Oral deaf audio MacGyver: identifying speakers


Being oral deaf is like being MacGyver with audio data, except that the constant MacGyvering is normal since you do it for every interaction of every day. Posting because this seems interesting/useful to other people, although I’m personally still in the “wait, why are people so amused/surprised by this… does not everyone do this, is this not perfectly logical?”

I was explaining how I use my residual hearing to sort-of identify speakers, using faculty meetings as an example. The very short version is that it’s like constructing and doing logic grid puzzles constantly. Logic grid puzzles are ones where you get clues like…

  1. There are five houses.
  2. The Englishman lives in the red house.
  3. The Spaniard owns the dog.
  4. Coffee is drunk in the green house.
  5. The Ukrainian drinks tea.
  6. The green house is immediately to the right of the ivory house.

…and so forth, and have to figure out what’s going on from making a grid and figuring out that the Ukranian can’t possibly live in the green house because they drink tea and the green house person drinks coffee, and so forth.

Now the long explanation, in the context of being oral deaf. Some background: I’m profoundly deaf, with some low-frequency hearing; I use hearing aids and a hybrid CI (typically the CI plus one hearing aid). Generally speaking, I can’t actually hear enough to identify people through voice alone — but I can say some things about some attributes of their voice. For instance, I can tell (to some approximation) if a singer is in-tune, in-rhythm, and in control of their voice, and I can tell the difference between a low bass and a first soprano… but I wouldn’t be able to listen to a strange song and go “oh, that’s Michael Buble!” (My hearing friends assure me that his voice is quite distinctive.)

However! When I know people and have heard their voice (along with lipreading and context) for a while, I do know that their voices do and don’t have certain attributes I can perceive. And even if I’m not using my residual hearing/audio-related gadgetry to get semantic information (i.e. the words someone is saying) because I have better alternatives in that context (interpretation, captioning) I will still want audio…

…and I will pause for a short sidebar right now, because it might seem, to hearing people, that this is the only logical course of action — that hearing more is always good for understanding more. It isn’t. Extra information is only information if it’s worth the mental effort tradeoff to turn it into useful data; otherwise, it’s noise. It’s the same reason you would probably be happy if the background noise in a loud bar went away while you were talking to your friend. That background noise is “extra data,” but it’s not informative to you and just takes more effort to process it away.

In my case — and the case of my deaf friends who prefer to not use residual hearing when there’s another access option available — we’re patching across multiple languages/modalities on a time delay, and that triggers two competing thought streams. If you want to know what that feels like, try to fluently type a letter to one friend while speaking to another on a different topic. Physically, you can do it — your eyeballs and hands are on the written letter, your ears and mouth are in the spoken conversation — but your brain will struggle. Don’t switch back and forth between them (which is what most people will immediately start to do) — actually do both tasks in parallel. It’s very, very hard. In our case, one stream is lossy auditory English as the speaker utters something, and the other is clear written English or clear ASL visuals some seconds behind it. (Assuming your provider is good. Sometimes this data stream is… less clear and accurate than one might like.) Merging/reconciling the two streams is one heck of a mental load… and since we *can* shut off the lossy auditory English as “noise” rather than “signal,” sometimes we do.

Anyway, back to the main point. Sometimes I don’t want the audio data for semantic purposes — but I want it for some other purposes, so I’ll leave my devices on. Oftentimes, this reason is “I’d like to identify who’s speaking.” Knowing who said what is often just as important as what’s being said, and this is often not information available through that other, more accessible data stream — for instance, a random local interpreter who shows up at your out-of-state conference will have no idea who your long-time cross-institutional colleagues are, so you’ll get something like “MAN OVER THERE [is saying these things]” and then “WOMAN OVER THERE [is saying these things]” and then try to look in that direction yourself for a split-second to see which WOMAN OVER THERE is actually talking.

This is where the auditory data sometimes comes in. I can sometimes logic out some things about speaker identity using my fuzzy auditory sense along with other visually-based data, both in-the-moment and short-term-memorized.

By “fuzzy sense,” I mean that auditorily — sometimes, in good listening conditions — I can tell things like “it’s a man’s voice, almost certainly… or rather, it is probably not a high soprano woman.” By in-the-moment visual data, I mean things like “the person speaking is not in my line of sight right now” and “the interpreter / the few people who are in my line of sight right now are looking, generally, in this direction.” By short-term-memorized visual data, I mean things like “I memorized roughly who was sitting where during the few seconds when I was walking into the room, but not in great detail because I was also waving to a colleague and grabbing coffee at the same time… nevertheless, I have a rough idea of some aspects of who might be where.”

So then I think — automatically — something like this. “Oh, it’s a man now, and not in my line of sight right now, and that has two possibilities because I’ve quasi-memorized where everyone is sitting when I walked into the room, so using the process of elimination…”

Again, the auditory part is mostly about gross differences like bass voices vs sopranos in no background noise. Sometimes it’s not about what I can identify about voice attributes, but also about what I can’t — “I don’t know if this is a man or a woman, but this person is not a high soprano… also, they are not speaking super fast based on the rhythm I can catch. Must not be persons X or Y.”

For instance, at work, I have colleagues whose patterns are…

  1. Slow sounds, many pauses, not a soprano
  2. Super fast, not a bass, no pauses, machine gun syllable patterns
  3. Incredibly variant prosody, probably not a woman but not obviously a bass
  4. Slower cadence and more rolling prosody with pauses that feel like completions of thoughts rather than mid-thought processing (clear dips and stresses at the ends of sentences)
  5. Almost identical to the above, but with sentences that have often not ended, but pauses are occurring and prosodic patterns are repeating and halting and repeating

These are all distinctive fingerprints, to me — combined with knowing where they’re sitting, and I have decently high confidence in most of my guesses. And then there are people who won’t speak unless I’m actually looking at them or the interpreter or the captioning, and that’s data too. (“Why is it quiet? Oh! Person A is going to talk, and is waiting for me to be ready for them to speak.”)

