Talk notes: “Technologies that wake you up” from a DHH perspective


Today’s accomplishment: giving part of a (group) talk in my 4th language, and making people laugh both directly and through an interpreter. Watching the audience grin and nod and crack up in two waves was just this… super-gratifying experience — first the audience members who knew ASL, then the ones who were listening to the interpreter translate my signing into English, and I could just… track that.

Sure, I know there are still all these dysfluencies in my sign production. I’m not fully fluent yet, and I’m incredibly aware of that, and working hard on it. But to know that my personality, my sense of humor, can come through in ASL even to people who don’t sign — that’s a tremendous milestone I was afraid that I might never actually reach. It’s difficult to understate how personally significant this accomplishment is for me — I’ve gone from “I will never learn sign language! I’m not one of those Deaf people!” to “I mean, okay, I guess I could learn it as… another language, because interpreting gives me so much that I just miss, but… I’m always going to speak for myself, especially in a work context with hearing people around,” to… well… this.

My talk notes follow. I wrote them, memorized them, and then deviated from them (as one does). The larger context is that my lab (which is basically a Deaf engineering design firm) is doing a series of consumer technology reviews. These aren’t technologies specifically designed for DHH people, but rather everyday technologies from a DHH perspective. For instance, other colleagues looked at various items from Nest, Alexa, etc. — and did you know lots of these devices, even if they are visual, feature an audio-only setup? Annoyance. Folks had to keep calling over their hearing spouses, ask their kids to come over and put on their CI, etc. in order to just get through installation.

Anyway, my segment was on “technologies that wake you up,” because… well, I don’t own a house. And a substantial portion of our community is made of students. And I sleep super deeply, and get uber-grumpy when I’m woken up against my will — just ask my parents; this is a lifelong known cause of Grouchy Mel.

  • most alarm systems are designed for hearing people and are based on sound
  • obviously doesn’t work so well for DHH
  • known problem: historically, all kinds of solutions – rube goldberg contraptions that drop heavy things, hearing humans (hi mom!) who will wake you up at the appointed time, praying that you’ll wake up before X and not be late
  • but now we have TECHNOLOGY!
  • I’ll examine several more modern systems for waking up DHH sleepers
  • First: Can I use “hearing” alarms and somehow make them better?
  • Residual hearing: amplify! plug into speaker system… okay, maybe this isn’t so great for hearing housemates, and it still doesn’t wake me up all the time.
  • Mechanical-only solutions: put phones inside convex objects to concentrate/amplify the sound. Definitely not loud enough for me.
  • Okay, another mechanical solution: set a phone alarm to vibration mode, put on a thin and hard-walled hollow clattery object and close to the edge of stuff that makes noise when other things fall on it. Yeah, terrible idea. Not the most reliable solution, good luck getting up in the middle of the night without wrecking everything, and an alarm that relies on literally dropping your multi-hundred-dollar phone on the floor every day is maybe not the wisest.
  • Enter: specific devices! This is an alarm designed for DHH folks… how many of you have the Sonic Alert alarm clock? (hands go up)
  • Wakes people up in three ways: audio, the sound is customizable (frequency-set knob, volume-set knob)
  • “light flasher” which is an on/off outlet flasher, could plug anything in there
  • “bed shaker” which is an off-center load on a motor in a case (like cell phone vibrators)
  • It’s definitely effective at waking you up. Abruptly. Might not be the best for your mood for the rest of the day, but it works. (Insert explanation of sleep cycles here, with a lot of hamming it up)
  • Okay, but how about stuff that isn’t DHH-specific? Sound aside and vibration/tactile aside, what’s left as a way to wake folks up?
  • Smell and taste might not be useful for alarms (although the smell of tea makes me super happy when I wake up)
  • What’s left is sight
  • Did you know: most deaf people can see
  • Did you know: most hearing people can also see
  • Did you know: although sound might not work for both hearing and DHH folks, light might work for both
  • This is the idea behind the Philips Wake-up Light
  • Idea: you know how the sonic alert wakes you up abruptly? this wakes you gently, like the sun coming through the windows
  • You set the time you want to be awake, and for a period of time before that, the lights will gradually turn on so that you’re sleeping more lightly and close to waking by the time the alarm rings (with the lamp at full brightness)
  • Gentle light wakeup is amazing (display, in contrast, the book cover of Alexander and the Terrible Horrible No Good Very Bad Day)
  • Except that it doesn’t always wake you up all the way, so you need a last-minute push-over into full consciousness
  • Alas, the pre-recorded audio settings on this alarm consist mostly of birdsong (from my perspective, “silence 1,” “silence 2,” “silence 3,” and “silence 4″)
  • I personally need a separate alarm to make the startle sound/vibration/light at the appointed time, but the wake-up light does get me to the point where being woken up by something else is pretty pleasant
  • Not a DHH-specific access issue, but the UI for button placement stinks
  • Alternative, if you already have Philips Hue lights: hack the Hue to be a wake-up light
  • Program the Hue! set something to turn on gradually at an appointed time
  • Not as smooth as the Wake-up light, which starts from zero and smoothly goes up; definitely turns on abruptly and is a more jarring wake-up
  • For me: solves the problem of “the Wake-up light needs a tip-over”
  • And then Sonic Alert for mega-uber backup.
  • End the talk somehow and turn the floor back over to Brian.

