Graham Culbertson

North Carolina School of Science and Math, Durham, NC

School Role:

Humanities Instructor

Graham Culbertson is a Humanities Instructor at NCSSM who teaches courses in American Studies, Black Studies, and the ethics and philosophy of artificial intelligence. After attending Myers Park High School in Charlotte, Graham went to the University of South Carolina where he double majored in English and Film Studies. He then got his PhD in American literature and culture at UNC Chapel Hill, and taught at NCSSM’s sister school, the South Carolina Governor’s School for Science and Math, for four years. Although he has wide-ranging interests in the humanities, including science fiction, philosophy, urban studies, and Japanese culture, he has focused on American culture for more than a decade. His newest courses, created in collaboration with the Ryden Program, use science fiction and ethical philosophy to examine AI from a humanistic perspective.

How did you get interested in including Artificial Intelligence in your classroom?

As someone who’s been teaching science fiction and philosophy of mind, AI was unavoidable! But this year is the first time that I’ve really focused on AI in an entire class, and that interest was entirely spurred by the opportunity to do so in collaboration with Charlotte Dungan and the Ryden Program at NCSSM

What’s it like teaching AI to STEM students as a humanities instructor?

In a word, fantastic! I know all of the ideas we need, but I certainly don’t have the in depth knowledge in the programming challenges. In my AI and Science Fiction class, sometimes the entire class will stop while a student with experience in machine learning will explain how AI works to all of us. It’s thrilling to be the idea expert in a room full of content experts!

In what ways do you incorporate AI into your lessons?

Since I get to teach entire courses on AI, I put AI in every lesson plan in those classes. For my science fiction class, I focus on the far future – what might AI be up to in 500 years? Or 5000? Will humans even exist in such a world? For my next semester class on ethics, we’ll focus on current AI technologies and public policy – students will be learning about what AI can do right now, applying ethical frameworks to it, and drafting policy briefs on how we can make sure AI is being used ethically in 2021.

Why do you think AI education is important?

There isn’t a field, whether of study or of work, that hasn’t already been changed by AI. And AI is going to keep changing everything even faster than we currently realize. The study of AI is arguably the most important field of education right now – or maybe in history! I see my goal as giving students, and fellow teachers, the skills to analyze AI from the perspective of the humanities. We need to know how to create AI, but we also need to think about why we’re doing that.

How does your administration support your efforts?

Although the Humanities Department has been totally supportive of my courses, it’s really Charlotte Dungan, Hale Durant, and the Ryden Program who have made these classes possible through funding and administrative support. I totally owe them for the success of this class!

Where have you received professional development for AI or CS?

I actually haven’t done any additional professional development on AI since I started teaching it as a substantial part of my load; I’m looking forward to getting to conferences and doing some other credentialing once some of our current chaos dies down. But I’ve been accidentally training for this my entire career; I’ve worked on the philosophy of mind, the role of science fiction in creating the future, and the ethics of technology since I started grad school in English at UNC-Chapel Hill in 2005. Now I can take those broad interests and focus them closely on AI specifically, and soon I’ll be building more specific knowledge in that field.

What books or online resources do you recommend?

I’ll give this in two categories – fiction and philosophy. Someone else can tell you better about books in the computer science field! There are some works of science fiction that have influenced my thinking about AI more than any other. I’d highly recommend Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Stanislaw Lem’s Imaginary Magnitude, and the films Blade Runner and Blade Runner: 2049 for anyone who wants to understand how science fiction has imagined AI. For philosophy, in increasing order of difficulty, I’d recommend William James’ Pragmatism, Dan Dennett’s Consciousness Explained, and Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations. Philosophical Investigations may be the most confusing work of philosophy ever written, but it also explains human thinking in ways that, I think, will be very recognizable to anyone studying machine learning. Also, Star Trek. Always Star Trek.

What activities have had the most impact for your students?

I think the mere fact of realizing that the tools of the humanities are valuable in the study of AI has changed my students lives. In my experience, most STEM and humanities students think that the two areas of study are separate or even incompatible. Once my students realized that they could apply Frankenstein to their computer science classes, I think some sort of switch flipped. In fact, the students themselves designed an essay prompt that uses science fiction to influence current research on AI:

Please share a great lesson plan that other teachers may use for their students.

This one is drawn from my class, but my colleague Hale Durant is responsible for sharpening it and getting it ready for the world:

Where do you network and find support with other teachers?

Because of COVID, I haven’t had the kind of time or opportunities to network in the field of AI education like I want to. I’m hoping to change that as soon as I can. In fact, I’d love to start right now: if anyone is reading this and wants to learn, collaborate, or simply talk about integrating AI into the humanities, please send me an email and let’s get started!