QualMIP week 2: Interview nonverbals

Part of the QualMIP series, introduced here.

This is a hurried record that won’t be as eloquent as I would like, but that’s okay. Some record is better than none. The reason: we have visitors from Brazil here this week, and the team opportunistically retooled and bumped a lot of things one week forward so we could teach them some of the things we’ve started exploring in order to give them tools for their own observations of Olin. (I am incredibly proud of them.) So this is… a hurried “wow, they’re coming in half an hour” typing spree on what we did today.

Nonverbals don’t show up on your audio recorder

When conducting qualitative research interviews, researchers often audio-record them for later transcription and analysis. This means that every word you say… is a word you need to transcribe. Sometimes this is great, because you want a verbatim record of something that wouldn’t otherwise show on tape (“okay, you’re laughing now, what’s up?”). Sometimes it’s less great, because your utterances (“uh huh”) are noise rather than signal and add nothing to your analysis. It depends on your goals.

Therefore, it’s useful to think about how to communicate things nonverbally so you can prompt people in ways that don’t — or do — show up in the recording. We played with how to communicate phrases like:

  1. Tell me more!
  2. Why do you say that?
  3. What do you mean by…
  4. Please expand on that.
  5. I don’t understand.
  6. Could you say that again?
  8. Ooh, total empathy here.

Note that we’re also making-visible the disconnect between “what really happened” and what got captured — there’s no such thing as being able to capture everything. In fact, the previous activity is an exercise in manipulating “what happens” so that it either does — or doesn’t — show up.

Interviewing through a window

After discussing nonverbals, we split into three different roles:

  1. An interviewer
  2. An interviewee
  3. Observers

For this exercise, we used a section of the life stories protocol because it was familiar to Olin’s campus (thanks, Jon Adler!) and open-ended while lending itself to taking notes (you could write chapter titles on the whiteboard as you interviewed so observers could easily track where the conversation was).

The interviewer was under instructions to be as nonverbal as possible, as per the previous exercise. The interviewee was instructed to pay attention to what actions of the interviewer made it easier or harder for them to elicit information. Observers watched the interview through a window — we could only see nonverbals. Afterwards, we came back together and the observers did an instant replay of body language and things we could infer about the experience through observation.

This exercise served as a combination interview and observation one, and ideally we’d repeat and rotate through it if we had more time in the semester. We also discussed room and furniture setup and thinking about the effect of various affordances and arrangements in the interview space, and how it might affect you interviewing “down” versus “up” (people who are higher or lower power in status than you, as seen by most of society).

Evening culture skit with Insper students

We went on to plan the evening workshop with Insper students, our visitors from Brazil.

Learning goals:

  • Understand culture and motivation at Olin and Insper
  • Understand power dynamics and its cultural influence

How will we know we’ve won?

  • Participants will be able to articulate observations about culture, power, and motivation differences.


  1. Repeat of the power dynamics warmup from the previous QualMIP, adapted to a larger team.
  2. Divide into two teams of equal size, with one Olin team and one Insper team.
  3. Each team prepares a 1-2 minute skit of what a “normal” classroom looks like for them. Exaggeration and hilarity is encouraged. Each skit is allowed to say one word and one word only, in the vein of Doug Zongker’s “Chicken Chicken Chicken” paper/presentation.
  4. Performances. Laughing.
  5. Break to think alone for a moment.
  6. Pair off (1 Olin student + 1 Insper student in each pair) and interview each other as a first debrief as to what sorts of cultural scripts you saw in operation. This isn’t really a formal interview, it’s more like a slightly extended “pair” in “think pair share.”
  7. Bring back to group discussion and comparison and bringing up of cultural assumptions/norms/etc. The “share” of “think pair share.”

My secret intent here was to have the team engage in the early stages of a (hurried) protocol design process, albeit a heavily interventional one. They came back with all sorts of thoughts about positionality (“how do we introduce ourselves so they jump into the activity with us?”), sensitivity (“I noticed the Insper students were responding to this in the morning…”), a priori frameworks for analysis (“what should we be watching for?”) which we got to (again, hurriedly) pull out in the discussion. Ideally I’d like to have a more extended tour through some of these ideas, but we’ll revisit them in future classes.

Debrief from prior week’s exercise

The team then started filling me in on their fieldwork, using our “debrief the alien” framing for making-strange. (Apparently they visited a metabolism-maintenance station in an institution other than their own, aka the Wellesley cafeteria.) We used the SAID (Situation, Affect, Interpretation, Debrief) framework to talk about the (arbitrary) separation betwee Situation and Interpretation, and the not-one-to-one-or-onto nature of the two.