The CAT Lab Abstract Sorting Hat, Version 0.1


Another post based on stuff I came up with for my lab on the spur of the moment. I know I’m probably reinventing many wheels here, but one reason I’m posting this is so that when I stumble back across wheels others have made later on, I can bring mine out to play as well.

Last week, I had the pleasure of embarking on a spontaneous research discussion with several undergraduate students in our lab (and oh my gosh, everyone, it’s really fun to sign about research because of how much you can play with space*). For context: our lab has historically built things, and publishing papers on the things we build is a fairly new concept. The students are working (some for the first time) on poster abstracts for an upcoming conference, and one had asked for feedback on their draft. I realized it was a teaching moment, rounded up everyone who wasn’t busy, and proceeded to do a group-run workshopping of the first student’s abstract (which, by the way, is a clever museum access system that I’m pretty eager to see written up).

In this particular moment, I realized that the biggest gains were to be had in helping the student realize what they had already said. There were some great ideas in the first draft — in fact, most of what they needed was already there. The trouble was that it was all jumbled up; context trailed into conclusion with a detour through a sentence full of technology-related acronyms. So I made a quick reference to Common Things Your Abstract Might Be Trying To Do, a.k.a. The CAT Lab Abstract Sorting Hat (below) and we went sentence by sentence through the current draft, sorting each bit into its respective house(s) — I mean, uh… sections.

I apologize for the Harry Potter metaphor, but it could have been worse. (Contextpuff! Problemdor!) Examples are paraphrases from our discussion today — I’ve removed details so as to not ruin surprises for their eventual publication.

The CAT Lab Abstract Sorting Hat, Version 0.1

1. Context. What is the situation you are designing within? Start with things your audience will recognize. (Example from today: Museums often include audio-recorded or live spoken-language tours to teach visitors about the history and context of the exhibits they are viewing.)

2. Problem. What is the challenge you are addressing? Be conscious of how you frame the problem, especially if you are working with access-related technologies. (Example: Deaf and hard-of-hearing (DHH) visitors to museums don’t have the same level of access to spoken/audio-recorded tour information. In our framing, it is important that the problem is not that we are DHH, it is that museums have not considered visual access and have therefore left out DHH audiences.)

3. Prior work. What have you and others done in the past to address the problem? What work are you building upon?

4. New work. What is the new contribution you are describing in this specific publication? (Example: our lab has built device A to address problem B; in this paper we describe the new features we just added, namely C and D.)

5. Technical details (optional). if you are utilizing specific technologies that you would like to note, they go after #4 (which describes what the solution does). In the context of a lab full of excited engineering/CS undergrads, I added a note that oftentimes, these details are not important for the abstract compared to what we might usually be inclined to put down.

6. Implications / “so what” / (ASL:for-for)? Why is your work important – what could it change? What would happen if the problem you described in #2 was solved? Be as specific as possible (“allow native ASL users to study STEM topics using their native language” is better than “helps DHH students learn”).

End of the CAT Lab Abstract Sorting Hat, Version 0.1

It’s wonderful to watch students just… be around the lab, working on things. As someone who didn’t get to grow up in this (American Deaf) culture or with this language (ASL), I’m learning a lot from them in just… how to… be. People. Who sign. About engineering. I wonder if this is how new Olin faculty feel, landing as teachers inside a culture they were never students within.

