Why I can’t (yet) teach engineering in ASL

I’m a Deaf engineering professor. I want to teach my engineering college classes in ASL. This is a goal I have for the next couple decades of my engineering faculty career — to teach my way through all the core undergraduate engineering courses, plus the required undergraduate ones in my field of electrical/computer engineering (ECE) — in ASL.

Right now, this is not possible.

This might seem strange, because — I’m Deaf! I sign! I’ve taught engineering at the college level for years! But nope: being an expert at teaching a topic and being fluent in a language… does not mean you’re automatically able to teach that topic in that language. You need to be fluent in that topic, in that language.

And for that to be possible, vocabulary needs to exist. You need ways to efficiently express disciplinary concepts in the target language (in this case, ASL). Vocabulary is a key part of language; language has to be there for communication to happen; communication must happen for teaching to occur. And right now, I don’t have (good) signs for basic concepts such as “voltage,” which is an idea so fundamental that I can’t teach elementary school electronics without it, let alone college-level classes.

Now, I can (and do) teach engineering voice-off, signing, but I’m not using ASL when I do so; I’m using a signed form of English (which some people would call PSE or contact sign). I’m basically transliterating, with the occasional insertion of ASL grammar and a couple of classifiers. I’m not voicing, but you could read an entire English engineering lecture off my lips. In other words, I’m teaching in “English, with hands.”

ASL is not “English, with hands.”

We need vocabulary. We need ways to express these ideas within Deaf language and Deaf culture — ways that are efficient, that don’t require tons of expansion every time. In English, we say “voltage,” not “the electric potential difference between two points.” The latter is a definition, not a term. Similarly, I can explain voltage in ASL (perhaps as “electric pressure point point compare”), but I need a sign for the concept, and other concepts like that. If I can’t, I don’t have a professional vocabulary. It is akin to restricting technical communication to Basic English or Up Goer Five. If someone used the phrase “funny voice air” instead of “helium,” we’d figure they didn’t know what they were talking about, because there’s a word for that.

We also need ways to express these ideas within this language, not just ways to refer to the concepts as expressed in another language, as with fingerspelling. Yes, short fingerspelled words can turn into lexicalized signs, like “bank” and “OK,” and in this case perhaps “amps,” but what do we do for “semiconductor” or “bypass capacitor” — abbreviate? “SC” is already “South Carolina,” and “BC” is birth control, and I’d like to use my brain for things other than figuring out sentences like “You’ll need a BC in P to smooth the MC input V.” Or if we break the English word into components and then sign those, we get things like “tiny administrative person” for “microcontroller” (micro-controll-er). And then I flinch again, hard.

At that point, we’re just pointing to the English. If I wanted English, I would use it. I want ASL.

Every other Deaf engineer I know does this exact same thing. The moment we begin discussing technical topics, our signing shifts — hard — towards English. Perhaps we flinch a little and apologize to each other for using mouthing (and only mouthing/lipreading) to distinguish between “electric,” “battery,” and “circuit.” Perhaps we comment that, yes, signing “tolerate” (as in “to put up with, to bear”) is a poor sign for “tolerance” (permissible variation in a measured value). But we do not have other ways to do this. Not yet.

Fascinatingly enough, this has happened before — in engineering and computing and other college-level STEM fields, even — with spoken languages. There are plenty of examples of decolonizing the language of (collegiate/professional) instruction — I recently learned that Japan is doing this, for instance — but my favorite example is Hebrew and the War of the Languages. When the first Jewish (later Israeli) universities were being established, they knew that Jewish culture was amazing, and that Hebrew was a rich and beautiful language with a deep, deep history and multiple ways of expressing the concept of “God” — but no way to express the concept of “computer.”

And guess where a lot of their professors had trained? Germany. Austria. All their notes, all their books, all their training on… say, computers — they were obviously not in Hebrew, because there was no Hebrew word for “computer.” But yeah, it was a little problematic to be teaching programming… at a Jewish university… in German. And so, rather than capitulate to “eh, I guess we have to teach in German,” they built up the Hebrew language so that they could have technical discussions within it. They enriched their language and their culture instead of switching to another. This took a tremendous amount of work — many people, over many years, working to create a world where it was possible to teach computing in Hebrew. And now they have it.

