Artificial Intelligence and the African Diaspora to Meet in Course

Posted April 24, 2024, 8:47AM

As chairman of the history department at North Carolina Central University (NCCU), Charles Johnson, Ph.D., is used to participating in exciting projects.

And nowadays, Johnson is working on what could prove to be his most innovative one yet: a course on Artificial Intelligence and the African diaspora.

Johnson will collaborate with two Johnson C. Smith University (JSCU) professors to develop a team-taught, interdisciplinary course that will merge computer science and the humanities with specific references to the African diaspora to create more inclusive AI tools and culturally sensitive AI practitioners.

You don’t typically hear the African diaspora – the voluntary and involuntary movement of Africans and their descendants to various parts of the world in the modern and pre-modern periods – in the same sentence with AI, but Johnson is confident he and his JSCU peers will make it all make sense.

The National Humanities Center (NHC) gave $10,000 to each institution to help develop the course, which, once implemented, should serve as a model for other HBCUs.

“We see it as a unique opportunity and as a perfect marriage between Computer Science and the Humanities,” Johnson said. “Computer scientists and humanists coming together to have a conversation about the implication of AI for the global presence of African people.”

Working with Johnson will be Felesia Stukes, Ph.D., associate professor of computer science at JCSU, and Leslie Clement Gutierrez, Ph.D., director of JCSU’s Honors Program. Stukes and Clement Gutierrez are co-principal investigators on the $20,000 NHC grant; however, Clement Gutierrez is leading the effort. NCCU’s Early College High School is named after Clement Gutierrez’s grandmother, Josephine Ophelia Dobbs.

 JCSU President Valerie Kinloch, Ph.D., has declared the University is in a new era of excellence, and Clement Gutierrez believes the innovative AI course aligns with that declaration because it will prepare students to engage in dialogue about technology that is shaping their future.

“As HBCU educators, we have a debt of responsibility to ensure that all JCSU and NCCU students have access to cutting-edge educational experiences and tools,” Clement Gutierrez said. “This collaborative project gives me the opportunity to enhance the STEM curriculum by ensuring that HBCU students, especially those majoring in computer science, receive a culturally responsive curriculum.”

Plans are for the course to be available for NCCU and JCSU students to take beginning in the fall of 2025.

Johnson said he’s excited about what the course can ultimately mean for both campuses, particularly NCCU.

“It’s quite clear that in a world that is becoming smaller by the hour almost, it seems to me because of technology, if you are not part of the conversation that’s helping to define the development of this cutting-edge technology, AI, you’ll get further and further behind,” Johnson said. “HBCUs need to be a part of that conversation, so that’s why it’s so important that NCCU and Johnson C. Smith University have agreed to take part in this and bring an interdisciplinary lens on such important topics, computer science and the humanities, with a focus on AI and the African diaspora.”

Stukes said she thinks the course will attract students from a variety of majors, “particularly students who want to gain a greater understanding of Black and Brown culture, and how race and racial history impact their own lived experiences with technology and society in general.”

Like Johnson and her JCSU colleague, Clement Gutierrez, Stukes said she’s excited about the course – for many reasons.

“For the past several years, I’ve been working to build a cross-disciplinary curriculum in data science that could help broaden participation in computing,” Stukes said. “This collaboration with North Carolina Central University and the resulting new course has the ability to bring ethno-computing, or the study of the interactions between computing and culture, into our data science curriculum in ways that were not previously possible.”

NCCU and JCSU have long histories of recognizing the importance of social responsibility to the broader African-descended community, not just Black Americans, Johnson said, so developing a course titled “AI and the African diaspora” is just another example of that.

Johnson said when he pitched the course and the collaboration with Johnson C. Smith University to Carlton Wilson, NCCU’s dean of the College of Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities, Wilson was interested and excited about it “because as a historian, he understands its significance, especially the interdisciplinary aspect.”

Johnson, Stukes and Clement Gutierrez will work diligently to ensure both institutions offer a solid, engaging course beginning in fall 2025.

“At the end of the day, we want student success,” Johnson said. “We want students at both North Carolina Central University and at Johnson C. Smith University to come out with a better understanding of AI, a better understanding of the African diaspora and a better understanding of the importance of having responsible AI practices.”

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