems commendable, what do we actually mean by "learn computer science" and "computational thinking skills" in this context? We probably do not expect "all American students" to become software developers, so what is it about computer science and computational thinking skills that we feel are so important for all students to learn? And if we can pinpoint that, what can we learn from existing efforts to teach programming that might inform how we approach "computer science for all"?

Problem solving with programming

One possible way to frame why we might want "computer science for all" is to look at the process involved in problem solving through programming.

[!problem_solving]

    Word vs. LaTeX and other meaningless comparisons

    Comparisons of wordprocessors to LaTeX tend to miss the point, the two are informed by different philosophies of authorship and document preparation.

    This is also not a Word vs. LaTeX piece. But I would like to unpack what seems to be a fundamental missunderstanding made by many of the pro-Word 'Word vs. LaTeX' folk. LaTeX is not a word-processor. I will say that again to aid retention: LaTeX is not a word-processor. Trying to compare LaTeX vs. Word is not even like trying to compare apples to oranges--at least those are both a type of fruit--it would be more like trying to compare a symphony orchestra to a kidney. Or something. I'm having trouble coming up with a good analogy since there is little analogy between Word and LaTex. The point of this post is to help increase awareness that the monolithic word-processor model is not the only model for document preparation, and it isn't even a particularly good model for many modern needs. This highlights the real problem with the so called word-processing wars: the assumption that a monolithic word-processor is The One True Way of document preparation and the tendency to conclude that any tools that do not fit The One True Way are somehow less "efficient."

    LaTeX is a typesetting engine as well as a set of commands that describe how to typeset text. Both MS Word and LaTeX are part of a document preparation system, MS Word includes a typesetting engine and a set of commands to describe how to typeset text, but it also includes more. More is not necessarily better. But this distinction is what makes some arguments so inappropriate. In response to a fundamentally flawed "research study" that concluded Word was "more efficient," LuAnne Thompson and Angie Pendergrass tweeted

    Two problems here (or from Microsoft's viewpoint, raging successes): Did I mention LaTeX isn't a word-processor? It's also not a text editor, so a text editor is necessary for using LaTeX as part of a document preparation workflow. Spell checking is a process usually done while composing text in a text editor, not during typesetting, which is what LaTeX does. If you want spell checking capabilities your system-wide spell-checker (is it true that you still need to download a separate utility to get system-wide spell checking in Windows? That seems archaic.) should work with any text editor. The second problem/win-for-microsoft: "word ... is the only way to go". As if MS Word is the only way to use a spell-checker. Since MS Word has a spell-checker built into it.

    It's not really about LaTeX vs. Word

    Replace Word with Apple's Pages, or LibreOffice Writer. They're all the same, following the Microsoft model of software design: combine all conceivable functionality a user might need into a single program, give it a [WIMP] user interface to ostensibly make all the features discoverable. This design philosophy was fueled in part by Microsoft's business model: swallow up any third-party utilities (e.g., spell checkers and grammar checkers and make them part of word)

    A monopoly of thought

    At its core this issue is not so much a monopoly of tool as it is a monopoly of thought regarding what documents are for and how they are prepared.

    The Cathedral and the Bazaar

    The engineering workflow

    The workflow for which LaTeX was designed is one which values finding the best tool for the job, where "best" might mean something slightly different for everyone, thus this workflow is about people making choices that are right for them. I choose what text editor to use to interact with my text, I choose what bibliography manager to use (as long as it can export a BibTex file, and most can),

    The tools are not perfect

    LaTeX syntax is verbose and can be confusing at times. The BibTeX format has some issues. 99% of the time LaTeX does The Right Thing when positioning floats, but when it doesn't it's a pain to micro-manage.

