Marriage essay 1: what’s marriage in today’s culture, and what do you think a good marriage is?

My friend Abbee was excited to discover that I’m taking a 6-week course on Christian Marriage, and asked if I could post my weekly essays — so Abbee, this one’s for you. First essay topic: Marriage in the modern world. Yes, I know my citations are sloppy; it’s an informal essay for the class discussion, not a fancy thing for publication.

Ye Olde Standard Disclaimer: I don’t know what I’m talking about

I’ll open this essay with a disclaimer: I’m the youngest person (by far) and the only unmarried person in this class, so take these perspectives with a grain of salt. I am unqualified to answer questions like “What is marriage in today’s culture?” and “What do you think a good marriage is?” as anything other than a naive twentysomething who’s spent most of her life avoiding the topic (long story), but… here you go.

The purpose of marriage: a vocation that witnesses divine love to the world

Marriage is a vocation. If you’re called to marriage, that means that married-you is the best possible version of you – that your Maximum Love Throughput will come through having and loving a spouse and family and having your home be a “reflection of the loving covenant uniting Christ with the Church to the world,” as Gaudium Et Spes says. If you are married, your marriage becomes the base station from which you get your superpowers.

This is hard. Gaillardetz describes marriage as entering “into the dying… of Christ,” which doesn’t sound like fun to me. All love comes intertwined with loss and sorrow; as Shakespeare’s sonnet 64 puts it, “we weep to have what we most fear to lose.” Whyte’s commentary on Shakespeare expands upon the topic: “All the most precious things in a human life are the very things to which we find it most difficult to make ourselves vulnerable and open. To feel a joy in life is also to know it is fleeting and will pass beyond our grasp.”

When I was a teenager, I was told that marriage was good because (1) it makes babies, (2) it stops the spread of STDs, and (3) it comes with legal benefits. Oh, and there was the whole “and because you love each other” thing, and the “God Said So” argument. I didn’t buy it. You can love someone without marrying them; we love our siblings and our friends all the time, but we don’t propose to them. “God Said So” seemed like an excuse not to think about it. Besides, in a world where medicine can produce children without sexual intercourse, where sex can happen without pregnancy and disease, and where we are steadily expanding legal rights to encompass all sorts of household relationships, why would anyone ever bother with this marriage thing in the first place?


Romantic misconceptions: why I thought marriage was stupid

One of my stumbling blocks was confusing “marriage” with “dramatic romance.” This “perfect mate myth” is a prevalent view among today’s young people; according to the 2001 report of Rutgers University’s National Marriage Project, 94% of never-married singles in their twenties agreed with “when you marry you want your spouse to be your soul mate, first and foremost.” Swooning maidens in Victorian novels and dramatic musical montages in romance films!  These all seemed silly. What a waste of time and energy! As a smart, independent teenage girl, I recognized that waiting for Some Dude to come around and fix my problems was far less efficient than just fixing them myself.

Because of what I was exposed to growing up, I thought that all relationships were either (1) weak excuses to have wistful, useless daydreams, or (2) duty-bound, woman-subordinating, drudging things with the occasional good moment. Neither seemed particularly worthwhile to me, so I came to the conclusion that romantic partnership and marriage and so forth were Not For Me, Thank You. As a consequence, my high school friends (and I) thought I was asexual. (We were very, very wrong — but that’s a different topic for another day.)

The friendship of marriage: the wonder of ordinary companionship

What did I want, then? Searching and prodding and friendship. Companionship on the difficult and worthwhile path to living fully and doing good and learning how to love. I wanted — and still want — that. I just didn’t know what that was called, or if it was even a thing. And then last week, I read Gaillardetz’s depiction of an alternate montage:

Scene one shows a couple herding children into the back of a minivan; scene two shows a woman paying bills at the kitchen table while the man washes dishes; scene three reveals a woman hauling in groceries from the car, while scene four shows a man trying to give cough syrup to a screaming three-year-old. In the final scene we see the couple, finally relaxing in bed, reading together. Soon they turn to kiss each other, turn out the light, and go to sleep.” — A Daring Promise

I didn’t know that was something marriage could be. Turns out there’s a word for it — “companionate marriage,” the sociological term for friendship in marriage. That’s what my heart aches for, way more than a dramatic scene under a balcony (yes, Romeo and Juliet has beautiful poetry, but really — those kids were just bad at communicating). Companionate marriage is the blessing and the wonder of the ordinary — the privilege of loving in the ordinary way, day after ordinary day. There’s a deep satisfaction in that sort of friendship, the notion of a work and companionship that suffuses your entire life. It’s an image of marriage that makes me think: “Yes, that would be worth it; how can I do that? Tell me more.”