That’s what I want for ASL and engineering (and computing, and technology). It’s going to take a long time. Probably the rest of my career. (“Congratulations, you’ve found a lifetime side project.”) It’s going to take a lot of collaboration with a lot of people and a lot of work and it’s never going to be done, because languages are never done. It’s going to be a lot of awkwardness and stumbling experimentation and a lot of new engineers brave enough to go out into the world not just with technical skills, but with language (ASL) to communicate those skills, and we’ll have a lot of short-term inefficiencies compared to “but why don’t you just teach it in English or signed English?” — but look: we’re going to make a world.

It does not yet exist. That’s why we need to make it.

Parents have visited, semester winding down


My parents came to visit me in Rochester this weekend, which was nice – and not only because I got to eat out more than I usually do. I like how my relationship with my parents has been slowly evolving into one between adults, one of whom happens to be the child of the other two.

They came to Imagine RIT, which is a huge student (and non-student) project display festival. It’s massive. Massive. And it’s also the largest-scale interpreting setup I’ve ever seen to date — interpreters everywhere, stationed across campus, ready to walk over to whatever exhibitions needed them. Seeing DHH folks in a mix of both presenter and visitor roles was also quite nice.

I’m still navigating how to interact with groups of people when some of them know me as “a person who speaks” and the others know me as “a person who signs” — which language do I use when? — but it was also nice to watch my parents interacting (fairly smoothly!) with signing DHH people. Mostly I stood back and watched them chat with each other, but a few times I dropped in (signed) comments and it felt pretty smooth. (But generally, it would feel weird to sign to my parents through an interpreter… about as odd as if they spoke Chinese through a translator to me. The presence of other people is what allows us to use those combinations of modalities and moderations with each other.)

The semester is winding down, and I’m staring at the research projects that remain. I am quietly excited about some of them, eager to be challenged by others, and (honestly) hoping to find ways to redirect yet others towards other people as quickly as possible before I’m locked into something I don’t actually want to commit to – the work of how to say no and frame that no in ways that actually work for others. (It seems silly when I write this, but… the intellectual and emotional labor associated with that last part are tremendous sinks for me right now. Tremendous.)

I’m still trying to… maybe not “rediscover” my scholarly soul, but to keep a scrawny, struggling flame alive. I want to read things. I want to just sink into ideas and learn and think, and sometimes it feels like there’s so much friction around all of it I want to give up on it all. Still working on this.

And then random links I don’t want to lose. I found an old newsletter from Erik Kennedy about Magic Ink, which is a lovely longform piece on interface design that would probably make for a nice inflight reading at some point. And then there are the things I want to read and do, like the Chinese chicken soup recipe my mom just sent me (yep, we ate this as kids).

Okay. Back to… things. I feel like these posts are me surfacing for air and gasping; this space (online, text, long-form) is still where I can most easily breathe. And I need air, and company, in spaces where I can breathe… well.

Presenting at RIT’s Interdisciplinary STEM Ed Research Forum

I was one of the presenters yesterday at RIT’s Interdisciplinary STEM Ed Research Forum, so I’m posting my talk abstract here mostly for posterity, and because I’m too worn out at this point in the semester to say anything clever about it.

Title: Technology, Engineering, Computing, and Hacker/Maker Curricular Cultures: Alternative Universe Edition

Abstract: What is engineering? Who is a maker? What does it mean to be a technology professor? Questions like these point at the underlying ontologies of a group’s curricular culture, or their shared basic assumptions regarding teaching and learning, including how one should act, think, and feel in educational situations. My work engages with curricular cultures in postsecondary TECH (Technology, Engineering, Computing, and Hacker/Maker) education, a.k.a. “the making of people who make things.”

One aspect of this work is, quite literally, world-building and alternative universe creation. By bricolaging technical work with narrative interviews, ethnographic observations, science fiction, and the visual and performing arts, I create… not science fiction stories, but engineering (tech, computing, and hacking/making) education fiction — or rather, things that start as engineering fiction, as well as tools for making them into engineering nonfiction.

In this talk, I’ll discuss the prototyping of alternate TECH education universes and cultures with two case studies: (1) what if computer science college courses were modeled after hacker/maker community praxis? and (2) what if engineering education had been historically led by Deaf people, and hearing engineers were a minority? As with most cross-cultural encounters, seeing other possibilities for TECH cultures helps make us aware of the assumptions we’ve embedded in the discipline thus far, so we can decide what worlds we want to build going forward.

ASL lector notes for the Easter Vigil Mass – 1st reading (Genesis 1-2, Creation)

It is Holy Week, one of my favorite weeks of the year. I have the privilege of signing the 1st reading for the Saturday Vigil Mass this year in Rochester, and I’ve posted my translation and performance notes in case it might be useful to someone who wonders about the translation process (which I’ve written about elsewhere: part 1 and part 2).

