Unpacking a conference accessibility request email (deafness)


What is it like to be a disabled academic? Tiring in a thousand tiny ways; you need to do invisible, unrewarded setup before every interaction, and the purpose of this blog post is to make some of that setup less-invisible. Since people found my conference access request email helpful, I’m presenting another one here — and unpacking/explaining the function of each section of the email as I go. 

(Note: this is a long blog post; it’s very first-drafty. If you want to help me edit/revise this into a more polished piece, I’d love input.)

Hi there. I’m an American PhD candidate at Purdue University registered for both the FIE 2014 conference and 2 workshops (receipts #XXXX for registration and #YYYYfor workshops).

Function: “Hey, let me prove to you that I’m a paying customer. Pay attention.”

Further background: This email was written for the FIE conference, the most prestigious research gathering in my field of Engineering Education. This is an important conference for me; since I graduate next spring, this is my biggest opportunity to share my dissertation work before it’s done, and to talk with people about job opportunities after graduation. I also have 4 papers in as first-author, which is a big deal — for those unfamiliar with academia, “first author” roughly translates to “project lead,” and 4 papers would be a high count for a tenured faculty member — so 4 first-author papers for someone who’s still a student is pretty impressive.

 

The registration is under my legal name of “Mallory Chua” — Mel is the name I’m widely known by and publish under.

Function: “Here’s how you can find my records easily, because I operate professionally under a name other than my legal name.”

I am deaf and require disability accommodations. I noted this on my registration form (with a “please contact me so we can discuss arrangements” message) several weeks ago. Since I haven’t heard from anybody yet, I thought I’d start the ball rolling here, since the conference is in Spain and access to my usual methods of accommodation may be more complex than usual to arrange outside the USA.

Function: “I asked before, and haven’t heard anything; I will now makes it harder to ignore me.”

The fact that FIE is in Madrid this year is both wonderful (going to Spain!) and a complication for accessibility setup. I’m American, and the US has the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) which mandates accessibility for the disabled — meaning that things like interpreters are widely available across the country, because they’re frequently used. However, finding an American Sign Language interpreter in Spain? I have no idea how we’re going to do that, so I’m getting started early — the conference is in October, 3 months away.

At least Spain is a developed nation with some semblance of “disabled people, they can do things, and we have resources for them!” If I ever go to a conference in my family’s home country of the Philippines, or another developing nation where the usual attitude towards disabled people is “we can’t do anything for you, pitiful marginalized person — pretend to be normal and/or go away,” I don’t know what I’ll do. I’d probably fake being hearing (and miss most of the conference content while simultaneously being exhausted) or quietly decide not to go at all (and nobody will ever know why I didn’t) — these are the two options I used to choose between before I started going “wait, wait, access is a thing that I can ask for without being ostracized/ridiculed/seen as a not-serious researcher in my field, and I want to have it!”

Specifically, in addition to having notes/documentation in written form whenever they’re available, I’d like to request in-person CART (realtime trancription) or an ASL (American Sign Language) interpreter for the duration of the conference, including evening networking events. If I had to pick only one, I would prefer the ASL interpreter as it’s a more mobile/flexible option for conversations;

Function: “I realize you may be unfamiliar with this sort of request, so will concretely request exactly what I want to make it easier for you to give it to me, and easier for me to document my request-trail in case I need to push for this to happen.”

Note that “unfamiliarity with this sort of request” is a chicken-and-egg problem. A lot of disabled people don’t “make it this far” in their education, so higher ed is rarely set up to accommodate them… which makes it harder for them to get there. Since I’m one of the few deaf people to make it to a PhD (the average Deaf American adult reads at a 4th-grade level, whereas I write complicated research books), I’m often the first person of “my type” that institutions/colleagues have had to “deal with,” and spend a nontrivial amount of my time helping both sides (me and them) adjust to that. On some level, we all teach our colleagues how to deal with us; we don’t like morning meetings, or we do really well over email, or we use a Mac and can’t install a certain piece of research software — but I have Yet Another Thing to add atop this sort of stuff, which is that I can’t hear — and very few people I encounter know how to deal with that well.

