Northwestern Digital Learning Podcast: Episode 12, Dr. Ruha Benjamin

Welcome to another episode of the Northwestern Digital Learning Podcast, where each month we highlight an example of innovative teaching and learning.

Today I'm coming to you live from TEACHx, an annual celebration of experiments in teaching with technology. I am truly honored and humbled to have the opportunity to speak with the conference’s keynote speaker, Dr. Ruha Benjamin, a professor of African-American studies at Princeton University and the author of People’s Science: Bodies and Rights on the Stem Cell Frontier and the forthcoming Race After Technology: Abolitionist Tools for the New Jim Code. She has studied the social dimensions of science, technology, and medicine for just over 15 years and speaks widely on issues of innovation, equity, health, and justice.

*Transcript edited for clarity

Dan Hoefler [DH]: My first question is a two-parter: You've warned us about technology, that it's not neutral and that the programming that goes into algorithms is often biased. Can you expand on that point? And given that, what should the technology people—the programmers, instructional technologists, et cetera—keep in mind when they work in these fields?

Ruha Benjamin [RB]: To the first question about expanding on algorithms and other technology that are biased, in some ways it's simple because it's an acknowledgement that technology doesn't grow on trees. It doesn't just come to us out of nowhere. If human beings design it, then the assumptions of those individuals and groups—the companies and institutions that are often the ones who set the agenda for the individual designers and programmers—their own goals and values are built into the design process.

That leads to the suggestion for those individuals who find themselves inheriting the goals of other people: take time before you launch into the design of something. First, question what problem are you trying to solve. Who said that was a problem? Who framed it as such? Building into the process a set of questions that allow us to not just accept what has been handed to us as the posing of a problem that needs to be fixed by technology may in many ways run against designing with a clock ticking. But for those people who actually have power in various institutions and companies that are setting the agenda, it's their responsibility to incentivize a slower, more socially-conscious process so that the individuals engaging in it don't feel like they're going to be penalized by spending more time questioning assumptions and values.

Lastly, who's around the table really matters. We have to think about partnering with people who have various kinds of expertise that we don't necessarily have. One individual doesn't need to know it all. You have to acknowledge that you don't know certain things and then find the people who do. Technological expertise is not the only thing that's important in the design of products that people are going to use. We need people in the room that have the actual power to intervene, not token individuals that are just there to say that we have a diverse group. We need people who will listen to those voices and not discard them as somehow slowing down the process. If just the individuals who know how to code are the only ones who care about this, then the incentive structure is not going to happen. If we only diversify design teams with token individuals that don't have real power to intervene, it's not going to work. But I've been heartened in the last year or two to increasingly see tech workers within major companies standing up and asserting their collective power. There's a growing consciousness among those who are in the tech industry that they have a responsibility to the social good. It's not simply a critique from outside, but people who are actually within it saying we are not just technologists, we're human beings with a responsibility to the society in which the products that we are designing are going to move in and be sold. That, to me, is a real heartening development that I hope grows.

DH: You’ve said that educators have to empower students to change the status quo. What do you think the role of technology is in that?

RB: I think that there are probably a lot of examples in which technology is the kind of tool that's allowing students to do the challenging, but for me, what I find really interesting is thinking about technology as a mirror of the status quo. In some ways, people seem to be more amenable to wrestling with the status quo when technology shows it to them.

If someone tells you an employer is discriminating, it easy to say it’s just their preference. We make all kinds of excuses when we don't want to wrestle with reality. But when you say that software is discriminating, because we assume that its subjective, we see the biases reflected back at us in a way that forces us to acknowledge and reckon with it. I wonder if rather than thinking about technology as simply something that we use, we can think of it as something that we partner with. I used some examples from my colleague’s work around bias associations in Google Search results and other kinds of algorithms in my presentation and that, oftentimes, people aren't willing to address it until it comes back at us through these programs. Then it impels us to think about it a little more critically.

DH: Moving more towards the classroom, do you think there’s a small change you’ve personally made in your approach that's made a big impact in your teaching?

RB: Yeah. It's super low tech. I mean, it involves technology but it's not fancy. And I kind of did it over time without fully being aware of what I was doing. It has to do with using art and images as part of my pedagogy. Rather than only rely on texts and words, using beautiful, provocative art can get us to think about things and to feel things in a different way. Part of it, and this might relate more to educators, is about what brings you pleasure. You can teach anything if you're energized about it. And people are more likely to learn it if you are energized about it. So think about the design of your classroom and your teaching. What brings you alive?