The first reading (long version) is most of Genesis 1-2, or the (Yahwist) Creation story. I inadvertently wrote my notes so that they will (hopefully) make sense to both signers and non-signers — I hope this will be useful to my non-signing friends as an explanation of what it’s like (for me) to think in ASL. Basically, the left column is the English translation, and then the middle column is me trying to describe the images that come to mind when I read it.

This isn’t analysis of any sort, it’s not translation, it’s… what is the movie in my mind, right now, when I read through these words? The short version is that God is a lot like a really excited 5-year-old, because… I’m the one signing this, and I’m a lot like a really excited 5-year-old.

After the imagery description in the middle column, another round through the reading follows on the right, with the gloss (as best as I can capture it) for what I sign during the Vigil Mass. I wrote most of this post while I was preparing to lector for the Boston Deaf Catholic Vigil Mass last year (2017). At the time, I still felt really awkward, shy, and hesitant while signing; my expressive usage of the language was very new and limited, and I’d never worked or lived among other Deaf people or otherwise had much of a cultural/linguistic immersion. Vigil Mass 2017 was a linguistic/spiritual/identity landmark for me; it was the first time I felt like I was expressing exactly what I was trying to express in ASL. Which… was a huge deal for me, as a hesitant new signer (thanks, growing up oral).

Thanks to Deacon Patrick Graybill for last-minute feedback on Holy Thursday 2017, and to God for… well, basically… everything, right? That’s what this reading is all about.

Mass Lector prep notes, part 2

This is taken from a series of emails from February 2017; see part 1 here or the eventual translation notes (which include the original readings).

Next installment of lector prep notes: reading in the car (or train, or bus, or waiting for a meeting to start, or… I do not schedule in extra time for this, this is all stolen moments)

I’ve had the handwritten (and thus pseudo-chunked) of the readings in my purse for the past few days now. This stage is a long one for me — it’s reading and absorbing the Scriptures. It usually ends up with me memorizing them… sort of. Not memorizing the words, but memorizing the meanings.

I’ve read enough cognitive science research to know that we remember things better when we try to remember them (and then check and correct) than when we simply look at them and try to remember, so I always start *without* the paper, by trying to remember what… the readings… were about. (Actual first attempts, here — with absolutely no shame, because this is what it looks like when anyone without an eidetic memory starts.)

Reading 1: From Sirach. Something about following God’s law; that’s the big theme and it’s important. Also that God does not make exceptions on that; he doesn’t tell some people “yeah, you can sin.”

Psalm: …yay following God’s law, it makes me happy? Probably “blessed” and “delighted” are words in there… the Psalms use those words a lot.

Reading 2: Paul telling people about God’s… he doesn’t use the word “law,” I don’t think. But it’s something like “I know this stuff, you know this stuff, this is God’s stuff, the folks in charge are clueless and so they killed Jesus.” Also he quotes Isaiah on “eye has not seen, ear has not heard” but I don’t know why.

So yeah! You can see that my first attempt understanding of these is not terribly mature — I don’t understand these readings very well; I don’t remember what they mean, I don’t know what they link to, I only have vague blobs of ideas that “following God’s commandments is important” and “you should learn these things and not be clueless about them.”

But notice that I actually have some knowledge of what I’m missing (“why did Paul quote Isaiah?”) and now have targeted stuff to check and look up. And also notice that by starting with the meanings (and not the words), I focus on the themes that link across the readings! And that I’m not stuck in the English — that I’m going for conceptual understanding first, and pondering that! I deliberately try to paraphrase when I write these notes — even if I can remember the exact English words, I’ll say or write out paraphrases in parallel, to make sure my understanding is deep and not just parroting.

So now, after I work from memory as much as possible… I now go back and look at the readings and fill in a more detailed understanding of what I missed (for instance, the first reading has the theme that you can individually choose to follow God’s law under any circumstances; it’s your choice — that’s a HUGE idea in there that I didn’t touch in my first rendering). And I talk with God about what things might mean, and flag stuff that I’m not sure about, or that flags my attention (in the second reading, it says that God did these things for our glory — wait, not his glory, or… general glory, but our glory, for us? Oh my gosh, *our* glory! )

My notes/thoughts/attempts become progressively more detailed as time goes by, and as my understanding of the readings deepens and they soak not just into my brain, but into all of me. It’s really a lot like very small continuous background-process Lectio, for me. This process, the reading-understanding-praying process… I spend the most time on this one.