Also, I don’ t know the answers to “how do we help you?” either — as a PhD student, I’m still learning what it means to do a PhD, so there’s a lot I don’t know about what I need to get through it! It’s as if you’d never studied Italian, and then someone asks you — in Italian — “how do you learn Italian best?” Again, to some degree, this is true for all PhD students (we’re still figuring out what helps us be good researchers), but whereas things like “how do I stay focused during the long, lonely days of dissertation writing?” are pretty common amongst researchers and can therefore be tackled via shared advice from classmates and advisors, my experiences of deafness aren’t shared by a lot of people, so I’m figuring it out on my own — and a lot of people don’t realize how much extra time/energy that takes.

…as you know, networking conversations about research are a huge part of the value of any conference, especially one with such excellent and high-level research as FIE.

Function: “I compliment your conference on being awesome. Recall that conversations are a huge part of that awesomeness. I need access to them as well.”

A lot of people forget that accessibility isn’t just about being able to hear the lecture — it’s the informal conversations afterwards where people make sense of the content, build relationships, etc. that make you part of a community. And I miss out on that a lot.

I need accessibility services from 2pm on Wednesday, October 22 (the start of workshops; I am attending workshops 1B and 2B) through the end of the conference at 6pm on Saturday, October 25.

Function: more clear specifications on my needs, because places will typically try to provide you with as little access as possible to pass a minimum bar. I understand this — it takes more resources to provide access — but the message that sends is “we are frustrated that you are here; you are not welcome in this space, we are grudgingly letting you in, as minimally as you can, because we have to.” Which is hardly hospitality.

I would be happy to connect you with my counselor at the Disability Resource Center if it would be helpful;

Function: trying to minimize the effort needed on both the conference’s side and mine. Arranging these logistics — and educating people as to what they are — is a nontrivial amount of work. I’m tremendously grateful for places like the Disability Resource Center at Purdue, who take a lot of that time/emotional burden off me so I can focus on things like “writing the methods section of a paper for my advisor” (which is what I’m doing today). It’s hard to focus on deep work when you don’t know if something important (“can I have access to the services that make my career possible to pursue?”) will be taken care of; nagging worries in the back of your mind are both draining and distracting. You could compare it to the instability of always being on a temp job (like some adjuncts) — there’s the constant stress of “will I have a job next year? I’d better be looking for work, ALWAYS” — except in my case it’s “will I be able to do my job next year?”

we did a very similar accessibility setup for the ASEE conference in Indianapolis last month with great success and could share the logistics/provider contact info with you. There were a total of 3 Deaf attendees, myself included, who benefited greatly from these accommodations.

Function: “This has been done before; this is a “normal” and “expected” thing to do, and it has a positive impact.”

Okay, so maybe it’s not “normal,” to “expect” this yet, but it should be. Create the reality you want to live in, right? To a large degree, this is why the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) exists — it sets a default expectation, and says “yes, you should ask for the help you need; you should expect people to accommodate you.”

Because far too often, they don’t. And I do not have the energy to argue with all of them. I’d rather spend my time and mental/emotional energy revolutionizing the way we redesign engineering curricula — which is a huge, hard problem that I have a unique capacity to contribute to — than to spend it struggling to understand the Q&A after my talk on redesigning engineering curricula, which is a burden Other People can lift from me. (There are plenty of “sucky things that come with being deaf” that other people can’t lift from me — I’m the only one who can deal with them, and I do. So when someone else can deal with it, OH PLEASE DO THAT.)

Ideally, everyone would accommodate people with disabilities without needing legislation to require them to do it. But… they don’t. This may sound entitled to some readers, but I am tired of relying on the “goodness of everyone’s heart” to be the thing that my career depends on. Besides, the same legislation often provides resources so the people who want to accommodate people with disabilities are able to do so.  Also, ideally, everyone would drive sober, care for their kids, and not randomly shoot strangers without needing legislation to require it… but they don’t. Legislation doesn’t mean nobody ever drives drunk, but it sets the expectation that you shouldn’t, and provides a mechanism to help align society with that expectation.

Let me know how you want to arrange these details — looking forward to hearing from you soon!

Function: “The ball’s in your court. Do something. It’s an expectation that you do.”