*regarding playing with space to discuss research: even if we weren’t getting into the actual content of our papers, the papers themselves lent themselves to spatial setup. The relative lengths and positions of paragraphs and sections (with accompanying facial expressions denoting emotions about various parts), cutting and pasting and twiddling phrasings and words – I’ve thought about editing spatially even before I learned to sign, but watching students (who are more fluent signers than I am) basically collaboratively editing a document in their shared imagination in mid-air — man, that was pretty cool.


Lab research setup email: creating Zotero accounts


I like sharing reusable text I come up with. In this case, part of setting up research infrastructure for my lab includes getting everyone into a citation management system and giving us a way to share reading notes. I don’t have anything against EndNote or Mendeley (and may someday switch, if massive advantages become apparent), but this email is written for Zotero.

Hi, folks – you should have invitations to create Zotero accounts. The only action item you need to take now is following that link and creating an account, which should take a few minutes. You can safely ignore the rest of this email right now, but read on if you want more information/context.

Zotero is a reference management system. It’s useful for keeping track of reading notes and bibliographic information (which we’ll need for our references section every time we write a paper). Other systems include Endnote and Mendeley; there’s no huge advantage of one over the other, but Zotero is (1) familiar to the librarians at RIT and (2) something I already have a lot of notes in, so I’m starting us out with this.

Zotero is free and open source. When you create an account, you’ll probably be prompted to download and install the Zotero browser extension. I prefer to use the standalone desktop software, but that’s your choice.

Right now, the group library is empty. That will change as I begin writing the literature reviews for our ASEE papers. Feel free to add any citations of your own, and/or to start your own individual Zotero libraries (mine is huge; as I find things in it that may be useful to CAT as a whole, I will copy them into the group folder as well).

I have my own conventions for taking notes in Zotero in ways that are easy to write papers from later  – if you really want to, you can read about it here (http://blog.melchua.com/2015/01/28/how-i-use-zotero-to-take-research-reading-notes/) but I am also happy to show you my system any time we sit down to work together.

Here’s to better research infrastructure!

–Mel


Things that have made me happy lately: qual methods companion resource in ASL, my upcoming review of wake-up systems


These are random things that have made me happy today.

The first is that there is an ASL companion to a qualitative research methods textbook (focused on education and psychology, to boot!) I am already fascinated by the design and translation choices they have made in figuring out what it even means to have an ASL qual methods textbook… how multiple signers in the introduction switch between freezing in black and white when it’s not their turn, and becoming full-color and in-motion when it is, so your eye immediately knows who it’s following. How they’ve translated the phrase “chapter author” not as [chapter write-person], but rather as [chapter sign-person] — “they who have signed the chapters” rather than “they who have written down text for the chapters,” because the “text” is in ASL. These little subtle things that tell you that… yes, this is another culture; this is a different world. (Or in my framing: this is an alternate ontology.

Second is that I am giving my portion of a technology review lecture series (1) on ASL and (2) with a fairly decent dose of snarky humor. My topic? “Wake-up systems for DHH sleepers.” I plan to cover…

  • Cheap Hacks for People With Residual Hearing: makeshift and wholly mechanical scoop and rattle amplifiers for phones (put them on big hard hollow things or in cones made of hard materials… like hotel ice buckets!) Also, reasons why these setups may not be the greatest for smartphone users and/or profoundly deaf deep sleepers like myself.
  • Sonic Alert’s Sonic Boom, which emits ear-splitting shrieks at modifiable frequencies, flashes lights (or rather, intermittently turns on and off power to an electrical outlet embedded into its side), and rumbles a bed-shaker. (And, in high school when I had it close to my CRT monitor, it degaussed my monitor. Anyone want to check out a cute little EMP source?) Also, a brief overview of the sleep cycle, and how this device, while highly effective at actually waking one up, is terrible for waking one up pleasantly.
  • Philips Wake-Up Light: awesome, but expensive-ish, and… let’s talk about the usability of the physical design, shall we? (And the choice of bird sounds as the wake-up recording, which… to me, are setting options of “silence,” “other silence,” and “more different silence.”)
  • Philips Hue system as a cheaper and more hack-ish way to replicate some of the functionality of the wake-up light

Gotta work on my content, draft, translate, and rehearse this. It’ll be fun.