Next week

Next week we’ll resume with our normal planned activities, discussing memo formats and avoidance techniques before launching into more interview work with a special guest.

Out-of-studio work for this week is nearly nonexistent because of the workshop with Brazilian students. Decompress, memo, and treat yourself well. The exception is Emily, who can’t make the workshop with the Brazilian students and is going to do some sort of follow-up afterwards to see what she can glean of the aftereffects of the event. We’ll compare notes from a distance and it’ll be a good exercise on intersubjectivity. Emily is still supposed to decompress and treat herself well, though.

Part of the QualMIP series, introduced here.

Thoughts on my family’s language

A recent Facebook thread had me thinking about my relationship with the languages spoken by my family. Almost all my relatives speak English to some degree, with the native/fluent proportion increasing with later generations, as immigrant generations tend to go. But we have others, including the regional Chinese-Filipino dialect I would identify as “my family’s language.”

My family’s language, but not mine. Probably never mine. In some ways, I have a heritage language I may never speak. I still can’t successfully lipread my family’s language, and can only speak a few childish words of it — brush your teeth, time to eat, go to bed. English had far more resources to learn with: libraries full of books I could read, drills on vocabulary and grammar so I had patterns I could guess at, speech therapists trained for the phonemes of that tongue. And so that was my language.

I’m used to being surrounded by that dialect when I’m home sometimes, and even more so when we’re in the Philippines. What I’m used to is not being able to understand it. That’s… just my experience with it. It’s ours, but it’s mine in a different way than it is theirs.

But if you asked what my family’s language is, I would still point to our dialect. And I want to see it preserved, and I want my own children (who are likely to be hearing) to someday learn it from my parents, aunts, uncles, brother, and cousins, even if I myself may never speak it. Many parents want to give their kids something they didn’t have themselves, and this is one of mine.

Curriculum is for, by, and of both faculty and students

This is a quick sketch of a far more comprehensive series of thoughts I’ve been swimming in for the past… I don’t know how long. It’s about curriculum design (or redesign). One metanarrative we sometimes say is that “faculty make the curriculum for the students” — in other words, it’s by the faculty and for the students, and those are three distinct and separate things.

This is a true statement. But it’s not the only true statement we could make.

1. Curriculum is also “for the faculty” — we teach things based on our own learning/career/etc. goals, we assign people to instruct classes we think they’ll learn from, we go into teaching and curriculum design experiences as growth opportunities for ourselves as well.

2. Curriculum is also “of the faculty” — our course designs come from our prior experiences, interests, history; we bring ourselves into the room. (The same course taught by 2 professors in different sections… is not the same course at all.)

3. Curriculum is also “by the students” — they give suggestions, shape the course, TA it, send feedback, set up out-of-class study sessions, pass notes around, etc.

4. Curriculum is also “of the students” — they bring in hopes and dreams and aspirations, baggage, preparation and/or lack thereof, relationships, skills, temperaments, vocabulary… the classic experience of teaching 2 sections of the same course in one semester and having the sections be wildly, wildly different? That’s this bit.

(“for” and “of” and “by” all blur together, too, as you may have noticed.)

So basically, curriculum is by, for, and of both faculty and students — and being willing to (at least temporarily, mentally) suspend those boundaries has intriguing implications for the student/faculty relationship/roles — much closer to a junior/senior partnership than the usual high power-distance separation. Which is transformative for students from an empowerment and identity perspective, for faculty, for the curriculum… etc.

If I had to summarize about 50% of what I’m working on now, this would be it.

A few shiny things on engineering identity

A friend asked for some pointers towards “engineering identity” materials. Here’s what I shared — this isn’t comprehensive, but rather it’s material I thought was cool.

From what I’ve seen, most engineering identity stuff is related to engineering epistemology (“what is engineering, anyway?”) and/or underrepresented groups (“how does minority X understand themselves as engineers?”.

My favorite “what is engineering, anyway — and who is an engineer?” instrument is simultaneously adorable and disturbing. It’s the Draw-an-engineer test, or the DAET. Basically, you get kids — or anyone, but it’s usually kids — to draw whatever they think an engineer looks like. Afterwards, you analyze the drawings to see what kinds of assumptions they’re making: are all the engineer-drawings of white, apparently abled, conventionally-dressed men wearing safety goggles and standing on a train? (Sometimes they are.)

Then there’s the space of “how do engineering identities come to be?” Kerry Meyers has explored this space. Here’s a short version of some of her early findings. Among other things, she found that language is a huge deal — what you call people matters, and it matters from the very beginning. She also describes engineering identity development as a staged developmental process, not a binary “you have no engineering identity… and… BING! Now you magically do!”

