Category: Barnard

This week, ColorCode was pleased to learn that Professor Kale revoked the Robocop competition and issued a full apology for the original assignment, which, as he writes, “failed to provide adequate context” for a data set laden with historical and political racial trauma. We appreciate Professor Kale’s explanation of the assignment’s intended impact––to lead students to interrogate the policy implications of ML classifiers trained on racist data––and hope that future assignments can convey this lesson with the clarity that this assignment lacked. We sincerely applaud Professor Kale’s timely and appropriate correction, and hope that all professors at Columbia can follow his example in responding to student concerns with empathy and accountability.

 

Since our last statement, some of our peers have questioned whether the assignment’s revocation has deprived the class of an ethics lesson in handling politically challenging data sets. Lessons should not come at the cost of direct harm to the most marginalized groups involved. While we agree with Professor Kale’s professed intentions in assigning the Robocop competition, we stand by our original assessment (with which Professor Kale himself has agreed): that the assignment in its original form could not have produced the intended pedagogical outcome and discussion on data responsibility in Machine Learning. And while this particular incident has been sufficiently redressed by Professor Kale himself, we think it’s important to locate the Robocop assignment in the context of a larger department and school that excludes and silences Black students and students of color. We are studying computer science in a department with few Black students and no Black faculty, in an engineering school that builds on a legacy of close collaboration with the U.S. military and NYPD, at a university that is gentrifying Harlem to build its newest science center. From casual remarks about our intelligence by classmates, TAs, and professors, to academic policies not intended to help the most marginalized of us succeed– these experiences contribute to an academic atmosphere that repeatedly dismisses and delegitimizes our pain by “intellectualizing” academic work with horrific, racist implications and impacts. Computer Science at Columbia is steeped in a history of racism that still persists today. Within this context, an assignment “welcoming” students to a “future” of “cyborg law enforcers” trained on racist, violently-collected data is inexcusable.

 

We therefore point to the Robocop incident as evidence that massive reform is needed within the department to support Black students and other students of color, low income students, and other marginalized people in STEM. Professor Kale’s swift response gives us a lot of hope that change can happen here at Columbia. We will continue to hold professors, departments, and the university accountable to the impact of their academic work. We join Mobilized African Diaspora in demanding greater academic support for marginalized students of color, especially the hiring of Black faculty in Computer Science and SEAS. We also ask that SEAS as a whole reaffirm its commitment to its most marginalized students by expanding course offerings on research ethics and incorporating requirements in African American Studies and Ethnic Studies. We ask this with the recognition that technical knowledge is dangerous without an analysis of race and power. Finally, we urge current professors to build on pedagogy and research that is explicitly anti-racist and anti-oppressive, that gives students the opportunity to work on projects that uplift and liberate communities of color and other marginalized people.

 

We thank the following groups for their explicit support (running list). Please reach out to colorcodeboard@gmail.com if your organization would like to co-sign:

National Society of Black Engineers– Columbia

The Lion

No Red Tape

Students for Justice in Palestine

Divest Barnard

Photo Courtesy Bradley Davison (CC ’17)

NOTE:

A few days ago, the ColorCode team posted a response in regard to a “RoboCop” assignment assigned to students in Professor Satyen Kale’s Machine Learning (COMS 4771) course. In response Professor Kale wrote a response on his website, which can be found here. In order to make sure that both ColorCode and the Professor’s views are visible to interested parties, we have shared his piece below:

The original task description (“Robocop”) was regrettably written in a highly offensive manner. It was not our intention to suggest that imitating the “SQF” practices (or any racially-prejudiced practices) in the future is desirable in any way. In fact, the made-up setting for the task in a fictitious, dystopian future was meant to be an ironic indicator of precisely the opposite sentiment. We are strongly against practices such as SQF. While the primary intention for the task was purely pedagogical—to give students exposure to using machine learning techniques in practice—we acknowledge that not providing proper context for the task was poor judgement on our part, and we sincerely apologize for that.

Two original motivations for using this data set were (i) to illustrate the difficulties in developing any kind of “predictive policing” tool (which already exist today), and (ii) to assess how predictive modeling could help shed light on this past decision-making. For instance, at the coarsest level, it is evident that very few of the cases where a subject is stopped actually lead to an arrest; this raises the question why the stops should have been made in the first place. Moreover, if it is difficult to predict the arrest decision from the features describing the circumstance, then it may suggest that there is some unrecorded aspect of the circumstance that drives the decision; such a finding could have policy implications.