Hacker School book update: rescheduling storytelling interviews


We’re long overdue for an update on the Hacker School book. If you’re a Hacker Schooler who signed up for the first two rounds of data collection and analysis, my apologies for falling off the radar. Turns out I’m terrible at scheduling logistics — so I’m hiring a research assistant to help with that, and we’ll be rescheduling folks so we can get into the storytelling interviews we actually want to have. If you’ve signed up for the project in some way, you should expect an email by the end of July.

One of the biggest blockers has been a lack of training materials to jump-start interview sessions. What do interviews look like? How do you know what questions to ask? How do you analyze the stories your fellow Hacker Schoolers are telling? (How do we do any of this?)

Well, thanks to Hacker School alums Stacey and Stefanie, we now have a great demo interview. We’ll be using it as an example/training tool for analysis while I’m in NYC next week for my Hacker School residency. Instead of pair-programming with students like I usually do, I’ll be spending this residency with both local and remote Hacker School community members pair-analyzing and pair-interviewing to get the next round of data collection jump-started. We’ll run 2 full rounds of data collection/analysis as originally scheduled (July 21-August 17 and August 18-September 7) and get some stories out there.

(Thanks to Sumana Harihareswara for her project management ninjahood coaching/prodding, and the reminder that public updates are good. Sometimes it’s easy to forget the most basic things, but that’s why we have friends to remind us.)


Psimulink Psalm and Rhomeo & Julihat


This post will only make sense to Oliners, and that’s okay.

Eric VanWyk, Chandra Little, Juliana Bernalostos-Boy, and myself (all Olin ’07) held Alumni Storytime in EH tonight with a crowd of students. Two things (among many) that came up were the Psimulink Psalm [slides] and [accompanying missal] and Rhomeo and Julihat [pdf].

We were looking earlier on the Olin Alumni facebook group for the files, and found them (as you can see). We present them here for posterity. Have fun.

The Psimulink Psalm is a prank that Eric and I played on our first-year professors (Gill Pratt and Brian Storey) at the end of our “Freshmen Learn About Electrons” class (which has, through the years, been called ModCon, ModSim, ECS, and a host of other names we can no longer recall). Every single lab in that class was the occasion for a mass all-nighter by nearly the entire first-year batch. So when the last lab had been turned in, Eric strode into the classroom dressed in black with a reverend’s collar, and the students (who had been handed missals earlier by Mel) rose and held a memorial service for the labs. This featured text such as:

Yea, though we walk through the shadow of the valley of nonfunctional data acquisition cards, we fear not MATLAB, for thou art with us. Thy jumper wires and thy pliers, they comfort us.

Gill and Brian fell over laughing and made us reprise it for the other sections of the course. We reprised it once again when Eric and I were NINJAs two years later. We now present it to future generations in case it is ever once again useful.

Rhomeo and Julihat has been mentioned earlier on this blog, but not uploaded. It’s a math play. I’ll quote:

But, soft! What flux through yonder plane doth break? It is the E, and julihat is the source. It is my lady, O, it is my love! O, that she knew that both being equivalent to “it,” by the commutative property, my lady and my love must be likewise equivalent! See, how her hand lies tangent to her cheek! O, that I were the tangent component of that hand, That I might touch that cheek!

I still dream of finishing the script at some point.


Email example: articulating (deaf) access needs for academic conferences


Articulating my access needs for an academic conference has taken a long time to figure out, and I’m still wading through those waters. In case it helps others in some way, here’s an email I just sent; thanks to Mirabai for sanity-checking and courage to actually ask for what I need. 

(in reply to a request for my conference schedule)

I do not have a definite schedule of my participation in the event; as a professional conference and networking function, a large part of the value comes from informal hallway conversations with colleagues, evening socials, and spontaneously being able to follow connections into/out of formal presentations.