I did not write up the third part, which is the “actual translation part” (i.e. going from whatever mix of languages I use as source texts… into ASL) — but that’s the part most people fixate on, and I’m trying to specifically write about the stuff around it. For a glimpse at my process, you can see the eventual translation notes (which include the English versions alongside the ASL gloss/notes) and look for how this process has informed it.

Mass Lector prep notes, part 1

This is taken from a series of emails from February 2017, the last of which was never written because… grad school happened. Hopefully it gives you a look into my process, and gives me (or someone else) a place to start a better writeup for a broader audience someday. Also see part 2 and my eventual translation notes.

I found out this morning that I’ll be the Mass lector for Sunday, Feb 12 (6th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Lectionary 76), so I thought I’d take notes on my prep process so you can see what I do.

Note that this is what works for me — everyone is going to be different! I’m a native English reader who grew up mainstreamed oral deaf with a highly visual imagination, a grad student used to analyzing texts, and still a very new Catholic. I’m a young woman, I’m an engineer, I like cheese and love living in Boston, and ASL is my 4th language… all these things affect how I experience Scripture, and thus how I sign it. The Word reflects through me when I’m a lector, so *I* have to be in the Word, and it has to be in me, or… I really can’t do anything. (Seriously. I don’t actually know ASL. I’m painfully conscious of this.)

The first thing I do is read the readings, just to see what they are. Then I panic, usually because Paul is being densely theological again. Or because the Psalm is so gorgeous that I won’t be able to do it justice. Or something. I totally have that moment of WHY DID I VOLUNTEER FOR THIS?!?!? every single time (actually, I volunteer as lector because I’m terrified of signing in public, so… really, I asked for it).

This is awesome, because it immediately reminds me that I need to pray. And it makes it completely obvious that anything I do is just going to be God’s grace, not mine. And it’s good practice in not hyperventilating too much. Which I still do. #notasaintyet

Pretty much the first thing I do is make hard copies of the readings so I can start carrying them around with me all the time. Sometimes I’m lazy and I use a printer. Tonight I had some time, so I copied them out longhand.

As I copy them, I read them out loud to myself, sentence fragment by sentence fragment. I play with and enjoy the sounds and feelings of the words in my mouth, because it’s *fun.* (Thanks, speech therapists!) I mean… try saying Psalm 119 and *not* having fun! Or… do your best Paul voice on 1st Corinthians. Seriously. It’s fun. Make God laugh. He absolutely has a sense of humor.

I guess I’m starting to do chunking already as I write them down. I never thought about that consciously before tonight, but it does help to imagine things piece by piece — each of my lines is sort of like… a breath of images, the sort of little fragment you might pull out in Lectio Divina. In a way, this feels a bit to me like doing the first half of Lectio; I’m reading very slowly and letting it sink in, and the chunks fall out very naturally from the tiny Lectio-sized bits I need to take as input if it’s going to sink in.

I really can’t process more than a couple words of Scripture at a time, and I’m a strong, strong reader (written English is my native language; I learned speech later, so text feels like home, and I outread most of my professors). But Scripture is different. I have to take it slow, because I’m not so much reading it as I am letting it read me.

I’ve attached a photo of my writing so you can see the proto-chunking. (You’ll see I’m not doing the Gospel, since our Mass is signed and our priest does that one.) If I eventually give notes to the voice interpreters (which I don’t always do, because sometimes I don’t have time to prep that well, because I’m human), it’s basically this sheet, because it has my proto-chunking.

Also, as I copy them, I’m noticing words and references I don’t know, so I have them in mind for later in the week when I go look them up. Or sometimes I become impatient (because I’m impulsive and impatient — again, this is the process that works for *me*) and do a first-pass look-up on my phone with Google. For instance, tonight, I wasn’t sure where Paul was pulling his quotation from. 2 minutes of Google later — ah, Isaiah 64. That’s good enough for now; I know there’s a findable answer that I can investigate more deeply later, and I’ll get to that. (Well, probably. Maybe I’ll forget or run out of time. Again, I’m human.)

I also sort of can’t help but imagine visual things while reading anything, so my brain has already started to generate images… but they’re not signs. They’re not even super clear images yet; they’re just teaser trailers. I’m going to work more with those as I learn the readings; I’m not worried about those now. Right now, my goal is having hard copies to carry with me, and making the hard copies is an opportunity to think the Scriptures through, and whatever my brain does visually, it does. I’m not even thinking about signing right now. I’m just getting into the readings and letting them get into me.