Thanksgiving recipe rap: Alexander Hamilton


For context: my family’s Thanksgiving tradition is that we do it potluck-style, and everyone prepares a dish matching some kind of theme, often a goofy one. For instance, last year’s theme was “Literature,” so we had Watership Down salad, Oliver Twist “more” soup, etc. This year’s theme was “It’s a (w)rap,” which covered either food encased in other food and/or food related to rap music. 

Also for context: I learned that there’s a dish called Chicken Alexander, which is basically Chicken a la King with a mashed potato crust, and immediately thought “oh, I could use pork instead, and thennnn…”

Also for context: play this music in the background (will be obvious from the title even if you don’t listen) – and you may be able to replicate my performance introducing this dish at the Thanksgiving table.

how does some carrots, onions, chardonnay and cream
of mushroom soup that get dropped into the middle of a slow boiled
pot of shredded kale ribbons to add a little green
match up with our Thanksgiving theme?

this ten-dollar bottle of supermarket wine will add a lot o’
flavor into the pot, that little alcoholic mottle
that goes full throttle to hit the spot, it’ll
be the efficient cause of the deliciousness, to ref’rence Aristotle

and every day when I was slaving away over my papers
trying to hack the tenure track with my researcher labors,
inside, I really needed some distractionary capers
from the day to day press of all my scholarship endeavours

then this rap came, and the recipe came, and I had it
since these parody songs have been a childhood habit
and a day or two off writing isn’t really all that bad,
it became a plain diversion from the pain of my whole train

of thought – I have to do my edits, really should abstain, man
planning out a recipe around a rap is vain, man
focus on your work, not on the Thanksgiving main, man
but I’m sorry, my left brain
it’s just insane, man

Alexander Hamilton
This dish is Alexander Hamilton
I planned this recipe around that pun
So just you wait, just you wait


Reading effectively: how my practice evolved from engineer to scholar


I came across Reading Effectively via a tweet by Sara Hendren (thanks, Sara!) and it spurred me to reflect on how I read as a scholar, how I have learned to read, and how I want to continue developing these skills both for myself and those I mentor/teach. Specifically, I’m writing from the perspective of someone who was trained in a STEM field (electrical/computer engineering) and then worked in tech before returning to academia and being plunged into the world of theory.

I thought I mostly knew how to read “theory” when I started grad school. After all, I would read non-technical books (!!!) from fields like anthropology (!!! look at how cross-disciplinary I’ve become!!!) and they would kinda make sense, you know? Maybe it was slow and hard and I had to look up some words on Wikipedia, but… fundamentally, I thought I kinda got it. Wasn’t hard. I mean, I was an engineer. I just… needed to read more stuff.

Now I am pretty sure I don’t know how to “read theory,” and am fumbling my way through complex webs of thought that are larger than what my brain will ever be able to hold. It’s fun. It’s grueling. I love it. And my reading as a scholar is very different from the way I learned to read as an engineer.

There are a lot of similarities. In engineering school (and then at work), I learned that sometimes, reading was slow and hard. Whether it was code, documentation, a technical paper, or a detailed email, sometimes you had to pick through and parse, and backtrace, and look up things that were being referred to (what was that code library for, again?) and sometimes the history of things was important because this part was compatible with an earlier version of thing X, not the current version. I learned that speed was not a metric of success; I learned that sometimes, wrestling with my reading yielded fruit I’d never seen on the first skim through it. I learned to keep an eye out for boundaries and limitations (

I learned that speed was not a metric of success; I learned that sometimes, wrestling with my reading yielded fruit I’d never seen on the first skim through it. I learned to keep an eye out for boundaries and limitations; this device was only tested up to such and such a speed, this wiki page was last updated N months ago and surely the codebase has evolved since then… nobody has done A, or B, or C, and so I could contribute there. These are all useful patterns I continue to employ as a junior scholar.

However, my reading as an engineer (that’s what I’m going to call it for now, since that’s what I was at the time, although this isn’t how all engineers read nor how engineers have to read) is, at its core, different from the reading I do as an engineer-who-is-a-scholar… and specifically, who has spent time in more social-science and arts and humanities environments and methodologies and discourses, and who is super aware that she is still learning it as a new and unfamiliar world.

Here’s the difference.