There are critical aspects of the data set that make it highly inappropriate for use in developing any kind of predictive policing tool. First, the data only reflects the arrest decisions of past police officers, which are decidedly not what one would want to imitate. Second, even if the arrest decisions (i.e., labels) in the data set were appropriately modified (thereby altering the conditional distribution of the label given the features), the set of the cases there may only be representative of suspects that past police officers chose to stop, necessarily introducing biases into the distribution.

We originally thought that these challenging aspects of the data set would be of interest to the class. However, our formulation of the task was in poor taste and failed to provide adequate context. Because we can only objectively evaluate the predictive modeling aspects of the project that are independent of the context of the data set, we have decided to change the data set to one that is completely unrelated to the SQF data set.

A link to the Professor Kale’s original posting on his website can be found here. To respond to this piece or submit an op-ed of your own, email submissions@columbialion.com

Earlier this week, the Bacchanal Committee officially announced that Rae Sremmurd, Marian Hill, and Bibi Bourelly will be performing at this year’s Bacchanal.

Tickets to Bacchanal 2016 are available for the performance on April 2nd. As previously announced, EVELINE will also be featured during this year’s show.

We will update this post with more information as it becomes available.

 

 

Photo by Aaron Appelle (CC '18)

Photo by Aaron Appelle (SEAS ’18)

Welcome to Columbia!  On behalf of everyone here, The Lion team would like to be one of the first to congratulate you for your achievements and welcome you to the Columbia community.

As you prepare for your arrival, our team went out and polled students from a variety of academic years and backgrounds in a series of upcoming posts asking them questions about Columbia that they wish they knew before arriving on campus. Our goal for this series is to provide you with an accurate understanding of what to expect when you join us on campus.

In this community editorial, we asked students: “What are things you wished you knew about Columbia before arriving?”

*Note: We chose not to edit these quotes nor filter out “problematic” ones. The Lion does not endorse any of these, but hopes to show initial thoughts of current students and alumni.

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The Varsity Show began with a tour guide singing a catchy song about how great Columbia University is. At this point, I thought the Varsity Show would be a chipper piece about extolling the virtues of our great university.

As soon as an offstage actor threw a shoe at the tour guide and yelled, “No one gives a fuck!” I knew I was sorely mistaken.

The show loosely followed an alumni couple trying to decide if Columbia is the right school for their daughter — who hasn’t been born yet. The tour guide takes them to a typical Columbia classroom filled with stereotypical students and a drunk Professor. After an argument about why “the classics” are the classics (and if they should be considered classics after all), the class launches into dark tune called “There’s A Dead White Man Inside Us All.”

The alumni couple is fairly traumatized by the classroom discussion and discuss a world before trigger warnings, “safety spaces,” racism, and homophobia (which came about when “Ellen Degeneres invented it.”).

The couple then launches into “Greener Pastures,” a song that tells how they met each other and how the good old days are gone. This song wasn’t as strong as the first, but the faux ballet-like choreography was highly entertaining.

After the dance, a guy from Beta runs across the stage, handing out flyers for an upcoming party. The couple begs the tour guide for permission to go, and the tour guide reluctantly grants it.

Before the party, the audience sees the sisters of a sorority preparing. The preparation isn’t what you’d expect; the leader of the sisters urges them to remember the four B’s: “boobs, boos, boys, and backstabbing.” The couple goes to the party and is accepted by their respective Greek life group. When they question the slightly illegal things that are going on at the party, the entire group bursts into a rock song, “Leaders Tomorrow.” The song was about how the kids at the party are going places even though it doesn’t seem like it during their partying shenanigans. This was when the cast really showed their dancing skills. There had been dancing in “A Dead White Man Inside Us All, but it had mostly been sitting down. This dancing was fast-paced and intense, yet the cast was able to keep up their vocals and enunciation as they sang.

The show ended with the cast brandishing signs for the show’s official dates. Everyone left in a breath of exhilaration.

The Varsity Show Preview wasn’t anything like I thought it would be. Instead of the ragtag variety show I expected, it was a musical-quality show with a satirical edge. The Varsity Show wasn’t afraid to comment on uncomfortable things I realized as true. Not only did it make me think, but it made me chuckle. There’s no doubt this uncanny mix of truth and humor will delight almost everyone.

The Varsity Show runs from April 29 – May 2. You can grab your tickets here.