That’s all I did today. I just made paper copies of the readings. Lest you think I spend a ton of time on this… I don’t. I have a full time job, and I’m a PhD student on top of that, and volunteer a couple places, and hang out with my friends (and probably should see my family more). This prep, when I’m doing it, effectively replaces almost all my daily prayer routine — I set aside the other reading, praying, etc. I’m doing and just basically make my God-time into Sunday Mass and this. (I mean, I’d love to get to daily Mass and be consistent with Morning and Evening prayer, and all sorts of stuff, but that’s just not how my life works right now, so — this is me.)

Next: driving (yes, I do mean in my car). Stay tuned. ;-)

I probably won’t be this detailed in all my descriptions, but… it happened tonight. Feel free to share this with whoever you like, and to comment and ask questions and whatnot. I’ll do my best to keep this up if it is helpful to others; it certainly is helpful to me to think about my process.

See the next post in this series.

The doors we leave open

I’ve been thinking about the doors we leave open, even if they don’t look like they’ll be taken at the time.

One version of this, for me, is that I grew up deaf and oral in the mainstream (local public school with hearing kids). I grew up with speaking and listening as doors that were flung wide open with flashing neon signs and adults hurrying me towards them — but the doors of ASL and Deaf culture were also there, in ways that were important to how I engage with them now, as an adult trying to learn.

There was the itinerant Teacher of the Deaf who visited my elementary school and (briefly) showed 7-year-old Mel a few signs before her parents put a stop to it. I don’t have clear memories of this, but discovering that IEP note as a graduate student was a jolt: my younger self had shown promise for learning how to sign at a remarkable rate, and seemed to enjoy it? Signing was a thing that I had… and maybe could… enjoy, not only fear? These were doors it took me twenty years to walk through.

Even if my parents stopped me from learning ASL (or whatever variant of contact sign people were going to use with me), they did bring me to watch the local children’s theatre, which had Deaf performers. As a slightly older child, I wanted nothing to do with ASL or the Deaf community; it was foreign to me, and everyone kept telling me I was so smart precisely because I could act so much like a hearing kid. I loved music (“like a hearing kid,” I thought, not knowing that Deaf people could also love music). I loved musicals. So my parents brought me to Oliver, and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, and there was signing on the stage… which I couldn’t understand. But later, I could look back and think: there was art there, dancing, theatre, music… and there was ASL there, blended in with them. Exploring this strange new Deaf world wouldn’t mean giving up these things I loved; it might even expand what I could imagine in those spaces. These were doors that took me fifteen years to walk through.

There were the educational interpreters who were assigned to me for a few years, after my parents stopped the ToD from teaching me to sign. (Yeah, I’m not sure what the logic behind this was either.) I had already learned how to learn everything from books, and didn’t know this strange new language they were using with me, so I resented and mostly tried to ignore their presence as much as a lonely child could. As soon as I was able to formulate the argument that I didn’t “need” interpreting, I did — and breathed a sigh of middle-school relief that these people wouldn’t follow me through all my teenage years. But a few years ago, when I started thinking about (willingly) learning ASL and (willingly) seeing what this whole “interpreted access” thing was about, I had two people to reach out to. And they responded! (Thanks, Jamie and Christine… and further back, though I couldn’t find her, Francesca.) These were doors that took me thirteen years to walk through.

There were the folks who were (ex-)interpreters, or captioners, or signers, and kept being those things while we were friends and colleagues in the spaces I already worked in and wanted to be in (which is to say, tech spaces – not Deaf spaces). Who kept being adjacent to both worlds, who kept reminding me that trying these things out might be easier than I thought. Who reminded me that trying it wasn’t a permanent commitment; who walked me through how I could ask for things and set them up, when it was time. (Thank you, Steve and Patti and Mirabai.) Took me… seven years to walk through some of those doors. Or five. But I walked through them all, eventually.

So yeah, those doors. Important things. We don’t know when people will take them, but… even if it’s “not now,” even if it might well be “never,” we… just never know. Open the doors and keep them open, even when it seems completely useless. Wait, and wait, and wait. It’s important that these doors be open, because we never know who’ll come through them, at the most surprising times.

