by Emanuelle (Mandy) Burton, College of Engineering at University of Illinois at Chicago
In one major respect, I’ve traveled further afield than any of my colleagues on this blog, both past and present. My office at UIC is less than ten miles from Swift Hall, but it is in the computer science department. My purview is one-half of a course (required of all CS majors) called “Ethics and Communications in Computer Science.” If you’re reading this and thinking that the connection back to the Divinity School seems tenuous and perplexing…. Well, I still have those days, too. There are a lot of things I want to write about for the Craft of Teaching this year – the value of generalist education, the role of pedagogical ideals in shaping one’s practice in different institutional contexts, and a few other things besides – but I have realized that before I can write about any of them, I need to contextualize myself as an alumna of the Divinity School who is now embedded in a STEM program, and to clarify what light my experiences can shed on the present questions and concerns for upcoming scholars and teachers of religion.
Teaching ethics to computer scientists is not, to put it mildly, what I expected to be doing when I set out to pursue a PhD in religion & literature, or at any point along the way. I arrived at this position through a series of accidental intersections, noteworthy primarily because of their arbitrariness rather than because I followed any particular discipline or dicta. Shortly after graduating in 2014, I moved to Kentucky to teach humanities at Centre College. A few weeks into the term, I was standing in the right place one afternoon to get myself invited to a party full of people I didn’t know. At that party, I wound up chatting with a computer scientist who asked for my email address. She wrote to me the next day to invite me to coauthor a paper with her and a former student: she had been teaching ethics to her CS students using science fiction and was now writing a conference paper about it. It was due in two weeks. Would I like to join them? Sure, I replied: I could probably help out. As busy as I was teaching at a new school in a new place, two weeks wasn’t much of a commitment, and I could return to my own concerns afterward. Nothing about that first collaboration seemed particularly significant – only in retrospect does it appear as the first step toward anything else. But it is nonetheless the case that, three years later, I am coauthoring a science fiction-based ethics curriculum for computer science students (with these same two coauthors, plus two more), been granted an NSF postdoc to help produce said curriculum, and have found a long-term home in CS ethics pedagogy.
It’s true that some of the confluences in this serendipitous string are specific to my particular background: they were looking for somebody with a background either in ethics or in non-realist fiction, and I had just finished writing a dissertation at the intersection of those two fields. But the pedagogical capacities and commitments that inform this new work are things I share with many other scholars of religion, particularly those trained at Chicago. Most of the people I met while training at Chicago, whatever their methodological avocation, held in common the basic conviction that human meaning-making matters, as do the terms on which it takes place. A further shared conviction, in my experience of religious studies scholars, is that the critical tools from across the many disciplines encompassed in religious studies can be usefully brought to bear on all manner of human practices and articulations of value, whether or not these practices or articulations recognize themselves as religious or are best understood under that label. To choose religion as one’s field of teaching and study is not only to specialize in a particular discipline and body of knowledge; it is to choose a peculiarly fruitful avenue into the truly astonishing range of things that humans get up to. While it is true that I have had to step back from that particularly fruitful avenue, the questions that drove me there remain to be engaged from slightly different angles. There are still students ready to wrestle with these core problems, and to learn to recognize their contours. Their needs are different, but no less urgent, and teaching them requires the same array of skills as religion and humanities teaching—because of, rather than in spite of, their different needs.
My background in religious studies has fundamentally shaped my approach to this new and unexpected pedagogical avenue. After years of teaching religious studies and humanities courses, it seems clear to me that my students need more than just exposure to the key ethical issues in computer science: They need to come to grips with the complexity and ambiguity of the circumstances in which these issues emerge. They need critical tools that can help them recognize the very real kinds of knowledge that exist outside the logical positivism that undergirds all of their other coursework in the major. And finally, they need practice wrestling with the work of interpreting the world on terms that are, for so many of them, profoundly alien. Incorporating all of that is a tall order, but it is one I am able to meet—with at least moderate success—thanks to my training in religious studies. When we discuss online communities and the role of platforms in shaping community dynamics and norms, I draw on my knowledge of the formation of religious communities in late antiquity and medieval Europe, and prod them to think alongside Durkheim, Anderson, Booth and Arendt. When we explore the information explosion that has accompanied the internet, I draw on Augustine, on Gadamer, on David Tracy and on Bruce Lincoln to destabilize the notion that any entity (human or digital) can merely collect objective units of meaning, and I push them to think critically about how those units came to be recognized, to seem real, to seem definitive. The course also necessarily involves some straightforward engagement with the topics that every professional ethics course in computer science needs to cover, such as self-driving cars, the proliferation of smart technology, and the reproduction of bias through social decision-making algorithms such as COMPAS. But as the term progresses, the students become steadily more capable of recognizing the foundational questions—of personhood, or epistemology, of justice—without my help.
Some things about teaching computer science ethics actually aren’t so different than my earlier teaching in humanities or religious studies. The task of training students to recognize the limits of their own understanding, and encouraging them to grapple with and through their own discomfort rather than taking refuge in specious clarity, is always and everywhere required. And some of the challenges peculiar to this moment are common across settings, such as the burgeoning onslaught of false or misleading “news,” and with it, students’ evaporating trust in any kind of information source. In my new context, I find myself discussing these discursive shifts by examining the technological conditions that have created or enabled that shift. And if they are less equipped to think about the discursive construction of religious minorities, or the languages of power marshaled by political leaders who claim to lead through Christianity, I can at least call their attention to those realities by routing them through more familiar concerns.
And some things were never that different – such as most students’ profound and often unreflective commitment to logical positivism. Teaching computer science ethics has given me uncommon pedagogical access to what are surely common concerns, such as the fact that few to none of my students have any expectation of privacy, or even much concern for it; or the fact that many of my students do not think that “trolling” and “engaging in debate” can be usefully distinguished, at least in online contexts. These sorts of cultural-generational divides (and technologically-determined generations are very short indeed) are precisely the sort that are often invisible until they are discussed directly, and they can have profound implications for how our students understand the world and engage in it.
So I haven’t left that past behind. I’m doing all of the things I’d hoped to do when I decided that I wanted to teach at the college level. The context is unexpected, but it’s one that nonetheless pushes me to grow and excel, as a teacher, in all the ways I would wish. But my experiences also help explain why I needn’t be, and maybe shouldn’t be, the only one to venture out this way, into a world that desperately needs our particular gifts.