Owl with Juneteenth Flag feathers

Looking Back at Rice University’s First Annual Reflections on Juneteenth

On this MLK Day, I look back at Rice University’s Juneteenth lecture series from last year (June 2020), and provide links to the talks themselves. This lecture series at Rice (which Rice intends to do annually) was meant to reflect, learn, and begin a conversation on how to build a more diverse, equitable and inclusive community at Rice and beyond. The included talks cover reflections on racial and residential patterns in Houston ISD schools, rates of intermarriage and health patterns in places with high historical rates of enslavement, the journalistic practices in covering BlackLivesMatter protests, Texas’ slavery history, as well as how to reduce racism and bias in the work place.

Some of my takeaways:

  • Dr. Alexander Byrd asked “Is it racist to ask the question, ‘Is this school too Black’?” and concluded that it is, but asking questions about where faculty live relative to students and whether faculty reflect the student body or the wider city diversity and how those patterns have changed over time can help uncover patterns that promote or harm equity. 
  • The neighborhoods and counties in the south with the most enslavement have the least inter-racial marriage and continue to have higher rates of adverse health like amputations from diabetes. 
  • The media is covering the Black Lives Matter movement more now than they did after Michael Brown’s killing in Ferguson, but public opinion punishes protesters when the media focuses on violence no matter who perpetrates the violence.
  • Slavery was expanding in Texas before and during the civil war, in contrast to the way Texas history was taught in the past, downplaying the role of slavery in Texas.  
  • Emerging research shows that anti-bias training and ally training can work to improve organizational climate, especially if people take the perspective of someone unlike themselves, and create and write goals for themselves. 

Juneteenth has passed, but the relevance of these issues have not, and I figured readers may have missed them. What better day than today to take the opportunity to revisit, review, and reflect.

I took a few notes on the lectures that I saw in this post, which may help you decide what to dig into. I did not see all of them, so not all have notes. I include links directly to each of the talks and in a few places, I include links to resources that were mentioned in the talks.

Original Announcement: Reflections on Juneteenth

Full video playlist

Session 1: Youtube (Byrd, Bratter, Walligora-Davis) 

Introduction: Dr. Reginald DesRoches, Rice University Provost
Race, Schools, and Freedom Now
Dr. Alexander Byrd, Associate Professor of History, Associate Dean of Humanities

Dr. Byrd asked “Is it racist to ask the question, ‘is this school too black’?”. He then brings more context to the question by looking at the residential and racial composition of students and faculty at three Houston high schools (Bellaire, Yates, and Austin) of both students and faculty, and how that has changed from 1950s to 2012 and 2019. And then he asks how those residential and racial patterns influence the community and power networks available to those schools. He concludes that the question IS racist, but the contextual analysis can help uncover potential patterns that would be more equitable.  
Reflecting on the Lessons of Juneteenth: Racial (In)Justice And the Role of Place
Dr. Jenifer Bratter, Professor of Sociology, Director, Race Scholars at Rice

Dr. Bratter studies the rates of intermarriage in order to shed light on race relations and continuing race effects across the U.S. Her data show patterns across the US. You can map trends onto counties with the highest number of enslaved people and see clear patterns. For instance – very low rates of intermarriage are correlated with high rates of past enslavement. Her data can also be used to look at trends in health. High rates of amputation due to diabetes are also highly correlated with those same counties that had high rates of enslavement. The point she made is that effects of slavery can be seen very clearly and directly. 
Black Records: Race and Criminal Justice under Jim Crow
Dr. Nicole Waligora-Davis, Associate Professor of English

Session 2: Youtube: (Torres, McDaniel, Sidbury)

Framing a Protest: The Determinants and Impact of Media Coverage
Dr. Michelle Torres, Assistant Professor of Political Science

Dr. Torres analyzes news coverage of events. Both liberal and conservative news sources are covering the Black Lives Matter protests at a higher rate than they covered earlier protests (Fergusen for example). The coverage, however,  differs in depiction of the magnitude of the protests. Liberal leaning coverage is more likely to show images of the magnitude of the protest and this is associated with more positive views of the protesters. Depictions of violence, no matter whether the violence comes from protesters or authorities negatively impacts perception of the protesters.  
Slavery Before and After Juneteenth
Dr. Caleb McDaniel, Mary Gibbs Jones Professor of Humanities

Dr. McDaniel gave a succinct history of Texas during the civil war and  local history nearby. Slavery was expanding in Texas and continued throughout the civil war. Slavery history was not taught in schools this way. He pointed toward the convict leasing and labor project and the Sugarland 95 (which is a mass grave recently uncovered). He also said that Emancipation Park was purchased originally by formerly enslaved people, but then ceded to the city and resegregated. 

