Critical Data and Data Stories
For our last instructional class of the semester, students in group three presented a lesson on algorithm and data literacy for the class. The timely information plugged into important conversations about the uses of educational technology during COVID-19 remote instruction. It also allowed us to reflect on our own virtual class and invited teacher’s to create data plans for the upcoming fall semester.
Facilitators: Elizabeth Che, Raoul Roberts, Zach Muhlbauer, Kendra Sullivan, and Jessica Brodsky
2–3pm: For this week, please use the 2-3pm time slot to fill out Group 3’s writing prompts below.
3:00-3:05 Please make sure each Group has a wrap up on HASTAC.org group and make sure you all read and leave a brief comment on each of the Group posts.
3:00pm - 3:20pm: An Integration - facilitated by Raoul Roberts.
Schedule for rest of term:
Upcoming (optional event) Is Meek Mill a Critical Theorist? Digital Friday RSVP
Last Class: Wrap up Class— No reading.
Prompts: (“meta reflection”)
- What two or three things did we do together this term that you will still be thinking about for a long time?
- What one thing would you most like to talk about today?
- We have already asked us to talk about how can we be transformative educators in institutions where the status quo is rewarded? How do you survive as an activist or even a reformer in a traditional space? What are some guidelines as we all try to put some transformative principles into our practices as teachers?
Note: Don’t overwork your final projects. You have all done a lot already.
- The Weaponization of Educational Data, Audrey Watters
- Default Discrimination: Is the Glitch Systemic?, Race after Technology, Ruha Benjamin
Recommended Reading / Viewing:
- Death by Algorithm, Cathy O’Neill
- Ruha Benjamin’s keynote “Incubate a Better World in the Minds & Hearts of Students”
Algorithm / Data Literacy Class
Instructions for the asynchronous portion of today’s class:
Please read the excerpts below from Benjamin’s chapter and respond to the prompt. If you have time, please also comment on at least one other response.
- A minor problem
- A false or spurious electronic signal
- A brief or sudden interpretation or irregularity
- May derive from Yiddish, glitsh – to slide, glide, “slippery place.” (page 77)
“This chapter probes the relationship between glitch and design, which we might be tempted to associate with competing conceptions of racism. If we think of racism as something of the past or requiring a particular visibility to exist, we can miss how the New Jim Code operates and what seeming glitches reveal about the structure of racism. Glitches are generally considered a fleeting interruption of an otherwise benign system, not an enduring and constitutive feature of social life. But what if we understand glitches instead to be a slippery place (with reference to the possible Yiddish origin of the word) between fleeting and durable, micro-interactions and macro-structures, individual hate and institutional indifference? Perhaps in that case glitches are not spurious, but rather a kind of signal of how the system operates. Not an aberration but a form of evidence, illuminating underlying flaws in a corrupted system” (page 79-80).
Prompt: When we use the term “default” to mean the norm, a “glitch” is an interruption of the norm. What parallels can you draw between Benjamin’s discussion of “the default” and “glitches” and the current state of higher education in the midst of the pandemic?
Select Anonymous Learning Community Responses Below:
“One parallel I’m thinking of is that the potential budget cuts in academia will impact what instructors that are no longer allowed to teach because the courses that will be cut and the classrooms that will become larger. I’m also thinking of the number of students that have recently received computers to be able to participate. This has allowed them access while also now being tracked without specific training on informed use.”
“Instantly, as I read this, all I could think about was the movie, The Matrix. In it, there were things that didn’t seem to fit, were out of place and didn’t belong, or things that were there one moment and gone the next. I think, those are feelings and experiences that we have all felt and shared — at one time, place, or instance. I inherent isolation & separation that is born in/of ‘othering’ is that moment/feeling of the “glitch” — being made to feel/know that you don’t seem to fit, you’re out of place & don’t belong, or the fleeting feeling of once having been a part of the collective a moment ago, then being shunned and excluded in the next (slipping from the being embraced by the collective). This is the imagery and sentiment this particular quote elicited from me and how I related to the racialization of the word ‘glitch.’”
