A stick figure laying alone on a large grassy field under a blue sky, all in watercolor.
A stick figure laying alone on a large grassy field under a blue sky, all in watercolor.
What I work for. Credit: Amy J. Ko

I spent much of my childhood home alone, with my younger brother. My parents worked: my Mom as a 5th grade teacher almost an hour’s drive away, leaving well before I caught the bus to school and coming home well after I returned home. And my Dad, working in quality assurance with frozen berries, also an hour away. We usually ate dinner together, then watched the nightly news and an episode of the The Simpsons, and then we would sleep, and do it all again. We spent weekends together, but much of our time was on errands, as our parents moved us from house to house every two years, flipping them one at a time. Weekend family time was productive, tiling bathrooms, landscaping yards, and building retaining walls. After my parents divorced, Oregon cut school funding, and the FDA deregulated food quality assurance, I saw them even less as their lives and careers destabilized. …


A protester holds up their homemade sign on a box that says, “Black Trans Lives Matter No Justice No Peace”
A protester holds up their homemade sign on a box that says, “Black Trans Lives Matter No Justice No Peace”
No justice for Black people, no peace for me. Credit: Ira L. Black, Getty Images

Today is Martin Luther King Jr. Day in the United States, a day that means different things to different people. For some, it is a day off work. For others, it is a day to remember remember his activist leadership that led to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which not only ended Jim Crow laws, but also affirmed equal rights to people independent of the basis of race, color, or national origin (and amended in 1968 to include sex and religion). For others, it is a day of service, where we work to bend the United States and its institutions and laws toward justice. And for many, this year—with police killings of Black people more visible than ever, and the White supremacist sentiments behind the insurrection on the U.S. …


Two wavy horizontal watercolor lines, one purple, one green, woven together.
Two wavy horizontal watercolor lines, one purple, one green, woven together.
Life is a mixed blessing. Credit: Amy J. Ko.

Today is the winter solstice in the northern hemisphere. For me, it’s a day of duality; it’s both the darkest and shortest day, with just eight hours of daylight, usually shrouded by a thick layer of Seattle clouds and rain. In some ways, it is the day I am least hopeful about life, because it leads me to ponder everything that has happened in the past year, and sometimes, in past decades. And then, of course, it can be a day of hope, foreshadowing longer days, a promise of spring, and new opportunities for love and growth.

The darkness, of course, surfaces my struggles. And there have been many. I grew up often excluded for being mixed race in a very white town. My parents divorced when I was young and couldn’t have a civil conversation, which led me to be peacemaker and parent before I was ten. My puberty was a tragedy, creating a suffocating gender dysphoria that denied me any sense of self-worth. I had a child when I was 21 and still in college, lived on the edge of poverty through graduate school, struggled to manage my then-wife’s emerging bipolar disorder, and then got divorced the same year I moved to Seattle and started as a professor. Throughout, I lost a cousin to suicide and five aunts and uncles to five kinds of cancer, and another to heart failure. Being in the gender closest for so long, I’ve long avoided friendship and intimacy, to hide myself from others. On most days since my parents divorced, my life has felt empty, alone, broken, and burdened. …


The walls of trans disregard, disdain, and discrimination keep closing in.

A feminine figure leaning over, head facing down, pushing against two walls grey walls of an enclosure.

I spent the first 39 years of my life living as a boy, then a man. For most of that time, I couldn’t put my feelings about my gender into words. But I can imagine what I might have said if someone had ever asked, what is your gender? When I was in grade school, I might have said, “I’m a boy, but I’m supposed to be a girl.” In middle school, I might have said “How do I stop this hair from growing on my face???” In high school, believing there was no escape from my poisoning puberty, I might have said, “I don’t have a self. I don’t have a body. I don’t have a gender. I’m just a brain.” …


A screenshot of Google search with the query “is google oppressi” and the suggestion “what is oppression google scholar”
A screenshot of Google search with the query “is google oppressi” and the suggestion “what is oppression google scholar”
Don’t change the subject Google.

I spent this summer reading a lot about race and technology (McIlwain, Eubanks, Benjamin, Costanza-Chock, and more). Most of my reading has been broadly scoped, focusing on all of technology and its historical and present day interaction with race. In some ways, this has been transformative, giving me an entirely new lens with which to think about the past and the present, and my role in it. But on other ways, this has been overwhelming, since it’s meant grappling with the entire history of technology and race in the United States, particularly computing.