What I need for full access is a CART provider assigned to me between Sunday, June 15 at 1pm through Wednesday, June 18, at 5:30pm. The CART provider either needs to follow with their equipment wherever I go or be prepared to go to wherever I text them on a minute’s notice and set up there. The CART provider and I can negotiate throughout the day to make sure they have sufficient break time (I am used to working this out with CART providers). Hours would be as follows:

  • Sunday, June 15: 1pm (Pioneers project workshop) through 9pm (Purdue Engineering Education mixer)
  • Monday, June 16: 7am (1st sessions) through 6pm (awards ceremony).
  • Tuesday, June 17: 7am (1st sessions) through 10pm (ERM division social)
  • Wednesday, June 18: 8:45am (2nd sessions; I will almost certainly skip the first session) through 5:30pm (end of last sessions).

Within this, the current schedule you have for me is a reasonable first guess as to where I might be and what I might be doing, but much of the value will come from unplanned interactions outside the current tentative schedule.

For my own talks and presentations, we do not yet have slides or other planned material. Honestly, knowing my co-authors and our travel schedules leading right up to the conference, it’s likely to be a last-minute thing. However, I’ve attached the two papers I will be presenting so the CART writer can get some idea of terminology, and I would be happy to coordinate with them over email, SMS, or chat beforehand to field any questions they might have. [Provider name] and some of her subcontractors have provided both remote and in-person CART for me the past 2 years and are familiar with the terminology and conventions of my field.

Let me know how we can set this up, and whether you have any questions. I’ve copied [my counselor] from the Purdue Disability Resource Center on this email so that everybody’s in the loop.

Many thanks,

–Mel


Postmodernism in a 3-panel comic


These images of the postmodern paradigm and its predecessors have become popular enough that I’ve started getting usage requests, so here are redrawn versions for easy usability. General reuse terms are CC-By-SA, but contact me if you need other ones.

Sketch16585926 Sketch1659038 Sketch1659138


What does “becoming a better programmer” mean? – Assessments Brainstorm Edition


The goal of every Hacker Schooler is to become a “better programmer.” Given that I last wrote on Test-Driven Learning, I feel almost obligated to ask: “what does that mean exactly, and how could you assess yourself on it?” (Another wording, from Dave’s post: “What qualities of being a ‘good programmer’ could you aim for, and how would you know if you had them?”)

There is no one-size-fits-all assessment that would work for every Hacker Schooler — everyone has such different interests, learning styles, experience levels, and a wide splay over every other type of spectrum imaginable for learning programming. (Typing speed. Language preference. Shoe size.) Making a single pre/post test and foisting it on everyone would (1) fail miserably at assessing anything and (2) work against the intentional self-directedness* of Hacker School.

So during my Hacker School residency, several Hacker Schoolers and I sat in Hopper (the big glass-walled room at the end of the space) and brainstormed on exactly that question. Here’s what we have for starters, totally unsorted and only edited for spelling and clarity of terminology.

  1. length of  Hacker School bio page
  2. number of git commits
  3. number of “merits” (a currently nonexistent, hypothetical arbitrary credit) given by other students
  4. list of acquired skills
  5. contributions to FOSS
  6. number of pairing experiences
  7. lines of code per project
  8. list of completed projects
  9. total lines of code blogged
  10. number of roadblocks overcome (subjective)
  11. happiness/satisfaction (subjective self-report)
  12. lines of code written without needing to consult external references
  13. how fast can you make this deliberately slow code?
  14. Project Euler time trials
  15. persistence
  16. number of job offers
  17. number of friends referred
  18. ability to explain concepts to novice coders
  19. number of people helped
  20. understanding of software docs
  21. number of blogs
  22. hackathons attended
  23. number of followers in (git) repositories
  24. time wasted browsing other stuff
  25. length of time paired
  26. number of presentations
  27. ability to improve own code
  28. usefulness of programming blogs
  29. refactoring time trials (rewrite code to run faster, as fast as you are able to rewrite it)
  30. how many lines of code produced
  31. number of projects done as an individual vs collaboratively
  32. assessment from peer partner
  33. ranking of comfort with (programming) languages
  34. number of times you had to use a search engine to complete a task
  35. cups of coffee
  36. number of tweets on technical topics
  37. how many ways you can think of to code the same function
  38. total time spent with facilitators
  39. presence of test suites with code
  40. number of keystrokes
  41. hours slept
  42. debugging time trial
  43. results of code reviews
  44. number of git commits
  45. number of presentations delivered
  46. number of seminars attended
  47. number of seminars given
  48. number of new tools learned
  49. reading pseudocode
  50. ability to follow directions
  51. writing a program from scratch
  52. alum application reviews vs facilitator observations
  53. average length of (git) commit
  54. number of alumni contacted
  55. independent rating of CV by HR people
  56. can someone else independently compile & run your project?
  57. on a scale of 0-5, how confident do you feel as a programmer?
  58. number of interviews
  59. frequency of git commits
  60. number of questions asked of residents and facilitators
  61. frequency of code revision
  62. how many errors can you spot and fix in this deliberately broken code?
  63. time to fizzbuzz solution implementation
  64. how many technical words on this list can you explain
  65. grade on open courseware CS class final exam
  66. Zulip (Hacker School internal chatroom) lines with ? (question marks) in them
  67. heart rate/stress response during Jess McKellar’s most technical talk