As an engineer, I was working hard to figure out what the text meant, and this was a task that I could do. Because there was a meaning — singular — to be extracted. The author had thought of a math proof, noted it carefully down, published it, and now I had that in my hands and my task was to… unzip the file, so to speak — unpack and install the archive of their thought into my brain, perhaps adapt it slightly to its new environment. And later I could build upon it. But as a reader, my task was fundamentally to understand the thing (singular) that the author said. And oh, maybe that thing they said had been built-upon later, superseded, whatever… but if so, it would be a fairly simple historical march of continuous improvement towards… uh… I don’t know. Betterness!

Now, as a junior scholar… I’m still working hard, but I’m now trying to get glimpses of what the text could mean. To whom, and how, and why… and where, and how it could mean different things, and which meanings I wanted to pull out and relate to, and how things I did and said and wrote could open different possibilities for what the text could mean. Writing is part of reading. Discussing is part of reading. Breaking from the page in frustrated exhaustion, slumping into a friend’s couch, and having a random thought strike me differently while staring at their bookshelf over dinner… also part of reading.

This is not a finite task; this is not a task that I can do in the sense of completing it and being-done — but it is a practice that I can engage in, and it is a practice that mandates socialization. In my engineering-model of reading, reading-with-others was a means to sometimes get to the same end point (understanding the author) faster, but if I were smart enough and had enough time, I could do exactly the same thing alone. In my current junior-scholar-model of reading, reading-with-others is fundamentally different from reading alone. My interactions with others become part of the text we work with (yes, yes, you can make jokes about this); any “end points” I come up with are decisions I’ve made (I will stop because we’re going to submit this paper; we will stop when the semester ends etc.) — and they’re less periods than semicolons, pauses that can be picked up again at any time in the future, whether we do or not.

The article that spurred these thoughts seems to speak to the latter kind of reading, seems to assume that — well, yes, that is the kind you’re doing. But for some fields, that’s not how scholarly reading works. That’s not our practice. Maybe for good reasons, too (if the end goal is “make the device run, NOW,” you may not need to exhume the racial context of the time period during which the documentation was written in order to accomplish it). To someone with a different disciplinary practice of reading, this article feels really, really weird. And I’ve had to learn my way into it, and I will constantly be learning my way into it — I’m old enough now that new things I encounter will never become my “native” ways of being; even if the new ways become more dominant, I’ll always have had a practice (or absence thereof) for that thing before.

And the people I will teach and mentor into scholarly reading will, by and large, also be non-natives — just because of age and experience, since I teach college students, faculty… not tiny ones. And so I will be conscious of that, when I teach people how to read, and as I keep on working on my own practice. I’m not from here; I can’t assume I know; don’t get complacent, stay awake.


Playing with O*NET visualizations for degree program proposals


Edit: Found it! Paul Ingemi located the corresponding “this is for programmers!” website, which I have no idea how I overlooked. But onetcenter.org has everything for download in different db formats. Yesssss.

I’m working on a small project involving how to propose new STEM-related degree programs, and wanted to jot down this resource and think-aloud about my attempts to understand how I might use it.

The Department of Labor has a website front-end for O*NET, a database with information about jobs. Job outlooks (is this field expected to grow, etc.?) are one of the pieces of information, number of people in that industry, and other stats I expected to see — but then others I hadn’t thought of, such as “which skills does this job require?”

That last bit allows comparisons of easy lateral moves — if you’re trained in career A, and want to switch, what professions are most similar (but may not be in an obviously similar industry)? For instance, it seems logical to me that a truck driver would also probably be a good train operator, but I wouldn’t have thought they would be using skills similar to an explosives worker… but okay, yes, big risky pieces of equipment that you have to operate… yes.

This NYT article on career-switching has interactive visualizations that play with the O*NET data. I can’t immediately figure out how — there’s no source code or obvious API on the O*NET side. I wonder how easy it would be to hook to the database, or even scrape it if need be (but that seems silly; there ought to be an interface — at the same time, that doesn’t mean there actually is one). I wonder how we might use this information to think about how to choose new degree programs to start.

For instance, we could look at popular degree programs that cannot possibly accept all of the students that apply, and find skill-adjacent careers to try and expand the number of things students with similar interests can go into (if expanding existing degree programs is not an option). We could screen potential new programs not only by job growth outlook, but by lateral move possibilities – what sorts of degrees will give students the widest range of options if they want to do something different post-graduation, or make it easier to switch majors before graduation? (Engineering degrees are notoriously bad for switching-into from another major, since they require so many specific prerequisite course chains.)