Music and movement as a reboot/shuffle button for my atypical attention inertia (ADHD)

One of the ways in which I understand my ADHD is that my brain has an atypical, wildly varying, and unpredictable amount of attention inertia. It’s hard to get my brain to focus on command, both starting and stopping. It’ll focus on what it wants to focus on, when it wants to focus on it… it’s a tremendous charging boulder that I can’t steer directly — but I can carve the landscape around it to funnel it more towards the spaces I hope it’ll go.

One of the strategies I have for working with my ADHD is discovering the effect that music and movement — even in small doses — can have on my attention. They can jolt my attention inertia out of a stuck place. Movement and music are a partial reset/reboot button for me, brain-wise. They don’t magically make me able to focus on a specific target, but they can shake my attention out of where it’s currently stuck. It’s like a random shuffle button — maybe if I press it, the next thing will be what I wanted! Or maybe it’ll be a place where I can start and then go where I wanted! Or maybe it’ll be some totally unconnected place that won’t work, and I’ll have to press “shuffle” again!

So if I can dance and move while working, this is great. At any point in time, I can flip on music, I can do air squats or dance around the room or do a couple Turkish get-ups… I typically only need a couple minutes for that to start jiggling the massive boulder of my attention in a slightly different direction. And sometimes “slightly different” is enough. And sometimes “slightly different” sends the boulder careening down a hill towards a cliff-edge while I run behind it screaming “Noooooo!!!” — but if I remember, I can hit the music/movement/shuffle button again and throw myself into a different place, and hopefully a better one.

The challenge is that this is typically not… a socially acceptable thing to do. Offices where I can go barefoot and move around and not be seen as “unprofessional” are few and far between. This behavior looks odd/useless to people who don’t understand that it’s a coping mechanism for me, because… why can’t I just sit down and focus?

Because I can’t. That’s not the way my brain is built. I can’t sit down and simply decide to think about a thing any more than I (as a deaf person) can sit down and simply decide to understand a person talking to me. But if the end goal is for me to work on thing X, to sit down and think about thing X — that, I can do… but I will have to go about it differently.

Yeah, this is sometimes frustrating… for all the obvious reasons, typically the ones we think of ADHD as a disability. But this is also me, and I would not think in all the ways I love to think if I didn’t have ADHD, too. Atypical attention inertia and the ability to rapidly switch between seemingly unconnected things can be a powerful birthing place for… what the world might usually call “innovation,” but feels to me simply like play. It weaves into my enthusiasm and my offbeat creativity and my ability to pull a million things together and hold tremendously complex new worlds within myself for extended periods of time.

When people ask me “how did you think of that?” — my answer is often simply “I don’t know… I’m not sure how not to.” But the flip side of that is that when people ask me “why can’t you just do (or stop doing) X?” where X is something related to regulation of attention, emotion, etc. or any of the things that ADHD tends to affect, sometimes my answer is also “I don’t know… I’m not sure how (not) to.” It’s the flip side of being non-neurotypical. You don’t think like most people, and this is sometimes really cool! And you… don’t think like most people, and this is sometimes really hard.

So I keep on trying to build worlds for myself, and ways to work within the worlds I’m given, and looking for people who can understand, or at least want to try. It’s lonely sometimes, and I need spaces like this blog (and my text-based internet of friends in general) where I can be myself and rest and soak in easy understanding and expression, and play music and dance to my hearts’ content without people looking at me sternly. This is one of the worlds that helps me go back out to the big one.

Why Deafening Engineering? Because onto(ethico)epistemologies.

Continuing to write my way through things I’m finding/reading/sorting that help me think about some of the scholarship I want to do.

While we were roommates for the CUR Dialogues conference, Corrine Occhino introduced me to the work of Julie Hochgesang, who does sign language linguistics: phonology, documentation, etc. and tons of other things. I’d been trying to figure out analysis tools for video data, as opposed to making everything a text transcript and analyzing from that. Unsurprisingly, signed linguistics does that kind of thing, and Julie is the author of a guide for using ELAN – which itself is a FOSS (GPL2/GPL3) project for annotating audio and/or video data. Chaaaaaaamp.

And then there’s Georgetown’s recent EdX release of a course on sign language linguistics (structure, learning, and change).

And then there’s Allan Parsons’ notes on Karen Barad’s work on ontoepistemology. (Or onto-ethico-epistemology, I suppose, since the ethical dimension is inextricable, at least according to Barad.) And Annemarie Mol’s brief but reference-dense guide to the ontological turn.

