Part II To Queer Code: Ann Daramola on Learning and Teaching Computer Programming
(Read Part I)
In the second half of our conversation, Daramola and I chat about learning code as a bilingual experience, youth programmers in a digital era, the relationship between breaking the code and coming from broken circumstances, and the work non-profit organizations like Black Girls Code, Code Now, and Girls Who Code are doing to help young people prepare for college and careers in STEM. Daramola calls on educators and community organizers to continue to provide these young people with the same STEM resources and mentorship throughout out college, otherwise "young women of color will most certainly fall through the cracks." Check out Part II of our conversation below.
Tara: I love the idea of queering code! I also like the idea of different cultures fusing their own languages and worldviews into standard programming languages. I recently come across a software development platform Live Code, which allows novice-to-advanced programmers to create applications and execute computing processes using basic English grammar syntax. Kevin Miller, Live Code’s CEO, says in a promotional video that “Live Code is a very high level language, [which means] you write code in a language that’s as close to English as possible. It’s less [about] code . . . so it makes it very very quick to develop applications.” Even though Live Code is making coding and programming more accessible, the platform still privileges English as the high level language over other languages. So here’s a good example of how culture particularly the English language embeds itself in code and is packaged as a more mainstream and accessible way of knowing. In your experience as a coder, and as you develop curriculum for youth coders, can you speak about how, or in what ways, young girls and coders of color understand what it means to code? How do they think about the process of coding, and perhaps even the future of coding? Along these same lines, what is your opinion about the best ways to teach, instruct, engage so-called ‘marginalized’ youth coders?
Ann: When I'm teaching code, I tend to start with a lot of examples to help ground the discussion and lesson in experience. If you’ve ever seen a page of code, you know it’s intimidating. Letters are in the wrong place and the spacing seems off. Even the high level languages that are supposed to be like English are still intimidating because they don’t read like straight English. I also teach bilingual classes. Because the code is written in English, for immigrant coders, not only is this code foreign, but it’s foriegn in a foreign language. So there are multiple layers that we, as educators teaching code and programming, have to fight through. But remember also, it’s about instruction, you’re simply instructing a computer on what to do. I find that the young girls I teach come from a Myspace culture, where they like to design their own pages. Essentially you’re just copying and pasting code. It’s again about tinkering, or playing around with code in ways that make sense to and satisfy the user’s sensibilities.
For young people, it’s almost natural for them to deal with digital things because they've grown up in a digital world.
Digital is all around them, it’s part of their world. It’s not too foreign for young people to tinker because certain aspects of computing are not entirely closed off from them yet. I say closed off because if you have an iPhone, you can’t really open up the phone and tinker with it. The iPhone is closed off to modification. However, with an Android or other phone, you can modify them. But this is really where a lot of the learning comes from, the tinkering.
One of the reasons why white males have traditionally dominated the field of computer science and technology is because they’ve had more time to tinker, to break, and to fix things.
So another way I approach and teach coding is to say that nothing you or I can do will break the computer. So go wild! Everything is possible. You have to tinker. You have to keep going through the code and move things around. It’s like play. You’re learning but you’re also playing, and so playing is a type of learning. As you play with the computer, you’re also learning how to talk like a computer.
When young women and men color come into the classroom, I try to make it as comfortable as possible for them to make mistakes because that’s where the learning happens. They know where to go, to push things around, and to tinker.
Teaching, instructing, and engaging is about validating an affirming young people's life experiences and bringing these experiences into the classroom. It’s saying, ‘OK. this is your experience, how can we construct a program around your experience?’ So when these young people go back into the world, they’re not looking at a street light the same way, they’re thinking about all the different connections that make that street light turn from green to yellow to red. They’re not looking at the world the same way they did before.
We want to present problems and say let’s figure out how to break it so we can fix it. Let’s figure out where it’s broken. Let’s keep breaking things and making mistakes until it works. It doesn’t even have to look good.