There’s more to this. Sometimes I’ll look away and guess at what they’re saying because I know their personalities, their interests, what they’re likely to say and talk about, opinions they’re likely to hold… I build Markov models for their sentence structures and vocabularies, and I’m pretty good at prediction… there’s a lot more here, but this is a breakdown of one specific aspect of the constant logic puzzles I solve in my head as a deaf person.

In terms of my pure-tone audiogram, I shouldn’t be able to do what I do — and it’s true, I can’t from in-the-moment audio alone. But combined with a lot of other things, including a tolerance of extreme cognitive fatigue? Maybe. In the “zebra puzzle,” where I drew the example logic puzzle clues from at the beginning, there are a series of clues that go on and on… and then the questions at the end are “who drinks water?” and “who owns the zebra?” Neither water nor zebra are mentioned in any of the clues above, so the first response might be “what the… you never said anything about… what zebra?” But you can figure it out with logic. Lots of logic. And you have the advantage of knowing that the puzzle is a logic puzzle and that it ought to be solvable, meaning that with logic, you can figure out who owns the zebra. In the real world… nobody tells you something could become a logic puzzle, and you never know if they are solvable. But I try them anyway.


Starter back and shoulder workouts


For accountability and later amusement purposes, here are my current strength workouts. Right now I’m cycling between back workout days, shoulder workout days, and rest days. 

Warm-up:

  1. Alternating jog/sprints for 5 min.
  2. Foam roll quads (vastus lateralis/side, and front)

Bodyweight circuit: 3 rounds of…

  1. Jump squats, 30 sec (exhale on jump, watch left ankle)
  2. Hollow body hold, 30 sec
  3. Plank to down dog, 1×12 (exhale on the transition to down dog)
  4. Plyo high-knee skips, 30 sec
  5. Flutter kicks, 30 sec
  6. Side planks, 30 sec per side
  7. Side lunge to balance, 10 per side (not alternating; the leg stretched out is the one that goes up)
  8. Transverse toe touches, 10 per side

Back workout:

Always do a warmup set with the empty bar or a light weight before beginning. When two weights are listed, start with the higher weight and progress incrementally down to the lower weight when form starts to fail. Alternating movmeents need both sides to complete before a rep is counted.

  1. Deadlift 105lb / one-arm bent-over row (not alternating), 30-25lb, 3×10
  2. Cable lat pulldown 27.5lb-20lb / alternating transverse crunches, 3×10

Shoulder workout:

Note: my shoulder mobility and muscle awareness is currently kind of crap, and they’re imbalanced and funky in interesting ways, so pay close attention to core engagement and movement awareness/quality and muscle engagement here.

  1. Clean hang press 50lb / bench leg extensions, 3×10-12
  2. Shoulder press 20-15lb / inverse pike on incline bench, 3×10
  3. Superset 3×10 (do all three back to back before resting and repeating) of:
    1. Upright rows 7-5lb (start with dumbell handles horizontal, keep dumbells together, peel shoulders back and keep them down)
    2. Alternating lateral raises (keep shoulders back and down; bend knees and tighten core)
    3. Standing flys (start with dumbell handles vertical, keep elbows in)

Some thoughts that I don’t want to have, regarding people getting shot


This post could be written by a lot of people who belong to a lot of groups. This post has been written by a lot of people who belong to a lot of groups, and you should find and read those things too. This just happens to be the post that I can write, about a group that I belong to also.

Trigger warnings: audism, racism, discussions of police-related violence/shooting, probably some other stuff.

A number of (hearing) friends from a bunch of my (different) social circles recently sent me — almost simultaneously — links to news stories about Deaf people getting killed by cops who couldn’t communicate with them.

This is nothing new. It’s been happening for ages. Someone with a gun gets scared and pulls the trigger, and someone else is dead. Maybe that person is Deaf. Maybe that person is Black. In any case, that person is now dead, and that’s not okay. (Maybe that person is both Deaf and Black, and we mention the second part but not the first. That’s disability erasure that, statistically, correlates highly with race; that’s also not okay.)

I’ve been deaf as long as I can remember, and I’ve known these stories happened for a long, long time. But this is the first time I’ve watched them from inside the conversations of a Deaf community — for some definition of “inside” that includes confused mainstreamed-oral youngsters like me who are struggling to learn ASL and figure out where they fit.

I’m a geek, a scholar, and an academic. My last long string of blog posts is part of a draft chapter on postmodernist philosophy as a theoretical language for describing maker/hacker/open-source culture within engineering education, and honestly… that’s what I’d rather write about. That’s what I’d rather think about. That’s what I’d rather sign about. Not people getting shot. A large portion of my Deaf friends are also geeks and scholars — older and more experienced than me, with tips on how to request ASL interpreting for doctoral defenses and faculty meetings, how to use FM units to teach class, how to navigate accessibility negotiations when your book wins awards and you get international speaking invitations. They are kind and brilliant and passionate and wonderful I love them and I want to be one of them when I grow up.

And we are geeks when we talk about these deaths, too. Kind and brilliant and passionate and wonderful. And my heart bursts with gratitude that I know these people, because it’s such a thoughtful and complex discussion, from so many perspectives, drawing on so many historical, theoretical, personal, etc. threads… the narratives I love, the sorts of tricky complexity that brought me back to graduate school and sent me hurtling down years of studying intricate threads of thought so I could better appreciate the mysteries that people and their stories are.

And I can’t stop thinking that any of us — any of these kind and brilliant and passionate and wonderful geeks in the middle of these great and rather hopeful discussions about complex societal dynamics and how to improve them — we could be taken out by a single bullet from a cop who doesn’t know.

I’ve learned a lot of things about being a deaf woman of color in the past year. I’m lucky; I look like a “good” minority, a white-skinned Asian who can play to stereotypes of quiet submission — but even then. And I know lots of people who can’t. And one of the first things I learned was how to stop pretending to be hearing all the time — especially in any interaction involving someone with a badge or guns (airports, traffic stops, anything). This isn’t just because it’s exhausting to lipread, but because it can be dangerous to piss off someone who thinks you’re ignoring them out of malice or attitude rather than the truth that you simply didn’t hear them shouting.

