Prelim sausage-making: Seb points out poststructuralism is all over my study design

This particular brainramble is edited from an IRC log with Seb Benthall, an old buddy of mine from the hacker world who’s now pursuing his own PhD in Informatics at UC Berkeley. Once again, half-baked thoughts that are scrambling rapidly as I make sense of this by throwing it into what hopefully will be my final(ish) prelim document.

I’m doing a poststructural narrative analysis dissertation on engineering/technology faculty storytelling. It’s poststructural because it destabilizes the centrality of the author (or in this case, the main researcher) and focuses on the sensemaking of the readers (in this case, primarily the narrators), and doesn’t expect their perspectives to converge or triangulate on an absolute truth or meaning.

The narrative analysis part means I work with stories. Specifically, I look at narrators retelling the same story over and over again in about 6 dialogic narrative episodes per narrator. I’m using Bruner’s work to say, “Hey stories are a thing, we can’t dismantle them, we need to treat them as stories.”

I’m also pulling in Bruner’s notions of how communities interact with their story corpus. As individuals, we make sense of our own narratives by shaping them with, against, within, <insert preposition here> a community’s story corpus (which is itself malleable). This means that there’s this whole community socializing, community-of-practice entry, apprenticeship-style dynamic to stories. I’m using narrative analysis to start poking at the edge of it. You can think of communities as narratively constructed, and their story corpus as socially constructed — they mutually co-construct each other.

Because of this sensemaking process, Bruner talks about all texts being hermeneutic. An author works to put meaning in; it’s an active process. A reader also works to draw meaning out; interpretation happens on both ends and is shaped by the context surrounding the interpretation. This thought — “all texts are hermeneutic” — comes from narrative analysis, but has a parallel in poststructuralism: “all texts are writerly.” The idea of “writerly” texts comes from Barthes, who contrasted them with “readerly” texts; the two terms refer to what role the text assigns its reader. A “readerly” text treats the reader as a passive consumer. In constrast, a “writerly” text demands the reader become actively engaged in wrestling with and coauthoring its material, bringing their own contexts and interpretations into play.

Another way of thinking about it that you’ll get, Seb, because we’ve worked together in the open source space: the hacker mindset is effectively to see the world in a writerly way. The writerly hacker.

You can see readerly/writerly as an epistemological view, in some sense. Readerly epistemology is the sort of epistemology that we think of for “stereotypical” school — what’s the role of the student? Brain-as-empty-bucket. What’s the role of the teacher? Garden hose that fills the bucket. Now, next step: if you don’t see your community’s stories as writerly — and your own story in that field as writerly — your future in that discipline looks like… it’s not much of a future.

(“How is this different from Constructivism?” Seb asked. “Or is it like a translating of that into poststructuralist language?” I had to think about this for a bit.) Constructivism is all about hands-on learning, and that hands-on learning is in order to support meaning-making. Whereas I’m concerned with meaning-making, whether or not the activities are hands-on. It’s a different angle.

Instead of focusing on students, I’ve decided I wanted to work with professors. Because the thing is, we keep telling professors “hey, you should teach your students with this hackerly/writerly epistemology,” but the professors themselves have to experience it first. If you look at a lot of the faculty development resources for STEM profs, they’re all like, “hey, we’re going to lecture you on why you shouldn’t lecture your students.” Which is to me sort of hypocritical and incredibly ironic. But because we’re used to efficiently converging on an answer in the STEM fields — converging on an answer and then transmitting it — we accept that and we think, “oh, okay, lecture on not-lecturing, cool, gotcha.”

That convergence is the sort of thing I challenge with a poststructuralist stance. Taking that stance means I’m refusing to converge on a single “we have the answer of the truth, we’re done done done!” point, and pointing out that the refusal to converge is a big part of what… I’m trying to say. For lack of a better way to say it.

I want to get professors out of their stuck narratives by having them tell their stories about designing technical curricula over and over and over and over. And every time they do a storytelling session — on the same story — the prompt isn’t from me. The prompt is either “here’s some verbatim phrases you said last time, let’s analyze your own story by retelling the story” — or those same sorts of phrases, but from another professor’s story. Maybe the prof down the hall you hardly speak to, or a prof from the same dept at a different uni who teaches the same class there. The narrators seem to think this is pretty cool. So far, anyway. They say things like — paraphrasing here — “zomg, did I say XYZ? that I meant ABC instead.” Or “Wait, actually, I really like how Dr. Foobar phrased it better than the way I said this before.”

I can pull this off in a single session because I use realtime transcription, so halfway through the “interview session” I stop the storytelling and flip the laptop screen around and say “here’s what you said, let’s read it and talk about it.” It’s an integrated member check. Also, part of the IRB is that they agree to release their transcripts with their name on it under an open license (CC-BY-SA right now), so the member check is also an editing session to make sure they’re ok with whatever is in there going public. It’s “Oh gosh take out what I said about my dean” time, just in case, but nobody’s really used that capability yet.

So we end up with: (1) an open dataset of (2) repeatedly told narratives that (3) intertwine and reference/edit/critique each other.

Seb pointed out that I’m “studying up,” meaning that I’m studying people of a higher status, which makes for an easier IRB proposal. He made me realize how important the deliberate lack of convergence was, and that I ought to point that out more. (“Hypothetically,” I said, “you could continue the process forever; there’s no ‘perfect’ version of the story, we keep rewriting our stories of the past based on what we think in the present anyway.”)

Seb said that I was designing a tool (the “interview” method — or to use Ileana’s term, the “dialogical narrative episode”) for exposing the messy hermenutical psychological underbelly of the engineering curriculum; emancipatory-reflexive work, but aimed at the people teaching the technical material. Since we’re both hackers ourselves, we like the idea that this may help create more writerly engineers (“All the engineers will then get trained as hackers,” Seb said, “because you’ve planted a poststructuralist idea into the minds of the STEM faculty.” “I’m not telling them it’s poststructuralist,” I countered. “I’m just saying hey, isn’t this interesting?”)

