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Duke computer science department offers new class on race and gender

Department bumped it up to fall semester because of George Floyd’s death

Duke University this fall semester is offering a new class to its students titled: “Race, Gender, Class, & Computing.”

The course “explores the diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) challenges in computing,” according to the Computer Science department’s website. It will do so “through an introduction to and analysis of various social constructs and their impact on not only computing departments and organizations,” according to the course description.

The class is taught by Nicki Washington, a new instructor in the department. Washington designed the course, according to the department.

Washington did not respond to multiple emailed requests for comment in the past week and a half from The College Fix seeking comment on the desired goals for the course and a copy of the course syllabus and its reading list.

The school’s media relations office did not respond to multiple emailed requests for comment in the past week and a half seeking the same information.

MORE: Duke and UNC accused of racism for tweeting about school history

According to the student paper The Chronicle, the first part of the class will cover topics surrounding “race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, class, ability, and religion, designed to help students form a foundational understanding of identity.”

Washington gave the student paper an example on a topic the course explored.

The professor said her class discussed “how people with darker skin tones are not properly recognized” by “facial recognition technology.”

She explained:

In the short term, if I walk in front of a sensor, it may not sense me. If I’m on camera, then there’s a high likelihood that the image of me will be inaccurate. What does this mean? This means there’s a likelihood I could be falsely accused of committing a crime. We look at examples in the news where we see Black men who have been falsely arrested due to inaccurate facial recognition technology.

The class came after the killing of George Floyd in May, the Chronicle reported. Washington had originally planned to start offering this course in the spring semester, but she “received separate emails from the outgoing and ingoing chairs that said it would be really valuable and important to roll out the class in the fall,” Washington said, according to the student paper.

“I’m grateful that there was no push back from Duke,” Washington told the Chronicle. “In fact, there was a lot of gentle nudging for it.”

The Chronicle reported that Washington “first pushed for the creation of this course at her previous institution, Winthrop University, but was unable to get it established.”

However the public college in South Carolina disputed this claim.

“We do have the course in our catalog, did not offer it this fall as Nicki Washington was slated to teach it and took a position at Duke, but plan to offer it in the future,” a Winthrop spokesperson told The Fix via email.

MORE: Duke faculty approves proposal for ‘Inequality Studies’ minor

Washington also said she wants to see the field of computing grow in inclusiveness.

“I’ll be more optimistic when I see more teaching about the barriers to success that have nothing to do with one’s ability to program or develop computational thinking skills,” Washington said in a blog for the computer science department.

The computer science professor wants to see a removal of barriers such as “racism, sexism, classism, ableism, homophobia, etc.”

“I think every generation should be improving upon the experiences of their predecessors,” Washington said.

In June, the university president said that the school would “incorporate anti-racism” into curricula.

The school will require “that every Duke student—in undergraduate, graduate and professional programs—learns of the nature of structural racism and inequity, with special focus on our own regional and institutional legacies,” President Vincent Price said in his Juneteenth statement.

MORE: Penn resists demands to mandate antiracism course

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About the Author
Rachelle Hernandez -- Liberty University