Rejecting the “therapy” model of perfect expectations

The question of “how can I do that?” implies an attempt to do as well as possible, but it does not imply an expectation of perfection that can’t be upheld. One common sentiment on marriage is that you should find a partner who “meets your needs” and “gives you space.” Gaillardetz calls this the “therapy mentality,” and critiques it as unrealistic; a therapist is paid to do this work with you asymmetrically (you don’t counsel your therapist back) and occasionally (for short, occasional, and temporary time periods). “All good marriages meet some of our needs some of the time, but no marriage can meet all of our needs all of the time,” Gaillardetz points out. “…to the extent that our culture offers us models that lead us to expect as much, we will never be able to cultivate a fruitful lifelong marriage with another.”

Seeing and rejecting the “therapy model” of marriage is liberating. I no longer have the expectation that I have to be the perfect therapist, the constant need-meeter, the one who always has to drive and carry and make sure things are going to be all right. (In hindsight, Teenage Mel saw a lot of this broken expectation placed on married women, which is one reason she disavowed becoming one herself.)

Stepping away from the “therapy model” also frees us from a consumerist perspective which treats marriages (and spouses) as products with a certain feature set. Spouses aren’t cell phones. When next year’s model comes out and it’s shiner and sexier, we can’t just say “whoops, I’ll divorce you so I can go get that upgrade.” That’s no way to treat someone, and no way to be treated.

Meeting each other’s needs: becoming training partners who always keep trying

Now, this does not mean that spouses shouldn’t try. Husbands and wives should absolutely strive to serve each other, meet each other’s needs, and give each other room and encouragement to grow; they absolutely should. Love is shown in service and in action. But to say we fail and have a “bad marriage” unless we do that constantly, unrelentingly, 24/7 for decades on end without a single slip-up, regardless of how tired, sick, burdened by outside factors, etc. we become… is to pretend that we’re perfect, inhuman beings. That’s always a setup for failure. We can and should always try, but we also need to recognize we’ll fall short and be shortchanged in our turn, despite how hard we try to love each other, and so we also need to constantly forgive, and there will be that recognition of our mutual humanity and an encouragement to deepen within it.

A Daring Promise describes husbands and wives as “more than the source for the fulfillment of our needs and desires — our spouse is also the mysterious “other” who cajoles and sometimes demands our growth.” To me, this is like two training partners working towards a marathon together. Yes, they should always run their fastest and encourage each other to perform their best — but this includes stopping to rest when someone’s out of breath, and getting a sprained ankle splinted and through physical therapy, and readjusting when someone catches a cold, or when it’s pouring freezing rain, or whatever things life throws at you. You adjust together and do the best you can, and recognize that your success lies in the discipline of doing the best you can — not running a 6-minute-mile pace for 20+ miles every day for years with a perfect unbroken record, because humans can’t physiologically do that. Life will happen, and to be successful, we have got to be okay with that and able to adapt.

And this is painful. Once again, this change — and supporting this change in our partners — is painful. Whyte describes the agony of this sort of work in a passage that struck me so hard that I’ll just reproduce it here in its entirety:

“ To find our partners’ desires, we must sustain a conversation with them that helps to bring those wants and desires to light. Sometimes we have to do this even when they are afraid of discovering them themselves. The deep, abiding fear is that we will stumble across the desire in them that wants a life different from the one we are capable of giving them. Essentially, we are afraid that they may find that their desire is to love something or even someone else – one of the most painful discoveries a partner can make. The crux then, the most difficult ground in the relationship, the portion of a relationship that elevates it to the level of a religious discipline or practice, is that I must “love,” must see the very part of my partner that could take this person away from me. I must keep contact with the part of the person that is pulling him or her into the future, though I risk not participating in that horizon.” — The Three Marriages

I understand why people would want to be able to receive and give this sort of support, and if one finds it within a marriage, I understand why marriage would be “worth it.” However, I couldn’t figure out how this was humanly possible.

How is marriage possible? Answer: it is both human and divine.

Well, I was right. It isn’t humanly possible. But that’s what blows my mind about the Sacrament of Marriage. After this week’s readings, I understand it — dimly, vaguely, but in awe — as a Love Transplant. In marriage, God takes human love and replaces it with divine love — which gets a little logically loopy, because God is love.

But that’s what happens; Love himself becomes the heart and center of your marriage; Love himself becomes the thing that holds the two of you together. Not feeble human will, not temporary human feeling. And not the watered-down variant of “love” that only has surface expressions of hearts and flowers. Love. The kind of love that leads people to sacrifice, even die for each other; the kind of love that keeps vigil in a hospital in the middle of the night and scrubs toilets in double shifts to send a child to school. Gaudium Et Spes says that “such love, merging the human with the divine, leads the spouses to a free and mutual gift of themselves, a gift providing itself by gentle affection and by deed, such love pervades the whole of their lives.”

By having that love pervade our marriages and lives, the nurturing and healing of relationships and the rearing of children become topics we can serve as witness to and things we can concretely help others with, because we share them. Marriage is also a secular institution, so it is common ground for those of all faiths — and of no faith. Secular marriage can point towards sacramental marriage, which always points to Christ/Love/God. However, being in the world and of the world can make it easy to forget that marriage is also divine. Hearing so many conflicting messages on “marriage” from the society around us can cause us to question the accuracy of our compass. Standing up for the truth can cause us to be labelled as intolerant and exclusionary — and I have personally been frustrated by the ignorance and intolerance of Catholics and Christians who condemn LGBTQ people (which is totally against Church doctrine, by the way) and don’t have an understanding or a sympathy towards alternate perspectives and family arrangement — and the very, very real love that lives within them. I’m hoping we will wrestle with these topics later in the course.