I first learned this sort of thing in undergrad, when some of my engineering college friends were horrified by stories of some other student from some other engineering college arrested by panicky cops for carrying around an electronics project. I thought they were upset for the same reasons I was — because it was a stupendous overreaction on the part of the cops and the school. And it was. But they were also worried because — what if that had been me? And the cops had shouted stop, and turn around, and put down the device — and I didn’t hear them?

“It’s fine. I mean, I’m deaf, but I can talk — I would explain things. I would figure it out,” I told them at the time. “I’m smart, you know.” As if that would protect me, as if I could compensate that way — because I’d compensated that way for so much, for all my life.

But being smart doesn’t make you more hearing — to hear shouts from people pointing guns at you — or less dead, once they fire them. And being smart doesn’t spare you from assumptions people make because of how you’re navigating tradeoffs. If you’re a PhD who decides to go voice-off while getting through airport security because it means you’re less likely to get shot, you’re going to get treated like a very small and stupid child. Maybe not every time, and not by everyone, but enough that swallowing your pride becomes a normal part of flying. No written note, no typed message, no outward display of intelligence that I’ve been able to figure out has made someone recognize the intellectual identity I’m trying to communicate when they’ve already assumed it isn’t there.

And being smart doesn’t mean you can think your way out of other people’s assumptions and their ignorance and their inability to see who you are. And being smart isn’t what gives your life its value; being human does. (Being smart doesn’t make you more special than people who don’t rank as high on whatever flawed metric of smartness you or the world decide to use.) And being kind and brilliant and passionate and wonderful does not exempt you from being heartbroken when the world is broken, and afraid because it hurts you, and your friends, and people like you, and people like your friends, for a lot of different reasons that shouldn’t matter in the world, but do.

I wish I were more eloquent, but I can’t think about this too much and still do things like finish my doctoral dissertation this week. I wish I could speak to how this isn’t just about violence against Deaf and disabled people, how I’m not just speaking up right now because I happen to belong to those groups too — this breaks my heart when it’s Black people and queer people and Christian people and female people and trans people and… people. It’s mostly that I can speak a little bit more readily from inside groups I’m in, and that I have a little bit of time to vent this out right now, between writing a section on “postmodern narrative sensemaking as plural” and another on “narrative accruals as co-constructing communities of practice.”

Back to the world, I guess. Back to writing my stories of the gorgeousness and complexity and hope that always lives inside the world that wins my heart and breaks it all at the same time.


Postmodernism for engineers: the (draft) collection


I’m having some pretty big affective-intellectual anxiety right now around (re)writing the theoretical chapter of my dissertation, which tries to explain postmodernism to an engineering audience. Which is a big scary translation, in my eyes — I feel like I’m a postmodernism novice who’s blindly babbling about this (not true, but… impostor syndrome!)
So I split it into short essays targeted at specific topics. It was supposed to be around 10 pages; it’s actually around 25. (Oops. Turns out I know more about this than I thought.) If you’re (1) a technical-ish person interested in seeing whether my explanations of postmodern concepts work for you, or (2) someone familiar with what postmodernism is (at a really basic level) and would tell me if you think I’m translating the ideas accurately, I would LOVE writing feedback.
You can read and comment on individual sections in the posts listed below, or read the full version on Google Docs (and comment there)  – feel free to comment! Edits will be made to this version, so don’t be surprised if it is slightly different (and hopefully better) than the blog post sectionings listed below. Thanks to Mark Hoemmen, Suzanne Loughry Nellis, Julia Thompson, and Todd Fernandez for some awesome feedback thus far.
The blog posts in this series include:
  1. What’s postmodernism (and how do I explain it to engineers)?
  2. Okay, fine, you can’t define postmodernism, so I’ll provide a history of how it came to be. (Followed immediately by section 2.5, or: by the way, a postmodernist reading of the historical I just provided basically demands that I go “but that narrative isn’t a single clear explanation either!”
  3. Comparison with other (probably more familiar) paradigms, including positivism aka “this is probably what you think science is.”
  4. Parts 4-6 present some key ideas in postmodern thought, and how they relate to ideas familiar to engineers. The first one is power and agency (otherwise known as commit access)
  5. Then there’s truth and meaning… (otherwise known as design reviews)
  6. …and finally slicing and separations (otherwise known as black-boxing)
  7. Bringing it home: postmodernism as a language to describe aspects of engineering practice
  8. Finally, looking at educational studies as a place where the “postmodern turn” has already happened, and what engineering might learn from that.

Ignore my (horrible and inconsistent) citation practices. And yes, there are obvious “I wanted to keep writing so I stuck NOTES IN ALL CAPS HERE and moved on” markers. Look, I’m just… trying to… get this out, ok? It’s taken me… a couple years, and I finally wrote all this in about 2 days.


Postmodernism: paradigmatic comparison


I’m just going to keep posting these until they are all done. I’ve lost the ability to write useful annotations at the start. See previous posts, or something.

Since I am presenting postmodernism here as a qualitative research paradigm to be incorporated into engineering education practice, I will compare it to the philosophies and practices already present in the field as they appear in several qualitative research paradigms previously discussed within it. Glesne’s introductory book on qualitative research defines a paradigm as “a framework or philosophy of science that makes assumptions about the nature of reality and truth, the kinds of questions to explore, and how to go about doing so” (2011, p. 5). These assumptions affect our research, as “research approaches inherently reflect our beliefs about the world we live in and want to live in” (Lather, 1991, p. 5). Becker (2001) describes qualitative research fields as being protective and self-preservational about their own boundaries, as human communities are wont to do. After all, one needs a way to distinguish who and what belongs within a group and who and what does not, and how to determine which things within the field’s accepted boundaries are “best.” Paradigms provide a way to legitimize and privilege work that shares a field’s assumptions about the nature of reality and knowledge.

Koro-Ljungberg and Douglas’s JEE meta-review of qualitative research in engineering education synthesizes four perspectives (2008, p. 165) that align with the paradigmatic breakdowns given by Glesne in her research methodology textbook (2011, p. 7) and Lather’s now-classic paper on postmodern research “paradigm talk” (2006, p. 38-40). In the table below, if paradigm names vary between sources, I use the first names listed by Koro-Ljungberg and Douglas, with selected alternate names given in parentheses afterwards in the extended explanations. Following the table, I discuss each paradigm more extensively in turn.