Resources mentioned:
Convict Leasing and Labor Project https://www.cllptx.org
Urgency and Patience on this Juneteenth
Dr. James Sidbury, Professor of History, Andrew W. Mellon Distinguished Professor of Humanities

Resources mentioned:
* Dr. Martin Luther King’s letters from a Birmingham jail Martin Luther King, Jr., Research and Education Institute
* Supreme Court Decision Grutter v. Bollinger – Whether the use of race as a factor in student admissions by the University of Michigan Law School is unlawful GRUTTER V. BOLLINGER
* Video recordings of police brutality GeorgeFloyd Protest – police brutality videos on Twitter

Special Guest Speaker Youtube: (Matthews)

A conversation on the significance of Juneteenth with Captain Paul J. Matthews, Founder and Chairman, Buffalo Soldiers National Museum 
Moderator: Dr. Roland B. Smith, Jr., Associate Provost, Adjunct Professor of Sociology

Session 3: Youtube (King, Hayes, Hebl)

The Need for Psychological Change and Anti-Racism for Effective Organizations
Dr. Danielle King, Assistant Professor of Psychological Sciences

Dr. King studies resilience in the workplace and advises on diversity and inclusion. She said that there are no quick and easy fixes because ‘denial is the heartbeat of racism’, and she talked about the need for safe places for healing from racism and the effects of microaggressions. 
A Bill of Rights for Whom? Racial Bias and the Second Amendment
Dr. Matthew Hayes, Assistant Professor of Political Science
How Individuals and Organizations can Reduce Racism
Dr. Mikki Hebl, Martha and Henry Malcolm Lovett Chair of Psychology, Professor of Management

Dr. Hebl gave pointers to workplaces that are doing a good job of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) and gave suggestions of approaches.
* Conduct an organizational needs analysis
* Get leadership buy in and participate
* Remove ‘fit’ from hiring criteria
* Use resumes with names/gender removed
* Create structured interviews and rubrics for hiring

The following questions and Dr. Hebl’s answers are from a follow up rebroadcast of this lecture as part of a series by the Rice architecture department.
Q: How do you measure success after recruitment? A: Use the ASA model: Attraction, Selection, and Attrition. Once people are recruited and selected, they may cover up how they are really feeling and then feel that they can’t be their authentic selves. To combat this, she recommends surveying and conducting focus groups to understand what BIPOC folks at your organization need to be successful. Typically that involves ‘listening’, ‘amplifying voices’, and providing mentors and sponsors.
Q: What research is there on the effectiveness of bias training? Dr. Hebl answered with techniques shown to be effective in research:
Ask people to set goals – Bias training alone isn’t necessarily effective. It is important that managers receive training, not just new hires. Asking training participants to set personal goals about how they will be anti-racist leads to behavior change and eventually attitude change. Goal setting might include things like not laughing at inappropriate jokes, attending an orientation, etc. 
Ask people to write from another’s perspective.  Ask people to write from the perspective of others – “What would it be like to be a Black person at this place?” Writing with the perspective of another shifts attitudes more quickly. 
Ally training can help shift perspectives: Based on some of Dr. Hebl’s research with the University of Houston: In particular, White people often do not notice behaviors that undermine their minority colleagues. That might be because it is outside their zone of experience, or they don’t see the behaviors as significant because when they do see them, they aren’t seeing the accumulation of those experiences. Ally training can shift those perspectives.

Resources mentioned:
* Ben and Jerry’s website
* Organizations Cannot Afford to Stay Silent on Racial Injustice from MIT Sloan Review 
* Is Your Company Actually Fighting Racism, or Just Talking About It? Harvard Business Review
Help people figure out how to talk to each other about race, especially White leaders and supervisors who struggle to communicate about what their company is doing
Determine how progress will be tracked 
* Diversity & Inclusion at MD Anderson
* How to Conduct a Training Needs Assessment
* Diversity Training Needs Assessment
* Harvard Business Review: Fear of Being Different Stifles Talent  
Framed pen and ink of Brian Kernighan's famous Hello World program. 'Main(){printf("Hello, worldn");}'

Hello Remote World: How does it feel to onboard remotely?

I moderated a Rice University panel with six recent Computer Science graduates to learn how they were faring in their transition to their new post-graduation world. Luckily, for computer science majors, the job market has remained relatively strong despite the pandemic. The jobs were already easy to do remotely, the companies already invest in and use remote communication tools like Slack, Zoom, and Github, and the tech industry has seen increasing use of its products while everyone is stuck at home. Here is what I learned.