But I digress. The beauty of marriage is that you commit to loving someone forever — and that you’re given the grace to do that. It’s possible to do that. You don’t love them for the things they do, or even the qualities they have — you love them for who they are, as who they are, simply because they are. You love them for their sake, because they’re there for you to love, and you have chosen to love them. With all the difficulties that inevitably come up in life and in any relationship between people — how easy it is to get frustrated or annoyed or angry, how fragile these bonds sometimes are — it astounds me that us human beings are given the privilege to make that choice and the grace (if we ask for it) to keep it. I am awed that we can choose that, and I… think that it would be… a real honor to do so.*

*while still keeping in mind that it would also be a real honor to have either of the other two vocations (single life and religious life). God calls you where you’re going to be the happiest, and all that.

Some things I want my kids to learn

As I mentioned previously, my kids are going to have a mom who’s a scholar and a maker. They’ll grow up thinking that everyone writes their own software and builds their own bikes, and that “stick a microcontroller in and automate it” is a normal solution to a household problem. They’ll know how long it takes to write a book, what “sabbaticals” are (and why mom is so excited about them), and why we throw a massive celebration when one of our friends gets tenure. They’ll walk through grocery stores and be able to tell you how each mass-produced item was probably manufactured.

But I also want to make sure they think other things are No Big Deal, as my friend Sumana puts it. Working with their hands — the dignity of manual labor, the knowledge that just because they’re privileged with education doesn’t make them better than people who aren’t. A skepticism towards elitism. Respect for mastery and skill, no matter what its form. They’ll grow up seeing, discussing, and working against racism, sexism, classism, ablism, homophobia, ageism — discrimination in all of its forms, because social justice demands that we see and appreciate the infinite worth of each person. I want them to recognize and honor the dignity of those who may be different from them, disagree with them, perhaps even hurt them. I want them to know that doing this is very, very hard, but it’s the good kind of hard that’s worth trying your hardest at.

I want them to read and think and calculate, but I also want them to know the physicality of human experience — not to get stuck inside their brains, but to move through life with their entire bodies, and to let life move through their entire bodies, tackling tumbling and dancing and running and climbing with as much gusto as they tackle books. I want them to experience the bigness and the beauty of the world; so many languages and cultures, how precious it is to have the opportunity to travel, and how material poverty is the least awful kind (compared to intellectual, emotional, social, or spiritual poverty, at least). I want them to never be hungry, but I also want them to know that they are not enslaved by their hunger, and that there are worse things than going without food.

I want them to know where food comes from, and how to prepare it, and how to clean the kitchen afterwards, and how to bring breakfast in bed to their parents. (This means learning to make good tea, coffee, and smoothies early on, and learning what “lactose intolerant” means, because their genes will be at least 50% Asian). How to be kind to animals, gentle with the earth, loving towards one another, and patient in communicating (especially with their deaf mom). How to perceive and pursue the mystery that underlies reality — the practice of how one pursues growth as a human being made of and for and from love. (I call this “Catholicism,” and think of my faith practice as a sort of gymnasium for getting Better At Love.) The joy of giving.

But in the end, they’ll also come from a very human mother (and a very human father), and we’ll mess up time and time again. I want them to see that even professors mess up, that engineers make prototypes that break, and — more broadly — that human beings are not perfect, but that we are free to choose. And that one of our choices is always to stand up again when we fall down, and try again to walk the path towards everything that’s good.

Academics with academic mothers: a total side note on cultural capital

When I hang out with academic-offspring-of-academics like Alice or Caryn, I am struck by how much cultural capital gets passed from parents to children. I am the first person in my family to pursue a PhD, and every new benchmark in my academic career has slammed into me like a freight train of surprises: what is this “tenure” thing, and — wait, tenure is a big deal? What do you mean, I have to write in order to “do research”? And what’s this about “grants?” What are those, and why would you “write” them? Don’t universities just pay your salary?

I am a little jealous of my friends and colleagues who implicitly absorbed so many of these things from parents (and particularly mothers) who were and are academics. I often struggle to explain my work and my confusion to my family of middle-class, (mostly) fluent-English-speaking (mostly) college-educated professionals — I can’t even imagine what first-generation college students working outside their native language have to go through.

Perhaps my obliviousness is exaggerated by my deafness, since I don’t overhear (or join in on) those side conversations about academic culture that so many of my classmates seem to know. And maybe this frequent experience of getting hit by cultural freight trains is why I strain so hard to make my work accessible to others. I don’t want to be another contributor within the walled garden of the elite, because I know what it’s like to be locked out of that garden, blindly struggling to climb a fence into a world I want to join, even if I don’t really know what it looks like. (Yes, I still feel that way every day. I’ll probably still feel that way when I get tenure. Helen Keller got it right when she said being deaf cuts you off from people — it’s a statement that holds true even when those people are the family, friends, and colleagues you’re closest to.)