“What the…” you say. “Mel, these have nothing to do with each other. I thought you were doing Deaf Engineering stuff, so what’s with all the weird philosophical…”

“On the contrary,” I say. “Deaf Engineering is a case study; it’s an example of the kind of work I want to do — not the end goal of all my research.”

I’m interested in engineering and computing education ontologies. (Okay, fine, ontoepistemologies.) (Okay, fine, onto-ethico-epistemologies. Happy now?)

See, the reason I’m interested in Deaf Engineering Education — or perhaps the more active verb form, “Deafening Engineering Education” — is because of what it can help us make visible about onto(ethico-epistemo)logies of engineering (education). The phrase “Deafening Engineering (Education),” by the way, takes after Rebecca Sanchez‘s book title, “Deafening Modernism,” where she does the same thing to modernist literature, exploring it “from the perspective of Deaf critical insight.”

It doesn’t have to be Deaf engineering (and computing) education. It could be FOSS/hacker/maker engineering and computer education, a space I’ve also published and worked in. It could be feminist engineering (and computing) education, as Smith College, SWE, Grace Hopper, Anita Borg, the Ada Initiave, and others have explored. It could be engineering education as a liberal (and fine!) arts approach, which is how I’d describe some (but not all!) of Olin College’s take on it. It could be Black engineering education, which I’m curious about as it’s brought forth in HBCUs as well as NSBE (but know very little about myself). It could be Native/indigenous engineering education, which Michele Yatchmeneff and others are exploring. It could be queering engineering education, cripping engineering education, Blinding engineering (and specifically computing) education; it could be…

Here’s the thing about all of these approaches, all of these worlds: by bringing to light other ways we could or might have conceived of engineering, brought it into being, engaged it as a practice — it makes us aware of all of the assumptions we’ve embedded in the discipline thus far. Why do we typically assume that engineers are White (or can act White)? Why do we (again, typically) assume that engineers are hearing (or can interface with the hearing world)? Why do we assume… what do we assume? What else might we assume?

I am so glad for the recent widespread success of the Black Panther film, because the wide-eyed audience reaction to Shuri’s lab and Wakanda’s technology is such a great example of what I’m aiming for. That look into a different world; that plunge into a universe of possibilities, that opening-up. I want to do… not quite science-fiction, but engineering fiction, or things that start as engineering fiction, so that we might make those into engineering not-fiction. To look at these worlds and learn from them and learn how it is that they understand and articulate themselves.

Ontologies. Plural. What is, what might have been, what might yet be. This is a pretty stark contrast to ontology engineering, which is a different (and more engineering/computing-native) approach to the notion of ontology. Ontology engineering is an attempt to document the singular, rather than embrace the tensions of the multiple. Both have their place, but one has been more dominant in engineering/computing thought than the other, and unconsciously so — the same way most STEM researchers are working within a post-positivist paradigm, but don’t (yet) know it.

So why all the Deaf/ASL resources?

Well… it’s a rethinking of the world, and one that’s taken place within a lot of living memory (and one that happens to be extraordinarily accessible to me). The past several decades have seen an explosion into the public sphere of a radical rethinking of what ASL is, what Deafness is, and what all these things could be. We’ve gone from “it’s not really a language, it’s a system of crude gestures” and “what a terrible disability” to… something that’s exploded our notions of what language is and how it works. And linguistics had to figure out and built analysis tools and systems that could work with signed languages. A rapid turn-about between “what would this even look like?” to “maybe it looks like this, or this, or…this?” because… people… made it.

And then came the (again, radical!) idea that ASL could be used as an academic language, just like one might use English (or earlier, French… or German… or Latin…) as an academic language of instruction — and then publication. What does it mean to publish in a signed language? Again, there was no existing answer. So people made one. And then things like: what would an ASL-based software interface look like? We didn’t know. And then ASLClear came out as one answer.

That’s why I’m looking at these resources. Because I see in them a making of a world; the figuring-out and birthing of things that have never existed before. They happen to be Deaf; it happens to be a very, very good example for me to look at right now — but it’s the process of the birth of worlds and universes that thrills me, and I want to look across worlds at the process of that birthing.

You see that? Do you see why I’m excited by this, why I love it, why I see it as so much bigger than just “Deaf Stuff In Engineering?” It’s what Deaf Engineering (and queer engineering, and Hispanic engineering, and…) points to. We don’t know, it doesn’t exist… (see the ontoepistemology in there? the knowing, and the being?) – and then we make it. And we find out what things might be possible. And the ethics inherent in that (re)creation of the world — what and who does our making and remaking let in, who does it keep out? — that’s where it gets ontoethicoepistemological. Nothing is value-neutral; nothing is apolitical. And nothing on this earth is going to be perfectly fair and universal and utopian; let’s not pretend it is; let’s be aware of our own footfalls in these spaces that we share.