    Workflows vs. worldviews and other false dichotomies

    Thinking about language use when describing people who do not subscribe to the dominate ideologies

    I've recently been thinking more about workflows and tools for writing since migrating from Electrical and Computer Engineering where the LaTeX workflow was fairly ubiquitous to Engineering Education in which the ubiquitous workflow involves MS Word or similar. This is not going to be a LaTeX vs. MS Word piece. There are plenty of those out there, though this post was inspired by one in particular (with a bit of an inflammatory title) by Alex Bond who made a ostensibly pragmatic argument as to why he chose to stick with MS Word (for now).

    For the most part, I thought Alex's piece was fairly written: while he chooses to use MS Word he makes it clear that one way isn't objectively better, rather his argument centers around "what works for you". Especially in the comments and responses it is clear that he keeps an open mind towards other tools and the conversation itself. I do have a couple minor quibbles: an apples to oranges comparison in his Cost & Access section and the repeated implication that a plain text workflow is the new kid on the block when plain text workflows have been pretty well established since at least the 1970s. This post is not about those quibbles. This post is about a far more serious piece of his argument:

    But in my mind, there are two arguments: the practical (A is tangibly better than B), and the philosophical (A is better than B because of ethical, moral, or philosophical reasons). These are both important discussions to have, but in this post, I’m going to focus on the first.

    Specifically, Alex's claim that he will focus on practical reasons why one might pick one workflow over the other and leave the philosophical debate for another time (if at all?). I disagree with the premise of his argument. Practice is deeply informed by philosophy in both cases. It is fine to argue that a legitimate reason someone might choose to use the MS Word workflow is "because everyone uses it". It is not fine, and extremely dangerous, to believe that that argument is not philosophical: by making it you are implicitly buying in (literally) to the Microsoft philosophy that created an environment in which "everyone uses it" in the first place. Microsoft's philosphy with Word is that everyone should use it and thus it is designed in such a way to encourage that, and more of a concern, prevent people from using anything else by making it extremely difficult to collaborate with anyone not using MS Word.

    There must be a word for the tendency to ignore philosophy/worldview when yours happens to be the dominant one, it is certainly a kind of privilege, but "worldview privilege" feels clunky and I'm not sure it's getting at the issue. Let me provide two examples, incidentally both having to do with Richard Stallman.

    The first was in an answer to a Quara question. In his answer, Phillip Remaker wrote

    Richard Stallman is a staunch idealogue [sic] prone to outrageous and exaggerated statements in order to get attention for his cause. He is not to be taken too seriously.

    There are two sentences in the above quote. The first can generally be taken as accurate, though the word choice is problematic and I will get to that in a bit. It's the second sentence, especially as it is placed after the first that is the real problem. By putting those two sentences together in the way that he did, Phillip is leading the reader to make two assumptions:

    1. Other contemporary computing icons such as Bill Gates or Steve Jobs are not staunch ideologues, this is some special quality of Richard Stallman.
    2. People who have strong views grounded in ideology should not be taken seriously.

    In my comment to that answer[^1] I addressed both of these. Actually, addressing the first point makes it clear that the second point is invalid.

    Personal ideologies

    To suggest that neither Bill Gates nor Steve Jobs were guided by an ideology is flat out naive. Apple's walled-garden philosophy is that the best user experience is obtained when one company (namely Apple) has tight control over both the hardware and software that the user can access. Microsoft's philosophy has historically been that users will use Microsoft software if they are aware of no alternatives. In addition , both companies operate under a business philosophy that suggests the best way to keep customers is to make them dependent on your own product and lock them into a continuous update cycle. I am not arguing that any of these philosophies are objectively "bad" or "good", but I am arguing that it is dangerous to ignore the philosophical underpinnings that has lead to the organizational structure of both Microsoft and Apple and more importantly to the design of their respective software products and user experience. Of course when people describe the strong philosophical backings of Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, rather than "staunch idealogue", they might use "business savey", or "perfectionist", both avoiding the negative connotations of the dogmatic views associated with "staunch ideologues". Likewise, when Bill Gates or Steve Jobs expressed their views in an emotional way it was because they are/were "passionate", not "prone to outrageous statements", and Steve Job's abundant use of the word "magic" to describe Apple products was never "exaggerated", it was just "good marketing".