I also realize that, for what it’s worth, my kids will have a mother who is an academic writer/teacher and a hacker/engineer, and my meditations on that have grown to the point that they should be another blog post…


Journalistic vs scholarly writing: notes from a meeting with Alice Pawley

I’m blessed to have Alice Pawley on my PhD committee. Among many other things, Alice is an excellent writer and an excellent giver-of-feedback on writing. Since I’m still working to find my academic writing “voice,” I met with Alice this summer and asked for advice. This blog post consists of my synthesized recollections from that conversation. Three main topics stuck with me:

  1. What is good writing?
  2. What differentiates good journalistic writing from good scholarly writing?
  3. Where can I find examples of good scholarly writing, including writing in nontraditional formats and writing for lay audiences?

What is good writing?

According to Alice: good writing, academic or not, consists of:

  1. Coherent arguments in the form of structured and supported points…
  2. that are grounded in data…
  3. and have a so-what that tells the reader why they should care about what you’re saying.

What differentiates good journalistic writing from good scholarly writing?

Although it seems obvious now, this point was the one that surprised me the most: not all good nonfiction writing about science is scholarly writing. Scholarly writing — research — needs to introduce new knowledge to the world while still connecting to existing scientific literature. In contrast, journalistic writing is about ideas that matter and topics that people care (or ought to care) about. The two categories can overlap, but they don’t have to. Instead of being research, journalistic writing might be about research; it may present ideas that have already been introduced to the world.

I had been mixing up scholarly and journalistic writing, assuming that if it was about research, it was research. Nope, said Alice. By that standard, any book by Malcolm Gladwell qualified as scholarly writing. (I immediately grimaced, saw my logical hole, and retracted that statement.) By the updated criteria of “must introduce new knowledge,” many of my favorite “scholarly” writing books get recategorized from scholarly writing to “good journalism about science.” These include everything by Michael Pollan (of Omnivore’s Dilemna fame), Dan Coyle’s The Talent Code and Andrew Solomon’s Far From The Tree – easy concessions for me to make, because Pollan, Coyle and Solomon are journalists by trade. But even when the book is written by a researcher, it may not be research — for instance, Steven Levitt is an economics researcher, but his popular book Freakonomics is a journalistic synthesis of existing economics work.

These are tools for thinking, not perfect definitions. For instance, I find it difficult to categorize books in which researchers synthesize and re-present their own original research for a lay audience, such as Deci and Ryan’s Why We Do What We Do (still my go-to refresher on intrinsic motivation and self-determinism theory) and Wenger’s Cultivating Communities of Practice (a mercifully navigable business-audience rendition of his theoretically dense book Communities of Practice). A common pattern seems to be co-authorship between the original researcher, who presumably understands the ideas in the book better than anyone else, and a journalist, who presumably makes them understandable to everyone else.

Where can I find examples of good scholarly writing, including writing in nontraditional formats and writing for lay audiences?

Okay, I said. Then what would qualify as scholarly writing? We came up with a few examples: Belenky et. al.’s Women’s Ways of Knowing and Bateson’s Composing a Life were already on my list of favorites, as are practically all of Csikszentmihalyi’s books (the most famous being Flow.) Alice also recommended Bowker and Star’s Sorting Things Out, Cowan’s More Work for Mother, and Gieryn’s Cultural Boundaries of Science – along with Reading Places and Reading on the Middle Borders by her mother, Christine Pawley. On the “nontraditional format” front, Alice recommended reading academic bloggers and most things published by MIT Press, including their mediawork pamphlet series. (Laurel’s Utopian Entrepreneur is an example of a pamphlet in that series.)

I’m primarily interested in nontraditional formats because I want to reach a lay audience, but Alice pointed out that the “lay audience” step usually comes last in writing — Wenger couldn’t have written Cultivating Communities of Practice for a lay audience without having written Communities of Practice before that. Even books like Women’s Ways of Knowing and Flow and anything by Brene Brown draw on material that their authors originally wrote for an audience that shared their specialty. It helps to wrestle with ideas alongside people who understand our “shop talk,” just like it helps to have fellow programmers review your code even (or especially!) if your end product is an application for non-programmers.

That’s a long way of saying that my dissertation will probably not be (pleasurably) readable for a lay audience. I do want to edit it into something that will be fun for non-reseachers to read, but I need to write the research version first and graduate, then write the book for everybody else. And I think I am okay with that, although it has taken a while.

Thus saith the JON: using open-source Bible software to navigate my dissertation data

“You need a way to refer to your data and let us know where things are coming from,” said Robin.