I am so afraid of writing about this, thinking about it, letting it be known I’m interested in things that include the words “Deaf” and “ASL” and “engineering” in it, because — as I mentioned in a previous blog post — these kinds of things can be oversimplified and totalizing to one’s scholarly identity, to how others describe and understand one’s work. It’s really important to me that I not get pigeonholed into “just” doing Deaf Engineering Things. Because there’s so much more out there. There’s so much, and I want to see and play within it, too.

But this is where I want to play, and this is where I want to learn and create things and be challenged and in dialogue. And I need access to these first few worlds I play in, so that I can spend my energies on playing and figuring out the mechanics of how world-building works, rather than on hard labor trying to glimpse the snatches of it that I can. And so my first two are open source (since so much of that world takes place in text, where I am about as native as anyone can get) and then Deafness (since I can learn my way into a strange new world where things are visually accessible by default).

I’m hoping that those two will teach me enough between them (or across them) that I’ll be able to branch out to others, someday. Maybe years from now. Probably years. The other spaces will likely be less accessible to me in terms of communication, but I’ll have learned; just as I’m trailing open source practices and philosophies into Deaf Engineering (and computing) spaces with me (see: this blog post, wherein I think out loud / release earlier and more often), I will probably trail Deaf communication and accessibility practices into whatever world I go into after that.

But there will be worlds after that. This isn’t my final one.

Okay. Onwards. Again. Keep thinking and keep writing. I feel so hesitant doing this, but also brave in ways I haven’t felt in a long while.

APA style and qualitative research methods resources in ASL

My friend Anna Murphy recently sent me St. Catherine University’s library resources on APA style — and they have ASL versions! Actual ASL with nice translations, not ”we signed the English word for word” versions. I think these are a nice high school or early-college intro for ASL users, maybe good for a first-year college seminar course. (I’ll ask Corrine Occhino about using them for ours, since this is a lovely set of matched bilingual resources.)

Joan Naturale also pointed me to an ASL companion to an introductory qualitative research methods textbook (Research and Evaluation in Education and Psychology (REEP): Integrating diversity with quantitative, qualitative, and mixed methods). ”ASL Companion,” in this case, means there are well-done chapter summaries in ASL with the blessing of the original author (Dr. Donna Mertens). This is a nice textbook, in its 4th edition from Sage, not some hastily cobbled together thing for the sake of having something signed. Good scholarship in good ASL is, sadly, scarce stuff.

This stuff is important; not only does it make these materials more accessible to those who are native users of ASL, it gives us a glimpse towards what scholarship in ASL might look like. And yes, there have been Deaf (and hearing!) researchers working on “academic ASL” for a while (and what that means is still up for debate). I’m new to the conversation and feeling my way into a world that people far smarter and wiser (and familiar with ASL and Deaf culture!) have created before me, with the hopes of contributing to it as well.

My question is: what would it look like to do this in engineering, computing, and in engineering/computing education? I’ve seen scholarship in ASL, but only for clearly ASL/Deafness related fields… signed linguistics, Deaf education, Deaf history and rights, and so on. I’ve seen stuff about ASL in other fields, but it was written in English. What does it look like to do engineering and computing work in ASL and/or in a culturally Deaf manner? What would culturally Deaf engineering look like?

And I’m pretty sure that look is a key operative word here, but it’s also going to sound like something — Deafness doesn’t mean the absence of auditory information! — and it’s also going to be a host of other things, because Deafness isn’t just about visuals; consider the DeafBlind community, consider all the tactile/kinesthetic richness of the world, consider — but I digress.

But what will Deaf Engineering (and Computing) be like? I don’t know. I’m aware that I’m continuing to write these blog posts in English, and I’m okay with that right now, so long as my actual published/presented outcomes on this front come out bilingually. In part I’m writing in English because this is my scribble pad and I’m a native English writer, and it’s what my thoughts come out most fluidly in (if I thought best in Spanish, I’d be writing in Spanish). But these kinds of resources are not just examples and resources for my future students; they’re building blocks for me of what might be, what things might look like. And I can also tell from watching them that they took tremendous amounts of work to create, so…

..examples. I leave them here as exercises for the reader.