Table 1: Qualitative paradigms in engineering education research

Post-positivist

Interpretivist

Critical

Postmodern

View of reality

Single objective reality, objective and falsifiable

Multiple subjective, constructed realities

Multiple subjective political realities constructed on the basis of power

Multiple, fragmented, unknowable

View of truth

Truth is one

Truth is many

Truth is many and constitutes a system of socio-political power

Contains the signs of its own contradiction

Purpose of research

Prediction, cause and effect

Describe and understand

Emancipate, socio-political critique

Deconstruct “grand narratives”

Methods of research

Defined in advance, hypothesis driven, ex: experimental or quasi-experimental, causal comparative

Preliminarily defined in advance, emergently adjusted during the study, ex: grounded theory, ethnography

Designed to capture inequities, ex: participatory action, critical discourse analysis

Generated during the study, “theory as methodology,” ex: deconstruction, geneaology, rhizoanalysis

Role of researcher

detached

partners

activists

various changing roles

Outcome of research

Context-free generalization

Situated description

Critical essays, policy changes

Re-conceptualized descriptions

Positivism (postpositivism, logical empiricism) is the paradigm used by mainstream scientific research, according to Popper’s (1959) definition of science as the usage of empirical falsification. The positivist paradigm assumes a pre-existing and objectively knowable reality (Lather, 2006). Consequently, using a postmodern paradigm, inquiries as to the truthful nature of this reality can be conducted by formulating and testing falsifiable hypotheses via experimental procedures defined in advance of their execution. Knowledge produced by this style of research builds linearly upon itself until researchers know how the world works (Glesne, 2011), or in the case of postpositivism, until they approach as close as possible. The purpose of research is to determine cause and effect (Koro-Ljungberg & Douglas, 2008) and predict future results (Glesne, 2011) since experiments for testing falsifiable hypotheses should be repeatable. Researchers are therefore interchangeable components who serve as neutral, detached observers. Furthermore, research outcomes are expected to be generalizable across contexts (Koro-Ljungberg & Douglas, 2008); under such a paradigm, transferable knowledge is privileged.

Lather (2006) playfully compares positivism to classical ballet, with its rule-driven precision. Since engineering training includes a great deal of science background, the positivist paradigms are commonplace among engineers. Indeed, they are so commonplace that sometimes they are assumed to be te only paradigms available. Such assumptions can cause conceptual difficulties for engineering researchers transitioning towards education research and suddenly encountering the existence of other paradigms of research (Borrego, 2007).

Interpretivism (constructivism, phenomenology) is a research paradigm frequently used in the social sciences such as anthropology and sociology. From an interpretivist point of view, reality is subjective and constructed (Lather, 2006) and therefore leads to multiple truths. The focus turns away from prediction of an absolute reality and towards understanding of a co-constructed one (Glesne, 2011), with researchers and participants acting as partners in creating that understanding. The result is often thick description, situated in a contextually-dependent environment (Koro-Ljungberg & Douglas, 2008); it is no longer required to be generalizable and transferable in order to count as valid knowledge.

Many methodologies and theories fall under the umbrella of interpretivism, including constructivism, constructionism, phenomenology, ethnography, grounded theory, and narrative analysis, to name a few. Lather’s analogy for interpretivism is a community picnic, with its dynamics of humanistic cooperation amongst parties (2006). Qualitative research projects in engineering education often employ an interpretivist paradigm, for example when examining case studies and stories from underrepresented groups or describing the engineering cultures of indigenous groups.

The critical approach shares interpretivism’s assumptions about the social construction of reality, then adds an emphasis on the sociopolitical power relations of those constructs (Lather, 2006). These power structures create oppression; therefore, the goal of research is to liberate (Glesne, 2011). By capturing and proclaiming inequities and injustices, researchers and participants become activists who can affect policy change (Koro-Ljungberg & Douglas, 2008) Projects employing critical paradigms are also often associated with a focus on marginalized groups (Lather, 2006). Within engineering education research, a good deal of work using the critical paradigm focuses on aspects of diversity: gender, race, sexuality, disability, etc., and the power dynamics that lead to under-representation from particular demographics within the engineering field. Feminist theory, critical theory, and critical discourse analysis are examples of theories that might be employed within this paradigm (Glesne, 2011).

The critical perspective “springs from an assumption that we live amid a world of pain, that much can be done to alleviate that pain, and that theory has a crucial role to play in that process” (Marc Poster, Critical Theory and Postructuralism: In search of a context. Ithaca: Cornell University Press. 1989, p. 3). Consequently, projects within the critical paradigm move beyond understanding to demand action. Their research outputs move beyond disseminating knowlege to an academic elite and often frequently aim towards positive impacts on the research participants and their communities. This might take the form of political initiatives, the design and manufacture of products, performance art, or other action-oriented approaches.

Finally, postmodernism (deconstruction, poststructural, postcolonial, and the other “posts”) both draws from and works against each of the other perspectives. Like positivists, postmodernists acknowledge the utility of prediction and control, but question how they are pursued and the ends to which they are used, and whether such pursuits, dependent on the assumption of an impossible level of objectivity, can ever ultimately be successful. Like interpretivists, postmodernists acknowledge the social construction of reality and the unique positionality contributed by researchers and participants; unlike many interpretivists, postmodernists do not seek a convergence, stabilization, or taxonomical ordering of this constructed understanding. Like critical inquiry, postmodern inquiry is concerned with power, but “instead of having the critical theorists’ goal of eliminating the oppressive acts of society, postmodernists seek to delineate the multivocal relations of power that exist in order to understand differences” (Tierney and Bensimon, 1996, p. 15).