I stared at the scribbly pages on the table between us and nodded. It was a mess. The great thing about letting your narrators read and refer to one another’s stories is that you end up with fantastically rich reactions. The problem is that you end up with stories that cross-reference each other, and it gets hard to disentangle who is quoting whose paraphrase of whose original thought. Was this Jon quoting Lynn? Lynn referring to Rob’s interpretation of Jon’s reaction to Lynn? My annotation on Lynn’s reference to Rob’s interpretation of… where were we, again? It was making my head spin, and I’d spent dozens of hours with these narrative transcripts.

“The data comes out over time,” said Robin. “And there are different voices, but the newer ones know and refer to the older ones,” I added. “Very specific pieces of the older ones, and they reinterpret it in light of what’s happening to them now.”

“So you need a citation format,” Robin said again, as I scribbled a long citation prototype on one corner of the transcript. (1 Jon Stolk, 2014, p. 4). That seemed so… clunky. I wanted to be able to create concordances, just like the…


What if, instead of 1 Corinthians 13:4-7, I had 2 Rob 4:18-22? Break my transcripts into “chapters” by topic, and “verses” within those chapters by thought-unit, and then used a familiar compact citation format within the text?

1I think that’s one of the interesting things about being in a place like this. And I say Berea, because it’s quite unique. Because most of the people who are here are not here because it’s a job. They’re not here because of the pay. They’re not here because of the glory associated with it. They’re not here because they love Berea, Kentucky. They’re here because they like the school and they care about the students and they care about the mission. [2 Mark* 16**:1-4]

*Mahoney, a professor at Berea (yep, this content’s open-licensed)
**may not actually be chapter 16 in the final numbering, I need to go through and split everything properly

Instead of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, I have Gary, Mark, Lynn, and Jon… and Rob and Alan. I can now take my data and dump it into some sort of open-source Bible web software and make concordances, and study notes, and… all those other things that people do with Bibles that we already have a ton of software for. My data will actually be navigable. I can easily hyperlink to subsections of it from within my dissertation text.

My indexes and commentaries and concordances on the narrative text also turn into analysis, and all that analysis (not to mention the narrative text itself) — through all the open-source tools people have released to analyze the Bible. I can repurpose the work of hundreds of Christian software engineers to visualize and understand these 6 professors talking about engineering and technology curriculum design. BWAHAHAHA!

Of course, I’m going to need to resist the temptation to rewrite the transcripts into something like this:

A reading from the First Data according to Jon.

Thus saith the JON: My name is JON. I have been at Olin since 2001, and it is since 2001 that I have been at Olin. Lo, I have arrived a little bit before students arrived, in the summertime at the start of July.  I, the JON, was at Olin early enough to hear lots of conversations from the founding faculty, the group of 8 here before me; 8 they were in number, and their number was 8. For I am the JON, and thus have I spoken, quoth the JON.

The word of the JON. (Thanks be to JON.)

Alex and Lisa and dry feet

I’m going to write about something that’s haunted me for a while. I haven’t written like this for a long time, and details in this story will be changed for privacy reasons.

It was last fall or winter — chilly, but before the bitter cold came. I had stepped into the street to wait while several friends were finishing their shopping. One of those friends — I’ll call her Alex — was already waiting outside. Alex is the young, excited type; happy with everything, friendly with everyone. This time, Alex was crouched on the sidewalk talking with an older woman who had a battered backpack, a cardboard sign asking for money, and a paper cup with coins she’d been tossed. She introduced me to the woman — I’ll call her Lisa.

Lisa was about my mom’s age. As we talked, we learned she had kids about my age, and grandkids. Hadn’t seen them in years. I got the sense there had been some sort of conflict with her kids, and contact broken off — and she wanted to reestablish it, but they didn’t want to be associated with her and the state she was living in. There might have been regret in her voice, but there was also gumption and pride. She was just homeless for a few days — her caseworker had messed up, she said, and didn’t pay her rent, so she had been evicted from her old place. Had to wait a few days to get an appointment about getting a new one. Was sleeping on the streets in the meantime, but it was all right; it wouldn’t get too cold in the next few days.

Suddenly, Alex asked: “Lisa, what size shoes do you wear?”

And then: “Try mine.”

It took some persuasion — Alex finally pointed out that she had other shoes at home, she’d switch to them tonight, she wouldn’t miss this one pair and besides she’d got it at the clearance section of REI for $20 — but Lisa finally agreed. When she pulled Alex’s sneakers onto her feet, she sighed in delight. So nice, to have warm feet without the wind cutting through them, she said. To know that they’ll stay dry.

“I got them last month, they’re not new,” said Alex. ”But they’ll at least keep your feet warm.” Alex pulled Lisa’s shoes onto her feet and wiggled her toes experimentally — you could see her socks poking through the soles, which had been worn completely through in several places. Alex laughed, but I grimaced; I’d worn shoes down like that, back when I couldn’t afford new ones, and walking through the cold, wet streets that fall had become a constant hidden reminder of that poverty. Not being able to afford warm feet.