Folks have also started to look at how different underrepresented groups (race, gender, class, disability, etc. etc. etc.) construct their engineering identities compared to the dominant group. Here’s one brief on the gender perspective, but researchers are looking at indigenous students, young black men, and many more.

To my knowledge, very few engineering programs have explicit curricular discussion of students’ engineering identities. Smith and UTEP’s E-LEAD program are two exceptions with required first-year courses that provide devoted space to the topic. I’d love to see more of this sort of exploration, since developing a personal engineering identity can help students persist in bridging their engineering knowledge into their lives and out to a world that needs it.

QualMIP week 1: sensitizing to nonverbals

Part of the QualMIP series, introduced here.

A format that seems to work for now:

  1. Starting discussion
  2. Studio time with guided exercises
  3. Fieldwork kickout 1
  4. Discussion 1
  5. Fieldwork kickout 2
  6. Discussion 2 and wrap-up

One of our big ideas for the semester is sensitizing ourselves as research instruments. Therefore, rule #1 of the semester is that we must take care of ourselves. Sleep, eat, do things that make you happy. This is officially homework.

When was taking my own qualitative methods courses, one thing I noticed is that my (hearing) classmates seemed to focus first and foremost on the dialogue — words, what was said. I want to start out trying to shake you up from your habits a little bit by specifically not allowing you to do that. Today we’re going to focus on everything that isn’t words.

Studio time 1:

1. Sculpture garden: show us what you look like when you’re studying — now take turns picking one person’s posture to be the “sculpture” and fine-tuning and adjusting the postures of the other student(s) so that they match the sculpture. Notice: bodies are different, and that it’s easier to imitate some people than others. (Exercise inspired by Mary Pilat’s workshops on trauma)

2. Posture amplification: take turns showing us what you look like when you’re really interested in something… and really bored by it. Walk around the “model” student — what are the physical indications of interest/disinterest? Can you amplify/mute them — what does it look like when it’s big and obvious? Subtle? Notice: we can’t tell someone’s “true” interior state, even if they tell us what they claim their state is; we can only guess and make our own observations. (Exercise inspired by Sally Wallace’s choreography course)

3. Slideshow: I’m going to close my eyes and count to 10. Before I open my eyes, I want you to arrange yourselves to show me that one of you is dominant over the other two — use position, gesture, height, etc. Rotate who’s dominant. No talking. We’ll do this 10 times. Afterwards, let’s discuss: what indicators did you use? How did you communicate? (Exercise inspired by Rebecca Bryant’s improvisation course)

4. Conversational arrangements: Try out different positions for discussion — facing each other, angled, far, near, close — how do they feel, and how do they affect the quality of the conversation? What affordances do they give you? What can you do from a distance to the conversation — how is your position different?

Kickout 1:

Go to the dining hall. Don’t sit together, don’t communicate; come back with 3 observations of different types of what you see.

Discussion 1:

1. Share observations with the group. What did you notice/do? How did you interact? (Because even if I said “no interacting,” you did interact — waves, nods, etc — or if you didn’t, that probably felt weird.)

2. Discussion of how to become conscious of our default interpretations, and how to back up to explain that interpretation so others could see how a reasonable person would reach it. What makes you think the two people you watched were friends? How else could you have interpreted that situation?

3. Positionality. What is it? What was yours? What are the different decisions you might make, and what assumptions about research and the role or research might it imply? New vocabulary: agential cut / Bohrian cut.

Kickout 2:

Go somewhere together — studio, etc — and observe, but this time as a team. Sensitize to yourself again, but this time use your teammates as instruments as well — what do their reactions tell you? Knowing that your teammates are watching your reactions, what will you do to make it clear (or not) to them what you are doing or thinking about?

Discussion 2:

1. What did you notice in the thing you were describing? Try to help me guess what it is without using any names or titles — this is a “making strange.” (New term!) Pretend I’m an alien from another planet.

2. What did you notice about each other and how you communicated?


During your 3 hours of fieldwork (including prep) this week, you should get closer to three things:

1. Bounding your project for the semester. What population will I be observing, what will I be looking for, how will I be looking for it… what is interesting?

2. Sensitizing to your own reactions, specifically when you disengage. What makes you disconnect from a situation, what do you tend to do in order to disconnect (shift back? check phone? write? sing inside your head?), and what indicators can you use to flag awareness of your own engagement level? Longer is NOT necessarily better — how long can you reasonably sustain it?