So there’s that one question on my mind — what might we do with this data if we could play with it? And then there’s the second question, which is: how might we (on a technical level) play with it?

The O*NET website doesn’t have a listed API that I can find. I cannot figure out how to directly query the data, short of going all Ryan Mitchell on it and scraping the heck out of a lot of pages. This seems extremely silly. Maybe I’m missing something. But when Sebastian and I looked (thanks for sanity-checking me, Sebastian!) there wasn’t any indication how the NYT piece pulled data from the O*NET database to make the visualizations. We suspect it may be a case of “we threw programmer-hours at the problem” as opposed to “this dataset was easy to manipulate.”

So as to not wander down rabbit holes, I’ve messaged the article authors asking if there’s an easy way to learn more about their methodology. And then… onwards, to working on degree program proposals. Ah, research life.


Gallaudet Peer Mentoring Certificate Program: first impressions


Some of you already know this, but I’m participating in Gallaudet’s Peer Mentoring Certificate Program, which trains adults with hearing loss on mentoring others with hearing loss. The original idea was for mentoring adults with acquired hearing loss (i.e. people who grew up hearing, and then became… not hearing). However, as someone who grew up oral deaf and knows how complex it can be to figure out the whole d/Deaf/HoH identity thing as a young, early-career adult… I also hope to work with folks like me.

And honestly, part of the reason I’m doing this is that I need this too. I do not have this figured out. Physiology does not come with a cultural/linguistic instruction manual. And if I’m going to explore this with my students and in my research, I darn well better prepare to explore this in ways that might go beyond… um… the usual professional/scholarly boundaries. We don’t ever fully separate our studies from ourselves — we just sometimes pretend we do. In this case, the professional and personal are so obviously interlinked that I need to be extremely thoughtful about how I do and don’t do them. Boundaries. They’re gonna happen.

So far, we’ve had a weekend at Gallaudet getting to meet each other in person — and then we meet in text chat once a week to discuss readings. The weekend meeting was super fun. The other members of my (tiny!) cohort are from all over the place, lots of diversity of experience — all of us are really good at getting through the hearing world, and have varying sorts of involvement in the HoH and Deaf worlds. Academics, engineers, doctors, HLAA officers, fluent signers, teachers of the Deaf, careers completely not-related to ASL/hearing/Deafness, curious non-signers, FM users, CI users, hearing aid users, people who prefer captions, people who prefer lipreading, people who prefer interpreting… so much fluidity! To my surprise, I found that I can codeswitch and mediate (read: “infomally interpret”) way more fluently than I’d thought… turns out that when I’m not incredibly anxious about signing (which is almost every single time I sign), my language skills increase considerably. (The anxiety bit is very much its own post; I may write it someday, I may not.)

As someone who is used to being the only non-hearing person in the room, it was definitely very, very weird (in a good way) to be in a room where there were people using so many different kinds of access. I do wish the quality of captions had been better; I was thankful for the great interpreters we had, and noticed a clear discrepancy between the quality of access provided by the two modalities (because of provider skill — we could have had lousy terps and a great captioner, and the situation would have been the other way around). I wonder what it was like for my classmates who don’t understand ASL and who were relying on captions. We all had to learn and practice advocating for our needs as the weekend went along, which — seriously, good skill to practice, especially in the context of mentoring other people with hearing loss (we’ll have to model this sort of behavior, and it starts with being able to do it ourselves).

Another good thing: when communication wrinkles came up — which they did, because the captioners dropped things, and the interpreters got tired, and the T-coil loop didn’t always work — we stopped, we worked to fix it, we didn’t just keep going and leave people out. We tried really, really hard to not just quietly tolerate it… we thanked each other for noticing, for asking. For some of us, it was a profound experience — some people had never been thanked for that before, especially in a world where asking people to repeat, etc. is often framed as “why are you so bothersome, you annoying deaf person, asking for things?” It was a good learning opportunity for all of us. A good chance for us to practice what we preach, with all the awkwardness and “but how do we account for this delay in what we’d planned to do?” that it entails.

Our first class this fall (it feels more like a lightweight reading group — compared to grad school, super chill!) is on hearing loss in America — lots of historical/cultural/legal overviews. I’m going to get caught up with those readings now, since it’s Sunday afternoon and I’m tired and want something light and fun to do. So we’ll see where this goes! I make no promises about regular updates, but if people ask, I’m more likely to blog about the program.