Just knowing that it’s okay to break things is one of the best ways to teach young people especially in a world where a lot of things around these young people are broken already.
They’re powerless, or they’re not necessarily aware of how the structures around render them powerless, and that’s when we become disenfranchised. These kids can’t necessarily just wake up and fix their school systems. But they can compose program that models their lives, and they can manipulate the program, which can in turn give them a sense of control, empowerment, and affirmation.
They can create something of their own in a world of chaos.
Tara: I like that you mention the idea of play, which has been theorized a lot recently, especially in the technology and education fields. I also like the idea of tinkering and telling our students that it’s okay to break the code. It’s profound to think about how the process of breaking code relates to our experiences of being broken, as if these two variables are necessary in order to create something new, empowering, and affirming. As an adult in graduate school who is learning how code, I always feel like there’s something missing in the instruction. There’s a step that’s not being taught. I’ve found that in order to get to one step you have to accomplish another step that most likely the instructor didn’t inform you about. So I have to figure out the solution on my own and translate the process according to what I know, how I understand the world, how I, like the code, have been broken.
Ann: I understand that the purpose of these non-profits is to get our kids ready for college. As someone who went through computer science after-school and community-based programs before, I remember getting to college and saying to myself, ‘OK, now what?’ In my experience I didn’t really have the know-how about moving within and among the institution once I arrive to college. So I certainly see these non-profits doing a great job and addressing an important concern as it relates to college readiness.
As more young people of color work and study within STEM fields, it will bring a diversity of solutions to the future. The reason we need these multiple bodies and experiences is so we can come up with creative and innovative solutions. The more people from different worldviews participating in STEM, the more varied and creative the solutions. I definitely see more creative solutions in our future having more youth of color learning code and programming. However, I also see a lot of scared and frustrated college students once they finally arrive to college because a lot of higher education institutions aren’t moving as fast as these nonprofits.
There are very few women of color professors in STEM fields.
In terms of professorship and mentorship at higher education institutions, we aren’t quite where we need to be. It would have been amazing for me to have a woman of color mentor while I was working on my undergraduate degree in computer science. That would’ve transformed my entire trajectory. I don’t regret my experience, but I can clearly see how I was negatively affected by not having that kind of mentorship throughout college.
Also, going to college does not necessarily guarantee that we’ll have the same opportunities as we had in the past. When I teach the curriculum, I also emphasize social entrepreneurship. Not everyone can get into college, not everyone can afford college, and not everyone can attend college as an undocumented citizen. These are different kinds of barriers unique to our communities. So in one sense it’s great that all of these resources are being put into making sure women of color are well-represented. But at the same time, we need make sure that the system grows as they grow.
When they get to college we still need to ensure that those same resources are available to our young women throughout college. Otherwise, these young women of color will most certainly fall through the cracks.
People at universities, no matter race, socioeconomic status, or level of intelligence, can always get lost. We want to make sure our women of color are supported so that the next generation of professors are more diverse and can support the next generation of coders and programmers.
Tara: You’re saying so many great things here! When these young kids reach college there is likely no guarantee that they'll have the resources and mentorship that got them there in the first place. Certainly there’s a dearth of professors of color and women professors in STEM fields. I hope this is changing, but it make take several years or maybe even a generation for it to really fix itself.
Tara: Finally, what’s next for you? What should MMC’s readers know about your future work and projects?
Ann: Looking towards the future, I want Afrolicious to be huge! I want Afrolicious to be a resource for many ideas and stories related to the African Diaspora.
Other projects I’m working on include Black Women Said, a multimedia platform for Black women, and The Kindred Magazine, a magazine about Black women talking to Black women about what it means to be a Black woman. These projects are in response to the ways in which media (mis)represents Black women. I want to create a space where we can build and distribute our own networks and media channels. With my work, and also by way teaching computer programming and code, I want to continue to build a tribe of like-minded people who will champion and create their own content.
Transcribed by Tara L. Conley
Image courtesy of Ann Daramola