“Benjamin’s brilliant addition to abolitionist thinking offers insights beyond the study of race and technology. Building upon the work of abolitionists such as Mariame Kaba and Professor Ruth Wilson Gilmore, who argue that the carceral state is not broken or failing but rather working as intended by violently policing, surveilling, and incarcerating Black people and communities, Benjamin convincingly argues that “colorblind” technologies reify rather than curtail these policies, as they are built upon racist foundations. One recent example of this is the liberal reformist push for an end to cash bail and its replacement with safety assessment tools which use colorblind and classblind logics to the same ends: keeping poor Black people in jail without being charged with a crime.”
“I see many parallels between this analysis and the current state of higher education. The coronavirus has only exacerbated and made more stark the inequities built into our hierarchical system of higher education, which are elements and not flaws of the structure of higher ed as envisioned by the likes of Charles Eliot and Clark Kerr. When reading Christina Paxson’s recent op-ed in the NY Times, I couldn’t help but think that she was carrying on this tradition, pushing for a return to normalcy that comes at the cost of the lives of people at institutions like CUNY, as Corey Robin made clear in his New Yorker essay.”
“In reading Ruha Benjamin chapter, I was reminded of another “glitch” that is surfacing. Zoom allows us to use a ‘green screen’ and virtual background. However the assumptions in the set up obviously may not have been vetted by a Black engineer. Colleagues of color on my team have fun engaging this feature and watching their faces disappear into the background— the assumptions in the code tagging skin as a certain range of colors. Ditto for hair. Textured hair in video rendering or filters requires the video staff to work against the program to correct for ‘glitches.’ As our students attempt to compartmentalize their lives, add back in privacy in this Zoom University, what message do they get when they disappear into the background?”
“I think one of the first parallels my mind draws for me is the way in which the classroom is a place wherein certain people – people of color, people with disabilities, queer people, people who are all of these things and more, etc. — are made to feel as if they are the ‘glitch.’ That, on some level, it is the job of the instructor, classroom, and education as a whole to enforce the fact that they/we are the ‘glitch’ in the system – that the system works for everyone except us because we have somehow failed to meet the standards of the system, the default. I’m thinking a lot about the power structures inherent to a space like the classroom, especially for learners who have been made to feel like the ‘glitch,’ like the disruption that should either be corrected or ignored. I think this is especially evident in the way that learning is pursued during the pandemic, too – that people with lives that fall outside the default are now being witnessed in moments wherein their/our ‘glitchyness’ is both evident and impossible to ignore.”
“Here are four excellent Op Eds by CUNY profs about the “glitch” of public education, defunding, access, etc, in a pandemic and beyond. (Note: Not a single state in the US has returned to its pre-2008 funding levels for public higher ed— despite over a decade of a boom market that allowed the restoration of most other aspects of state and federal budgets. This is a default, not a glitch.)”
- Op-ed on CUNY “The Pandemic is the Time to Resurrect the Public University” by Professor Corey Robin
- Op Ed on CUNY and Public Ed “Not a Novel Crisis at CUNY” by Professor Matt Brim
- NY Times “What We Lose when we go from the Classroom to Zoom” Professor Karen Strassler
- “What CUNY Teaches Us About the Coronavirus and Vice Versa” Professor Michael Yarbrough
- And you may also want to visit Ruha Benjamin’s keynote, “Incubate a Better World in the Minds & Hearts of Students”
Facilitators Note: Please wait to respond to the prompt below until the end of our synchronous class.
Prompt: Based on today’s class, what is one thing that you would share with your students, colleagues, or family/friends about the technologies we use inside and outside the classroom? Please note that we would like to include your take-aways from today’s class in our HASTAC post. If you would prefer to not have your response or your name included, please let us know.