Prelim sausage-making: Ileana gives me synonyms for “interview”

This is a (cleaned-for-grammar) transcript of a tape-recorded conversation with my classmate, Ileana Cortes Santiago, whom I begged to “sit and listen to me blab about my dissertation, and then help me figure out what the heck I’m saying.” This process was incredibly helpful, so I’m collecting my notes here so that I can remix useful sentences and paragraphs into my prelim… soon.

DISCLAIMER: These thoughts are very, very half-baked. As I continue to review, edit, and publish notes from similar conversations, you’ll see me editing these thoughts, rearranging them, throwing them out… (for instance, I no longer say I’m “developing a format for faculty development.” In fact, my research question has fundamentally shifted its wording at this point.) This is the sausage-making process, exposed.

Ok, thanks, Ileana. The recording’s on. So… here we go. My dissertation centers around developing and demonstrating a format for faculty development. This format will be created and tested specifically with and for engineering and technology faculty, and in the context of transforming their teaching and curriculum development practices, but is likely to generalize beyond these populations and contexts.

The traditional model of faculty development is an information dissemination model. We have to get information out to people. The problem is they’re not reading the right books or listening to the right talks. If more people read our work, our work will impact them.

The problem with that view is that it doesn’t solve the problem of research-to-practice transfer. That problem doesn’t exist solely because the information’s not available. Faculty do have access to papers and books; they simply prioritize other things. They don’t want to read these papers, and they’re not changing their practice when they do read them. We have literature on how engineering faculty change their practice, and the main finding is that hey, it’s not because they go hunt for papers on teaching and then read them. In order to have a transformation, we need something more than “let’s just get the information out to them.”

Think of the way we talk about the epistemology of teaching and learning for our undergraduate students. One common framing was articulated by Baxter-Magolda and King; they described how a lot of students enter college thinking of students as passive recipients of information and teachers as knowledge-containers who transfer that knowledge to students in a copy-paste sort of model. Engineering educators critique that model as being limiting to the student. Instead, we advocate an epistemology where we as teachers are not giving information, we’re helping them develop their identities as adults in our discipline. We need to move these students towards more agency — more self-authorship, more of a transformative space where they can see themselves as not just developing professionals, but professionals who develop themselves.

I find it ironic that when we look at the epistemology of faculty development in engineering education. When faculty members are in a student role, like when they attend a faculty workshop, how do we treat them? Exactly the same way we tell those faculty not to treat their 18-year-old students. So part of what I’m saying is: people, this is silly. If we want teachers to teach their students with a certain epistemological paradigm, we should teach them that way in their own professional development. We should take a self-authorship view of faculty development and be concerned with their identity formation as teachers.

You can’t just give someone a teaching identity. You can’t recite a bunch of facts and have them memorize them and then think, poof, magially they’ll have a teaching identity. A lot of that teaching identity development and expression comes out in other ways. The particular way I’m exploring it in my dissertation is through storytelling. When people tell stories about their teaching, they themselves are characters in their stories. By tracing the way they portray themselves in their stories, you can get at what their teaching identity is, and how it’s forming and transforming over time. These stories give you — and the faculty — a concrete thing to actually reflect on. For example, you could say “Oh, did you notice you portrayed yourself as an outsider?” (Or a pioneer, or a misunderstood rebel, or etc.) Now there’s something concrete — their words, recorded in a place where they can see and manipulate them — and they can go “Oh, gosh, you’re right, I did say that. Huh.”

Engineering and technology educators have pretty well developed identities as researchers, because we spend lots of time in grad school developing our research identity, topics, expertise. But when it comes to teaching identity, then — whoops, sorry, we haven’t really done that. There’s not that corresponding space for development. If you look at the lived experiences of faculty day to day, there’s no space for storytelling about their teaching practices. They might tell some stories to the students in their classes about content knowledge, either in stories of practice (“Let me tell you about the time we were designing this robot…”) or as explanations or analogies (“This physics concept is a lot like when you’re riding a bicycle…”).

However, teachers don’t have the space to tell stories about being teachers, only the stories about them doing engineering stuff. When students come up crying after the midterm, or when you’re trying to design a homework assignment that assesses certain things — those stories and that identity development, there’s no space in a faculty emmbers life for that. When would you do that? It sometimes comes up in grad school socializers when we’re drinking with our friends and complaining about all the grading TAs have to do. It sometimes comes up when professors meet up with their buddies at conference dinners and complain about their dean. But how often does that happen? Once a term? Every other year? And do they ever get repeated, or are they mostly one-offs? These interactions are usually so transient that it’s very difficult to learn from them.

The people that you could argue faculty need share these stories with the most — their colleagues that they see and work with every day — there’s no space for that at all. In faculty meetings, you don’t have time for teaching storytelling. It’s all stuff like, “Oh, we need someone to teach these courses next semester.” It’s very procedural and agenda-driven. This means we end up with people going and teaching in their little silos. Teachers don’t visit each other’s classes. There’s no ongoing required professional development like in K12 where teachers get together, get exposed to new ideas, and talk about those ideas and about what’s happening in their specific classrooms. Then we complain, “Hey, you’ve taught this class the same way for the past 30 years.” Of course you have. That’s what you’re rewarded for doing; it’s efficiency. Why do we not have engineeirng professors reflecting on their teaching? Well, we sort of penalize them for doing that.

Let me talk a little about the specific faculty I think this model would work with. I’ll start by talking about who I am not designing for. First, there are professors who don’t care about reflecting on their teaching process. They might not even like teaching. That’s fine. I’m not interested in spending energy here; I’m not trying to persuade these professors they should be interested.

Ironically, I’m also not designing for the opposite side of the spectrum. There are some faculty members who are super self-aware. They pratically have a 2nd PhD in education. They have very well developed and articulated teaching identities. We know these faculty are found both in small teaching colleges and large research universities and everywhere in between. We think they’re awesome. And quite frankly, they don’t need my help. So this is not for them either.

