Politically Neutral Teaching

In the first meeting of my class “Computing, Society, and Professionalism” each fall, I ask my students to consider The Stop Sign. You are driving in the desert. You can see as far as the horizon in all directions. You haven’t seen another car in hours. You come to an intersection. The intersection has a stop sign. Do you stop?

I try to ask my students hard questions ones where you can credibly argue multiple perspectives. Students take a wide variety of positions on the stop sign. Usually someone raises their hand and asks, “Can I do a… rolling stop?” The class laughs. It’s a fun question because it raises the questions: why do we have rules, and why do we follow them?

A few years ago, I had a class that was mostly in favor of running the stop sign, or at least rolling through it. Except this one guy in the front row. He said he thought rules were important. And it isn’t a great precedent to say “I’ll follow rules when my judgment says it’s necessary.” I liked him immediately. It was me and him, stopping at the sign while everyone else sped on through.

Over the course of the semester, I came to learn that he was deeply conservative and religious. I’m a secular liberal. But I found lots of discussions where I admired his clear thinking and moral commitments. “Right” and “wrong” transcend “liberal” and “conservative.”

I teach ethics to politically diverse students at Georgia Tech. I do my best to be politically neutral. It can be particularly challenging in an election year, especially if we make current news about technology and society part of class discussion. However, I believe I have an ethical responsibility to let students have their own worldviews, but to teach them ethics that transcend those worldviews. For example, I teach them that technology developers have an ethical responsibility not just to their client, but to the general public. If I give my client buggy billing software, the consequences are felt by all the people who get overcharged or whose personal data is compromised. I teach them about virtue ethics, and trying to decide what sort of person you hope to be and living up to your own hopes. I teach them about always seeing ethical issues as existing in webs of human relationships — making sure to talk to all the stakeholders, and understand who is affected by decisions. I teach them all sorts of things, and try my best to keep my political views out of it. I am studiously neutral, and if I accidentally slip up and say something that reveals my own views, I go home kicking myself — I screwed up today.

Some of this is strategic on my part — I feel like I have important things to teach them, and I don’t want to alienate them. And I certainly don’t want to reinforce ideas about liberal academics intolerantly pushing their own views. But part of it is sincere. I want to respect where students come from, and not presume I know better.

I have always taught about racism and technology, though I’d like to cover it more. In class we talk about how face recognition technology doesn’t work well on Black faces. We start the term reading “Do Artifacts Have Politics?” by Langdon Winner, and talk about how the bridges over highways around New York are racist. They are too low to allow buses to pass underneath, and were designed to keep BIPOC away from the beaches on Long Island. How do we know that the bridges are actually racist, and not just a poor design choice? Easy — the architect Robert Moses said so explicitly. Everyone of every political persuasion in my class has always agreed that this is racist and wrong. If you find an accessible way to broach an issue, it doesn’t become divisive.

I commented on Twitter today that I would like to talk more about race and gender in my class, and would appreciate suggestions of readings, especially ones that make the relevance to computing clear. Colleagues responded suggesting readings from Black radical traditions, and I said unfortunately, I don’t think I can assign those — I worry that I would lose the students on page one. A student replied that I was right — he would stop reading the suggested article on page one. And then a fellow academic accused the student of being a racist. What? Seriously? “I have trouble relating to this particular reading” (for a reading that wasn’t written with young computer scientists as the intended audience) does not mean “I do not care about this issue.”

To my colleagues, if you have suggestions for readings on race, gender, and technology which you believe are accessible to a politically diverse undergraduate audience, I would appreciate suggestions. To my students, I will continue to try hard to be politically neutral in class. I believe it is part of how I show you respect.

I do research on social media, including online collaboration, social movements, and online moderation and harassment.

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