We asked Lisa to be our dinner guest that night. Nothing fancy; student-budget food-truck fare, something where we could afford to say “order whatever you want, take as much food as you can.” She asked what we were doing, and I told her about school, and she said good, stay in that, complete your studies. She said she wished she could go back and learn so many things, but it was too late now; there was no time left for her.

No, I told her. Not too late. Plenty of older people go to college; there are scholarships and grants, and if she wanted, we could help her find one to apply for –

Alex left for the restroom in the middle of my diatribe. Once the Young Excited Happy Person was out of earshot, Lisa pointed at her plate, which had been hardly touched. “I can’t eat very much,” she said. “I’ll take this home, but you’ll notice I have a hard time eating.” Indeed, I had noticed that Lisa had been occasionally silent and still along our walk to dinner, and wondered out loud if that might be pain.

Lisa glanced around to make sure Alex wasn’t back yet, and dropped her voice. “I’m sick,” she said. “I really have no time left. The doctors say I have less than a year to live, maybe even 6 months.” I don’t remember what it was, but it was somehow stomach-related. Cancer, maybe. “So I really can’t go back to school,” said Lisa. “I wouldn’t live to finish a degree.”

Alex came back, and we abruptly switched our conversation to happier topics — her grandkids, the upcoming holidays, what Alex and I wanted to be when we grew up. I noticed Lisa tucked her food carefully into her bag, largely untouched except for a few spoons of rice. We bade each other a good night, gave Lisa a big hug, and off we went; Lisa to wherever she was sleeping for the night, and us to the discount department store, at my insistence. I told Alex in no uncertain terms we were going to put another pair of sneakers on her feet, right now, because those old shoes were making my feet cold just looking at them.

Alex looked happy, running through the shelves of marked-off discount shoes, looking for the cheapest sneakers that would fit her. “Look, I only had to wear those shoes for what, a mile?” she laughed as she peeled the soggy rags into a garbage can. “And now Lisa has good shoes. They’re only a month old, and a good brand — they should last her for at least a year.”

She’ll die before those shoes wear out, I thought, but didn’t speak that thought out loud. Instead, I smiled and paid for Alex’s new shoes. “My treat,” I said. “I know what crappy shoes feel like; besides, you paid for dinner, so we’re even now.”

Alex still wears the shoes I gave her. They are starting to wear through. She showed me her shoes recently, and joked that they were turning into Lisa’s shoes; there aren’t holes yet, but the soles are wearing thin and smooth and it’s only a matter of time.

And that’s when I remembered. It’s been nearly a year now, and I wonder: how is Lisa? Is she still alive? If so, are Alex’s shoes still keeping her feet warm? Or maybe Lisa and the doctors were right; she’s dead, maybe months dead from whatever sickness was killing her, and those shoes were the last shoes that she wore. Or maybe — I don’t know. But I realized that Alex’s shoes were what reminded me occasionally of Lisa, and that I might not remember Lisa once those shoes were gone.

So I decided to write this, because I want to remember: I want to remember the woman, and the evening, and the conversations, and the dinner, and the shoes — the spontaneous act of kindness, and the warmth of dry feet, and a reminder to myself to never take comforts for granted (I’ve been able to afford dry shoes for years now). I told Alex, and she’s ok with me writing this; she was sobered when she heard of Lisa’s illness, and we prayed together that Lisa might find peace somehow, wherever she is now.

“Peace and dry feet,” Alex added.



Mel’s learning styles profile (spoiler: it’s not a surprise)

Oh. Since I’m asking so many Hacker Schoolers for their engineering learning styles, it seemed only fair to post my own.



Text-accessible version: For each of the 4 axes, I am almost on the extreme edge one side. Specifically, I am very active (not reflective), very intuitive (not sensing), very visual (not verbal), and very global (not sequential).

It’s interesting to reflect on how these results may be skewed by other factors — for instance, am I a visual learner because I’m also profoundly deaf? Is there some alternate-universe hearing-Mel who soaks in audiobooks and lectures? I certainly love reading, and am a fluent writer and improvisational speaker, so it’s not that I’m unable to navigate verbal information… it’s just harder, although I don’t think I can dissect my hearing from any innate preference I might have with an undamaged cochlea.

It’s also interesting to see what axes I have and haven’t been able to stretch past my preference on. As noted above, my visual preference hasn’t kept me from being extremely fluent with the verbal end of the spectrum; the visual-verbal axis is one I feel I can shuttle freely across with little trouble (except when it relates to being deaf — once I can perceive the words, I’m fine).

The active/reflective spectrum is more of a stretch — impulse control and careful checking are a constant challenge for me (and ADHD doesn’t help), but it is often doable for short spurts with grueling, deliberate effort, partly because I have a clear idea of what “reflective” looks like and can therefore force myself to masquerade as such if needed. But it is absolutely a masquerade, and one that wears me down quickly.

I don’t think I know how to be anything other than intuitive. My brain makes connections no matter what I do. However, it makes connections so darn well that I also love a sensor’s concrete examples (possibly because they often use physical/visual artifacts) because it’s easy for my brain to generalize from case studies to high-level topics and theories. This means I can function in an environment designed for sensors, but I can’t masquerade as a sensor the way I can masquerade (poorly, and with great effort) as a reflective person.

