So many Gates, How many Allens?

The Hidden Curriculum of Naming, Reference, and Affiliation at UW

Today marks two months of me being an Associate Professor of Computer Science in the Allen School at the University of Washington. It’s been a joy. I’m impressed by the breadth and strength of the DUB community, and the generosity of my colleagues; so many people, including undergraduate and graduate students, staff, and faculty, both teaching- and tenure-track, have offered their time to help me get oriented here. I feel marvelously welcomed and am bubbling over with excitement for what comes next.

I’m dazzled by how thoughtful people here are about accessibility. From parking to course scheduling, people here have genuinely strived to ease my experience. I’ve fought multi-month battles elsewhere to get accommodations that here have just been matters of “of course we will do that.” Wow!

But not all is perfect. UW benefits from remarkable generosity by the Gates family and the Allen Foundation. There are at least three Gates buildings. I know of two Allen buildings: my office is in one, and part of the library is within another. Are there more? I don’t know. This, perhaps surprisingly, presents an accessibility problem.

I have psoriatic arthritis. Some days I move pretty well, but other days I have difficulty walking from my bed to the bathroom. I often find it painful to open doors. When I feel good, I can accidentally make myself feel bad by overdoing things. If I walk too much (which sometimes is just a couple blocks), I pay for it later with pain that lasts for days. I care for myself by planning my days around my mobility. If I know I have to walk somewhere far away, I plan to minimize walking the rest of that day, or arrange a ride to/from work rather than walking to the bus.

The proliferation of Gates and Allens, combined with inconsistency in how people refer to these buildings, challenges my ability to do this. Today I was excited to attend a dissertation defense in “Allen 187.” I planned to go in person because, well, I work in Allen, and it’d just be a short elevator ride away, right? I roamed the halls trying to find this room. It doesn’t exist. In this instance, “Allen” meant the Allen Library, which is about half a kilometer away. If I’d known, I’d have driven to campus so that I can skip my walk to the bus to balance things out. Alas, I did not, so I’m attending via Zoom. I’m excluded from in-person participation due to ambiguous naming.

What I’ve learned is that “Allen” means the Paul G. Allen Center (where my office is) except when it means the library.

“Gates” means the Bill & Melinda Gates Center for Computer Science Education, except when it means Mary Gates Hall, except when it means William H. Gates Hall.

How people use these names seems to vary with their affiliation. If someone in Computer Science says Allen they probably mean the Allen Center, but if someone in the Information School says it, they might? probably? mean the library.

To learn to read an invitation here, one must learn a hidden curriculum of how people from different campus units refer to the same buildings in different ways. Sociologists of education coined the term “hidden curriculum” to refer to unstated knowledge that one must have to successfully navigate an institution. Hidden curricula are mechanisms through which structures of domination are sustained and reproduced, including class, race, gender, and ability biases. The hidden curriculum of building names and references made campus inaccessible to me.

We can do better. Here’s how: Let’s use consistent names to refer to places.

The university already has a directory of short names that uniquely identify every building on campus.

  • The Bill & Melinda Gates Center is CSE2.
  • Mary Gates Hall is MGH.
  • The Allen Library is ALB.
  • The Allen Center is CSE.

Please make campus more accessible by using full names or these short names.

Thank you.