3. Playing with memo formats. Experiment with at least 3 different formats for your private memos this week; Use different mediums, different human languages (digital writing counts as one medium, so writing in notepad vs word does not count as different mediums). Example mediums: audio recordings, webcam video, sketching, handwriting in Spanish, typing in Swedish, livejournal, collage, etc. Remember that memos are one level abstracted from raw data — so video of your interview is not a memo, but a reflection from you on the interview afterwards can be. (Also remember that your private memos only need to be understandable by you as long as the end of the semester. We’re used to outputting for the consumption of others, and this is not necessarily how we best produce for ourselves as things-to-think-with.)

We will begin in “alien from another planet” format during our discussion next week.

QualMIP starting agreements: fieldwork focus, grace weeks, sustainability, and more.

Publicly documenting QualMIP (Qualitative Methods In Practice), an Olin group independent study with Paige, Cesar, and Emily — I’ve been waiting to teach this ever since my senior year of undergrad when I took my first qual course, so I am very excited to be working with this group.

We had a short pre-semester meeting tonight to get on the same page, since we’re codesigning/evolving the experience together instead of me dictating everything (I think the word “facilitating” or “hosting” were used). A few important things we’re agreeing on:

Sustainability is key. Two credits this semester means 3 hours in studio (one block during the week) and a maximum of 3 hours of work outside of class. If you’re running up on 3 hours, document and stop. We are learning process, and pacing ourselves is part of that process; it is more important than the finished product we may have predicted. Gauge by process, and learn to scale your product to match the time budget you have.

Focus on fieldwork. Qualitative research methods is a huge topic that one could take a lifetime to master. We want to hone the skills of presence and attention in the moment of data collection, be that observation, interview, artifact analysis (yes, the boundaries blur), etc. This means we won’t be doing readings, won’t be writing papers, and will optimize subject selection for convenience in accessing.

Private and portfolio deliverables. Everyone will be keeping two types of documents/artifacts throughout the semester: private memos (in any format/language) that are only for your future self (and whoever else you choose to share them with) and will never be required to turn in, and portfolio documents, which are assignments to be written from the material in your private memos, and do get turned in and otherwise publicly shared.

One grace week. You can miss studio for one week, on any week, no questions asked. You can also not do fieldwork for one week, on any week, no questions asked. Just give the group a heads-up in advance. Any absences/work-skips beyond that will need to be negotiated with the whole group in terms of how it affects assessment.

Formative, nonstandardized feedback. I’ll be giving formative feedback on how I see you developing your fieldwork style, not comparing you to a standardized rubric/method.

There’s more that I’ve forgotten, I’m sure. In any case, the Week Zero “assignment” is for everyone to get CITI certified (optional for Monday, but you’ll need it later on so you might as well do it now).

The agenda will evolve in response to where student projects go; we know we’ll spend the first 3 weeks settling on a study population, the last 3 weeks in “choose your own adventure” format where people can return to their favorite techniques, and the ones in between doing a survey of as many techniques as we can reasonably get to. Paige asked for the first 3 weeks to be spec’d out

Paige asked for the first 3 weeks to be spec’d out, so here they are:

Week 1: Nonverbals: groupings and gestures (Exercise: attention memos)
Week 2: Agential cuts: slicing and dicing units of analysis (Exercise: life story interviews)
Week 3: Interview protocols and practices (Exercise: more interviews)

Adventure time!

How Future Faculty Mel wants to be evaluated

Yep, it’s yet another “get these thoughts out so I can focus again” writing run, based on “Scholarship Assessed” by Charles E. Glassick, Mary Taylor Huber, and Gene I. Maeroff. Good book, by the way.

Let’s say we’ve figured out what a faculty member is (what are the boundaries of what this word means?) and the changing, diverse populations that join that profession (a fun history story to recap) and we’ve decided that their job is to do “scholarly things” well. Let’s… pretend that I’ve written about this and/or cited folks who have (which is mostly true) and that I’ve done a good job of it (definitely not true yet). All this is useful to my thesis, which… we’ll place on a high shelf somewhere for about half an hour.

Sweet. Now I can get sidetracked on the evaluation of scholarly activities, which doesn’t support my thesis at all. Quasi-unsubstantiated opinions, let’s go! (Don’t take this post as serious, well-thought-out, reference-checked material, etc. etc. etc. It isn’t.)

While reading “Scholarship Assessed,” I was mentally designing a faculty evaluation system for my future self — basically, how would I like to be graded at my future job?