Further ideas quite welcome.

*Tom also pointed out that a pre-test would “prime” students to learn certain things and could dramatically affect their pathway — for instance, if the pre-test had a bunch of CS theory, students would think “oh, I should learn CS theory!” and veer off in that direction, which could be positive or negative (but would most definitely skew the study results). He wondered if we could make pre-assessments that “primed” for certain… habits of mind, for lack of a better term, rather than content.

 


You know, I used to.


[Trigger warning: brief mild depiction of depression/suicide imagery from the past.]

Looking just now at a Christmas 2013 picture of me in my (then) brand-new dress, I realized I’m at an interesting point in terms of figuring out what “authentic femininity” means for me personally. Specifically, I now feel like at some point in my life, I will say something like “you know, I used to hate wearing dresses/makeup/dancing/whatever[0] and felt really awkward around them,” and someone who knows me pretty well will be surprised: “YOU used to HATE dresses? What?”

[0] not necessarily this set of nouns; it’s still too early to see how this might shape up. Part of my definition of “authentic femininity” sees physical vigor as totally badass and loves running and around in a sweat-soaked hoodie and muddy cargo pants (that somehow permit a full range of motion in the hip and knee).

This point may not come for many, many years. But I now believe it will come, and that feels weird in (what I think is) a good way.

I used to be like this for computers and technology. You know, I used to — well, not hate computers, but certainly I used to feel awkward and incompetent around them. I thought I’d never be a decent programmer, I thought a breadboard was a baking implement, and I certainly didn’t think I was going to engineering school. I remember telling my parents in high school “well, the first decision is easy; I can scratch everything that’s not liberal arts off the list of schools I’m looking at.”

And then there are the other things that I believe I’m going to say someday, if I’m not already saying them now.

You know, I used to hate being deaf, and felt really awkward about that.

You know, I used to hate needing to have a body, and felt really awkward moving, and wished I could just become a robot or computer program so I wouldn’t have to deal with things like muscles and breathing. Dancing? Ahaha. Ha.

You know, I used to hate silence and solitude, and felt really awkward and like I had to get the hell out of it as soon as possible.

You know, I used to hate the thought of getting married and settling down and being a mom and maybe not working for a little while so I could stay with my family, and felt like I should avoid the slightest possibility of that at all costs.

You know, I used to hate having to take time off to sleep and rest and relax.

You know, I used to think I’d never have or want any close female friends. You know, I actually used to think I’d never actually have friends at all.

You know, I used to hate having to be alive. There was a period — an extended, multi-year period — in my preteen and teenage life when I would beat at my curiosity with Small Mel Fists of rage, because the question of “what’s going to happen next?” was by far the strongest argument for not throwing the whole damn thing away. It wasn’t being “lifted up on the wings of hope in the midst of despair” or anything picturesque like that. It was more like being dragged unceremoniously over a black pit by a monofilament that cut into my gut like a knife and whooped annoying things like “BUT MAYBE THE FUTURE IS SHINY!” as I flailed at it with whatever cutting edges I could find, cursing it for not shutting up and letting me drop already.

You know, I’m glad it didn’t.


Oh boy, worksprint exploding! With tea.