To give myself a break—if I can call it that—recently I turned my attention to a more narrowly scoped book, Safiya Umoja Noble’s Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism. Dr. Noble is a professor at the UCLA Department of Information Studies, where she directs the Center for Critical Internet Inquiry. She is a colleague in one sense, as we’re both professors at information schools. But in other ways, we are worlds apart. Her background was in library and information studies; mine was computer science. She’s had eclectic academic appointments in African American Studies, Information Science, and Gender Studies across three institutions; I’ve only ever been at an information school. She identifies as Black; I as White and Asian. And yet, through the wonders of interdisciplinarity, I find myself reading her work, building upon it, and teaching it. …


A Scratch program that, when clicked, redundantly updates a character’s speech bubble to say “editor!” 28 times.
A Scratch program that, when clicked, redundantly updates a character’s speech bubble to say “editor!” 28 times.
When I say block-based, you say editor. Block-based! Editor! Block-based! Editor!

I’ve been writing about some heavy things lately—race, gender, politics. As passionate as I am about these large issues in society, I occasionally need an intellectual palate cleanser. Something light, small, maybe even trivial, maybe even pointless. Tackling these little things like like a cool down after a workout: it’s a way to slow down in a measured way from something intense, before finding a more peaceful resting state. Like Thanksgiving weekend.

What better than a rant about word choice? I am an academic after all, and so this wouldn’t be an academic blog if I didn’t at least occasionally get far too annoyed about the words that people use. …


A photograph of a display showing a slide titled “Critical Computing Education”, with an iPad hovering above showing Zoom.
A photograph of a display showing a slide titled “Critical Computing Education”, with an iPad hovering above showing Zoom.
This is what an invited talk looks like now.

For researchers like myself, one of the major disruptions from the pandemic has been the loss of travel. Most years, I would fly more than 50,000 miles a year, attending 4–5 conferences to share research and network, visiting universities to give invited talks and meet new faculty, and also spending a good amount of time at the National Science Foundation, evaluate proposals by my colleagues. This travel would take me all over the world, including Europe, Asia, Australasia, and sometimes South America and Africa. I’ve always tried to make the most of this incredible privilege to roam, learning about the countries I visited, deeply networking with its scholars, and building on those in-person encounters online. …


Joe Biden holding the hands of Sarah McBride.
Joe Biden holding the hands of Sarah McBride.
President-elect Joe Biden with state senator-elect Sarah McBride, also a trans activist.

In hindsight, coming out as transgender back in September 2019 was an act of defiance. We were three years into rollbacks of Obama-era trans protections: Trump removed all mentions of trans people from government websites; he withdrew guidance protecting trans students under Title IX; he halted nondiscrimination enforcement in health care; he stopped all data collection on LGBTQ people, including hate crime data; he banned trans people from the military; he prevented the CDC from using the word “transgender”; he removed anti-discrimination regulations on religiously-affiliated services offering shelter, foster care, and caregiving; he required schools to ban trans students from participating in sports.


A photo of a Black Lives Matter protest showing a row of police on the left and a row of protested on the right
A photo of a Black Lives Matter protest showing a row of police on the left and a row of protested on the right
Photo by Koshu Kunii on Unsplash

I am no expert at managing conflict. For most of my life, I’ve avoided it, and when I find myself immersed in it, I get scared, anxious, overwhelmed, and consumed by it. At best, I’m unconstructive and at worst, I’m combative and destructive. The only thing that saves me is that I’m usually self aware enough to know I’m doing these things that I can pull myself out of the situation.

Unfortunately, avoiding conflict is no way to make change. Our long unjust history in this country has shown that change doesn’t come from everybody avoiding their disagreements. We have to engage hard topics, and that can be uncomfortable, as it can involve strong emotions, arguments, protest, and more. …


An illustration of a Terminator robot with a thought bubble that says “IF OBJ.IS_HUMAN DESTROY OBJ
An illustration of a Terminator robot with a thought bubble that says “IF OBJ.IS_HUMAN DESTROY OBJ
Is the Terminator is coming for your curriculum?

In case it hasn’t been obvious, I’m really interested in computing education right now. There are so many things I like about: a growing and inspired researcher and practitioner community, an abundance of hard, unanswered questions, and—as someone who identifies fundamentally as a human-computer interaction researcher—phenomena rich with people interacting with computers. I’m all in!

However, as some people know, I’m also quite fond of being contrarian, taking something widely accepted or cherished and questioning it as deeply as I can. This includes my own ideas and passions. …

About

Amy J. Ko

Professor of programming + learning + design + justice at the University of Washington Information School. Trans; she/her. #BlackLivesMatter.

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