As previous sections of this chapter have described, the postmodernist emphasis is on play and disruption of assumptions made within a variety of paradigms. Instead of settling within one paradigm, postmodernism proliferates paradigms. In a sense, a postmodern paradigm creates, uses, and attempts to shift between multiple paradigms; in the case of this project, the primary shift is between interpretivist and postmodernist paradigms. Shifts between paradigms disrupt existing ways of thinking and dominance relationships, and provide opportunities for Lather’s (2006) analogy of the postmodernist paradigm is of a carnival; there is no single reference point, and reality is ultimately unknowable and self-contradictory. Inasmuch as it can be said to have a particular goal, postmodern projects aim towards reconceptualizations of phenomena (Koro-Ljungberg & Douglas, 2008), or to borrow a title from one of Lather’s (2008) papers, to work with, within, and against the world so that it may “appear other to itself anew.”


Postmodernism: what engineering education might learn from the “postmodern turn” in educational studies


Drawing on the idea I brought forth in the previous section, that postmodernism can provide a theoretical language for describing some aspects of engineering and engineering education practice, a logical next question might be: what might it look like for that to happen? To conceptualize what a “postmodern turn” might look like in engineering education, I turn to a place where it has already occurred. Specifically, I look at the collection of disciplines termed “educational studies,” where the “postmodern turn” in educational research has matured over roughly the past 25 years.

As befits a practice that draws heavily on postmodernism as both theory and methodology, there is no clean and unified history of educational studies, nor a single unified group that can be said to represent the entire trans-disciplinary phenomenon. However, the Society for Educational Studies (SES) was established in 1951 and largely based in the United Kingdom, publishing The British Journal of Educational Studies as one of its activities (SES, 2016). 17 years later, the American Educational Studies Association (AESA) was established in 1968 with a companion journal called Educational Studies (AESA, 2016).

Educational studies is a broad term for a loosely conglomerated, trans-disciplinary movement that looks at education through the lens of various fields, typically fields in the liberal arts; the American Educational Studies Association describes its members as “utilizing one or more of the liberal arts disciplines of philosophy, history, politics, sociology, anthropology, or economics as well as comparative/international and cultural studies” (AESA, 2016). Educational studies practitioners might describe themselves as studying the “XX of education,” meaning “taking an XX perspective on education,” where XX is one of multiple arts, humanities, or social sciences disciplines: the philosophy of education, the sociology of education, and so forth — and education is the site of study.

Just as engineering education graduate programs are not primarily focused on producing engineering instructors, educational studies graduate programs are not the same as teacher preparation programs. Although educational studies activities have strong ties to teaching practice and many educational studies scholars have experience with classroom teaching, educational studies includes both research and policy arenas and focuses on the broad sociocultural contexts of education.

To draw from a few selected program descriptions in educational studies: Tufts describes its program as “explor[ing] education as a site of critical scholarly analysis through the disciplinary strands of the field, including: history, sociology, anthropology, and philosophy… engag[ing] these topics through critical theoretical frames such as feminist theories, queer theories, Critical Race Theory, post-colonial theories, and socio-cultural theories” (Tufts, 2016). Yale’s program “promotes a multidisciplinary understanding of the role of education historically, socially, politically, and economically” (Yale, 2016). Brandeis educational studies students “explore educational history and policy, human learning and development, and the place of education and schooling in families and societies, from a variety of disciplinary perspectives… to examine the impact of political, historical, psychological, cultural, economic, and social forces on education…” and provides examples of the sorts of questions its students ask: “Who decides what should be taught?  What kinds of learning, schools, and teachers do young people deserve?  Why is there so much disagreement about the purposes of schools?” (Brandeis, 2016)

In contrast to an educational studies approach that brings liberal arts disciplines to bear on education as a rich site of study, engineering education research uses the engineering discipline itself as the rich site of study, and brings tools from other disciplines to bear on that. As such, engineering education can be said to belong to discipline-based education research, which works within the bounds of a discipline to understand and progress the ways in which that discipline forms its practitioners. (In postmodernist terms, engineering education research works “with, within, and against” current engineering education practice.) Other examples of discipline-based educational research include other STEM fields, such as math education, chemistry education, and physics education. Engineering education research also bears similarities to other professional education programs such as medical or legal education. In other words, while educational studies takes “an XX perspective on education,” where XX is typically a liberal arts discipline, engineering education belongs to the group of disciplines that focus on “the education of YY practitioners,” where YY is typically a STEM or professional field. This is, of course, an oversimplication with many ways to create exceptions and intersections, but such a distinction provides additional context for understanding educational studies and its practice in relation to engineering education research.

So what might educational studies teach us about how it looks when a field goes through the “postmodern turn”? One insight from the history of educational studies is that ideas take time to travel across cultures, languages, and contexts — and that the latency inherent in a hermeneutic and material world shaped the way ideas proliferated across disciplines within it. When Elizabeth St. Pierre, now a professor at the University of Georgia and an influential postmodernist/feminist theorizer in educational studies, began graduate school in 1991, Foucault and other French poststructural philosophers were just beginning to be translated into English for the first time. As she recounts it, due to the language barrier, “not many educators or educational researchers in the U.S. used poststructural theories at that time; and some academics, without reading that literature closely, accused the “posts” of being relativistic, nihilistic, deliberately obfuscatory and then just dismissed them” (St. Pierre, 2014, p. 5).

Although French philosophers had laid the groundwork for postmodernist philosophy as early as the 60′s, these works took time to become available to an English-speaking audience. To list a few notable examples of “classic” pieces in postmodernist philosophy: Derrida’s “De la grammatologie” was published in French in 1967 and translated into English as “Of Grammatology” 11 years later in 1976. Foucault’s lecture “Qu’est-ce qu’un auteur?” was given in 1969, but was not translated into English as “What is an author?” until 1984. Similarly, Lyotard’s “La condition postmoderne: rapport sur le savoir” was written in French in 1979 and translated into English as “The Postmodern Condition” in 1984.