When I’m in the middle of an intense worksprint, I explode all over the kitchen and living room. A just-cooked, half-eaten pot of curry soup is on the stove; the sink is piled with plastic tupperware that used to hold the pre-chopped meat and vegetable ingredients. Grapefruits, a platter that formerly contained cheesecake, and a bowl with traces of curry soup are sprawled across the kitchen table with my phone, two newspapers, my research journal, and a set of coupons for AJ’s Burgers & Beef.

I am piled on the couch, a tangle of speaker cables at my feet blaring Ingrid Michaelson and Jason Mraz. The speakers were dragged from my desk earlier in the week when I decided I wanted music and my couch at the same time. A glass of tea is perched beside the couch; a miniature French press brews yet another glass, witnessed by an empty San Pellegrino bottle and a grocery receipt for $117 worth of spinach, eggs, potatoes, chocolate, and all the rest of my calories for the month.

There’s something about the sprawl of half-open, half-cooked, half-cleaned, half-eaten things that feels sort of like my brain when I’m letting it wander between a multitude of half-baked, not-quite-formed-into-words ideas, fragments of reading notes, crappy first drafts. I’ll get up, dance around the room (quite literally: I’ve got a lot of choreography to figure out before Monday), refill the tea, and dive onto the couch to type again.

I know that when things start to feel more solid in my writing, I will want to clean the space; as my ideas converge, I’ll feel the need to go and wash the bowl and put away the pot and tuck the soup into a clean plastic container in the fridge. I will clear my desk, resettle my speakers by their usual chair, recycle the San Pellegrino bottle. At some point — probably before I proofread for the last time — I will want to take a shower, scrub clean both my body and my mind, and then look at the thing I’ve made before it marches off into the world. And then I’ll go and get new groceries (we have run out of both water and salad greens) and sit down with new books to read.

Turns out my physicality and intellect are highly intertwined. Don’t even get me started on how spirituality, sexuality, and affective/emotional states blend into that — I do not understand it in the slightest, but it’s awesome to experience and keep discovering. I’m pretty sure my future family is going to think “okay, mom’s really weird,” but these quirks and cycles I have now will mature and metamorphose into whatever that future looks like, and I’m curious to discover it too as it comes along.

Oh, man — the possibilities! I like being a person.

And I will end this break and get back into editing now. Hello, Derrida!


Wrestling with angels: poststructuralism and Catholicism


Since I am writing my dissertation proposal (the first in my department from a poststructuralist perspective), I am grappling with paradigms today. (Again.) Let me think-out-loud by writing.

As a poststructuralist scholar, I question the very concept — the very existence, the very truthiness (as Colbert would say) of “truth.” I’ve spent my whole life frustrated at the inadequacy of totalizing metanarratives that sweep history under the rug and try to make the world seem simple enough for everyone to agree upon: “Of course it’s this way; it always has been.” There’s usually an agenda. Far too often, those stories are the tellings that benefit the folks in power; winners write history, but losers are complicit in retelling it. But we fall into this because metanarratives are so… comfortable. Clean.

I’m uncomfortable in the messy, just like everyone else. And yet I also have — and follow — a great thirst for the places where you can’t set “truth” down simply, or at all. In a strange way, I feel more truthful without “truth,” more honest allowing mystery to remain mystery. It’s not a passive “allowing” where I throw up my hands and say “why bother — we won’t understand it anyway!” Rather, it’s a place where I wrestle. And I wrestle fiercely, as anyone who’s ever encountered me as a scholar or a hacker or a friend can attest. My mind — my heart, even my physical body — is restless; I drive and attack, search and prod, double back over even my own perceptions trying to get them to crumble. Because… science. Because to be a scientist means admitting we can never know.

As a poststructuralist scholar, I question truth — am highly skeptical of it, draw upon Derrida, Foucault, Barthes, Lyotard, and other thinkers for tools to dislocate and fracture any notion of it — or more accurately, to see and point out places where a supposed “truth” dismantles and deconstructs itself. Derrida said that structuralism — the belief that you can find the underlying structure of all reality — only makes sense if you assume stable external points of reference. Derrida and other poststructural theorists go on to rip facades off many things we usually assume as stable points of reference — power structures, gender and sexuality binaries, all sorts of thoughts about religion and belief, the very notions of what it means to know and be — and I cheer, because — finally! The multiplicities! Bursting out from all these limiting ideas, all these structures that have bound them for so long, bursting out and challenging the ways we see and breathe and walk within the world  — oh, yes. Oh yes, indeed.