  1. I want to be able to set my own goals and directions every so often; not so frequently that I have no long-term compass, but not so far apart that I feel stuck.
  2. I want formative feedback on both the directions (as I’m figuring them out) and my progress towards them, as well as an understanding that the two will coevolve.
  3. I want to give as well as receive feedback — I want to help and watch others through whatever process I am going through myself.
  4. I want to look at process and practice (and praxis, if you want to get fancy) as well as product.
  5. I want to be able to share whatever artifacts I think best represent me, and explain those artifacts on my own terms.

Turns out my design matches nicely with the recommendations at the end of the book. It also looks a lot like what I (very dimly, vaguely, and possibly incorrectly) understand of Olin’s faculty review process, making me wonder whether and how this book influenced its design.

I want to be able to set my own goals and directions.

For example, on p. 53, “Scholarship Reconsidered” proposes “creativity contracts” for institutions where faculty can reinvent their foci every 3-5 years. Olin does a form of that (on the long edge of that timescale). That’s my desire to “set my own goals and directions every so often.” It’s important that these contracts and goals look at a wide spectrum of work, and build/rebuild our tools for doing the looking. It’s all too easy to only look at the things we have existing tools to examine. As Glassick et al put it (p. 22-23):

“Most college and university guidebooks implicitly suggest that different types of standards apply to different kinds of faculty work, leaving the impression that standards for research and creative work come from the various disciplines; standards for teaching are institutionally defined; and standards for professional service vary so greatly by project and profession that hardly any guidance can be offered. This fragmented paradign reflects the differential respect accorded research, teaching, and applied scholarship at most institutions. It also, we believe, helps to perpetuate the hierarchy that places greatest importance on research.”

This is the equivalent of only looking for a dropped key under the streetlamp. The “research” streetlamp is big and bright — and beautiful, it’s true. But if we want to go out into the dark and unexplored fields, we’re going to need some awesome flashlights to go hunting so that we can look at where we step.

I want formative feedback.

In terms of formative feedback, I’m surrounded by amazing mentors… and need nudges and excuses to reach out to them. (“But they’re busy! But I’m busy! But I shouldn’t bother them!” is a voice that I eventually realized is never going to stop; I need to find ways to work around it.) Regular tiny-group meeting setup for this purpose for next semester? Check. (TOTALLY looking forward to this.)

I want to give as well as receive feedback.

That tiny-group will help with feedback in both directions, but as the most junior person in the group (also, I need to get this blasted dissertation OUT OF MY LIFE) it’s also good to do peer feedback with… actual peers. Fortunately, I’ve been blessed with amazing PhD-student buddies who’ll work in text chat alongside me, even if we’re scattered across the country (or even the world). We’re all going through the dissertation process; a few have finished, a few are in the same end throes as I am, and a few are in earlier stages — so there’s that wish granted.

I want to look at process… as well as product.

Looking at process is something I only know how to do haphazardly at present. Glassick, Huber, and Maeroff found the same thing. Around p. 33-35, they critiqued the lack of what they called “reflective critique” in the current system of evaluating scholarship at present. If we don’t look at process, how will we know how to improve in the future? As someone who feels like a lot of her “best” work has been dumb luck, I’m struggling to understand what elements give my work strength and what holes I tend to repeatedly fall into.

Movement is best arena for understanding process/reflective critique. When I started working out at the personal training student clinic (graduation requirement for them, free training for us), I proudly showed my student trainer how I could knock off a dozen or so push-ups in a row. He immediately showed me how my form was ripping out my rotator cuff. With proper form, I could do… 2 negative push-ups from my knees. We worked together that semester to get up to my original number of reps, but with excellent form — and early on I didn’t know what that meant or felt like, so process feedback was a huge part of my coaching.

Movement is more easily observed than thought (as early Cognitive Apprenticeship theorists have noted), so I still struggle to translate the process-reflection to my scholarly life. That having been said, I do have a sense of whether I’m doing “well.” It’s just that I have a fuzzy knowledge of that sense, and need to get to know it better.

I want to be able to share whatever artifacts I think best represent me.

Finally, in terms of choosing artifacts to share, the “Scholarship Assessed” authors propose (on p. 43-48) that scholars create a “professional profile” for evaluation, consisting of:

  • a statement of responsibilities — what they’d hoped or agreed to accomplish, and how this fits with future personal career plans and institutional needs
  • a biographical sketch — “quantitative” documentation of scope and productivity; an expanded CV that also covers teaching, grants, honors, consulting, etc.
  • selected samples of scholarly work — including teaching, service, etc. and each with a “reflective essay” that provides annotations, critique, contextualization, and behind-the-scenes information for colleagues.