It’s a similar thing with being global; I am definitely strongly global and cannot pretend to be sequential, but I’ve learned to function in a sequential world by reading ahead, devouring alternative resources, piecing together bits into my own big picture, asking question after question after question (as an active learner) until I have the bits and pieces that I need. This also reflects the way I recreate auditory data — I get bits and snatches, then piece them together into whole sentences and conversations (and it usually works, sort of). I piece together auditory data — and at a broader level, conceptual/intellectual information on topics I’m learning — the same way the normal human visual cortex stitches together a full-color, high-definition scene from the brief glimpses of our eyes’ tiny, lossy sensors as they saccade across the landscape…

But that’s another blog post for another day.

Visualization examples, external cognition, and starting to play with text data

The best part of Visualization class so far is getting exposed to a wild gallery of examples (visual Hacker Schoolers, take note!) Some of my favorites:

I also learned a new phrase: external cognition (Scaife & Rogers, 1996) — it’s a concept I’ve used many times, but now I have a literature reference for it! External cognition refers to using stuff to offload your brain — for me, it’s spreading papers out on my desk, scribbling on a whiteboard, saving notes on a computer, and so forth… instead of memorizing, I learn how to look up things, or I configure my software to pop up notifications to remind me. Basically, I get a lot less “smart” without my tools.

I’ve decided my class project will be a visualization of narrative data (from my dissertation) — how to navigate between intertwined stories of the same event from multiple viewpoints. In addition to thematic similarities, we have examples of:

  • Same event, same narrator, different tellings: Lynn sits down in the spring and tells me about the first day of UOCD (a class). Later in the summer, Lynn sits down again and tells me about the same first day of UOCD — how do the two versions of her telling differ?
  • Same event, different narrators: Jon also told me about the first day of UOCD. How is his account similar/different from Lynn’s?
  • Narrators mentioning each other: Lynn mentions Jon in her account of UOCD’s first day, and Jon mentions Lynn.
  • Narrators responding to each other: Once Lynn reads what Jon said, she starts thinking about how she told the story. (Possible sub-question: what in our stories do we choose to focus on / react to? Is there a heatmap we can make?)

This is going to be fun to play with and untangle — I’m not sure what I want to visualize yet, but the above connections seem like a reasonable starting point.

Welcome to my dissertation: a poststructural perspective on engineering and technology faculty as learners

I’m going to gradually share my dissertation proposal here as I migrate it to github and into LaTeX – I’d love reactions, comments, questions, etc! The title is “a poststructural perspective on engineering and technology faculty as learners,” which will hopefully make sense after the first 2 paragraphs.

Faculty are learners, too.

We often think of engineering and technology faculty as teachers. As facilitators of student learning, they hold certain philosophies about teaching and learning that shape their interactions in the classroom. However, faculty are also learners themselves, students of the practice of “teaching engineering and technology.” As engineering education researchers concerned with research-to-practice transfer, the ways we think about faculty-as-learners likewise shape the ways we try to impact their practice. Making this thinking more visible within the engineering/technology domain is of interest to engineering and technology faculty members, faculty development professionals, and adult learning researchers.

My dissertation draws on the traditions of cognitive apprenticeship and narrative within engineering education research to explore poststructuralism as one possible perspective on faculty-as-learners. Poststructuralism is a paradigm that constantly seeks a “making-strange” and unsettling of habitual narratives. A poststructural view challenges us to remain in the discomfort of liminal (in-between) spaces where everything is constantly troubled and nothing ever really settles. This study demonstrates a concrete method for engaging faculty members in that liminal space. Through it, I anticipate contributing to our ability to articulate and value faculty explorations in chaotic territories such as large-scale curriculum redesigns, new program formation, and other places where valuable growth occurs but is rarely put into words.

How can we think of faculty as learners?

I will briefly describe several qualities of faculty-as-learners, compare and contrast them to the qualities presented in existing literature, and explore why it may be valuable to make these qualities visible. Note that by comparing and contrasting my approach to other studies, I am not making statements about the relative quality or validity of their work. I am also not saying that these ways of viewing faculty-as-learners are not present in any existing literature. I am simply using differences and similarities to more clearly articulate certain assumptions about faculty-as-learners that are present in this project.

They are situated in the community of practice of teaching their discipline.

The first quality of faculty-as-learners is that they are situated in a community of practice (Wenger, 1999), that of teaching their discipline. By making sense of the activities of other practitioners around them, they develop the skill of reflection-in-action (Scho¨n, 1983) and use this metacognition and self-monitoring to improve their own practice. Existing engineering education change initiatives have used this cognitive apprenticeship (Collins, Brown, & Newman, 1987; Collins, Brown, & Holum, 1991) approach to build Faculty Learning Communities (Cox, 2004) and other communities of practice to encourage rigorous research in engineering education (Streveler, Smith, & Miller, 2005). Understanding faculty as situated and communal learners helps explain the limited success of an “information dissemination” approach (Siddiqui and Adams, 2013) to research-to-practice transfer. If faculty change their teaching practice primarily in response to direct interactions with colleagues (Fincher, Richards, Finlay, Sharp, & Falconer, 2012) and not print materials, it’s no surprise that journal papers continue to go unread (Borrego, Froyd, & Hall, 2010).