However, there’s this group of faculty in the middle. I think there’s a lot of them. These are the faculty who think about their teaching, but they know they don’t think about it enough, or in the way they’d like to. It’s not that they think it’s not important; it’s that they’re not quite able to do this critical reflection and identity articulation to the degree they want — at least not on their own. Maybe it’s never been modeled for them. They probably don’t have time set aside for it. There’s probably no support for it. But it is in their zone of proximal development (ZPD). That means that if someone helps them through that process, they’ll be able to do it.

And that process — and scaffolding them through that process — is what the faculty development model presented in dissertation does. It’s a model for faculty development that takes these faculty who have reflection in their ZPD, and gets them to actually do it.

So what does that model look like? It’s very simple. It’s repeated storytelling. For example, let’s say we have Dr. Jones. I’ll say, “Ok, Dr. Jones, let’s schedule 6 sessions over the next school year of 60-90 minutes each.” This is a grand total of 6-9 hours of total commitment over the course of 9-12 months. Is that a lot of time, or is that a very small amount of time? It’s both. Asking a faculty member for 6 meetings of any sort is a lot of time, but it’s far less than they’d give to a single-credit independent study student, for instance. It’s extremely doable. But my favorite point of comparison is to think about the lived experiences of faculty and how many minutes per year they usually spend in this talking-about-teaching storytelling space at all. Maybe it’s 5 minutes a week. If that’s the case, getting to an hour of storytelling time would take 12 weeks. 6 hours is 72 weeks. 9 hours is 108 weeks. So during this process, we’ve gone through the equivalent of approximately 2 years of storytelling in a normal faculty life in just a few deliberate meetings. This is massive, proportionally, compared to their usual lived experience.

Each session is a two-part process. The first part is the first half-hour. Let’s say you’re the faculty member. You’d tell me a story from when you designed a class, some sort of teaching story. And remember there’s that technique I used in class where it got transcribed in realtime and showed up on my laptop screen, we do that for the interview also. So after the first half hour, you basically have the story all written up. And then together we read through that story you just told, and now you’re reading your own words which you’ve just said, and you’re seeing patterns and you’re seeing things in your own words and that becomes the second half, the second half is recorded and transcribed discussion of us talking about the story you just told. So it’s almost like you’re starting to analyze your own words.

Well, actually, you are analyzing it already. The boundary between data collection and analysis gets blurry. It’s a reflective process, it starts already, so it ends up in some interesting things and the first one is sometimes faculty members will realize for the first time patterns in their own behavior. So they go, oh my gosh, right, I do talk about myself as an outsider, is that something I want to do? And also sometimes they go a lot deeper into something they said before. When I said the word “literacy” I didn’t, now I realize you could interpret that phrase differently. What I mean by “literacy” is actually XYZ, let me give you an example. And they go off into another story, so you get this — you get past their canned narratives because sometimes people go through this spiel that you can tell it’s something they’ve said thousands of times before. And this really gets you past that.

The next session — I don’t have a set list of questions. It’s open-ended. Your prompt is reading excerpts either from a story you’ve told me in the past, or from someone else’s story. So maybe it’s your colleagues in the office next door, but you’ve never heard their side of it. Or maybe it’s a professor who teaches the same sort of thing but at another university. Is there something that inspires your your own story? So they’re co-analyzing each other’s experiences. Their narratives start overlapping and intertwining and making meaning of each other. You end up with the side effect of this big corpus of interlinked narratives of faculty, and anyone else can use them for later studies also, but that’s sort of a side note.

My research question asks how faculty make sense of their teaching identities through public storytelling, and all 6 narrators for this run are talking specifically about a curriculum revision focused on integrating “design thinking” into all levels of a 4-year undergraduate program. We’ll end up with 36 stories — 6 stories — or 2 stories — or 1 story, depending on how you look at it. On one level, since each narrator tells the story 6 times, we have 36 stories. But each narrator is looping around the same narrative space every time, so you could also say there are 6 stories — one per person — and 6 revisions of each story. The narrators are also colleagues — 3 come from one school, 3 come from another, and each group of 3 from a school is talking about the same curriculum revision, so you could say there are 2 stories, one per school. Or you could say there’s one big story of this study as a whole.

I should note, off to the side, that we’re not looking for convergence on “the true story” through these various revisions/rounds of storytelling, as a constructivist approach might assume. Since this is a poststructural study, we take all the stories to be some version of truth even as we question what truth is — it might be contradictory, messy, and so on — and they don’t converge on any sort of “done” state; they are part of an ongoing process of constant growth, change, and rearticulation. We could continue the storytelling process indefinitely.

I skipped over the part where I compare this model of faculty development to other models of faculty development, with a bunch of radial graphs and such, because we need to go to class soon and there isn’t time.

In the theoretical space, the way I’m talking about this is a mix between Jerome Bruner and Roland Barthes. Bruner is the inventor of narrative analysis; his famour paper is “Narrative Construction of Reality.” That says things like stories need to be analyzed as stories and can’t be chopped up, you lose something vital. There’s something to them greater than the sum of their individual parts. All texts are hermeneutic. We put meaning into these texts, and other people take their own meaning out of those texts. It’s not a direct brain-to-brain transmission. Its a very active process on both sides. You and I could work through the same book and get very different things from it. The information dissemination model doesn’t account for that, it’s limited in that way.

Bruner also talks about the context of putting things into these artifacts and taking things out of these artifacts, there’s that stated dialogue through artifact that comes with the narration. He talks about community belonging as it relates to collections of narratives. How communities develop these connections of stories, so me and every other American kid my age would have things like Power Rangers or Pokemon and they are these stories that are part of our vocabulary. A Japanese kid my age would have an overlapping but slightly different set. My parents share part of my culture but grew up in a different time, so they have an overlapping but different set entirely. One of the ways we have this community belonging thing is sharing the same sets of narratives. We can refer to them, reference our norms and values and practices through this collection of stories. How our individual lives are personal narratives, these are also narratives in this connection. We make sense of that through finding ways to place them in that collection in relation to all the other stories in that collection. So I can see my childhood and say “it’s like when the Pink Power Ranger did this,” and another kid my age would say “oh, yeah, yeah.”

