Academia as a Feminist Developer
What’s it like to be a forward facing feminist in the sciences in academia?
Here’s a brief story about my experiences of the last six years at NYU, Hogeschool Kunst de Utrecht and Goldsmiths, University of London.
For five years I worked at NYU Tandon School of Engineering. During that time, the department and school changed quite a bit. My boss, Carl Skelton, quit in a political upheaval and a friend, Luke Dubios took his job. The school changed names three times. An entirely new Games department arose (now NYU Game Center) and we moved into a multi-million dollar state of the art facility named Magnet (the Media and Games Network). NYU however, is horribly cheap. It pays many of the staff ridiculously low salaries. Originally, I was recruited to teach web development but at the time did not have a Masters degree. While I was there, I managed to accomplish that. The entire time I was working there I was an adjunct. It was willingly at first as I kept my six figure senior job in advertising and then unwillingly as I later developed a stronger and stronger desire to do research in HCI and Games.
During this time as much as NYU changed, I changed. My interest in games grew and blossomed. I opened a games studio called Dozen Eyes and founded an organization to teach women to program games for free, Code Liberation Foundation, which enjoys a good deal of popularly, international acclaim and has reached thousands of women. My research interests expanded and with them I helped my former student, Caroline Sinders, start a conference called Facets. It promotes cross pollination between STEM and art and features under represented voices.
This whole time my friend Luke never did anything but fund and support me. He did something very, very rare I have come to find out. He listened to what I had to say, empowered me to make change and funded me in the process. As a result of his attitude towards women, people of all abilities and people of color in tech, our department at NYU is now home to Different Games, Code Liberation, Facets, The Ability Lab and a score of other top tier research projects promoting diversity and ability. Additionally, he accepted every single woman I referred and gave them full funding. These women have gone on to be exceptional and include Nina Freeman and Catt Small.
Luke did this because he wanted change and I was a useful vector through which that change could unfold. He also supported a whole host of talented activists and change creators who were also teaching such as Sarah Schoemann, Laine Nooney, Beth Rosenberg and Holly Cohen.
Every time someone like me came to him with an idea from a population that needed support he stepped back and he listened. Then he found a way to write a check and gave us space using NYU’s resources even though he could not hire us. Luke Dubois runs NYU Integrated Digital Media at NYU Tandon like Bernie Sanders interacts with Black Lives Matter. He radically supports and empowers change from diverse populations. He’s using Magnet like Robin Hood and he’s proving to NYU he can make money and support positive change concurrently — that in fact, these two things go hand in hand.
While at Magnet I enjoyed a position of being a beloved instructor. As it turned out, I surprised myself and found I had a gift for teaching programming. Eventually though when I wanted to go full time, there were no open positions. In fact, they have not done a single full time hire for a lecturer since I quit my advertising job. Even though I was popular, well liked, nationally recognized in my field and a recruiting tool for the school, it looked like if I wanted to continue up the food chain I’d need a PhD. This was not something Luke could help me with. NYU didn’t have a PhD in games, creative computing, HCI or anything even remotely approaching my field. As a result, I started looking for new opportunities.
To my shock and surprise, it turned out I was supremely hirable. The climate changed while I was at NYU. My skills, which include professional rebel rousing, hacking, DIY engineering, game development, HCI, design and creative programming, all at a senior level, were now meaningful as an onslaught of programs have begun to incorporate these skills into more traditional Computer Science departments to keep up with trends. Also, I’ve got a host of publications in fields like Digital Media Curation, Machine Learning, HCI and Smart Cities from projects I’ve generated during the last years from a nice array of respectable conferences. Somehow along the way I also co-authored a book and wrote about machine learning for games and creative performance while contributing to some open source projects like Open Frameworks. You bookend this with the my silicon valley experience and somehow I look like a legitimate computer scientist, although that was never all together my aim. It’s just that life stacks up on one over time I guess and who you are unfurls. I always thought I was an artist. Meanwhile, I became an accidental scientist.