“Documentation should place scholarly work in perspective,” they say (p. 49). “The scholar presents, explains, and interprets his or her best work for those who will review it, in the process renewing his or her own reflective critique.”

The weird part

The challenge of thinking about these ideas is realizing that I already have a lot of freedom to do exactly what I’ve asked for — there are no excuses, just a fairly open field where… I can go and make this happen. Empowering, sure. Scary. Right now I mostly look at that field and feel a tiredness within me and go “but… but… I just… please… just tell me what to do?”

Seriously. At least once every semester, I start fantasizing about working as a barista, or a truck driver, or… y’know, somewhere the goals are… clear. And set by someone else. With flexibility and responsiveness in meeting those goals, and variety from day to day (I never fantasize about being an assembly line worker), but man, there’s clarity in “get this stuff to Toledo by next Tuesday.” You know the goal, you know the tools you have to reach it, and you go.

Aaaaaand… all right. Dissertation, let’s get back to you. The things I need to do to do my work… are also part of my work.

If I post this thought I’ve been avoiding, can I start focusing again?

Another “get these thoughts out so I can focus again” writing run. In the midst of reading “Scholarship Assessed” by Charles E. Glassick, Mary Taylor Huber, and Gene I. Maeroff, I started thinking about how I wanted to be assessed — which led to thinking about what I wanted to be assessed on — or in other words, “what might I want to work on next?”

I suspect that one of my secret terrors with finishing the dissertation is that I kinda know what I want to work on next, and I really do not want… to want… to work on that. (Thanks to Julia Thompson for poking me on this topic.) Heck, I can barely bring myself to explore it in the (comparatively) safe confines of my private/personal life. I’m having trouble even typing it into this blog post. Which. Seriously, Mel.

Rationally, this makes no sense. I have a primary project to work on next; it’s my postdoc investigation of Olin’s impact on engineering education (which is a really really cool project that I am super-stoked about). That makes it worse; it means that I’m terrified to even think about this as a potential side project. Or even a potential side interest that has nothing to do with research/work/anything except… me being interested in it.

Oh man. I’m… afraid of even being interested in something. What the heck is wrong with me?

You can probably figure out the topic from omission: it’s Deaf culture and sign language and… all the… deafness… stuff. Stuff. Things. Vague noun phrases make things safer to talk about, right? Yes, I know I’ve pumped out blog posts and comics about hearing aids and cochlear implants  – that was hard intellectual work, but almost no emotional work. It feels entirely different. I’m an engineer, and I know how to write about technology and how it works. But this isn’t technology; it’s more identity. And I don’t know how to deal with that. Because technology is not-me, and this… could be. (I don’t want to say “is” just yet.)

Almost all my family and friends have wanted me to blog about… that stuff. For people who haven’t stepped inside that space with me (which includes most of my family), it’s usually a “so, how is the cochlear implant?” query, as if it were The Biggest Thing. (I’ll admit that it Has Been A Thing, yes.) But the people who have stepped inside that space with me and listened to me talk, noticed what has caught me and what scares me and compels me — it’s always language, culture, something in that space — identity and relationship and things that are Not Surgery. I talk through terror I’ve thought through enough to share a little, and they listen, and they tell me: my gosh, that was… powerful. You… really ought to write that down. Please write that down. Please do. Please do that work.

I can’t. I can’t yet, I can’t. It’s too raw and new and painful still and I don’t want to set it down in any place that might be permanent or… linked to me, or… nope. I use the word “yet” in an attempt to open a small crack in the door, but dang, that door is huge. And made of steel. And guarded by Cerberus. Just so you know. (Cerberus is my hearing dog. It goes RARF RARF RARF Mel someone is at the door asking about the d-word shall I make them go away for you? and I say yes, good dog, please do.)

Right now, “all this stuff” is waaaaaay on the “completely optional, just for fun” side of the line. I’m simultaneously terrified and fascinated, and want to be able to drop and run at any time. I want to study engineering education. Faculty. Electrical engineering? Software? Maker culture! Philosophy of higher ed! I don’t care! Anything but this!

Aaaaand yet. And yet and yet. Working with Sara Hendren’s class was one of the best things I did last semester (my Minions team… amazing. Awesome awesome awesome). The things I want to read are starting to accumulate in drifts that pile around Deaf and disability studies. I’m reading faculty development because that is my current work; I love it, it compels me — and yet… so does this. It’s scary, because it’s happened before. It’s always how something becomes my Next Thing.

And every time I converse with colleagues in a way that plays with this as a potential research topic (for instance, Ian and I geeked out repeatedly about the cospeech gestures of engineering students through the lens of ASL linguistics), it feels like… fire. And I could choose — again, when I am done with the dissertation and in the clear for other projects — to start pursuing it as an Actual Research Topic — and that is both a terrible and an excellent possibility.