As part of human engagement, as part of it is learning to speak the spoken language, then there’s the disciplinary language, but there are also the stories. At an even broader level you share the same stories. That’s why at the grad student level they have us read these classic papers, books. Because these are foundational knowledge. That means you’ll have that common reference point. I can say “this is like Friere’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed,” and both of us know exactly what that means. You can make references to the same story, in this case Fiere’s story.

And this is where Barthes comes in. Barthes is a poststructuralist writer and talks about readerly versus writerly texts. Those words refer to the role of the reader. Writerly texts are very hermeneutically rich text, where as you’re reading you’re sort of co-constructing that meaning with the author, very active. A lot of self-help workbooks will have things like “can you think of an example in your life when…” or — it’s very much a book that’s only complete when I put my own words into it. Or like a workbook as opposed to a textbook. A readerly text is a text that takes that epistemological view of you are a passive recipient of meaning that the author has put into it. And the meaning the author puts into it is the meaning of the book. And the thing Barthes says is that all texts are actually writerly. Bruner’s version is saying all texts are hermeneutic. So all texts are writerly, all texts can have these very active hermeneutics…. but it’s just some texts pretend to be readerly. They make you forget you have that agency and they make you forget that you can question them and have that hermeneutics of suspicion and that you are also an author as a reader of the text.

If you are only exposed to readerly texts, you never get into coauthoring that collection of narratives. You never become an author in your community of practice. You never really take your own narrative and place it in the context of the rest of them and help modify that central corpus. It’s more like, “Oh, these classic authors are great, but they’re magical and I can never aspire to these heights.” As opposed to going “Oh, I can do that too, right now!”

Faculty development currently consists of throwing a lot of readerly texts at people. I want to broaden it to include the idea of making teachers conscious of how they are already writing the narratives of their teaching identities, and helping them recognize and actualize their agency to analyze and edit and shape not only their own stories, but each other’s stories. When we do this, we grow the shared corpus of language that engineering and technology faculty can use to talk about their teaching — a stronger language for their community of practice.

Ileana — a literacy education scholar — pointed out that she sees my methodology as poststructural because the narrator and I are purposefully deconstructing and reconstructing a personal story in the moment whenever we engage. She pointed out that I needed to be descriptive of my own story and positionality, because my history and perspective and story naturally gets enmeshed with that of the narrators. I groaned and said I probably could write a couple paragraphs on that, yes, yes, you’re right.

She agreed that what I was doing wasn’t “interviewing,” and suggested an alternate noun phrase for my data sources: “dialogical narrative episodes.” (“Episode of narrative construction” or “episode of narrative experience” are possible alternate noun phrases; she suggested staying away from “storytelling” for reasons I’m still puzzling out.) “Dialogical” was a new word for me: it means “going from one person to another.” (Roughly. I’ll need to look up a better definition.) This term allows me to incorporate the editing process into my data source, whereas “interview” would need to be distinct from the grounded indigenous coding.

Stephen’s question: how do you tutor fellow researchers in programming?

Stephen recently asked for advice on how I’d teach programming using Python to fellow academics. Specifically, an English major and a Materials Science (Matsci) researcher — smart people deeply into their own disciplines… who happen to not have had programming experience. Here’s what I said; if you have more comments/advice for Stephen, leave them in the comments.

Showing them the fundamentals in a common way, then diverging into their disciplinary interests, sounds about right. If they’re both completely new to programming, you’ll have a little while before they really branch off.

If you want a common starter text, Think Python may be good for this specific case. Just skip the sections related to graphics (Turtle at the start, Tkinter at the end). I also enjoy (and under different circumstances, would recommend) Learn Python The Hard Way and Dive Into Python, but the former is more geared towards web development and the latter is for people who have programmed in another language before.

For your English major friend, one of the exercises gets you into Markov analysis/generation of texts. This should be a fun place to play with poetry. The Markov Bible is a hilarious example of the sorts of things that can be done, and people have written entire books on text processing with Python.

For your Matsci friend, who you said was interested in data analysis, Allen’s next book starts playing with things like census data — that exercise should start being doable around the same time as the Markov analysis, because they’re both fundamentally about “read from a file, do math, spit out to a file.” They’ll probably want to jump off into SciPy at some point to make plots and crunch more complex data.

For a fun change of pace and/or an intro session and/or while people are installing software on their machines, you can try CodingBat exercises. The Boston Python Workshop’s exercises for Friday and Saturday are a tiny manageable collection. This also gets them into the habit of test-driven development (which is also a good approach to curriculum design, although I need a new name for it because Test Driven Learning is already taken).  CodingBat problems are very basic, so this only applies for the first few sessions before it’ll get too easy for them.

I would structure your learning sessions primarily as pair programming time. They’ll learn from each other’s approaches, debug/unstick each other naturally, and learn how to cleanly structure and communicate about code. If you have them pair-program their way through the book, you can spend a chunk of your time writing your own dissertation while being on-call, as in passive pair programming.

Whatever you do, teach them fundamentals of software engineering as you go along — commenting, testing, and version control specifically. Software Carpentry has good resources for this sort of thing. With the same rationale, take the first session and have them make and use github accounts while working through their starter exercises for the sake of everybody’s sanity. This gets them in the habit of working in public, which is important if you ever want to…

…introduce them to a broader community of programmers, which you should do as quickly as possible. Whether that’s “hey folks, join this Python mailing list” or “let’s go to a local Python meetup and get you asking questions — I’ll go to your first one with you and model this introducing-self and question-asking thing in programming-land” or whatever you have around in your neck of the woods, it’s basically the act of teaching them to learn from people other than you. And then… they’re off, and they don’t need you any more to keep learning and doing what they want to do. It’s a great job, making ourselves obsolete.