And yet.

As a poststructuralist, I sometimes feel as if I’m supposed to say that there’s no stable point of reference, just a self-referential set of signs and symbols navel-gazing messily into itself. I can see a crazy self-entangled, ever-shifting tangle of signs and symbols, absolutely — but I can’t say that that’s all there is. As a Catholic, I do believe in a very particular, yet indescribable, yet stable point of reference, which I use the symbol “God” to refer to. I believe in Truth with a capital T, and I believe in that Truth with a faith I cannot express or comprehend. It’s a young faith, and I am bewildered by it, stumbling with it and within it, praising it with joy and crying out against it with frustration in the same breath (as one is wont to do with love, I suppose). Less than two years ago, I was surprised to find that all my wrestling to shatter “truth” was instead breaking me, time and time again, into the midst of an incredibly uncomfortable mystery that was Truth itself, one that was both whispering wind and consuming fire.

I fought that Truth; I fought the very idea of its existence. I lost. I fight it still, because… that’s part of how I love; I grapple. Except that here, each time I lose, I actually win. I can’t explain it any more coherently than that.

But I don’t want this to be a “hey everybody, come to Jesus, ain’t the world just full of rainbows puppies everybody holding hands hooray!” post.  I started writing because I had reached a point of intellectual grimacing — because I was wading through all of my notes on Derrida and Lyotard and so forth, and said: wait, wait — I don’t know any more, where does this leave me? I was — and am — disoriented. Which, as a poststructuralist, I should be happy about — and I am. But as a human, I’m also just… disoriented. I’m not trying to come to a resolution in my explorations; I am simply trying to explore.

I don’t want to just say that “poststructuralist tools shatter our habitual, inadequate little-t truths so we can explode into the mystery of big-T Truth which is of course God and etc. and now we’re done,” because that’s the sort of oversimplified totalizing modernist metanarrative I rejected in the first place (and still do). I find a lot of things that people say about God to be incredibly frustrating little-t truths — not the God I believe in, not at all. I poke and watch those little-t truth statements twist and crumble. “We believe because we know it’s right.” “We must simply take it as a matter of faith.” I can’t stand leaving things at that, so I wrestle, and the wrestling shatters. Shatters the comfort, shatters the structure, tears down the scaffolding of peace that people — even myself — might try to build.

I realize that, by definition, we cannot express the ineffable. I realize that all we’re doing is trying really hard to say something about it, and that it’s so easy to slip into readerly habits, take the model as the real thing, forget. I realize that by even writing about this, I am doing the exact thing I critique. Words are such a limited medium; they have a quality of solidity and permanence that I do not intend even as I type them here.

I think what I can say is that poststructuralism is a very useful tool for me to think with, because every “truth” I have encountered as an intellectual statement is not the Truth I have encountered in and as relationship, and the toolset of poststructuralism makes me more adept at articulating why. I can say that poststructuralism does not provide rational proof for relativism or atheism — you can use it as a tool to think relativistically and atheistically, but you can also use it as a tool for just the opposite, just like the many different types of logic are used to argue opposing sides of any argument. I also want to say — mostly to Christians, here — that “aiee, relativism!” is no excuse for dismissing anyone’s attempt to wrestle with either little-t or big-T truth. If it’s a little-t truth, it’ll shatter; excellent. If it’s a big-T truth, then — well, I rather think the infinite can handle it.

The only metanarrative I actually believe in — if I can even call it a metanarrative — is love (and boy, does that word feel inadequate as a symbol; it’s a pointer to something that no memory address can hold). But love is about as far from a totalizing, oversimplifying, power-structure reinforcing metanarrative as you can get. It’s a radical discomfort and a peculiar peace that takes your gift and at the same time is the gift you’re flooded with. And I stand in that discomfort. Or I try.

No, actually. I don’t stand; I wrestle. I wrestle as a poststructural scholar, but in this place, I wrestle with angels. The ineffable infinite and the finite concrete, the human and the divine, panting and tangling and sweating and struggling in the very finite, human, concrete dirt… but also pointing somewhere far beyond it that was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be.