The takeaway is to model creativity, not just ask your students to be creative. Also, think about what brings you joy in your teaching. In some ways that can run against the conversation about being student-centered, but I think being teacher-centered is also a route to being student-centered. If a teacher feels excited and energized then that comes through. Just think about infusing more joy into the process. People don't need to be in the classroom now to get the information. The classroom is an experience—it's about building a relationship. When I realized that, that energized me, and the provocation of images was so much a part of it.

DH: So you employ more of a blended technique where class time is about interaction?  

RB: Exactly. Very much about interaction. Even when I lecture to 130 students, it's very interactive. It's not just a one-way conversation and it's not just interactive between the student and me. I typically have students talk to each other. Especially for smaller seminars, my goal is to make myself disposable so that by a third of the way into the class, I've modeled how I want the discussions to go. That's my goal—to approach my students as collaborators and to pass the baton. It is a little harder with the bigger classes, but I feel like the students want to be there more when they have relationships with people in the room and not just out of obligation to me. I think it creates a fabric for the classroom that becomes more than just an academic exercise but a microcosm of something we want to see out in the world. We start to plant the seeds for what that would look like in our interactions in the classroom.

DH: Over the past three or four years, active learning was the big hot-button topic. Now it's really turned more towards accessibility, as well as an interesting offshoot of that, offering alternative assessment formats. Speaking of employing creativity, is that something that you offer to your students?  

RB: Yeah. It actually relates to the thing I was saying about also what brings me pleasure. If I have to read it and grade it, I'm going to create assignments so I'm not reading the same rote thing over and over.

Quick example: for the big lecture I taught this semester, rather than write a traditional research paper, students had to write a script of a conversation between four people—two of the individuals in the conversation were scholars that they had read at some point in the semester, one was themself, and then one was someone who was in a news story that they were then engaging with. The story had to deal with race in the U.S. So they read the story they were interested in, plucked one of the people mentioned in the story, and put them in conversation with the scholars and themselves.  They had to write it like a script and think about how these people met. How did they get in a conversation? They can then filter everything they learned over the course of the semester, all the concepts, in a conversational format. For me, what's so pleasurable is that I don't get the kind of stilted academic writing where people are really trying to perform smartness.

The larger principle that I really want to underscore is that knowledge production is an ongoing conversation. Oftentimes we don't think about the embodied individuals who we’re citing as people we’re in a conversation with, but through this assignment, you have to think about things like how they would talk. So the students go and watch videos about them, they find out their backstories—they're weaving together the biographical and intellectual and situational context of this conversation. And I get to read completely different papers. The topics are different, the conversations are different, and the writing is better.

This is just an example of a very simple kind of creative format that is, on my end, much more pleasurable. Now, there's always a subset of people for whom doing creative stuff freaks them out, so it doesn't quite give them an option, but I'm pushing them out of their comfort zone. My goal is not just to do everything that would make them feel good, but to say that this creative exercise is an important one. This is sociology, and we're linking the individual to the political, to the macro. We talk about imagination, but we don't actually exercise imagination in our pedagogy and in our in our work much. So this is a kind of prompt for them to think a little bit outside of the box.

DH: Two more questions—let's start small and go big. Is there a particular resource or website, a book, something that you check regularly for information in this area?  

RB: I'm a Twitter user these days. At first I didn't get Twitter, but the first time I got it I was at a conference. I was in one session and following the Twitter feed for the conference, and the hashtag for another session was poppin’! I thought, “Oh, I'm going to sneak out of this session and go to that one,” because it was so much more interesting. I realized the utility of Twitter and hashtags in that conference setting. I'm constantly checking in to see what's going on and to engage with people to it. The informal aspect of it makes it really useful to interact with people on a different level that you wouldn't if you just have your professional performance on.

DH: Finally, where do you think this conversation is going to be in five, 10 years?  

RB: I love questions that are prognostications because my answer is always, “It's where we decide to go!” Rather than speculating this is where things are headed, I really want people to lean into their own responsibility for taking a direction that exemplifies our highest ideals and not to feel like there's an inevitability to various trends or directions. My hope is that more and more we think about how to harness our imagination and resources towards more equitable and just directions that not just bring more people in, but also actually question the problems that we are trying to solve through technology in education or elsewhere.

There's a lot of things that are not technologically-oriented that I think are innovations we've inherited from interacting with each other. That kind of gets downplayed because they're not high tech; they're not innovative in the classic sense. There's certain things that we can start to do more and better in our interactions with each other and in terms of trying to build a context of learning and teaching where people's potential can thrive. That may involve technology in some cases, but we shouldn't think it's inevitable that it has to. And so I hope that people feel empowered to move in that direction and not feel like that's too far from where things could go.