Yes, I realize that this is an arbitrary line; the activities I’m doing and the questions I am asking might not change at all, but the labels and the framing would, and… those matter. Glassick et al note that activities done by scholars aren’t automatically scholarly (I cook dinner and make my bed, but that’s not “scholarship”). “To be considered scholarship, service activities must be tied directly to one’s special field of knowledge and relate to, and flow directly out of, this professional activity” (p. 12).

But there is overlap. I’m infuriated and energized by the lack of support for disabled faculty in higher ed culture (and America does a comparatively good job; I don’t even want to think about what would happen if I went somewhere on a Fulbright now). I’m intrigued by the pedagogical hacks of other mainstreamed engineering oral deaf kids; we independently invented so many of the same strategies, share so much empathy that it feels like a culture even if we’ve never met. Stephanie and Margaret’s idea of “disabled research methods” fits perfectly with my usage of CART for realtime transcription during research interviews. I can’t put the “classifiers for engineering cospeech gestures” ideas down; that’s haunted me for months even before Ian and I talked about it.

And yet my own ability to use classifiers is… primitive, at best. And… okay. Yeah. I pretty much outright refuse to sign outside of clearly marked “This Space Is An ASL Space” boundaries (my Deaf parish, Eric’s ASL class at MIT, the tiny weeklong microresidency bubble at Olin when Ian and Sarah came). I speak in complex English sentences while shoving my hands in my pockets, cutting out my normal tendency to gesture. I used to perform being hearing — and now that I’m not doing that, I perform fitting-into-hearing-culture. And I perform it hard, with the dial slammed past 11. And I usually know exactly what I’m doing. It’s… all right, fine, I’ll call myself deaf now, even in public. But don’t you make assumptions about what that means. Because I don’t even know myself, yet. And in the meantime, here’s the way I know best how to be.

It’s exactly the sort of terror research is good for. It’s exactly the sort of thing that the academy is missing. It’s the kind of thrust towards community (both in the academic and the Deaf world, and their overlap) that I think might help me grow. I don’t know. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe my next project will be looking at… nature-based approaches… to teaching… statics… to 2nd graders. Or… creating a rock opera score for a computer architecture musical (actually, that would be kinda cool). But maybe it will be this. Maybe.

I’m glad there’s lots of room inside that maybe.

There. That’s out. I’ll post the other stream of thoughts that have been distracting me, and then I think I can grit back into the “faculty as learners” section I’ve been struggling with since last month.


“And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” –John 12:32

At the end of each Mass, the priest lifts the newly consecrated Eucharist high in the air; shortly thereafter, the people stream forward to receive it. It’s the culmination of the Mass — really, the culmination of our whole faith.

Most of the time, I act like it’s just Boring Wafer Bread, as if I don’t know what — or who — the Eucharist is. Because to know and act on that knowledge means admitting my hunger, my particular version of the infinite ache that takes a different form within each person. My particular hunger largely takes the shape of communion.

I hunger for connection, for community; for belonging in a seamless cloth, effortlessly, not torn-between. For a gushing stream of infinite-bandwidth, full-spectrum, multi-chorus union flooding in all directions — no struggle, no holes. No dropped packets, no anxious clutching for syllables; no straining for words across distance or in the foggy memory of unfamiliar languages. No gulf. No gap.

No loneliness. I’ve been so powerfully formed by loneliness for all my life.

And yet I have communion, if I will reach out and take it. Holy communion. In the midst of what so often looks like banality and dead ritual; in the midst of what looks like apathy and grudging obligation. Can I believe that God is there, in the form of a tiny white host? Can I believe that Christ is there, and the Mystical Body of Christ is there, and all of Heaven itself is somehow in the Eucharist — and then, as I receive it — in me?

Can I believe that when I receive Christ in the Eucharist, I am closer to the stranger in the pew beside me than husbands are to their wives? That I am flooded by a grace that perforates through all of time and space (like a Portal gun on steroids!), so that we touch forever and the whole world in that moment? It doesn’t feel like enough. Through the veil of my senses, it seems entirely inadequate and logically ludicrous.

And yet I go to be with Him. And with myself, each past and future Mel drawn into the Eternal Now at Mass — the sleeping baby and the restless child (the 12-year gap where Young Agnostic Mel vanishes), the bewildered grad student — the older self I have not yet become, but stride to meet.

