{ teaching }

  • Adding Disability To Your Syllabus


    In the past year, I’ve been finding ways to infuse Disability Studies into the education courses I teach. Since a few friends and colleagues have asked me for advice on how to infuse a week or two of disability-related content into their syllabi, I thought I’d share what I’ve learnt so far for any other educators out there looking to do the same.

    The three biggest things I’ve learnt:

    • Students really have no clue how bad discrimination is toward people with disabilities (e.g. forced sterilization, subminimum wage, immigration restrictions, removal of children, lack of sex ed, higher rates of violence and abuse and sexual violence)
    • It is new and alien for them to think about disability pride
    • They are not used to hearing disability voices at all

    As such I recommend any introduction to disability studies start with addressing these, especially from an intersectional lens. Pretty much of the ways in which ableism is accepted and reinforced in society disproportionately affect multiply-marginalized disabled people (e.g. black disabled people, trans disabled people) and that needs to be reinforced.

    Recommendations for Readings

    I’d start by thinking about how you can take existing topics in your syllabus and relate them to disability justice. For example, let’s say you’ve been teaching about critical race studies. You could then talk about the intersections of race and disability, such as how special education as we know it was created to ensure racial segregation after Brown v Board. Or, let’s say you’re teaching a course about the sociology of science; you could get into issues of eugenics or the relationships between disability and technology.

    Since students tend not to have any background in disability studies, here are a minimal set of readings I’d suggest to start with. Only one is an academic reading; and other than it and a 45min podcast, they are all quite short. All of these should be accessible to an undergraduate audience.

    If you only have one week:

    1. Stella Young: I’m not your inspiration (~10 min video, has captions)
      • Introduces social model of disability, inspiration porn, critique of how education system deals with disability, disability community
      • I generally hate TED talks but this one has proven effective! Heard students returning to it a bunch during small group activities.
    2. Center for Disability Rights’ Disability Writing & Journalism Guidelines (~15 min read)
      • Resource on language to use about disability; good/bad disability organizations
      • Introduces ableism, disability community, intersectionality
      • If you’re assigning the Stella Young video, I’d order things so this comes after so it reinforces her speech. You can make this one optional but I recommend having it posted so it’s a resource available about what language is appropriate.
    3. Harriet Tubman Collective’s open letter: The Vision for Black Lives is Incomplete Without Disability Solidarity (~10 min read)
      • Note: “audism” is discrimination toward the Deaf community
      • Introduction to the issues at the intersection of race and disability
      • Overview of some of the ways that disabled people today continue to be oppressed
      • I have students who are already supporters of BLM. Might think about a different reading introducing race+disability intersections if you’re worried about students being anti-BLM.
    4. Rose Eveleth in Wired: It’s Time to Rethink Who’s Best Suited for Space Travel (~10 min read)
      • Introduces some of the ways in which disability is advantageous

    If you have a second class, or assign more than an hour of reading each class, add:

    1. 99% Invisible podcast episode “Curb Cuts” (~45 mins, has transcript)
      • Introduction to the history of disability rights movement in the US; Ed Roberts and the Rolling Quads
      • Introduction to curb cuts, universal design
    2. Chapter 2, “The Social Construction of Disability”; from Wendell, Susan. The rejected body: Feminist philosophical reflections on disability. Routledge, 2013. (~40 min read)
      • Introduces how disability is socially constructed
      • Discusses intersections of disability and sex/gender
    3. Olga Khazan in The Atlantic: When Hearing Voices is a Good Thing (~5 min read)
      • Describes how schizophrenia symptoms vary culturally - helps reinforce how disability is socially constructed
      • Also presents people who are happy to have schizophrenia and don’t see it as a bad thing - helps reinforce disability pride

    If you’re worried about there being too much in the second week, I would switch either the 99pi episode to week 1 and then move the CDR writing guidelines to week 2. And then from there add readings relevant to things you’ve already talked about in your course!

    Selecting Relevant Readings To Your Course

    If you don’t already have some relevant readings in mind, or don’t feel confident about the ones you’re thinking of, I would do a google scholar search for "ableism" + (relevant topical keywords).

    I would steer away from searching for "disability" + your relevant topical keywords because of how much ableist content there is out there. Talking about ableism is a decent shibboleth to gauge DS background.

    You may also want to have a skim through the table of contents for Lennard & Davis’ Disability Studies Reader (pdf). There’s a ton of classic articles in there and the TOC usefully gives short descriptions of each. You’re also welcome to peruse my annotated Disability Studies syllabus here!

    Class Activity

    In class I have a set of slides in which I discuss current disability rights/justice issues, different models of disability, and disability pride. When I presented these slides in winter 2019, it took me 37 minutes to go through them; I gave a more streamlined version in fall 2018 that took 20 mins.

    I then do a class activity wherein for multiple disabilities I ask students in group questions like “How does society marginalize people with this disability?” and “Why would somebody with this disability feel proud to have it?”. The worksheet is here and takes about an hour (~10 mins a question). If you want to shorten it, I would assign 2-3 disabilities out of the five there, but vary which groups get which disabilities. You can get it down to 20-30 mins this way.

