During his 2018 internship, Amman Asfaw was reading a manual for a communications device when he encountered some troubling terminology: Components that were deemed to have total control over others were referred to as “master,” while components that were controlled by others were called “slave.”
“I really thought it was a mistake,” said Asfaw, who is working toward a master’s degree in electrical engineering. “I thought, ‘Are they serious?’”
Coincidentally, two years later — as Asfaw was conducting research on how that terminology made students feel — a student in one of Lauren Cooper’s mechanical engineering courses told the assistant professor the use of the “slave/master” words in Fusion 360 software made her uncomfortable.
“I understand that it is difficult and makes us uncomfortable to speak up, to confront these issues, and to discuss them with our students,” Cooper said. “But remaining silent and passive also sends a negative message, especially to our underrepresented students.”
Cooper did speak up, and Autodesk – which sells Fusion 360 – quickly responded that it plans to change the terminology in all of its products.
“I was obviously excited to see it,” said Asfaw, who hopes his research will help spur even wider changes in outdated terminology. “My first reaction was: It’s about time.”
The controversy involving the terminology dates back to at least 2003, when an employee with the Los Angeles County Probation Department filed a discrimination complaint to the county affirmative action office after seeing the words “master” and “slave” on a videotape machine.
Such terminology isn’t exclusive to engineering: Many home builders and Realtors have stopped using the term “master bedroom,” replacing it with “owner’s bedroom.” But the terminology still exists, causing readers to pause when they see language that conjures the painful history of slavery while simultaneously serving as a reminder of current racial imbalances.
“I was confused,” Asfaw said. “I thought I was reading a technical user manual.”
When Asfaw encountered the language again while using data sheets in a computer engineering course, he devised an online poll for people who took the class, asking: “Is the terminology ‘master’ and ‘slave’ problematic?’
The instructor, Andrew Danowitz, an assistant professor, apologized to Asfaw and asked if he would be interested in conducting research on the topic. Danowitz has previously tracked the mental wellness of engineering students and is currently studying how COVID-19 impacts student stress.
While engineering is a technical field, Danowitz said, the sociological aspects are also important since engineers work together in groups to solve problems.
“Therefore, group dynamics and inclusiveness are key drivers of engineering success,” he said. “In that sense, this is a quintessential engineering project: We’re looking at ways to tweak communication parameters in order to optimize team output.”
According to their published paper, of the 52 students surveyed, 42 percent either agreed or strongly agreed that the “master/slave” terminology is problematic. One hundred percent of female and African-American students believed the terminology was problematic.
Those who favored replacing the language said the terms were not vital to understanding the concepts and could create conditions evoking stereotype threat – the risk of conforming to stereotypes about a group. Some of those opposed cited a need to prepare students for future offensive language. One student wrote, “We should not break existing (application program interfaces) to appease the politically correct mob.”
The opposition to change didn’t surprise Danowitz.
“I think it’s important to engage these students and see what their views are,” he said. “Many respondents in the survey raised the concern that if a certain terminology is widely used in industry, they need to learn it to succeed.”
Asfaw hopes outdated and potentially offensive language will change, but it has been slow. The terminology was removed from Python, one of the top three programming languages worldwide, in 2018, but others stalled.
Now, following Autodesk’s decision, Dassault Systems has also vowed to change the terminology. Asfaw thinks it may have taken the recent worldwide protests over the death of George Floyd – which has evoked broader discussions on race — to get such a quick response.
“I would have been surprised if it happened 2-3 months ago,” said Asfaw, who is also president of Cal Poly’s National Society of Black Engineers.
Cooper admits to being embarrassed that she didn’t bring up the issue months ago when she first noticed the language.
“I remember feeling very anxious about using the software in my class and feeling like there was nothing I was going to be able to do to change the language,” she said.
While she had discussed the terms with her class, she didn’t reach out to Autodesk until the student approached her individually. Since then, Dassault has contacted the American Society of Engineering Education, hoping to build a consensus for what terms to use in replacement of “master” and “slave.” Meanwhile, Asfaw is continuing his research with Asfaw is continuing the research with freshman computer engineering student Storm Randolph as part of a pre-thesis summer undergraduate research project, with Danowitz as an advisor.
Changing terminology might seem like a small step, but Danowitz noted that technology and products can have a much larger impact.
“Just look at how radio, the internet, and the iPhone all changed the way we function,” he said. “Therefore, it’s important to make sure that these technologies are designed by a broad swath of individuals representing different backgrounds, viewpoints, and cultures so that they can best meet the needs of society.”