And in the Mass and in the Eucharist, I stride to meet the people I have known who are now gone; the people I have yet to meet (my husband and my children, if I have them) — all the people who have come before me, all the people who will come after. And for each of these people, all of them in time and space — their crawling, squirming baby selves, the men and women that those babies grow up to become, the babies they will hold in turn within their wrinkled arms. All their infinite and glorious complexity at every moment, drawn also into the Eternal Now.

Christ plays in ten thousand places
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.
– Gerald Manley Hopkins, “As Kingfishers Catch Fire”

At a few Masses, I have had glimpses of a shadow of a fragment of this streaming; I try to remember those, and how they point me towards what I have. I have communion. And I ache for it. And the ache is something that rips my heart open — when I let it, because I constantly fight it — rips it and scours my heart with scalding light, a love I don’t deserve and cannot understand.

I am still learning to believe that this is true. If the Eucharist is real, then my hunger is as well. And that hunger is just as infinite as God is. And it hurts. Too much. I cannot hold the infinite within me.

But God can. And I can hold God, through the grace of God.

Thoughts on “Transformative Conversations” (a book on faculty mentoring communities)

(Yes, yes, the page numbers are clunky but deliberate.)

Transformative Conversations: A Guide to Mentoring Communities Among Colleagues in Higher Education is a book about Faculty Mentoring Communities (FMCs). It’s meant to be inspirational rather than descriptive; one of the key characteristics of FMCs is that they’re bottom-up and not compulsory. Personally, the book wasn’t mind-blowing to me at all… but I was still glad to read it, because my constant feeling while doing so was “finally, somebody wrote this stuff down.”

An FMC’s project is “the group’s members themselves,” as Parker Palmer writes in the foreword. “The agenda would consist of reflecting on our work and life, remembering our callings, exploring meaning and purpose, clarifying personal values, and realigning our lives with them. The goal of an FMC would be to use meaningful conversations to reinvigorate ourselves, our work, and by extension, the academy.” (pg. x)

Did you catch that? Reinvigorate ourselves. This is a view of the academic life wherein vocation drives competency, rather than competency standing as an end unto itself. It is a fundamentally ontological view of faculty development and development of selves and identity as faculty. It’s a deliberate sidestep away from the frantic churn of others’ expectations. The book uses “formation” as a theme, and uses that word in the same sense as Ignatius of Loyola (or more recently, Steven Pressfield or Julia Cameron): not deciding who we want to be so much as discovering — in contemplation and action, combined — who we are made to be, and deciding to be that. An FMC is a small group of self-selected faculty members who — quite simply — help each other create space and time to be themselves.

The process is a midwifing one rather than a didactic one. There are multiple parallels to physical-birth midwives: you birth the child (or faculty-self) you have, not the one you wished you had. You go through discomfort and uncertainty — liminal spaces — in the process. You need to receive in order to give — Lave and Wenger (1991) noted that Yucatan Mayan women were not allowed to become midwives until they themselves had given birth under the supervision of a midwife. Similarly, the authors realized they could not engage students in “a process of perpetual growth and formation” unless they themselves had ongoing formation (p. 4-5). One particularly poignant story (to me) came from Gallaudet, where FMC participants challenged each other to open up space for their Deaf Studies students grappling with wrenchingly personal work (p. 123-125). (I’ve previously written about the midwifing analogy in engineering education.)

More pragmatically, the book suggests meeting at least once but ideally twice a month for 1-2 hours. Regularity and clarity of expectations, such as confidentiality, are key. Rituals and norms will emerge (p. 85). For instance, the Gallaudet FMC asks themselves “What would we like to see happen in our teaching, our scholarship, and ourselves?” every semester (p. 109). The University of Washington FMC asks each member “where are you?” at the start of every meeting, as a check-in (p. 112).

Outcomes aren’t prescribed — in fact, the expectation of “outcomes” seems out of place; the point is creating space for growth too complex to measure or fully articulate. Some aspects of that growth may be reflected upon and captured, as in the authorship of this book itself. Ultimately, though, the goal of an FMC is transformation of the faculty involved. Note the word “transformation” rather than “improvement” — that’s important too. “Improvement” presupposes a metric we already know we want to get better at. “Transformation” presupposes no such thing; everything, including the type of change, is left open to emerge.

So what?

  • Hey, look — an ontological approach to faculty development!
  • Also, a highly individualistic, not-all-faculty-are-the-same (in fact, each-faculty-member-is-wildly-different) approach!
  • Staying in liminal spaces long enough to become yourself is hard; that’s why small support groups help.
  • We can only “midwife” others (like students!) when we have given birth ourselves — and continue to accept support for our ongoing formation journeys.