Hope this helps, and good luck.

Test Driven Learning: setting learning goals for yourself, Software Engineering edition

Stacey asked me for a refresher on Test Driven Learning for Hacker School, so here we go.

Test Driven Learning is a software engineer’s articulation of Wiggin & McTighe’s Understanding by Design framework after being strongly influenced by Ruth Streveler’s ”Curriculum, Assessment, and Pedagogy” course at Purdue.

Many software engineers are familiar with the process of Test Driven Development (TDD).

  1. Decide on the goal.
  2. Write the test (“how will you know if it’s working, exactly?”)
  3. Make the code pass the test.
  4. Celebrate.


Test Driven Learning (TDL) simply says “it’s the same thing… for your brainnnnn!”

  1. Decide on the goal (“learning objective”).
  2. Design the assessment (“how will you know if you’ve learned it, exactly?”)
  3. Go through the experiences/etc. you need to pass your assessment.
  4. Celebrate.


That’s it. Really.

Step 2 is the part most people flub. With software tests, you have a compiler/interpreter forcing you to be precise. With learning assessments, you don’t — but you need exactly the same level of precision and external execution. If you asked a group of external people (with appropriate expertise) whether you’d passed the assessment you set for yourself, there should be no disagreement. If there’s disagreement, your assessment needs a redesign.

A good assessment is a goal that helps you stretch and reach it; sometimes it encourages you to do more. But sometimes it also gives you permission to stop doing stuff – you’ve written the code, you’ve delivered the talk, they met the criteria you set —  and now you’re done. You can absolutely set a new goal up and keep on learning. However, you’re no longer allowed to say you Haven’t Learned X, because you’ve just proven that you have.

Here are some rough-draft quality TDL assessments you might start with, and a bit of how you might improve them.

I will learn Python. (What does that even mean? How will you know you’ve learned it?) I will complete and pass any 50 CodingBat exercises in Python. (But I could do that by solving 50 really easy problems.) Only 10 of those 50 problems can be warm-ups, and at least 20 of them must be Medium difficulty or greater. (Does it matter if you get help with the problems?) Nope, I can get as much help as I want from anyone, as long as I could explain the final solution to another programmer.

I will get better at testing. (What do you mean by “testing”?) I write a lot of code, but I’ve never written tests for any of it. I hear the nose framework is nice. (What do you mean by “better”?) Well, I’ve never written a test at all, so even going from 0 to 1 would be an improvement. I could use nose to write tests for 3 different pieces of working code I’ve already written. (Do these need to be big or exhaustive tests?) Nope, I’m just trying to learn what writing tests is like, not get full test coverage on my code… at least not yet. Even if I write a 3-line test that checks out one minor function, it counts as one of the 3 tests. (What does it mean for a test to be “done”?) When someone else can check out and successfully run my code and my test suite on their computer without needing to modify either bit of code, it’s done.

I will understand how databases work. (By “understand,” do you mean the mathematical theory behind their design? Or how to actually implement and use one?) Oh geez, the latter. I don’t care about the math so long as I know how to interface with a database. Any sort of database. (So you need to make a demo.) Yeah, but that’s not enough; I can blindly type in code from a tutorial, but that doesn’t mean I’d be able to field questions on it. (What could you do about that?) I will give a presentation to fellow Hacker Schoolers demonstrating a small database interaction in code I have written. That’s an easy binary to check; either I’ve given the presentation or I haven’t.

Thoughts, questions, ideas? Got your own example TDL assessment (at any stage of revision), or ways to improve the ones above? Holler in the comments.

Finally lost inside a concert: remembering “Blessed Unrest”

It’s been 3 months and I am starting to forget. I told myself that when I started to forget, I’d write it down. I want to remember this one time I saw a concert. This is not unusual. I see concerts; I have glasses.

But this time, I listened to the concert. I had adjusted to the hearing aids I wore, and had a month before Sara Bareilles stopped at Radio City Music Hall (that link has a setlist and videos of all the songs; I wish I could put it in a box and save it forever) during her “Blessed Unrest” tour. The same time I’d be in town guest-teaching at Hacker School. So I prepared.

My mom was puzzled in September when the envelope arrived. “It’s too small for a book,” she said. “But you don’t buy CDs.” Nope, I don’t generally purchase music; what’s the point? I’m deaf. But for the next month, “The Blessed Unrest” would constantly be on, whenever I could stand it — this is what aural training is. You listen to noise, over and over, until it turns into music. I was determined to go to the concert and understand it, not just feel the drumbeats and muddily hear the bass.

So I memorized the lyrics, and I played the songs on 2.5-hour loops driving between grad school and Illinois; hearing aids on, volume as loud as the minivan speakers could possibly blast them, ripping my hearing aids out when I was driven mad by all the sounds I didn’t understand, putting them in again. Repeat.

It took a while to realize the scratchy sounds at the beginning of “Brave” were probably piano chords; when I did, I took apart the bass line in order to guess at what chords the piano was playing, and held my memory of what those chords should sound like on a piano in a quiet room against the skrt!-skrt!-skrt! faintly echoing behind Sara’s voice, until the scratches and my memories could blend enough that she was singing over something that was music.

I’m used to this. It’s how I learned pieces when I was younger, doing piano competitions and accompanying choirs and playing cello in orchestras and keyboard in my (short-lived) college band; read scores over and over until you have the music in your head, your mind mentally playing every part. Rehearse, hope you don’t piss off all your bandmates. Hope that the occasional faint strains you hear during performance are enough to stitch the real music to the soundscape in your head. I had a perfect simulated orchestra inside my mind, when what I really wanted was to hear the out-of-tune fumbles of the real one I played in.

Hours of that single CD inside the car, at my computer, in the kitchen. The cymbals thwacking over “Little Black Dress” drove me mad. Listen over and over until you can at least predict them even if the sounds still don’t make sense, and you can listen to the whole song, pay attention to the other sounds in it; a coping strategy.

