The lack of diversity in computer science is an important problem. In this course, we want to help improve the situation, not make it worse. Some of the responsibility for that lies with us, the course staff, but a lot of it ultimately rests with you, the students.
Be an Adult
University is a great time, and for many of you might offer a sense of new-found liberation. (I sure remember how liberating university felt for me!) It’s a space for exploration and experimentation of various kinds (legal, no doubt). However, it also provides opportunities to cross various lines, and unfortunately some people do so in awful ways.
Every now and then I hear disturbing statements from students about how they have been made to feel uncomfortable in class or in the college. I don’t mean intellectual discomfort—the kind you might get from having a heated debate about a technical subject with a fellow student—but the personal kind. These range from inappropriate comments to invitations to even touching and other physical contact. The subjects are almost overwhelmingly (but not exclusively) female students or from races under-represented in computer science.
There’s a term for some of the behaviours I hear about. It’s called harassment. And let there be absolutely no doubt about this: harassment is against the law and it is completely against the norms by which we want to run this course and this college. We—the university, the college, and this course’s staff—have absolutely zero tolerance for it.
Your reaction might be to laugh it off, or to make (or think) snide remarks about political correctness or jokes about consent or what have you. You might think people just need to grow a thicker skin or learn to take a joke.
However, the target of your harassment (and that’s what your remarks and actions are—harassment—even if you decide you would classify them as jokes) is forced, by the nature of classes and campus life, to be around you. That can make them uncomfortable to the point of wanting to stay away, or focusing more on you than on what they are here to learn. That hurts their education. Which is not okay at all: you have no right to steal their hard-won education away from them. And often the harm goes much deeper: it hurts them psychologically in subtle and long-standing ways. And that’s why these are not laughing matters.
In light of recent reports about such issues on campus, ANU is taking additional steps to reduce this form of harm. Therefore, if I cannot appeal to your decency, intelligence, and collegiality, let me at least appeal to your self-interest. Do not mess around on this matter. It will not go well for you.
However, I prefer that you think of this in positive terms. Your classmates are your colleagues. Someday you may be each others’ start-up partners or co-employees; one of you may even be the other’s interviewer or boss. So start treating one another like professionals, and I mean that in the best possible interpretation of that phrase.
In short: Be safe, be happy, and have fun without taking away anyone else’s.
About Course Staff
Professionalism and respect for diversity are not just matters between students; they also apply to how the course staff treat the students. The staff of this course pledge to treat you in a way that respects our differences. However, despite our best efforts, we might slip up, hopefully inadvertently. When we do, please feel free to talk to us about it.
Sometimes, you may not be comfortable bringing this up directly to us. If so, you are welcome to talk to your course reps or to the RSCS Associate Director for Education.
As a college, we will take all complaints about unprofessional or discriminatory behaviour seriously.
In principle, I would like to say that you are always open to come talk to me if you are facing any such issues. Unfortunately, I have to warn you that on account of being a university employee, I am required by law to report all incidents that may constitute a criminal offence. That means, if you report such an incident to me, I am required to report it to the university. This will likely launch an investigation.
Usually, an investigation is a good idea. However, I realise this may put you in an uncomfortable position, and that’s certainly not what I want. Therefore, I need to tell you that if you want to do things confidentially, you should talk to one of the many supporting resources available to you at the ANU.