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SOAN course filled with Comp Sci majors

<m in the Sociology/Anthropology (SOAN) Department, Visiting Assistant Professor of Anthropology Janell Rothenberg and Academic Technologist Celeste Sharpe are teaching a class called “Designing for Diversity,” which uses sociological techniques to look at software design.
The class is unique because it is primarily comprised of computer science (CS) majors.

According to Associate Dean George Shuffelton, while something like a theatre class populated by English majors is relatively common, an intersectional course between SOAN and CS is unique for the college.

“There are probably other places where a CS class, like Algorithms or Data Structures, may have very little in common with an anthropology class, but there are other places where they would intersect,” Shuffelton said. “People in CS who study human computer interaction are thinking and working like sociologists and anthropologists.”

According to Katherine Jackson ’20, the SOAN class is about how computers and CS can interact with the social sphere. “Technology is not this impartial thing,” she said. “Algorithms can discriminate. At least coming into the class, you think of a computer as just an object that can’t discriminate. It doesn’t have a brain, but humans made the computer. Our biases are hard-coded into the computer. If you look up three black teenagers on Google images, you’re going to get mugshots, if you look up three white teenagers you’re going to get stock photos.”

Ethnography is a technique wherein anthropologists insert themselves into the group of people in order to study them. The students in the SOAN class use ethnography to investigate discrimination by looking at the code itself and by examining other aspects of software design that do not take the identities of their end users into account.  

According to Rothenberg, “It’s shifting the lens for a lot of these students who are computer science majors who often think about problems that exist outside of people’s particular experiences, so instead we go to the people first to understand what their experiences are like. That’s why we’re teaching them ethnographic methods to put users at the center of how they think about design.”

For that reason, Rothenberg marketed the class to students in the CS department during winter term. She said that CS professors helped raise awareness about the SOAN class.

The combination of CS and SOAN is effective, according to Graham Earley ’17. “If I do a software survey on someone, and I’m asking specific questions like which buttons do you click, you can miss a lot of meaning doing that, and the goal of this class is to teach ethnographic methods, so we can study software and technology in a way that will let us get us the perspective of the user more, rather than pushing one’s own perspective.”

Rothenberg and Sharpe also incorporate a final project into their course. Rather than the traditional programming or design projects in most CS classes, “the final product of the group project isn’t a design prototype,” Sharpe said. “It’s a report about what they’ve learned from users around these different topics as opposed to designing a product that would solve or seemingly solve identified problems.”

This focus on learning and planning before creating designs is something Rothenberg hopes to cultivate in her class. “A lot of times in the tech world, whether in hackathons, classes or the workplace, there’s an emphasis on build first.

“We’re trying to say think first and learn first and be ready to build later, and some of these students we already know are going to be building things later that come out of this class. But that’s not the focus of this class. It’s still a SOAN class about learning about people and their experiences and obstacles first.”

The final projects will take place in Northfield and Carleton and incorporate the knowledge gained from the class to solve problems faced by the community.

The ability to use SOAN and CS together is the advantage of a liberal arts education, according to Rothenberg.

“You’re not just in a school of engineering,” she said. “I think this class really builds on that aspiration, but in a very explicit way. Not just, here’s a CS student taking an anthro class, but here’s a CS student taking an anthro class that specifically focuses on questions of culture and history that relate to computer interaction and technology.”

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