And so on. There were easy parts, small bits of songs I would immediately fall in love with — the kick drum on “Chasing the Sun” sounds like a literal heartbeat under the lyrics of a cemetery in Queens — and lyrics that annoyed me when I learned them: “1000 Times” is basically “The Doormat Song,” and I groaned when I discovered my favorite song was actually titled “I Choose You” (of course it had to be the sappiest title on the album — but boy, does it sound fantastic!). I started out enjoying “Little Black Dress” but after weeks of listening to “here is how you get over a breakup!” lyrics the snappy polka chords started to grate on me. Also, the cymbals.

After a month, I could listen to the entire album at one go and felt like I understood it — could tell when guitars would start, knew how bass lines went, sort of sometimes heard the piano. I started branching out to other Sara Bareilles albums; I’ve got “Between the Lines: Sara Bareilles Live at the Fillmore” which has awesome pieces and confusing silences and background noises. (Later on I realized the silences were quiet playing or applause. And that the roar of static that crackled through several songs? That’s people cheering. They do that at concerts. But I didn’t make the connection.)

And then the concert.

I don’t know how to write the concert. No matter what I put down here, it’s never going to match the feeling of hearing a concert — hearing, understanding, making sense of, not just slamming through a loud noise. How do I write down what this meant to me? I’m a musician, love music, love music — and I settled for this crappy thing that wasn’t worth going to concerts for. I had settled for this crappy thing, and didn’t go to concerts. When you’re deaf young enough and long enough, you figure this is all there is and all you’re going to get, and then you get hearing aids and sopranos show up on the radio and you start crying in the middle of the highway. You know?

No, you probably don’t know. That’s fine. I’m writing this for future-Mel because she knows — I know — and now we won’t forget.

The pre-concert was a rough time for me. I’m sure they’re a fantastic band, but this — I didn’t do aural training for their pieces, so it was all lights and noise and just too much, and rather than shut down and snap away inside my mind (because I’m learning not to do that; it’s a bad survival habit that I’m kicking) I ended up just stepping out into the lobby, wondering if I could make it through the actual concert. Because when you’ve counted on watching the hands and fingers of the musicians in order to match the realtime noises with the songs you’ve burned into your head, having colorful photons shunted into your face makes that… well, harder. Duck, because the light will blind you, and when you’re blind, you’re really deaf; you miss a second or two of the music, have to figure out where to pick up again.

But then she walked onto the stage, and people screamed and hearing aids were loud, and then — and then —  ”Chasing the Sun” started to play with that familiar kick-drum heartbeat I could latch onto, and there were sounds, and then my brain went yes, I know this song, and from my memory the gaps — the script — started to fill in, flesh out, make sense, and –

This is why people go to concerts, right? Because you lose yourself inside the music. You can actually immerse and swim in it, in all its detail, all this sound that swirls around and embraces, a million different things at once in harmony, and – and it doesn’t hurt. You’re inside it, not outside trying to get in, not standing there trying to imagine a Van Gogh from stick figures and a blurry photocopy.

And when they go off-script, you follow. During “Manhattan,” when the double bass and twin cellos took up the thread of harmony between the lyrics, it sounded so right – the auditory equivalent of thick purple velvet winding between threads of leather, the fragrance of a rich red wine — the I was surprised during post-concert CD listening to find there were no strings on the track. Whatever instrument carried the harmonies there, I’d learned it well enough to transfer to the strings during the concert. Inside the music, headed wherever it was going. Along with everybody else. Not an outsider in the concert hall.

I repeat myself and grow verbose and incoherent. That’s okay here.

She covered “The Way You Look Tonight” — which thankfully, I knew because my parents go for Frank Sinatra music. Well, mostly knew. The melody, a couple of the words; enough. I’m a sucker for jazz piano, and this was it — the instrumental, and the vocals, the tune that soars into the lyrics up and up on “There is nothing for it / but to love you / and the way you look tonight.” It’s music! Listen! Scratchy now, but patch that in your head with how the music must have sounded in that hall; patch it inside your mind the way I do, with memories and fabrications of how music should sound — I felt like I was soaring up there with that song.

Okay. The concert ended with my least favorite song (“Eden”) and then another not-really-favorite-song (“Once Upon Another Time”), but look; I don’t care.


Marathon of self-imposed aural rehab: worth it. Everything: worth it. Music. Like a universe unfolding and enfolding you within it; like a door you’ve knocked on, like a window you’ve peered through, finally opening and bringing you into a warm hall lit with fellowship and firelight; a wider world beyond my earlier capacity to imagine.

Months before I even knew this concert existed, Abbee asked me to explain how heaven worked. I’m not sure where my answer came from, but I told her it was like a concert; you’re deep inside the music you’ve been listening to on CDs and playing badly on guitar your whole life, except now the original band is playing, and you’re in the middle of it singing along, and your friends are right there lost in the music, right beside you. “Disclaimer,” I told Abbee. “This is from a deaf girl who has never really done that at a concert, but I imagine it’s something like that. The concert, I mean. Dunno about the heaven part.”

I can’t write this, really. I’m beginning to forget. But after the studying and listening and all those hours of preparing, and how that folded into the concert — and the being in the concert — I think… yes. That explanation, that poor pale analogy of heaven — works for me. I don’t know how long the concert was, but it was time that stopped, and time within which my faded little world of music — for a tiny little while — exploded.

There. Remembering. Grateful I have that memory to remember.

The Joyful Mysteries ought to be called the Terrifying Mysteries

Random Catholic Musing: the Joyful Mysteries ought to be called the Terrifying Mysteries. Sure, they’re joyful — but we call them that thousands of years later when we know how everything plays out. Rephrased, these 5 rosary decades are:

  1. Unwed teenager notified of unplanned pregnancy she could be executed for. She gets to tell her fiancé he’s not the father.
  2. Aforementioned teenage girl’s first family reaction to said pregnancy.
  3. 15-year-old gives birth alone in a cave in a strange town without access to medical care. She is immediately visited by hoboes wielding weapons (shepherds were not cuddly, polite people) yammering excitedly about some trippy-sounding vision that involves the baby.
  4. While registering her infant’s birth, young mother hears very disturbing prophecy about swords piercing her heart. Fun for the whole family.
  5. 12-year-old boy disappears from family trip, still missing after 3 days; distraught parents hunt in city.

