‘This is not a class where the professor knows all the answers,’ said associate sociology professor Janet Vertesi

Stephanie Dalton Cowan

When Janet Vertesi had the opportunity to create a course to explore a research question through Princeton’s Grand Challenges Program, one idea immediately came to mind. Vertesi, an associate professor of sociology, wanted to explore issues at the intersection of race and technology after the racial awakening last summer and after reading works by experts including fellow Princeton professor Ruha Benjamin. She challenged students to answer: “Can we build anti-racist technology?”

Although discussions around racism in technologies are not new, efforts to address the problem still have a long way to go. That’s where the spring-semester course came in. Vertesi told her class of 18 students to think critically about racial biases built into tech — such as automatic soap dispensers that fail to detect dark skin tones. Their goal was to work toward developing actively anti-racist solutions. The whole point of Grand Challenges classes is to explore, and Vertesi was clear about this from the start. 

“I told the students early on: This is a question. I don’t know the answer to this question,” she said. “This is not a class where the professor knows all the answers. This is a class where we are going to work together on something very new.” 

“I would like to train the next generation of students who know how to build differently, who know how to think differently … .” — Janet Vertesi, associate professor of sociology

For 15 weeks the class met virtually to unpack the question together. Vertesi and the students developed guiding principles for reference as they brainstormed designs. Three University-based projects — the Princeton Gerrymandering Project, the Ida B. Wells JUST Data Lab, and the Eviction Lab — provided research and data sets, which the students used to help build their designs. Students presented their projects during the final class. 

Dora Zhao ’21’s group envisioned an augmented-reality (AR) tool to reimagine spaces on campus to be more inclusive and celebratory of people of color. For example, users could hold a phone up to Stanhope Hall, named after Samuel Stanhope Smith 1769, a former Princeton president who owned slaves, and the AR tool would replace the building’s name to commemorate impactful people of color, such as Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor ’76. “We used AR to show users what an anti-racist future on campus could look like,” said Zhao, a computer science major. “But more than just that, we also built a website to give all the context on why we chose these places and just to unearth the actual racist legacy that may exist at the sites that we chose.”

Some groups have continued working on their projects beyond the semester. There’s also been interest in collaborating with these students — for example, the Carl A. Fields Center expressed interest in working with Zhao’s group. 

Vertesi said she was blown away by the projects and is excited for the future. “I would like to train the next generation of students who know how to build differently, who know how to think differently, and who can bring these anti-racist principles forward in their work,” she said.