They are adult learners.

The second quality of faculty-as-learners is that they are adult learners. They have rich histories of experience to draw upon as well as expectations of agency (Vella, 1997). This quality allows us to portray faculty as narrators, highly capable and interdependent agents who both read and co-author the stories of “how things are done” within their culture. The Disciplinary Commons initiative (Tenenberg & Fincher, 2007), which scaffolds faculty through a dialogic process of creating teaching portfolios for their existing courses, is an exemplar of validating faculty as adult learners. Initiatives that treat faculty as mere empty “buckets” to be filled with “information about teaching,” such as information sessions dedicated to lecturing faculty about why they should not lecture, may have a limited impact because of this epistemological disjoint.

They learn by engaging in liminal experiences.

The third quality of faculty-as-learners is that they often learn by engaging in liminal experiences where their activities do not fall into a cleanly articulable structure, and can therefore be described as poststructural. In fact, the liminal experiences of faculty are often explicitly about dismantling old structures and remaking new ones, such as the founding of a new college (S. Kerns, Miller, & D. Kerns, 2005) or degree program (Katehi et. al., 2004), dramatic overhauls of an existing curriculum (Mentkowski, 2000), or the creation of experimental classes.

The trouble with liminal experiences is that they stand outside the realm of structure, including the structure of validation and reward. Our existing academic system rewards faculty for engaging in liminal spaces for their research, so long as they are able to publish papers about it afterwards. However, the examples listed all impact teaching, a form of scholarship that is underdeveloped and unrecognized (Shulman, 1998), with a correspondingly slow speed of change. Mann’s (1918) calls for engineering educators to improve student retention, make undergraduate workloads reasonable, and increase hands-on training still sound as relevant today as when he wrote his report nearly a century ago. Our calls for transforming engineering education (National Academy of Engineering, 2005; Institute of Medicine, National Academy of Sciences, & National Academy of Engineering, 2007; McKenna, 2011) will similarly go unheeded unless we find ways to understand and articulate the ways faculty learn and work in these liminal spaces.

Research question

By having engineering and technology faculty work with their stories of liminal experiences, this study addresses the following research question: How can the interacting narratives of engineering and technology faculty inform our understanding of faculty as learners?

Want to give Mel homework? Help me think of a visualization term project.

I’m taking my last (required) engineering course as a student this semester. It’s a course on visualization based taught by David Ebert and Abish Malik. Basically, I’ll get credit for using my computer to make pretty pictures based on giant datasets. Shiny! It’s also my first-ever engineering course with an interpreter (Laurie), and I’m sucking up new technical ASL vocabulary like a sponge; this semester is unexpectedly full of opportunities to practice my signing. Double-shiny.

I’ve got to start thinking of a term project, and so far I have a few main ideas — but others are welcome, along with brainstorms on how to flesh them out. If I can get a firm idea before Sep 30, I can prototype an entry for the NSF visualization challenge. Project requirements are here, and my ideas so far are:

A dashboard for Hacker Schoolers which would track metrics of interest based on what people consider relevant to their “becoming a better programmer.” Particularly interesting, I think, might be a visualization for Hacker School facilitators – what ways can we use already public data to give them an overview of what many people are doing at once, with the ability to zoom in, compare, etc. as they want? However, I don’t have a clear vision as to what this might look like, so feature ideas/requests are welcome.

Visual ways to navigate intertwined narrative text for my dissertation, which involves people telling stories in response to other people’s stories (and then the original storytellers tell new stories in response to those responses… so they’re intricately tangled up).

Complex symphonic music as experienced with hearing loss, hearing aids, and cochlear implants. My interest in this area is pretty obvious, but this now seems like the most boring project of the three — I could be wrong, though!

Help me brainstorm, intarbrainz!

In other news: today’s class was mainly adminstrivia and an overview of visualization, which is one of many ways to (literally) “make things visible” — converting numerical, abstract data into a graphical representation. For visual learners (like myself), this is effectively translating into our native mental file format. For practically everyone, visualization frees up much of the cognition involved in processing massive amounts of numerical data, allowing us to use higher-level brain functions to ask and analyze interesting questions (I’d heard this before), and making us more confident in our decisions (I hadn’t heard this before). Some fun viz examples include Chris Harrison’s visualization of Biblical cross-references and a map of the US colored by distance to the nearest McDonald’s.

And with that, I’m off to my next meeting. It’s amazing how much more energetic and happy and just plain kind I am when I don’t pretend I’m hearing — telling people I’m deaf, having accessibility in my classes… even my brother noticed it (“You’re less grumpy with your hearing aids,” said Jason in the minivan last month).