And I don’t know. I still don’t. But I feel as if I can leave this place now and go on with writing.


Braindump ramble starting from “contemplative scholarship”


Around the time I graduated from college, happy but worn down with frantic overwork, David Levy at the University of Washington wrote a paper titled “No Time To Think: Reflections on Information Technology and Contemplative Scholarship.” It’s a nice paper to read while sitting on the couch in a patch of sunlight and resting your hands between proposal-typing spurts.

The quote that struck me most was from Josef Pieper, a German theologian who drew on St. Thomas Aquinas to make sense of how to turn a devastated world towards “meaningful” work in the wake of WWII.

“Leisure is a form of that stillness that is the necessary preparation for accepting reality; only the person who is still can hear, and whoever is not still, cannot hear. Such stillness as this is not mere soundlessness or a dead muteness; it means, rather, that the soul’s power… has not yet descended into words. Leisure is the disposition of receptive understanding, of contemplative beholding, and immersion – in the real.”

How are you with silence? Solitude? Feelings? Discipline? I was asked all these questions at the start of the school year by different people, and answered them all with nervous laughter as I buckled down on each one. When I look at how I write about the future, I can see I need this sort of living contemplation to spring forth into the action where I also feel alive.

“A cozy home, a life intertwined with the community and with scholarly colleagues. Big kitchen with a window with a view, good food to feed the brains and hearts and hands tumbling through tough ideas at the table, wrestling out research and life together. Sleep, food, and faith. Friends. Music, movement. Sunlight. Writing. Tea and satisfaction.” (December 2013)

“A sort of worn-in comfort; cozy-looking gates and windows, an absently roaming garden jammed with flowers, grasses, and a plethora of charmingly mismatched lawn doohickeys… a fireplace, a lounging couch with laptop power cords winding towards it, shelves and shelves and shelves stuffed full with books, desks stacked happily with papers and coffee stains. Everything in a sort of happy flow, absentminded of the cooling mulled cider because of an intense, expansive mental presence in a problem space, dogs and cats and spouse and kids tumbling in and out of a researcher’s field of vision. The night grows crisp, and the tea kettle runs out and is rinsed with hot water and placed upended on a towel to dry…” (October 2011)

I do not often find that balance. I am still learning to become myself. But yesterday, I woke up early, read and studied, wrote several solid pages, danced, and ran leaping down the sidewalk in a light drizzle, Hug Panda around my neck, shouting gleefully as I passed bewildered friends. “Happy Easter, Mark! WheeeeeI’mgonnaparkthecar!” “Look look look Abbee, squirrels!” (“Mel! The walk sign!” “BUT BUT SQUIRREL, ABBEE!”) And then scrambling into a meeting: “Hi Megan! Brandon! Everyone! Oh right! I need… a… BOOK!” — my continuous sprint into the room turned into a vault-over-tables to get to the bookshelf (with efficiency!), whereupon I turned around to realize the whole group was falling over with laughter at my acrobatic entry.

Working hypothesis: I’m called to a multifacted hospitality (more on that someday) as well as a punctuated contemplation in the world; my actions bubble up, spring forth, from silence and stillness and rest and a making of home-ness for both myself and others.

But I don’t know, and that’s okay. Before I sleep at night these days, I lie in bed quietly stretching out my shoulders and my ankles, nuzzling into the nest of comforter and pillows, grateful for being in the world, wondering whether I did it right. It’s not an anxious wonder, it’s a curious and hopeful one. And then I tumble into sleep. And then I wake and stretch again and start with leisure: showers and tea and (now that Lent is over) eggs. (Eggs!) And then I work, and contemplation is my work, and being Mel is also my work, and sometimes I write papers and things while being-Mel…

Not sure why I am writing this. Thoughts half-formed. This post is a half-chipped block of marble; lots of mess, a ton of extra stuff, a tangle. But. Nice moment, sunny day; good break from “real” work, and now… I go back into it to write a chapter on poststructuralism for my proposal. Hello, Barthes. How are you? (I am a Mel. Let’s go!)