    National ideologies

    I suspect the reasons why language like "staunch ideologue" and "prone to exaggerated statements" are used with Stallman, but "business savey", "perfectionist", "passionate", and "good marketing" are used with Gates and Jobs has to do with yet another ideology, that of free-market capitalism in the U.S. and the association with wealth and success. Both Gates and Jobs made a whole lot of money off by staying true to their "staunch ideologies", and so in the eyes of U.S. culture they are both "successful", and so their "staunch ideologies" must be the "right kind". In contrast, Stallman quit his job at MIT because he was concerned remaining an employee there would conflict with his ideologies as he pursued his passion for free-as-in-freedom software. To be sure, Stallman makes some money, just a few orders of magnitude less than Gates and Jobs.

    Pragmatism and ideology

    While I don't intend this post to get into the workflow wars my observations have been that most, if not all, arguments (or favoring) for the MS Word workflow tend to hing on "everyone else uses it". As I said before, that is a fine reason as any, but don't kid yourself for a second into thinking that argument doesn't reek of ideology. It is literally the argument that Microsoft's business model is designed to elicit, it is very much grounded in philosophy and thus, it is a philosophical argument. Of course posts that argue for the MS Word workflow tend not to talk much about the philosophy, and why should they have to? Everyone just agrees to it. It's the same reason quantitative researchers don't need to be explicit about their post-positivist worldview in their writing. The reader knows they are coming from a post-positivist worldview because it's quantitative research.

    On the other hand, many arguments for the text-based workflow do explicitly mention philosophy, such as this excellent one. If nothing else I would urge you to view the explicit discussion of philosophy as a sign of honesty and openness, you're not going to find an "everyone else is doing it" argument there.

    Either way, use what you are comfortable with and what works for you. But don't say your decision isn't ideological.

    Attributions

    Steve Jobs and Bill Gates (522695099) by Joi Ito from Inbamura, Japan - Steve Jobs and Bill Gates on Flickr. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Commons.

    Richard M Stallman Swathanthra 2014 kerala by Ranjithsiji - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 via Commons.

    Footnotes

    [^1]: which has received 30 upvotes so far!

    Hacking Identity

    It's been an action packed semester, so much so I'm just now squeezing out a blog post. New department, new lab, new classes, it's been a whole lot of new and as is natural in these situations it's been a time of reflection upon old. In one of the classes I'm taking we've been reading and discussion topics related to identity development in engineering. We've talked about the intersection of many of the identities that we carry around with us all the time: gender, race, class and sexual orientation are the big names (unfortunately there just isn't a lot of research out there exploring gender identities other than cisgendered). One facet that we haven't discussed yet, but one that has been fairly salient for me this semester, has been the relationship of ourselves to our tools, especially computing tools.

    My computing identity has been shoved to the forefront recently due to the change in programs and having to collaborate with people using the Microsoft-approach to computing, operating systems, content editing and collaboration. Actually, the fact that I'm only encountering some of these issues now is perhaps more a fluke than anything else: even in a Unix-based philosophy towards computing and document editing certainly isn't main-stream, I just lucked out to be in a lab that shared these values (and to be completely honest, the computing culture in that lab played a large role in developing my own values, it was during my time in the ASCL that I transitioned to Linux as my primary operating system. It had primarily been a hobby/dual boot ordeal until that point).

    The switch to Engineering Education has generally also been accompanied by a better sense of place and lowering of feelings of 'otherness'. I am surrounded by like-minded people who care deeply about education and value creativity. I feel like my ideas are appreciated and encouraged, and my commitment to social justice is valued. All in all, I feel like I've found my place in academia.

    But there is one facet of my worldview that still causes some tension. Generally people are open minded but I feel because I haven't been able to articulate certain values and ideas, people just don't quite get where I'm coming from with my commitment to open source software and computing tools built around the Unix-philosophy.

    My choice of operating system and tools is more than a casual decision. It is a conscious choice that reflects my values and worldview.