Reflecting on Academia

Design Theory Reflection 12

I found Ruha Benjamin’s talk to be really fascinating and inspiring. Her discussion on how biases are embedded into our technology was especially interesting. I think that there often is a false perception that technology is logical and does not hold any biases. People think technology is based solely on facts not feelings. It’s hard to wrap your head around the fact that people make machines, and these machines reflect our thoughts and feelings on the world, and reinforce these thoughts and feelings. This can be especially dangerous when it reinforces oppression, which it often does. Benjamin mentioned a few examples of this which I found kind of horrifying and dystopian in some cases. However, learning about all the people and organizations that are working to dismantle these systems was really inspiring to me. I feel sometimes when you learn about how oppressive and awful things are, it can be depressing, and it can feel like you’re powerless against a massive system. But, Benjamin did a great job pointing to people who are doing great work to help combat these systems, and I’m excited to look more into this area over the summer.

In that same vein, I also really enjoyed reading the Manifesto for Decolonizing Design. There were a lot of great points in it. One that stood out to me was the point around redesigning the system instead of focusing just adding more diverse voices to a system that upholds oppression. I appreciated the nuance added about adding more voices in academic settings as a good thing, but the important point is to restructure/redesign the system completely. So often, we’re forced to focus on fixing oppressive systems instead of dismantling them, and I found it inspiring that this manifesto aimed to do that.

The point about welcoming students with incomplete ideas who may feel alienated from academia into the discourse really resonated with me. I’m a first generation college student, and a young woman in academia. Navigating the education system on my own has been really challenging for me, and because of the way I was raised, I’ve always felt this sense of hierarchy between students and teachers in a really intense way (I’m scared of and intimidated by people I perceive as authority which often includes teachers.) I think that this point really challenges the hierarchical relationships between teachers and students in an interesting way that encourages students to explore their ideas.

Generally, I enjoy participating in class discussions, and answering professor’s questions in class, but there have been some classes I’ve felt nervous contributing in when I was in undergrad because I didn’t feel as knowledgeable as my classmates, and I was scared I would look stupid. In addition, some professors opt not to engage in class discussions, and I think that this can lead to students not feeling comfortable developing their own ideas. The focus becomes more about reaffirming the professor’s beliefs instead of encouraging the student to interpret the class materials in a way that makes sense to them. So again, the point about welcoming students into the conversation sounded really nice to me, and I would love for students to feel more comfortable participating in academia in a more definitive manner.

Something that I wondered about the manifesto though was how we might be able to get more people to participate in academia and academic conversations who don’t work in academia or who aren’t students. Growing up, I attended Catholic schools that really emphasized the importance of education beyond school. Both the Dominican and Jesuit orders are education-focused and both advocate for continued study throughout one’s life, to enrich yourself as well as your community. I hope to be a lifelong scholar. School feels too short, despite it being about a 20 year process. But I don’t want to be in school forever, and I wonder how I can continue to participate in academic conversations without being in school or academia? I also wonder how we can include people who haven’t had the opportunity to go through the higher education system, but have been reading a lot over their lives in these conversations. My dad never finished high school, and he’s a really smart person who’s read a lot and listened to a lot of different people’s experiences over his lifetime. I wonder why people like him don’t get to contribute to scholarship in any way, and I wonder how the decolonizing manifesto could address these thoughts.

All in all, I really enjoyed this week’s readings. It gave me a lot of hope when I generally feel pessimistic about the state of things, and I’m excited to look through the resources mentioned in Benjamin’s video over the summer to learn more about the various movements within tech.

Katelynn Browne is a current graduate student at NYU who specializes in user experience design with interests around social change.