It’s easy to forget this when all the Christmas cards are filled with excessively twee poetry set in italic calligraphy and soaring orchestral music. I don’t like twee poetry; sentimental historical depictions make me gag. But terror? I can do terror. I can do aloneness and unplannedness, and societal pressure and being lost and getting approached by random people who might look a little sketchy, and having to tell people things they probably don’t want to hear.

I just can’t do it with quite as much grace — for me, that part is the mystery — but I reckon that’s why Mary is a saint.

Self-portrait in acrylic: behind the scenes

Here’s what a self-portrait in acrylic looks like when you don’t know what you’re doing beyond following the order of paint colors in an Instructables tutorial. First you sketch the outline with yellow (super-rough) and purple (less rough). If you’re me, you get your face proportions wrong, but: onwards!


Then you add red for the blush on the face and your pink polarfleece. In the meantime, your cousins (who’ve initiated this Happy Fun Paint Time) are painting more logical things like geometric shapes or bowls of soup.


Shadows with green. Insert skepticism here about the tutorial, because you look like the Incredible Hulk with a sunburn. But you’re too far in to stop now.


More shadows with blue. I didn’t realize I should have drawn different shadows with blue than with green; overlapping them results in mud. It has also started to grow apparent that I’m going to have a halo between my head and the background because I don’t trust my accuracy working any closer to the hair. However, the underpainting is now done.


The overpainting of the face with orange leads to more “um… I’m not sure about this tutorial…” mutterings as I start looking like a human carrot. Then white to lighten it, and — magically, a human being appears! I whitened a bit too much, as it turns out; I now look like I have talcum powder on my face. Also: badly dyed hair. However, the portrait is done, and it’s… for a first time, it’s not bad. Subsequent iterations should improve considerably.


And the original picture, taken hastily on my phone for reference so you can see the mouth is way too big.


This commentary is rather self-deprecating, because humor’s a good defense; I do know that this is both a reasonable first try for an amateur and a far cry from anything that could be called skilled. The cautiousness, I think, comes from a parallel universe from 10 years back when I majored in engineering instead of art (parents). Wondering what I’d have become as an art major. Nervous to discover I wouldn’t have been a good one.

But we don’t live in those parallel universes; we live in this one. This is what I painted now, not what I would have painted 10 years back. And one painting now doesn’t mean I need to keep on painting ’till I’m as perfect at it as I’d like to be; it means that for an evening, I had fun, whether I paint later or not. So, er… process of becoming an artist, I suppose. Wanted to mark and share.


(Semi-relevant comic here.)

I grew up in other people’s basements, couches, guest rooms. The beanbag in Andy’s room. Gill’s dinner table, Heidi’s kitchen; anywhere Lynne May’s kids weren’t already sleeping. Sumana and Leonard’s apartments, under wildly colored blankets on the floor or on the pull-out sofabed. Matt’s futon, living room, and futon; Steve’s loft. In Andrew’s tent, on Maker House’s kitchen floor in a sleeping bag on a yoga mat, on pika’s porch. The places and people who took me in when I was running away from… I’m not sure how to articulate what I was scared of, but away from that. Spaces where I could try myself out, take a shot at being in my own skin.

Sometimes it was uncomfortable, some combination of hard, wet, or cold. For a while, I associated poverty with freedom; nobody could take this lifestyle away from me. I know was never really poor; I was a child of privilege who had a laptop, health insurance, and a couple thousand dollars that would take me from anywhere in the world to somewhere my family would have to take me in. I also knew the tradeoff for that would be independence, so I never touched that buffer, even when it meant skipping meals and wearing holes through shoes and walking hours to save $2 on bus fare, and I worried about money and not-troubling people, and I’m glad people saw that and opened their doors and pulled me in anyway.

All the homes who gave the gift of room and time to an angry, exhausted little nomad: how do I thank them? For the meals cooked, the leftovers packed, an unexpected fancy restaurant glass of port from Chris and Wendy in the middle of days of eating rice and beans in New York? For how glorious a large and sun-swept bathroom is, with long hot showers and a fluffy towel, after you’ve slept inside your car? The chance to see, without coercion, how other people live their lives — how other homes and families might function, so that you can see them as you’re learning to envision anything in future tense? (Andrew recently wrote that my personality is longer-term and more sustainable now; I think one prerequisite for that was seeing myself even just existing past the age of 30.)

How thankful I am, even now, for sanctuaries and retreats. And how I want to build my home to be a temporary nest for wayward strays in turn. “If you run a place,” says Sumana, “if you have the opportunity to provide hospitality, isn’t that amazing? That you can help jog a person out of their rut, that your consulate can offer amnesty?”

I’d like that opportunity. My home will always have a guest room. Right now it’s a sofa. Someday it will upgrade to a comfy bed with fluffy towels. It won’t always be full, but on occasion, it will give the gift of room and time within a household where one has no obligations. And extra chairs around the dinner table, with late-night talks if someone’s hungry for them. And food — to eat, to take home, to be nourished by in more ways than one. Books to read, and space and silence; space and silence above all.

I want to build a home where kids like younger-me can learn one version of what homes are like so they can figure out how they would like to build their own.

Some writing practice using moments with my family

I’d like to get back into practice writing thick descriptions, a key ethnographic skill that’s really just an exercise in observation and the memory of presence. So here are a few of family; I am clearly rusty, and not all of these are thick, nor all of them descriptions.

Mia leans into her laptop, white headphone cords trailing across her white sweater. College applications are due. It’s 4 minutes to midnight and her mug of tea is growing cold. We intersperse our sprints of writing work with burying our hands in Chico’s fur and telling him he’s an adorable big dog who really needs to lose some weight.