    Before the worksheet I work through two worked examples: deafness and Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome. Students struggle the most with why somebody would be proud, so be prepared for that! After the students have worked through the sheet I have groups share their responses to that question because I know that’s what they tended to struggle with.

    My Experiences With This

    • Each time I’ve taught this (slides+activity), I’ve opened with asking people to list some disabilities and categories of disabilities
      • “Mental” vs “physical” always seems to be the first thing, and I have to do some work showing how that dichotomy breaks down
      • Students typically expect there’s a definition of disability, or expect there to be agreement on what it is. So they ask questions like “is X a disability?” and I have to explain that it depends on who you ask.
        • If you’re pressed for time and don’t want to really dive into social constructionism, you might start with the WHO definition and discuss some of its limitations — but at the same time I think it’s important to make clear there is no agreed upon definition
        • Students often stuck on how chronic illness is disabling, and how the dichotomy between illness and disability is also a broken one
    • The first time I taught a lesson disability studies I didn’t spend any time justifying why disability matters as a lens. Second time I put in a little slide listing some of the legal forms of discrimination against PWD and the students were shocked. Third time I did even more.
    • I’ve learnt to do EDS as a worked example because students don’t know what it is. An earlier version of the worksheet had more disabilities available (I had a bunch of strips of paper and randomized which groups got what) but we were slowed down since many of the disabilities students had never even heard of before.
    • Working through some examples of what the social model entails and having students work through some more appears to be effective for getting their heads around the social model.
      • Students often get stuck on the difference between social model and social construction.
    • I’ve gotten consistently positive feedback for including disability studies in my teaching — students appreciate learning about it!
  • A Reading List for Critical CS Education

    One of the challenges of studying equity in computing is that while there is a lot of work on the subject, the topic lacks the infrastructure of a well-established (sub)field. For example, when I was a PhD student studying for my qualifying exam, there was not a pre-established list of texts for me to study. When students and colleagues ask me for readings on equity in CS I tend to start from scratch each time, and will miss things.

    To solve these issues, I’ve put together a reading list on critical prespectives on equity in computing. The list is heavily annotated for guidance, and importanty covers foundational texts in areas that a criticial approach to computing equity should draw on (e.g. critical pedagogy, Science and Technology Studies, Gender Work & Organization, critical disability studies, critical race studies).

    I welcome feedback on the list. Hopefully you’ll find it useful!

  • Introducing Computer Science via Online Security: An Experience Report

    Last weekend I spent two hours teaching an informal introduction to online security to an audience of political activists. I wound up teaching a fair bit of computer science in the process and I’m writing up this experience report because I think it’s a valuable way to teach introductory computer science.

    Before I put together my lesson plan I spent a fair bit of time looking at other people’s introductions. Broadly, they fell into two categories:
    1. Introductions for CS students, which would include things like how to write your own HTTPS server or proofs about why RSA works (too advanced for my audience)
    2. Instructions for what software you should download to stay secure.

    I’m a member of the political organization from which my audience came. People regularly post articles which fall into category 2 on the online community for the group. And not unsurprisingly, these articles have had limited effects on getting people to change their behaviour. This was why I’d volunteered to teach the workshop. I’d initially planned it to be all about the software to install to stay safe.

    As I put together my lesson plan I had a change of idea for the goal of the workshop. In my experience teaching introductory programming, students struggle for the first few weeks because they don’t understand why they should be learning this or what it gets them. I started to think something similar might be going on here: a typical article telling you to install Signal and HTTPS Everywhere doesn’t sufficiently motivate why it’s necessary and what’s going on technically.

    Computer scientists like myself think of the internet in a very different way than my activist friends. My activist friends see the internet as a mystical black box.

    My learning goal for the workshop hence became: to demystify the internet.

    What I taught

    I gave some homework to my “class”: to watch this series of videos from code.org on how the internet works. I’d spent some time on youtube watching videos on how the internet works and conclude those were the best out there.

    The videos are quite lovely and well-produced. They, however, do something I don’t like: they talk about data as being mystical 1s and 0s. So I started the workshop with demystifying how data is stored.

    Files and Encodings

    I went over character encoding. We talked about ASCII, unicode, and encodings for languages other than English. I talked about how this entire setup was America-centric, and the pains that non-English writers have had as a result.

    From there we talked about other file encodings. I walked through an extremely simplified bmp encoding. We then talked about compression and encodings like jpg. I hadn’t expected to bring compression into the mix but it came up in the questions.

    I then asked the group, “so what is a file?” I got the same blank looks I get from my first year computer science students when I introduce file I/O. Most computer scientists tend not to realize how much difficulty novices have with the concept of a file.

    In our group discussion about files I wound up explaining what virtual memory is and some basics about file systems. This was another piece of computer science that came up through class discussion that I hadn’t expected would come up (but was excited to see!)

    We then talked about metadata and, from there, how much information you can get from somebody’s metadata.


    I then shifted gears to talk about “suppose we want to share a file”. From the videos my audience already had seen the notion of a packet. We talked about how a file (and any other information) will be broken into packets to be sent over a network.