Panel of recent Rice Computer Science graduates starting their next step in their career during the pandemic: https://events.rice.edu/#!view/event/date/20200917/event_id/122108
  • All of the working members of the panel had interned before at the places they landed. That made their remote transition easier because they already knew the culture and their team. This is an unanticipated benefit of those internships that organizations offer.
  • Some moved to the city where their new job was and, if they had friends there, they were meeting in parks socially. Several were glad they hadn’t moved and were relying on their ‘home town’ friendships
  • The new graduate student had moved but was taking classes remotely. He was able to get to know fellow graduate students in the classes that had breakout sessions, but it definitely was harder.  
  • The big companies were still doing two week orientations – just online – with a combination of talks, labs, and icebreakers. I would like to have dug into that more. What on earth is two weeks of orientation online like? 
  • The key to the social activities seemed to be having a variety to try out, because some are awkward and some work well, which varies by person. Some of the social activities are clearly helpful for work life and others work better for building friendships.  Lunches and happy hours were more awkward, but still good for team building. Some companies were offering ways to have a randomly chosen coffee chat, and ways to get a mentor. 
  • One company offers monthly wellness in-days, rather than a day off. It is a day in, but with work-life-balance themes (health, yoga, earth day).  
  • Since this is a CS panel, folks were taking advantage of social slack channels (pets, alone-together, games), and online game groups organized through work (Code Names, Jack Box, Scrible, Brackets).
  • Not having a commute was a real plus
  • As you might expect, working hours have shifted. Several mentioned working long hours without realizing it because there is no transition, and others had shifted to working later into evening hours to take advantage of outdoor activities earlier in the day. 
  • They all missed being able to ‘roll your chair’ over to a colleague and ask questions, chat in the break rooms, etc. 

Building the RIGHT Thing

Product managers are responsible for creating and delivering the right thing to their customers. 

Product Managers are sometimes called product ‘CEO’s’, because of their central position of authority with respect to the product, and because of the need to communicate the vision for the product both to an audience of ‘investors’ (the company leadership) who must provide people and resources, and to their own team who must deliver the product. They are not ‘owners,’ however. Ownership conveys the wrong set of skills. Product Managers aren’t buying and investing as an owner would, and they aren’t deciding where the team invests time and energy based on their own personal preferences as an owner would. Instead, a good Product Manager has to learn the needs of their customers, and figure out how their team can fulfill them to achieve the organization’s strategic goals. 

Great product managers are skilled at determining what the right thing to build is with the consumer in mind, communicating that to leaders, colleagues, and team members, and then working productively and flexibly to deliver the right value to their customers. 

I recently gave a talk to Rice University Computer Science Alumni as part of a panel on Product Management as a career, and you can access my talk and slides below. In this series of posts, I will be going into a lot more depth to explain  more ‘tools’ for the product management toolbox and how to use them effectively to create useful and beneficial products.

Panel: bit.ly/product-management-career-panel (Minute 36:44)Slides: bit.ly/fletcher-on-product-management 

Crowd 'speaking' with labels "Level Up!, 5 stars, A+"

Leveling up crowd-sourced educational content — with a little help from machine learning and lessons from HCOMP19.

More lessons from HCOMP 2019

Crowd-sourcing content: Although publishers (I work for one) create high quality content that is written, curated, and reviewed by subject matter experts (SMEs, pronounced ‘smeez’ in the industry), there are all sorts of reasons that we always need more content. In the area of assessments, learners need many, many practice items to continually test and refine their understanding and skills. Also, faculty and practice tools need a supply of new items to ‘test’ what students know and can do at a certain point in time. Students need really good examples that are clearly explained. (Khan Academy is a great example of a massive collection of clearly explained examples). When students make attempts to solve homework problems, they also need feedback about what NOT to do and why those aren’t the correct approaches. Therefore, we need to know what the core concepts needed for each activity or practice are. 

Faculty and students are already creating content! Because faculty and students are already producing lots of content themselves as part of their normal workflow, and faculty are assembling and relating content and learning activities, it would be great to figure out how to leverage the best of that content and relationship labeling for learning. This paper by Bates, et. al, looked at student generated questions and solutions in the Peer Wise platform (https://journals.aps.org/prper/pdf/10.1103/PhysRevSTPER.10.020105) and found that with proper training, students generate high quality questions and explanations. 

So at HCOMP 2019 I was listening for ways to crowdsource examples and ground truth. In particular, it would be useful to see if machine learning algorithms could find faculty and student work that is highly effective at helping students improve their understanding. The two papers below address both finding content exemplars and training people to get better at producing effective content. 