HELLO HELLO winks the ceiling-light letters in the restaurant. Kei is worried about zombies; they don’t teach zombie-evasion drills in middle school. In teenage-boy oblivion, Neil takes Kei’s elbow and strums across her arm like a guitar, bobbing along to a song inside his head. We rip apart the chicken and pass butter-toasted zucchini bread and watch the cooks pile thin-shaved fennel on thick slices of yeasty bread. Later on, we sit and stab felting needles repeatedly into the forming shapes of polar bears and hedgehogs and ice cream cones until it’s time to eat the pots of curry on the stove.

The Portland food trucks have closed illogically early for a Saturday night. I walk with my dad through the wet streets, looking for dry shoes; in what may be the first recorded case in human history, a father insists his daughter shop longer for shoes in the department store. (I had long since located a satisfactory pair by the time he conceded they would be just fine.) We char our faces by the hotel fireplace while he describes the habit of compassion and connection he’s seen burst out in me, almost uncontrollably, since I was very small: when faced with someone with a need I could meet, I find myself unable to not give.

Sinking so deeply into the hotel bed that I don’t move or think for a good 10 hours; it’s one of the best sleeps I’ve had in ages. Quality beds make a huge difference. Someday, when I can afford it and have settled down a little more, I’m going to nest in a massive Heavenly Bed; along with wooden bookshelves and a baby grand piano, it’s another piece I plan to use to build the sanctuary of my home.

My grandmother’s futon: wrapping myself like a burrito in the quilt to stay warm through the night, turning the electronic picture frames face-down upon the tables and curling away from the crack of light spilling out of the bathroom door. A fridge with food — and food, and food; feeding and eating as a currency of love.

Can’t lipread in the car.

Mom and I finally have all the shopping trips that normal girls have with their mothers back in high school, back and forth between different stores, through the mall, in and out of the car, late at night. She shows me how a thick black shawl (now dubbed “THE BATCAPE” with great glee, and reminiscent of Lynn Stein) fits over multiple shirts and a dress. I ask dumb questions about how to care for makeup brushes. She tries to get me to wear dangly earrings (fail) and pads a set of comfortable low heels so I can walk in them (success) and we both rejoice when I find an appropriate jacket: I geek out on the well-engineered features of the dual-layer, snow-skirted, thumb-looped, zippered-to-high-heaven, slim down coat, and she breathes a sigh of relief that I won’t be borrowing hers any more.

You look good in orange stripes, says Jason. You look good in jewel tones, says Mom. I am still adjusting to the tall, well-dressed woman in the mirror, but I am growing more and more accustomed to seeing her, straight and tall and grinning, with the same sense of wonder and curiosity that I am no longer afraid of losing just because I put a necklace on occasionally.

How I can leave my things sprawled on the floors and tables of my parents’ house, go out for hours, come back, know that it’s all right — this leaving-out, this not-needing to clean up and tidy myself away, this implicit permission to leave a trace… I think this, too, is a sign of home-ness for me. My messes are accepted. So am I.

Small Mel Self and the discovery of cold cream (“It’s moisturizing!”)

Because I’m feeling blocked on scholarly writing, I’m taking a break to do fun writing about Small Mel Self. Here’s how I learned what cold cream was used for.

Small Mel Self was perhaps 7 or at the time, and a voracious reader. I read the backs of cereal boxes, the fine print on credit card offer letters, the parenting psychology books in the church library. (“I want to know what grown-ups are supposed to think,” I told my dad’s best friend when he discovered my odd choice of literature. At least that’s how Mr. Zerwic tells the story; I only remember reading the books.) I see this now as an attempt to fill my world with information at all times, in compensation for a hunger for the data I couldn’t overhear. But back then, I was just a tiny word junkie.

Wandering down the grocery store aisles, I’d read everything on all the bottles, tubes, and boxes that we passed. All the hair care products, I noticed, seemed to have the word “moisturizing.” This was, my small brain reasoned, a good thing. “Moisturizing” was somehow correlated to “lustrous” and “sheen” and higher prices on the labels, which definitely meant the stuff was good.

Some time later, I was in my parents’ bathroom getting ready for a shower, because I was a Big Girl Now and showers were what Big Girls did, all by themselves. Besides, the bathtub in the other bathroom was being occupied by my splashy little brother. In the minute or two it took for the shower water to heat up, I grew bored and started pawing through the little vials and boxes on my parents’ counter. Lotion. Toothpaste. I knew what those were for. But what the heck was cold cream? Puzzled, I flipped the little jar around: Nourishing Moisturizing Cream.

Suddenly, it all made sense.

(15 minutes later)

I padded downstairs for the Big Girl Post-Shower Evaluation, dripping water on the tiled kitchen floor. My mother glanced at me. “You still have shampoo in your hair,” she commented. “Go back and wash it out.” Dutifully, I complied.

“Are you sure you washed it out?” my mother said on my second post-shower inspection. I nodded. She came closer and touched my hair, and I waited for praise. Instead, Mom just looked confused. ”What did you PUT on your HEAD?”

Used to explaining things to grown-ups, I stated the obvious. “It’s cold cream.”

Mom still looked confused.

“It’s moisturizing,” I added helpfully.

Several minutes later, Mom was giving me a Decidedly Not A Big Girl hair-washing with multiple rounds of shampoo that turned into multiple rounds of dishwashing detergent when the cold cream refused to loosen its greasy grip on my short locks. If you’ve never shampooed with dishwashing detergent before, my advice to you is: don’t. Or if you must, wear goggles and try not to breathe. The fumes of Minty Floral Glade Iceberg Freshness was overwhelming, and I emerged smelling like warm tupperware… but with acceptably un-moisturized hair. (“But that means it’s good for hair!” I had protested to no avail. “All the expensive shampoo bottles say so!”)

That was the evening I found out that cold cream was used to remove makeup. (But when was anybody ever going to use that?)

This story has been brought to you by Adventures of Small Mel Self.