Getting a permanent academic posting that would support my PhD as well was relatively easy and I did it not once but twice. The first time around I was the only woman the department, which had been around for 25 years, hired to teach programming. It was not an easy job. I loved my students but I’d never been on an all male team and suddenly, I went from a city where I’d knew everyone to a city where I knew no one. Also, my boss was not like Luke. He had little interest in really empowering social change and was happy to just do his job without being a vanguard. I get that. Not everyone can spend the weekend in William Burroughs’ house archiving his library or making visualizations out of bullets in New Orleans galleries. Not everyone can be Luke Dubois. I got the feeling he would never empower me to grow and I’d simply be biding my time until something new emerged in my life. Additionally, there was a solid bro club in our games department and there was never going to be a way around it for me. I’d always be an outsider – the token female face that they trotted out for investors and on recruiting day.
Then an opportunity opened up at Goldsmiths, University of London in the department where my friend and long time collaborator Rebecca Fiebrinkwas working. Additionally, a few years back I’d met Mick Grierson and, like Luke we were the same age and like minded rebels never content with how things might be. Mick, like Luke, is tireless. A researcher in computer science with a nearly endless array of interests and publications, he also somehow is an accidental scientist who started off as and remains an artist. I thought to myself, “Here’s someone that can push me to the next phase of my life.” I applied and in some twist of amazingly odd fate got a highly competitive job.
Originally they offered to me, maybe even accidentally, a games job, which I flat out refused as we’d discussed a job in Physical Computing. The idea was I did not want to teach games. Post gamergate, I’m exceptionally disillusioned with what is obvious sexism all over the field. While I make games, I sure as heck do not want to teach them in an all male games department, which is what was going on with Goldsmiths’ IGGI program when I applied. I refuse to be a token women game dev again. I have no interest in taking a less than leadership role in an all male department. The only way to change and break up that kind of boys club is from the top down. There’s no bottom up fix as I learned at my last job. Goldsmiths heard me and gave me the physical computing job and I moved to London.
That said, there has been interest from the department in supporting a UK version of Code Liberation. To do it, I have to have students who can help me teach and develop the organization here. Ideally, I like to train women to teach and mentor other women who have an interest in cultivating our field into a better, healthier environment. As a result, I referred two exceptionally talented and accomplished young women to our games PhD program who had the right make up to be CLF members. It’s not something I’d suggest for just anyone. They were both rejected. I guess I should not be surprised. Their experience looks nothing like what a man in games might expect. It’s variegated, diverse and non-linear. It has to be.
Additionally, the lab they said would be mine has been contentious. What I am facing is that Goldsmiths really wants change but they might be afraid to hand the reins over to a powerful, punk rock 40 something genX (American) woman who looks them in the eye and says, “Trust me on this one. I know what I am doing.” To be fair, I’m not exactly a soft, gentle soul. I’m highly energetic, passionate and dedicated activist. I am sometimes brash if I feel strongly something is horribly unfair. I’ve got a relentless drive. Things that would break most people seem to be like fuel to me. I guess that’s because if I took what I was given, I’d be still living in poverty, partially disabled and under educated in a trailer in the south. I’ve heard this trait called resilience as of late. It’s one I have in spades.
We will see how it goes at Goldsmiths for me. The story is yet unwritten and unfolding. We’ll see how risk adverse they are. Given they hired Mick, who seems every bit as adventurous as myself and maybe even then some, I can only think it will eventually, after the bumps, I’ll settle in nicely. We’re even trying to set up an exchange program with NYU and Luke. I have hope.
So here’s my point.
Are you an ally and do you want change? Are you in an academic or corporate space in a position of power? Then do this. Listen. Take risks on people like myself who don’t come from your background or from privilege.
When we tell you how we want to help our communities, don’t intercede, mediate or try and control us. Simply empower us. You don’t know what’s best even though your privilege and position might lead you to think you do. If you need a case in point, see how successful Luke’s department at NYU is becoming as a result of this strategy.
Change isn’t demur. Change isn’t soft. Change does not make you comfortable with yourself.
Change does not come in a package you will recognize as familiar.
Change points out your bullshit.
Change makes something new.
Change is scary.
In the end though, if you’re open to it, change will make you healthier and stronger.
Take the risk.
This posting is dedicated to Greg Deocampo who asked me to write it.