St. Pierre began her graduate studies in 1991 under Patti Lather, who had just published “Getting smart: feminist research and pedagogy with/in the postmodern,” one of the first works to engage the newly-translated postmodern philosophies in the context of education. The term “postmodern” was not consistently being applied to works of that time that employed resonant philosophies. For example, Deborah Britzman’s “Practice Makes Practice,” a study of student teachers also published in 1991, mentions the (then) present-day “cultural shift” in educational studies (p. 16-17) and practically copies Lyotard’s reluctant definition of postmodernism as “incredulity towards metanarratives” by proposing “an interest in conflicts and contradictions, no ‘grand remedies’ here” (p. 11). However, instead of “postmodern,” Britzman describes her work as “critical.” Two years later, William Tierney coined the term “critical postmodernism” to describe his study of difference in higher education (Tierney, 1993).

Of her experience as a student formed in this sort of methodological ferment, St. Pierre writes: “In 1991, qualitative methodology had just been invented and was still considered radical. Even early descriptions of the new methodology drew on conflicting humanist knowledge projects: interpretive, critical, and positivist approaches in the social sciences… the critical turn and the social justice projects of feminists, race scholars, gay and lesbian scholars, and others who demanded action and not just interpretation” (2014. p. 5-6). In parallel, engineering education was taking advantage of similar radical ferments in its own arena and beginning to come of age as a discipline its own right, for example with the re-launch of the Journal of Engineering Education (JEE) in 1993.

Another lesson to be learned from the “postmodern turn” in educational studies is that the introduction of a new paradigm is neither neat nor complete. Paradigm shifts — or rather, the layering of new paradigms over and alongside preexisting ones — trickle into a field over time, such that multiple paradigms remain at play during the same timespan. In the educational studies space, “The School as a Work Environment: Implications for Reform,” a collection of education studies published in 1991, provides a useful comparison to “non-postmodern” educational research outside of engineering/STEM education, at the time and disciplinary place where St. Pierre was beginning to experience the “postmodern turn” in educational studies for herself.

To take one example chapter, “Creating a teacher work environment for the development of classroom knowledge,” moves briskly through a “general description of the structures and processes observed in Ms. Dove’s class… allow[ing] the reader to move quickly into the daily life of the classroom teacher and her students, and provides an analysis of the typical activities, routines, and actions the teacher used to solve the problem of order…” (Carter, 1991, p. 47). Carter then paints a straightforward picture of the classroom, then jumps on p. 57 into five general principles of classroom management. Absent is a reflection on contradictions, tensions, exceptions, or acknowledgements that the narrative of Ms. Dove’s classroom might not be quite as simple as presented in a few brief pages.

However, the cracks were beginning to show. In 1994, F. Michael Connelly penned a foreword to the book “Teachers’ stories: from personal narrative to professional insight,” which was published the following year. Connelly described an education research world where “not only have there been shifts in the frames of reference for inquiry, there have been shifts from the researchers’ experience to the voice of those in the experience,” naming the book as a work that “elegantly marks the crumbling boundary lines between researcher and researched” and positioning it “within a ferment of ideas on inquiry in the social sciences, adding phenomenological, interpretive, and humanistic methods to the “look and record” descriptive research traditions,” while adding that “not many years ago, it might have been seen as teacher gossip, stories better left for the staffroom.” Connelly’s description of the book, which he also describes as “a harbinger” that “challenges sacred notions of the preeminence of theory over practice,” echoes with the language of postmodernism: ferments, crumbling boundaries, and the challenging of previously sacred notions (Jalongo et al, 1995, p. xii).

By 1998, Ohio State had formally approved its program in “Cultural Studies in Education” after a protracted struggle for legitimacy described by Lather in her 2006 paper, “The Foundations/ Cultural Studies Nexus: An Emerging Movement in the Education Field.” The legitimizing shelter of formal programs at Ohio State and other universities parallels the increasing legimization of engineering education as a research field a few years later. For instance, the National Academy of Engineering formed its Committee on Engineering Education (CEE) in 1999, and the first PhD program in the field was established at Purdue University in 2004. In both cases, the establishment of a practice’s legitimacy — postmodern research techniques in educational studies, and “rigorous” research at all in engineering education — created room for more research of that sort to be done without having to constantly defend its own right to exist.

As engineering education was defending and establishing its right to exist as a practice, so was postmodern theory and methodology within educational studies. 20 years after its introduction, the “postmodern turn” is embedded within educational studies as a viable research paradigm, and engineering education is accepted as a legitimate research discipline, with multiple degree-granting programs and its first few rounds of tenured faculty. Having established themselves, engineering education and the postmodern practices within educational studies now have a much easier opportunity to bridge the gap between them, which can be described as “living in a time warp” (St. Pierre, 2014, p. 2) and reaching across to a field that is simultaneously “paradigms behind” as well as ahead (Patton, 2008, p. 269) — engineering education as a place where postmodern paradigms are lived out, and educational studies as a place where it is theorized and incorporated into research practice.


Postmodernism: a troubling of the historical narrative I just provided for postmodernism


The narrative I have just told about postmodernist history in relation to modernist and premodernist thought is, as all narratives are, a partial and extremely cleaned-up telling of a much messier reality. I told it as a narrative of three separate philosophical paradigms that occurred in chronological order and with causal relationships. However, I can simultaneously say that everything happened everywhere and all at once. As one simple example, postmodern thought appeared during what I have described as premodern times, as in the earlier example of using the Tao Te Ching to illustrate postmodernism. Further, as I will discuss shortly, modernist (and premodernist) views of the world are prominent in contemporary US engineering culture and its emphasis on optimization and improvement.

These inevitable oversimplifications in explanation are inescapable; they are a feature of language itself. Lather points out that “language is delineation, a strategic limitation of possible meanings. It frames; it brings into focus by that that which goes unremarked” (Lather, 1991, p. xix). The narrative I have just provided about postmodernism is one possible narrative among many, and it is one that provides traction towards engaging with this project on postmodern terms rather than more modernist philosophical assumptions that might otherwise be brought to bear by default. For instance, it is important to not simply conceptualize postmodernism as “a better and more recent form of modernism,” because the emphasis on constant improvements over time comes from a modernist rather than a postmodernist perspective.