Some highly-rated examples are better than others. Doroudi et. al wanted to see what effect showing highly rated peer-generated examples to crowd workers would have on the quality of work they submitted. In this study, the workers were writing informative comparison reviews of products to help a consumer decide which product better fits their needs. The researchers started with a small curated ground truth of high quality reviews. Workers that viewed highly rated reviews before writing their own ended up producing better reviews (more highly rated). That isn’t surprising, but interestingly, even among equally highly rated reviews, some reviews were much more effective in helping improve work! They used machine learning to determine the most effective training examples. So that suggests that, while viewing any highly rated examples will improve new contributors’ content,  we can then improve the training process even more by selecting and showing the examples with the best track record of improving workers’ content creations.  

Using training and leveling up:  Madge et. al introduced a crowd-worker training ‘game’ with a concept of game-levels. They showed the method was more effective than standard practice at producing highly effective crowd workers. Furthermore, they showed how machine learning algorithms could determine which tasks belonged in each game level by observing experimentally how difficult tasks were. 

Crowd workers are often used to generate descriptive labels for large datasets. Examples include tagging content in images (‘dog’), identifying topics in twitter feeds (‘restaurant review’), and labeling the difficulty of a particular homework problem (‘easy’). In this particular study, workers were identifying noun phrases in sentences. The typical method of finding good crowd workers is to start out by giving a new worker tasks that have a known “right answer” and then picking workers that are best at those tasks to do the new tasks you actually want completed. The available tasks are then distributed to workers randomly, meaning a worker might get an easy or difficult task at any time. These researchers showed that you could train new workers using a ‘game’, so that they improve over time and are able to do more and more difficult tasks (harder and harder levels of the game), and the overall quality of labeling for the group of workers is better.  

Better education content: Faculty and students could become more effective producers of education content with the help of these two techniques. Motivating, training and selecting contributors via comparison with highly rated examples and leveling up to ‘harder’ or more complex content would be useful to help contributors to create high quality learning content (example solutions, labeling topics and difficulty, giving feedback). These techniques also sound really promising for training students to generate explanations for their peers, and potentially to train them to give more effective peer feedback. 

personified lock (unlocked) fighting personified corona virus

Open Vs. COVID Round 2: Collaborating for the Knockout

Opening up information is one of the keys to a concerted and effective response to the COVID-19 Pandemic. We need to make sure that insights from the world-wide treatment efforts are discovered quickly and shared widely to ensure effective preventions and treatments spread. A case in point on the power of coordinating and sharing medical information comes from the Castleman’s Collaborative, illustrating how open processes and open resources can be an asset to humanity in this global health crisis.

“Doing in a year what often takes a decade.1 I recently caught Terry Gross’ interview with David Fajgenbaum on Fresh Air about ‘crowdsourcing’ a cure for Castleman’s disease, which he suffers from. It’s a great listen. Castleman’s is a deadly disease for which little is known because of its rarity and the dispersal of cases. Luckily for the world, Fejgenbaum was in medical school when he had his first attack and, because he was close to finishing his medical degree, he began researching.  He discovered that little coordinated information and study was available. The Castleman’s Collaborative, https://cdcn.org/, has come up with an eight step research process that is crowdsourced, prioritized, funded, executed, and published (almost all freely available). Much of the research targets off-label use of FDA-approved drugs, since development of specifically targeted new drugs is prohibitively expensive and time consuming, but many, many drugs already exist and might be effective. While, individually, rare diseases impact few people, cumulatively, many many rare conditions impact large numbers of people, and so applying this collaborative method can be tremendously impactful. 

They are applying the same collaborative method to COVID19 treatment: The Castleman Collaborative is now applying the methodology to COVID19, https://cdcn.org/corona/. Their first step is compiling a database of off-label use of drugs to treat COVID19 symptoms, aptly named CORONA for COvid19 Registry of Off-label & New Agents. Having that database openly available to those around the world who are researching treatments helps prevent duplication, combine efforts in the medical community, and lets researchers and practitioners build on each other’s knowledge, which has always been the promise and practice of science.  

‘Open’ is a critical tool for solving hard, global problems. Open resources (education, data, software) and collaborative processes are unique in their ability to pivot to address new crises and public concerns, because they remove barriers to building on previous work and disseminating knowledge quickly and widely. In the case of the pandemic, this gives open collaboration a fighting chance against the virus, which also spreads widely and builds on its own infectious success. My day job is helping students learn and achieve by building effective products, which also benefits from and is accelerated by open content, open research, and collaborative team processes. My interest in open software started in graduate school and the more I learn, the more I believe in its potential to help the world. In this global health crisis, open solutions are continuing to establish themselves as an integral part of the thriving open software ecosystem that I am proud to be a part of. 

1 From the Castleman Collaborative website, July 6, 2020