A student’s outrage prompts publisher to remove traditionally used racist language phrasings from engineering textbooks
By Michael Seele
For decades, engineering textbooks have termed the relationship of a device to others it controls as master and slave. In recent years, many attempts have been made to change the language and its racist connotation, but success has not been universal.
One BU engineering student is setting about to change that. Santiago Gomez, a computer engineering graduate student, was so perturbed when he encountered the terminology in a textbook in Professor Roscoe Giles’ (ECE) Logic Design course that he wrote to the publisher, Pearson, and asked that it be changed. His letter prompted Pearson to stop distributing the book while the text is revised, to review its other publications and replace the term throughout its catalogue, and to begin contacting standards bodies to stimulate broader changes.
“The use of the ‘master/slave’ metaphor to describe the phenomenon of combining two [circuits] is abhorrent,” Gomez wrote. “As a Latinx student of computer engineering, I request that you update your terminology to prevent further disruption to the learning experience and to take a concrete step towards dismantling systemic racism within engineering.”
After praising the engineering content of the book, Gomez added, “The ‘master/slave’ … terminology proved detrimental to my learning environment. It reminded me that Black people’s presence in the sciences is not fully respected. This issue can be remedied by updating the term to reflect current understandings of race in America.”
Gomez’s letter struck a nerve not only at the publisher, but within the College of Engineering as well. Upon learning of the letter, Dean Kenneth Lutchen and Electrical & Computer Engineering Department Chair Professor W. Clem Karl (ECE, SE) not only got behind Gomez’s effort, but reached out to the national engineering community to make sure engineering leaders were aware of need to make the change.
“Historically, it’s been used pretty widely,” said Giles of the master/slave terminology in explaining electronic switches called flip flops, which are fundamental to computing technology. “It’s not an exotic or unusual use of the term. It has always been very striking to me. In most of my courses I try not to use it. I’ll use boss/worker or main/subsidiary or something like that.”
Giles, one of the longest-serving Black faculty members at BU, has encountered the term for many years. “I’ve been bothered by it all my life,” he said, noting that it also appears in other engineering contexts and even in photography. “I had come to see it as undesirable, but unavoidable.” But, when Gomez e-mailed him with the idea to write the letter and asked for his feedback, Giles said he saw the matter in a renewed light.
“The letter reminded me I should have been more outraged by it,” Giles said. “Continuing encounters with an irritation can make you build up a callus. I had built up a callus for this language that I wish I hadn’t built up.”
Giles said Gomez’s letter was eloquent and he did not offer any edits. “I was struck by the sincerity and energy of a student coming to this issue for the first time, and at the time we are in, where a large fraction of the country is ready to address racism. I thought this language can easily be changed. I could not have had the insight he had about how it impacted students. He wrote it very well.”
Giles forwarded the letter to a contact a Pearson on June 19 and it quickly rose up the chain of command to a vice president. On June 26, Pearson responded with the pledge to pull the book, revise the text there and in any other Pearson publication where it may appear, and review its policies on the matter.
Santiago also sent it to Assistant Dean for Outreach and Diversity Wynter Duncanson, who brought it to the attention of the dean and ECE chair.
“When I went to Dean Lutchen and ECE Chair Karl there was an immediate response to make sure this language is removed,” Duncanson said. “Chair Karl recalled that this was the language he had seen in school and that we need to use this as a learning experience and change it. Dean Lutchen suggested we contact the executive directors of the American Association Society for Engineering Education and the National Society of Black Engineers. We wanted to let the leaders of our field know this is what we’re doing to be anti-racist.”
Duncanson lauded Pearson’s quick decision, but noted that the terminology pervades the engineering field beyond academia. “This is the foundation of our engineering language,” she said. “This is propagated throughout our field. The people who are building the field are building it on what is a racist idea. It’s really great that the voice of a student was able to speak so loudly and create a new language for the field.”
Gomez — who earned a bachelor’s degree in sociology from BU in 2014 and recently enrolled in the College’s Late Entry Accelerated Program, which offers MS degrees in engineering to students with non-engineering bachelor’s degrees — said that while the language has offended him since he first encountered it in mid-February, the events of recent weeks prompted his action.
“Nothing would have changed if not for the events of the past couple of months,” he said. “I hope this will change their editorial policy there and everywhere else it happens. The broader goal is to get other publishers to address this as well, and, even more broadly, to get engineering to be anti-racist.”
Gomez and Giles had a follow up phone call with Pearson on July 8. “The conversation went well,” Gomez said. “I am pleased with the expediency and genuineness of their response. They are actively working with their authors to revise the textbooks. They have also reached out to the Institute for Electrical and Electronics Engineers and the Association for Computing Machinery about this issue.”
Here is the full text of Gomez’s letter:
I write to you as a recent student of your book, Digital Design, 6th Edition. This textbook provided valuable instruction regarding logic circuits. However, the use of the “master/slave” metaphor to describe the phenomenon of combining two D Flip Flops is abhorrent. As a Latinx student of computer engineering, I request that you update your terminology to prevent further disruption to the learning experience and to take a concrete step towards dismantling systemic racism within engineering.
Studying a new subject always has a learning curve. I spent countless hours identifying essential prime implicants on a Karnaugh Map and understanding the nuance of a Carry-Look-Ahead Adder Circuit. However, the most difficult element of my Logic Design semester was deconstructing the fact that my engineering textbook invoked slavery as a teaching principle. The “master/slave” flip flop terminology proved detrimental to my learning environment. It reminded me that Black people’s presence in the sciences is not fully respected. This issue can be remedied by updating the term to reflect current understandings of race in America. Github recently pledged to remove the terms master and slave from its platform, and you can take a powerful stance by doing so as well.
Racism forms the foundation of American society. Yet, I was still dumbstruck to learn that it is embedded in the basic principles of modern digital computing. The “master/slave” metaphor is proof that a black scientist did not coin this term. What is more troubling is that multiple generations of influential academics did not take pause to critique this metaphor as an ill-conceived teaching tool. This is an example of how systemic racism functions in America. It seeps into the most mundane elements of daily life and is perpetuated by white Americans when they take these elements for granted. Systemic racism in computer engineering starts with a simple flip flop, but it can culminate into algorithmic bias that has life and death consequences for black and brown people. Updating your text will stop reinforcing America’s problematic racial history. More importantly, your actions will teach future engineers to be conscious of their biases and to build computers that are inclusive of many different lived experiences.
Every facet of American society is in the midst of reckoning with its racial elements. Updating how you teach flip flops will remove learning obstacles for students of color and it will send a signal to the broader engineering community that we matter. The time is now to establish a new engineering vocabulary that reflects not only the advance computers that we want to build but also the equal and just America that we want to create.