Select Anonymous Learning Community Responses Below:
“This is a really important question and practice. We don’t often include students’ feedback in our teaching, on ground or online. I am fielding many questions from students (and parents) on their concerns vis-a-vis remote learning. Some of it is criticism of Zoom or video conferencing or the poor transition of in classroom teaching to distance workarounds. Some of it is a reaction to the technologies -- Respondus or Zoom or even the LMS. One student started a change.org petition and got quite a few signatures. Here is my takeaway, good teaching is good teaching— technology isn't a shiny object, it should be a tool to support good teaching. But good teaching comes from understanding who is also in the mix, the students. I am about to build an orientation to online learning for students, so I am thinking deeply on this topic, and asking as many students as I can. There is a fatigue when we use tons and tons of tech, multiple platforms, gadgets, gizmos, kinds of tech. We assume that students don’t have a right to their own IP and it’s perfectly fine to ask them to submit their IP to third parties like Turnitin.”
“I wonder how much of a difference it would make. By this I mean, I often hear both students and people in general argue that they don’t care if their data is being collected. I wonder about the apathy students appear to have (I never believe they are truly apathetic), for instance when discussing budget cuts and tuition hikes in CUNY, as well as the working conditions of adjuncts. I think a lot about learned complicity. I guess, what I am trying to say, is that we need to go deeper than simply presenting them with information: they need to feel/believe that their voices matter and that they can make a difference. On the other hand, I think that we, as educators, are in a position where we can refuse to use these technologies in our practices (while explaining to students these issues and fostering transparency). In general, I think we need a democratic curriculum design that involves students (including K–12 and their parents) in education.”
“Be very wary around Ed Tech. Some of the technologies being developed police students in their homes, just as an older form of technology (the metal detector) has policed students (particularly BIPOC students) in their schools for years.”
“I often have students read and annotate the “Terms of Service” agreement on a commercial social network (Instagram or Facebook, for example) and then sign in to HASTAC (which has a “pedagogical” Terms of Service agreement that is clear about consent and use— data will not ever be sold or used for advertising or commercial reasons, only for HASTAC monthly newsletters or announcements to which network members can unsubscribe). Also, on HASTAC, we constantly ask: is this post public? Is it just for your Group? Or are you going with the Group ‘default?’ It’s a great exercise as students sign up to a new social network.”
“Check the default settings in your Learning Management System (LMS)! There are so many assumptions baked into these defaults. In my class I ask students to complete reading “check-ins” which are basically open-book questions that should take them a few minutes to complete before they come to class. These are intended to be formative and more for me to get a sense of where students are. I’m constantly fighting with the default settings in Blackboard— ‘No, I don’t want it timed, or graded, or for them to not be able to go back and check their responses!’”
“I will share with my family about the glitches that are not so accidental and that are systemic. I will share with my students about these dangers and why I provide options for assignments that give them options rather than sticking to a routinized system.”
“I’m thinking a lot about the way that the public space of the classroom has merged so wholly into the private space of the home and the various issues that come up with that merging— issues of consent, of alienation, of discomfort and vulnerability. We should be having conversations about this, especially in relation to the various technologies that are now part and parcel of the academic setting. Also, though I think this should go without saying, surveilling students is not okay. Is learning meant to be a carceral experience? Are educators meant to surveil their students into engagement? As if so many students, especially BIPOC and POC, aren’t already criminalized enough, both within and without the walls of the classroom. The answer to moving to distance learning is not to enact constant surveillance on your students to ensure they are learning and engaging, it’s to rethink the way we approach teaching and learning in its entirety.”
Examining glitches, switches, and weaponized elements of educational technologies
Class Recap by Kendra Sullivan Cross-posted on HASTAC.
Image Credit: Raoul Roberts created the above visualization titled Glitches, Switches, and Weaponized Elements inspired by our class session and readings. His reflections on the class session and explanation of the visualization are included in his reflection.
In spring 2020, the students and educators in our class Engaged Teaching and Transformative Learning in the Humanities and Social Sciences gathered weekly on various digital platforms both synchronously and asynchronously to sort though ideas about what it means to be a student and educator during a pandemic. As the shift to distance learning in accordance with social distancing protocols was rapidly ushered in across the City University of New York, our break-out working groups began to imagine and enact community and Prof. Eduardo Vianna’s idea of the collectividual without the possibility of being physically together.
As so often is the case with new technology, innovation driven by practical exigencies outpaced our ability to consider and weigh the critical/ethical ramifications of this digital swerve away from in-person classroom learning. We found ourselves fleshing out a provisional, critical/ethical relationship to new, technological modes of communication with distance learning practices and platforms underway and in use.