This insight — that postmodernism was not “more optimized modernism” — was one that I personally struggled with in my early encounters with postmodernism as a student previously trained in the high-context expectations of engineering. After dutifully writing down postmodernist thought as a neat historical progression (similar to the one I wrote above), I realized that the portrayal itself was misaligned with the philosophy — that such a neat history was a hypocritical and modernist/structuralist portrayal of postmodernism, and that I didn’t know how to escape it. “Even the name ‘postmodernism’ suggests a progression from modernism,” I blogged in a frantic attempt to reconcile my knowledge into a single self-consistent system (Chua, 2013). When I took my complaints to Dr. Lather, she nodded. “Yes,” she replied. “Sit in the paradox, Mel” (Lather, 2013). Postmodern thinking is full of an intentional search and embrace of tension and paradox, much like the tradition of Zen koans; the intent is to shake readers out of their habitual ways of thinking, being, and making-sense.

A practice of tension and paradox means that postmodernism can never stand alone as a “pure” form of thought and an “untainted” philosophy that is separate from modernism. After all, a postmodernist perspective would interrogate the ideas of “purity” and “untaintedness” by saying such a thing is actually impossible, and that this impossibility is perhaps not even problematic. Postmodernism is not a clean break from the past; it is is a troubling and questioning and playful interrogation of it. It is not a rejection of meaning, but a practice that plays with the concept of meaning as never factual or final (Gergen, 1991).

One implication of this is that viewing engineering and engineering education as sites for postmodern paradigms and practices also means simultaneously seeing them as sites for non-postmodern paradigms and practices. Engineering is not “postmodern,” nor is it “non-postmodern” — it is both of these, and more, at the same time. The intent is not to have postmodern ideas in engineering replace the non-postmodern ones, as if doing so were an unequivocal upgrade — again, such a move would be antithetical to the postmodern perspective. Instead, postmodernism entangles with engineering education and encourages it to tinker with itself to see what happens.

Any postmodern practice must exist alongside other perspectives and practices, since the practice of critique is impossible without something to critique, and the practice of destabilization is impossible without structure to destabilize. As Jackson and Mazzei say in their preface to “Thinking with Theory,” “a recognition of the limits of our received practices does not mean that we reject such practices; instead, we work the limits (and limitations) of such practices” (2012, p. ix). Postmodernism simultaneously works with, within, and against other paradigms for thinking and being. The next section will explore the sorts of received philosophies and practices within engineering education qualitative research that a postmodern perspective could work with, within, and against.


Postmodernism: a (reluctant) historical progression


Postmodernism may be impossible to define, but this does not provide an excuse for avoiding attempts to articulate or understand it further. The postmodern refusal of clear definitions makes it tricky to talk about what the word “postmodernism” “means,” since a postmodernist treatment of “meaning” denies a singular meaning that can be found in absolute or stable form. However, a postmodernist treatment of meaning does acknowledge that meaning exists, and that it can be constructed, found, and played with by looking at the relationships of the thing (“sign”) at hand (the one you’re investigating the meaning of) and other things. Therefore, in this section, I will position postmodernism relative to other viewpoints that might be historically familiar to engineering readers, with the intent of providing more material with which readers and I can employ to make sense of the concept.

As its name implies, postmodernism is a movement which grew in response to modernism. It is therefore instructive to look at the philosophical paradigms of premodernism and modernism in order to see postmodernism’s relationship relative to both. The image below provides an overview: premodernism viewed reality as static and predetermined, modernism brought with it an emphasis on continuous progress in the name of human liberation, and postmodernism questioned modernism’s relentless pursuit of that notion of “progress” while inquiring what, exactly, “progress” might mean. (Note to blog readers: the images below are from an earlier blog post and I would love ideas on how to do a decent text description of this for screenreaders and so forth, or whether such a description is redundant with the explanation below.)

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Prior to the 19th century, premodern (or sometimes “romantic”) viewpoints were widespread across Westernized societies such as the US; such a viewpoint viewed the world as ordered by divine and governmental authority, and a human’s role within that world to be pre-ordained by the circumstances of their birth. In other words, if your parents were farmers, you would probably be a farmer, because that was the will of God; one’s identity was fixed.

Modernism came of age during the time of the Industrial Revolution, revolting against the notion of a fixed identity. The importance of the individual and the “sovereign self” that could determine its own destiny was reflected in narratives about self-starting bootstrappers who pursued “The American Dream” and went from rags to riches. This notion of identity developed in parallel with the rapid development of technologies that made the average 19th and 20th century American’s life dramatically different from their parents, and the narrative of constant economic, technological, and social progress. With modernist thinking, the stock market would always go up in the long term; transistor density (and thus computing power) would always become smaller and cheaper (Moore’s law), and humankind was on an inevitable trajectory towards upwards and measurable progress.

Simulaneously, in the biological sciences, Darwin’s theory of evolution also provided a narrative of ongoing progress that was literally encoded into the nature of humans and the world around them (Darwin, 1859). Scientific quests for knowledge and betterment, and a belief in progress and perfectability became highlights of a modernist way of thinking. Also associated with modernism and its philosophy of science was structuralism, a movement associated with linguistics which emphasized the search for underlying structure and facts and presupposed the existence of such structures and absolute facts. (Ward, 1996, p. 86-104).

The “postmodern turn” pushed back against modernist assumptions with the challenge that there are no facts, only interpretations. Whereas modernist and structuralist thought emphasized the finding of intrinsic meaning and truth and the categorization and increasingly fine-grained naming of things in order to further optimize society’s understanding and evolution, postmodernism questioned its incessant gaze towards those goals. Whereas modernism and structuralism enshrine the primacy of individual choice and upwards progress, postmodernism questions these assumptions. What does “better” mean, and who gets to decide it? What are the boundaries of an individual, and why is it so important to separate people into stable units of analysis? A modernist pursuit on measurable progress requires trackable units of measurement (students with grades, countries with GDP, etc.) whereas a postmodern query asks: why do we use these particular methods of measuring and meting out?