Book braindumps: E. D. Hirsch, Jr. – Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs To Know


Once upon a time in grad school, I wrote memos on the stuff I read. This post is about a book by E. D. Hirsch, Jr., written in 1988 (it shows) and titled “Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs To Know.”

The phrases “Every American” and “needs to know” immediately sensitize me to an epistemological, homogenous, and nationalistic orientation — there’s knowledge out there, and everybody within the boundaries of this country ought to know that same knowledge. There are some pretty big assumptions in these kinds of statements, but — okay, let’s see what these assumptions might take us! There’s certainly some nifty prospects in them.

And sure enough, before we even leave the preface, Hirsch reminds us that e pluribus, unum. “[C]ultural conservatism is useful for the purposes of national communication. It enables grandparents to communicate with grandchildren, southerners with midwesterners, whites with blacks, Asians with Hispanics, and Republicans with Democrats — no matter where they were educated.” (p. xii)

I do think this is a valid argument. Shared knowledge does enable communication. However, it doesn’t ensure it — and a huge, explicit, deliberately shared corpus of knowledge certainly isn’t required for it; you can bootstrap and figure out from remarkably few things. One of my fondest memories of World Youth Day in Krakow was meeting a Deaf young man from Germany who knew as much ASL as I knew DGS (German sign language), which is to say… basically none. Over the course of one long evening, lit by flashlights and cell phones in a grassy field (we were camping), we slowly pieced together enough for conversation. Typing, gesturing, pointing, going back and forth… it worked. I watched more skilled signers from many different nations work out things with a fluency that stunned me; creoles were assembled as if from thin air (actually from lots of experience and expertise), as bits and patches of people knowing some of each others’ languages came together and jumped into making common ground where previously there was very little.

Actually, yes. That’s it. You don’t need to preload people with lots of common knowledge. You can co-create knowledge together in the moment, too. I’m not knocking a good educational background — it helps, it’s important, it does smooth communication and enable a richness of understanding — but it is not a hard prerequisite for what is happening here.

Onwards.

“To be culturally literate is to possess the basic information needed to thrive in the modern world.” (p. xiii)

Oh boy. Unpacking that in the context of each (curricular) culture is loaded. I mean, yes, arguably… in most of the world, learning dominant culture things are needed to thrive, but it takes so much energy if you’re not already a fully accepted prestige-level member of that dominant culture.

Also, I don’t fully understand why this book has two prefaces. One is for the “vintage edition,” and the book I hold in my hands from the Fox Branch Cambridge Public Library is the vintage edition from Random House… maybe there was another, non-vintage, Random House edition… but there was also maybe an earlier book titled “What Literate Americans Know” published by Houghton Mifflin and with additional authors Joseph Kett and James Trefil? Librarians, help me!

On pages 10-12, Hirsch recaps a talk by Orlando Patterson. In that talk, Patterson argues that that cultural literacy was a prerequisite for a person, especially a minority person, to hold power. Patterson points out that cultural literacy is not “socially neutral” — it works towards a society based on merit.

So, first of all: I do appreciate that Patterson (and Hirch) acknowledge this is not socially neutral. (Nothing is.) But also, as a STEM practitioner… this is the myth of meritocracy that’s so endemic in my field. It’s the notion that if we are to have equality of power across currently disparate groups, the minorities better catch up and do all the majority things, which they can, because it’s a meritocracy open to all, right?

And there are many good things to this view! I do think there are some majority-culture tools and structures that can be profoundly helpful — libraries and written information access, colleges and the notion of higher education and scholarships to help people get there, no longer barring people from specific paths of study because of race or gender or nationality or disability or… (well, theoretically no longer barring them, anyway) so that people can get the same information…

But it’s not just about the same information. The majority cultures also need to learn and shift their literacies to be broader and more flexible, or we perpetuate colonialism. I mean, isn’t this asking for minorities to think like the dominant group? Or is it the start of the argument that you need to get into a system in order to really change it, unless you light a powder keg fuse? I think of Audre Lorde’s statement that the master’s tools can never dismantle the master’s house. I’m not sure how to interpret the broader context of that statement, and whether I agree or not. More thinking here to do.

On page 30-31, Hirsch points out that rote learning isn’t bad; lots of cultures require children to rote-learn many things (religious ceremonies, etc.) as a way of passing on “the weight of human tradition across many cultures.”