While fraught, this time was tremendously fruitful because the stakes of our critical/ethical involvement with technology were high and immediately relevant to our lives and centers of learning. Our working group originally hoped to address “quantitative storytelling,” but as the pandemic reshaped the framing and significance of our inquiry, we too shifted our topic to develop a strategy for empowering students and educators to hold onto a measure of agency over their interactions with and responses to algorithmic biases in ed-tech. Our group included: Jessica Brodsky, Elizabeth Che, Zach Muhlbauer, Raoul Roberts, and Kendra Sullivan.
In the context of distance learning and the increased reliance on technology, our class presentation focused on drawing attention to how algorithms may have inherent biases. The presentation consists of an opening writing prompt to connect with Ruha Benjamin’s chapter on glitches, a class discussion on affordances of technology during distance learning, and a concluding writing prompt to determine which pitfalls and possibilities of ed-tech need to be most urgently and clearly communicated to students and instructors alike as part of a syllabus and/or class contract.
In the asynchronous portion of our class, we asked students to read the following excerpts from “Default Discrimination: Is the Glitch Systemic?” in Race after Technology by Ruha Benjamin, who studies the social dimensions of science, technology, and medicine and founder of JUST DATA lab at Princeton University. We asked our classmates to respond to the following prompt in a Google Doc.
- A minor problem
- A false or spurious electronic signal
- A brief or sudden interpretation or irregularity
- May derive from Yiddish, glitsh – to slide, glide, “slippery place.” (page 77)
“This chapter probes the relationship between glitch and design, which we might be tempted to associate with competing conceptions of racism. If we think of racism as something of the past or requiring a particular visibility to exist, we can miss how the New Jim Code operates and what seeming glitches reveal about the structure of racism. Glitches are generally considered a fleeting interruption of an otherwise benign system, not an enduring and constitutive feature of social life. But what if we understand glitches instead to be a slippery place (with reference to the possible Yiddish origin of the word) between fleeting and durable, micro-interactions and macro-structures, individual hate and institutional indifference? Perhaps in that case glitches are not spurious, but rather a kind of signal of how the system operates. Not an aberration but a form of evidence, illuminating underlying flaws in a corrupted system.” (page 79-80)
When we use the term “default” to mean the norm, a “glitch” is an interruption of the norm. What parallels can you draw between Benjamin’s discussion of “the default” and “glitches” and the current state of higher education in the midst of the current pandemic?
Class Response & Discussion
Our colleagues responded by drawing parallels between glitches and the government’s response to the pandemic, as well as fears of the consequential outcomes (e.g, budget cuts, larger class sizes, inadequate social distancing measures in overcrowded schools). They drew parallels and wrote about experiences in the classroom. One colleague noted how “people of color, people with disabilities, queer people, people who are all of these things and more, etc. – are made to feel as if they are the ‘glitch.’” For many of our colleagues, the transition to distance learning has again brought out the existing glitches in our communities. The glitches are not new, they are recurrent, and are felt by those who don’t match the “standard.”
Moving forward with our synchronous discussion, we prompted our colleagues to critically reflect on the affordances of educational technology in our current moment of distance learning. Our dialogue in turn made a point of analyzing the way in which educators may perhaps take instructional continuity for granted, equivocating onsite and online modes of learning in an effort to support their own default instructional practices. With this in mind, we invited the group to explore the role of student-monitoring software in today’s online educational landscape, which then prompted inquiry into CUNY’s recent negotiations with Respondus - an online monitoring system that educators may use to record and proctor students during test-taking procedures in an effort to ensure online academic integrity. This conversation led to questions of institutional accreditation as it pertains to online learning—and how in particular we might resist the power structures at play within proprietary ed-tech platforms like Respondus.
In the last portion of our class, we asked students to respond to the following prompt in the class Google Doc:
From this class, what is one thing that you would share with your students or colleagues or family / friends about the technologies we use inside and outside the classroom?