    I then talked about pre-internet networks. I talked about hubs and routers and in retrospect I should have left out hubs. I think hubs added confusion.

    We then walked through an example of how UDP works.


    Then I started talking about internetworking, and how the internet is a network of networks. I explained what a LAN is, then a WAN. Everybody had heard of an ISP before but was kind of fuzzy on what they do.

    The code.org videos didn’t go into what ISPs do or how data is shared between ISP. I talked about IXPs, the internet backbone, and the landing stations for intercontinental cable/fibre lines — and how those are common targets for government eavesdropping (see: Diebert’s “Black Code”).

    In retrospect I wish I’d spent even more time on that part, and talked about tiers of ISPs, as well as net neutrality. I wish I’d also shown a couple examples of traceroutes and how data sent from a computer in Toronto to a computer in Vancouver will most likely go through the USA, which undermines legislation trying to keep sensitive data on Canadian servers.

    Once we’d covered how the internet is structured, we talked about TCP then IP. We talked about IP. Again we returned to how the internet has been structured in an America-centric fashion: how IPv4 addresses were allocated.

    Were I to do this part again I’d spend more time on it and talk about RIRs and how they’re governed.

    From IP addresses we talked about DNS. Again, more American neocolonialism was discussed with how TLDs were setup. We talked ICANN. My audience was fascinated by learning about ICANN and similar governance bodies and we would up on a tangent about how FOSS works and how to get involved in FOSS projects.

    We then talked about HTTP, and the protocol stack. We talked about some other applications such as SMTP, IMAP, XMPP, etc.

    I talked about ports and sockets and regretted it because I don’t think I did a good job of it. I don’t think it added much to their understanding either.

    At this point we’d been going for a bit over an hour and I figured this was a good place to stop and see if they had any questions about how networks work. One participant made an observation that the internet doesn’t seem to have been designed to be secure (yep) and we talked about this in more detail. Another participant asked about VPNs so we talked about those, but probably not in a satisfactory level of detail. I mentioned TOR in this discussion but didn’t do a very good job of explaining how TOR works — were I to do this again I would spend more time there.


    After all this network talk, I shifted gears to talk about cryptography. I went over symmetric key encryption. As I went through it I wish I’d actually done this before talking about encoding, because there was confusion about whether the text or the encoding is what encrypted/decrypted.

    I talked about how the key is often the weakest link in symmetric key encryption and then started talking about Whitfield-Diffie. I gave a high level overview of asymmetric key encryption. At this this point I was running kind of behind where I expected to be so I rushed this, which was a shame. There was a fair bit of confusion about public vs. private keys, which is fairly confusing for novices (especially if you aren’t shown the underlying mathematics.)

    I talked about why asymmetric key encryption was necessary for the internet to work as we know it. Had I more time I would have loved to get into talking about P ?= NP.

    Secure Networking

    We then got back to networking. I talked about SSL and HTTPS, and what it means when something is end-to-end-encrypted. I did not talk about certificate authorities due to time constraints but I wish I had.

    I then gave them this link to tools for security, and mentioned a few of my favourites. I explained that security is a process, not an end-result, and one of my participants asked, “so how do we keep up to date on what’s secure?” and I still wish I had a good response for him. Most ways I keep up to date on these things are written for a tech-savvy audience.

    Finally we talked about human factors in security. This xkcd came up. We talked about the DNC email leaks.

    We then wrapped up. People told me I’d done a lot to demystify the internet for them. Heartingly, a bunch of people at the seminar have since installed many of the tools I told them about.


    One thing I really liked about teaching this workshop was how much the students could talk about what’s going on. When I introduce CS via programming, it’s much harder to teach it in a student-directed fashion because the students have very little idea where to go next. With “how does the internet work?” my students had so many questions.

    I’d gone into the workshop with a lesson plan but then wound up covering things in different order because a somebody would ask a question and we’d go that direction. It was quite exciting for me to teach CS this way.

    Another nice thing about introducing CS via the internet vs. via programming is that this way we show the history of CS. CS is shown as a human endeavour that builds upon itself. You don’t really get to show this in the process of teaching programming to novices.

    How I’d Teach It Again

    If I were to do the workshop again, I’d take four hours (two felt too rushed), with some breaks in there. I’d order it as:

    • what is an algorithm?
    • symmetric key crypto
    • files and encoding
    • computer networking
    • internetworking
    • asymmetric key crypto
    • how to keep safe

    But better yet I’d love to teach this as a 12-week university course. There was so much in there that could be used to introduce computer science and garner interest from new communities. This course would complement any intro-to-programming class and they could be taken at the same time.

    I’ve written up what I’d cover in the 12 weeks here.

    I think a student taking such a course would walk out with a better sense of what CS is about than if they’d taken an introductory programming class. Certainly programming is a useful skill that many people benefit from learning (not just CS people), but many people walk out of their first CS class with the misconception that CS = programming.

    The material in this course is useful to a broad segment of society. Everybody uses the internet, but few people understand how it works. With internet security playing an increasing role in politics, this knowledge has become even more important in a democratic society.