And I think: is this why I like new fields, where these things are still forming? Is this also something inflected by access for me, where I can build in access from the ground up in the things that I help to create — and don’t need to catch up in a massive, thick world built for people who aren’t like me?

My inner critical theorist comes out again some pages later, on p. 136, when Hirsch talks about building the list of “what all Americans should know” with his team. Basically, how did they know they got the list right-enough? They asked people, and they agreed.

“In consulting others about our initial list we did in fact discover a strong consensus about the significant elements in our core literate vocabulary. My colleagues and I were not surprised at this agreement, but we were gratified to find that the consensus did indeed exist far beyond our narrow circle and extended to educated Americans of different ages, sexes, races, and ethnic origins.” (p. 136)

Seems simple enough on the surface, but… I want to say, instead, that this extends to literate Americans of all types that have learned to act like cishet middle-class abled white dudes, etc. Also, who wants to bet the colleagues putting this together were largely fitting that description?

Basically, you’re working with the definitions of cultural literacy as the power dynamics currently prescribe it, so there would be some agreement because there’s some stability to that. Now, going critical on this: who has decided what is in and out, and who gets to learn it? These are the sorts of engineering epistemology questions we’re starting to raise in engineering education research with a critical turn. (For instance, why indigenous building knowledge isn’t valued as engineering knowledge, etc.)

I’m being unfair to Hirsch a bit, though. It was 1988. And they do acknowledge their positionality and the social construction of knowledge.

On page 136: “We do not claim that the initial list is definitive… its design must be somewhat arbitrary for mechanical reasons alone. Further words that literate people associate with individual items could be represented by further entries… We therefore had to rely on our own experience and judgment in deciding what is central and what is subordinate in compiling such a list.”

They also have a lovely bit shortly thereafter on how any bounds they put around the “things Americans should know” are inevitably going to be arbitrary, since knowledge connects and at some point you need to figure out how far you’re going to go down the rabbit hole.

Alright, I made a braindumping blog post! Awesome. My formal reading notes have far more depth and detail, but blogging out loud about the things I’m reading helps me think… and I have missed being here, doing this kind of writing. I’ve been a little burnt out with scholarly writing, honestly. And I’ve also worried that, now that I’m starting to think about becoming faculty instead of a student only, this will seem “unprofessional.” But… faculty have messy early thoughts, too. And it’s okay for people to see that. When I publish, when I submit to conferences and books and journals… I do refine things more, put order to them — but this is a stage of thinking, too. And I do love it, and love sharing it, so… here we go. This is part of who I am as a scholar, too.


Dissertation defense slides and transcript now available (help me find a better way to publish it?)


(Edit: separate image descriptions now added to all slides, erectile in addition to the visual information that’s been embedded in the transcript from the start – thanks to Christian Vogler and Sina Bahram for feedback and ongoing learning on how to make things more accessible to others.)

Slides and a lightly edited transcript of my dissertation defense are now available online in full, approved for those who have been asking.

The slides alone don’t make much sense — but the transcript (in the speaker notes) describes all the images and diagrams, so the transcript alone should actually make sense. The transcript also includes the audience questions, with the audience members anonymized.

I’m struggling a bit on how to publish this online in a reasonable way, and would love feedback/suggestions. But for right now:

  1. You can go straight to the slide deck (look at the speaker notes!) at this google slides link, though I doubt that’s a good long-term hosting solution for this content… so that link may stop working at some point in the future. I also have no idea how this works with screenreaders (edit: but the notes have full image descriptions now.)
  2. You can also download a PDF that has the slides and transcript (edit: and image descriptions), and this is likely the easiest way to read it. However, it’s a format that’s hard to modify, and again — I don’t know how various screenreaders will treat it. (I need to up that portion of my accessibility game.)
  3. Slides are embedded below, and if you click on them, they will open up full-screen. Then you can click on the gear icon in the bottom-left, then “speaker notes” to view the speaker notes — or type ‘s’ as a keyboard shortcut.

Everything is creative-commons licensed (image credits are in the notes) and the deck itself is licensed CC-BY-SA, which means you can share as long as you give credit, and you can remix/use this work as long as you cite it and release your own work under similar conditions. If you honor those conditions, you don’t need to ask me for permission — just go ahead and do it. If you want to use the work under different conditions, contact me.