In posing this question, we called on our colleagues to help us think about how we can transform critiques of educational technologies into actions. Our colleagues offered a diverse set of advice, including calling on institutions to actively engage students in decision-making about which educational technologies are adopted and how they are used. Our colleagues were especially concerned about the use of educational technologies to surveil and police students, all the more reinforcing the need for students to be “at the table” for discussions about these technologies. At the course level, our colleagues recommended that instructors integrate discussions and activities about how students’ data is collected, used and stored. They also noted that instructors should be transparent with students about their reasoning to use (or avoid) specific educational technologies in their courses. To conclude, students and educators should always have leadership positions during any ed-tech decision-making and implementation processes.
Benjamin, R. (2019). Default Discrimination: Is the Glitch Systemic? In Race After Technology: Abolitionist Tools for the New Jim Code (1 edition). Polity.
Watters, A. (2017, December 11). The Weaponization of Education Data. Hack Education. http://hackeducation.com/2017/12/11/top-ed-tech-trends-weaponized-data
Further Reflection: Transforming the System = Designing a New System, by Raoul Roberts
Efforts to reform the “system” – the way an aspect or all of society truly functions – are essentially addition-based; they involve either an expansion of existing statutes, or an increase in the number of statutes. This is a global reality. Significant reforms in education, healthcare, civil rights, and voting rights, have been exercises in addition. However, implicit in that equation, the status quo (the original rule) is preserved, albeit less conspicuous in the enlarged crowd or less identifiable beneath the added layers. Logic dictates that true reform – that which seeks to be inclusive of all people – is achievable either by subtracting discriminatory elements within the existing system or designing a new non-discriminating system.
Subtraction is troublesome because it requires taking away privileges or currently enjoyed by those whom the system favors; therefore, questions regarding who determines the subtracting, what is to be subtracted, and when is the subtraction to be done, create conflict, division, and the eventually an entrenchment of the status quo. Nothing changes. What if all the subtraction were done simultaneously so that no one is favored over the other? At first, that idea may sound appealing, but a system stripped bare of rules would ignore the uncontrollable inequities such as those presented by a disability or an unfortunate circumstance of birth. Besides, the work involved in subtraction may be so overwhelming, it may prove to be more efficient to resort to the other alternative: creating a new system designed by everyone that works for everyone. Unconvinced? Let us examine our current system.
The glitch, in common parlance, is akin to a hiccup – an involuntary, short-lived disruption. Superficially, no significant change occurs, so save for the glitch, events are unchanged, and everything continues as normal (the blue path). However, a closer examination of the glitch reveals a substantial disruption in which an alternate path – a different reality – is channeled for those significantly affected by the glitch (Benjamin, 2019). The flicker on the surface was the outer manifestation of the diseased inner-workings of the system in which “the other” or “the lesser” are switched onto a discriminated track (the black path). Now segregated, this lot is routinely profiled, their identities mined for data, and those are weaponized against them in the algorithms that automate the system (Watters, 2017), and in the policies and institutions that govern the system. This other norm is default discrimination.
So, how does one change this system for the greater good of all people? Adding one or more elements, each one constituted of the highest ideals and purest intent, will do little to nothing to alter or expunge the reddened discriminatory cores. Even so, where along the path(s) would these additions be made? It would be wonderful if we could turn the switch to the off position: everyone will travel on the same path, the discriminatory cores will be deactivated, However, for that to happen, we must all be non-discriminating all the time; otherwise, we will simply be turning the red lights off and on endlessly. We already explored what subtraction portends, so that option is also futile. Only creation will lead to transformation.
Hence the reason we must create a new system. What will it be? I have a suggestion, but it’s not for me alone to decide. No one person, no one race, no one ethnicity, no one socioeconomic level, no single ability, no one sexual preference, no one religion gets to design this new system. If all interests are present and active in the formative stages of the new system, then the system will work for all. This is especially true in the field of education. Transformative education demands rethinking the education system. My contribution to any structure would be that it is founded on, guided by, and actively promotes the Golden Rule. In such a system, each person is respectful of each other’s differences, and recognizes that those unique perspectives present learning opportunities and foster harmonious relations among all people.