A couple of days ago, I wrote about the excellent book What Works for Women at Work and said that it would be required reading if I ever taught another undergraduate software engineering class. I later tweeted:

I think ethics courses in software engineering are mostly duds because the issues are too abstract for undergrads. It’s easy to say, “I wouldn’t steal” or “I’d blow the whistle” when you’re not actually in that situation… I think a course analyzing all the ways in which people with privilege mistreat those without…would hit many attendees a lot harder and therefore have a lot more impact.

People replied suggesting that it would be interesting to have students design a rating system for Uber that didn’t penalize women who refuse to flirt with drivers, or that students should do case studies of disasters like the Challenger crash or THERAC-25, but that would all have seemed pretty abstract to my 20-year-old self. Here’s an exercise that would have hit closer to home:

People of East Asian or South Asian ancestry make up 8% of the general population in Canada, but 50-60% of undergraduates in Computer Science at major universities. Write two one-page position papers to argue pro and con the proposition that this proves people of European ancestry are less capable of logical thinking than people of Asian ancestry. Cite your sources.

I gave this to students at the University of Toronto in the spring of 2009 after yet another round of discussion on the undergraduate bulletin board about why there were so few women in CS. “Studies show that they’re just less good at math,” “they just prefer to do other things,” and similar comments appeared with wearying predictability. I recognized some of the posters’ names from my class list, and thought this might be a good way to help them—OK, who am I kidding? I was pissed off, but I knew that preaching at them wouldn’t do any good, so I decided to make them as uncomfortable as they were making their female classmates.

I don’t know if it worked, but I do know that homework like this, or tracking how much time people put into chores without being asked, will make some students uncomfortable. Based on my own experience, ethics is like exercise: if it doesn’t hurt a little, it’s probably not doing any good. If you’ve used or been through classroom exercises like this, I’d be grateful if you’d drop me a line.