Postmodernism is a response to the modernist emphasis on unrelenting “progress” towards a “better” world that interrogates the assumptions and power structures behind those terms and asks how they might be otherwise. Correspondingly, the postmodern inquirer’s work is not towards the increasingly “better” articulation of knowledge and truth which they are attempting ot teach their audience. “The postmodern text is evocative as opposed to didactic; extended argument is displaced… [in favor of] pastiche, montage, collage, bricolage, and the deliberate conglomerizing of purposes [that] characterize postmodern art and architectural styles” (Lather, 1991, p. 10). By questioning the very concept of a single, infinitely extendable “better” and the promise of certainty that the grand, sweeping narrative of continuous improvement and the search for truth and meaning offers, postmodernism exemplifies an “incredulity towards metanarratives,” or totalizing narratives that exclude the search for other explanations (Lyotard, 1984, p. xxiv). The postmodern movement, or “turn,” is deeply steeped in such refusals to settle, opting instead for the constant motion of “keeping meaning at play” (Jackson and Mazzei, 2012, p. 70-71).

For a further discussion of the historical relationships between premodernism, modernism, and postmodernism, a reasonable starting progression might be to consult Tierney (1993) for a brief and self-admittedly oversimplified historical retrospective, Lyotard’s classic “The Postmodern Condition” (1984) for one of the seminal first attempts by a postmodernist to explain postmodernism to the world, or “The Postmodern Turn” (Best, 1997) for one comprehensive historical look at the postmodern movement across disciplines alongside Cavallaro’s “Critical and Cultural Theory: Thematic Variations” (2001) which provides a brief, encyclopedic-style introduction to relatively up-to-date discussions of key concepts in postmodern thought.


Postmodernism: in engineering (education) praxis


Again, writing these out of order, see preceding posts.

Postmodernism may be an unfamiliar set of research paradigms and theories within the disciplines of engineering, but part of my goal in the preceding sections was to show that postmodern ideas are not as foreign to engineering and engineering education practice as they may initially seem. In fact, these ideas are alive and well in some aspects of engineering practice, with postmodernism providing a theoretical language to describe some elements of that practice in alternative ways. The playful bricoleur’s restlessnes of the postmodern practitioner is echoed in the cleverness and humor of the hacker/maker culture that has grown up intertwined with its more formal “engineering” cousin, and in areas like design thinking that cut across the two.

If engineering education practice has postmodern elements, but engineering education philosophy and research do not yet widely use postmodern language, it comes as no surprise that articulating those practices might be an issue for the field. Trying to describe postmodern practices with modernist terminology is working at cross purposes. It is like translating Shakespeare into scatterplots; it can be done, but much is lost in translation, and the end representation leaves something to be desired. There is plenty of structured, optimization-focused, modernist practice within engineering education as well, which works well with the current paradigms and theories and languages used to describe them. However, the playful materiality of the field and its charge to (re)make the world has a distinct postmodern thread that would benefit from connections to postmodern language, theory, and praxis.

In a way, postmodernism is what engineering education researchers are doing when they call for curricular change. A call for curricular change implicitly recognizes that the current structure for educating engineers is something that can be questioned and disrupted, that it is a power system to be probed and tinkered-with. The thrust of critical, feminist, queer, and other diversity-focused efforts in engineering education research is in keeping with this focus on disruption with the hope of different types of inclusion, and in keeping with postmodern’s treatment of excluded parties. “By insisting on the multiplicity of social positions, postmodernism has seriously challenged the political closure of modernity with its divisions between the center and the margins and in doing so has made room for those groups generally defined as the excluded others.” (Giroux, 1988, p. 166).

The practice of engineering can be seen as a bricolage; it is a heuristic, not an algorithm. It incorporates many elements of hacking and making and incompleteness. Changing engineering education is a postmodern act.


Postmodernism: what is it? (for engineers)


Yeah, my citation formats are a mess.

Postmodernism is not monolithic, and it would in fact be highly ironic if it were a single, unified school of thought, methodology, or movement with a clear goal, for that is what postmodernism itself critiques (Tierney, 1993).  This poses challenges to the engineering reader encountering postmodernism for the first time. Engineering is a high-consensus field (Biglan, 1973) meaning that part of the engineering disciplinary culture is an expectation that terms have precise and widely agreed-upon definitions (Storer, 1967). In contrast, postmodernism grew out of arts and humanities fields with traditions of lower-consensus. One challenge for engineers encountering postmodern and other culturally-low-consensus research for the first time is setting aside expectations based on a high-consensus culture’s expectations of stable and consistent terminology (Borrego, 2007). When reading the subsequent explanations of postmodernism by postmodernist scholars, it is important to keep such cultural differences around the notion of definitions in mind.

The task of this section is to provide a brief overview of postmodernism, so I will of necessity oversimplify what is a broad and complex transdisciplinary sociocultural movement with a rich history that is impossible to cover in full in a short space. I will begin by simplifying the language that I use: throughout this document, I use the word “postmodernism” as an umbrella term to refer to a movement that is encompassed by various terms sometimes called “the posts”: poststructuralism, postcolonialism, postmodernism, post-post, and so forth. These multiple and intertwining movements have a complex co-evolutionary history, and there are fine distinctions and debates on the differences between them, but such a discussion is outside the scope of this document. Instead, my aim is to give the engineering reader a general overview of postmodernism through the words of postmodernist scholars and theorists, and bridge their theoretical concepts to ideas and practices within the engineering domain. As such, I will use the term “postmodernism” for the remainder of this document to mean any of the various “post” movements, and then specify poststructuralism, etc. if a specific historical reference or theoretical idea requires more detailed unpacking.

As a philosophy, postmodernism extends to the very first principles of things. Foucault, one of the major “post” philosophers, described postmodernism as “involv[ing] a critique of metaphysics: of the concepts of causality. of identity, of the subject, of power, knowledge and of truth” (Foucault, Politics, philosophy, culture: Interviews and other writings, 1988, p. 18). It is a foundational paradigm that seeks to destabilize the foundational, which makes it difficult to describe.

This attribute of destabilization is evident in one of the most-quoted definitions of postmodernism from Lyotard’s “The Postmodern Condition”: “The postmodern would be that which,in the modern, puts forward the unpresentable in presentation itself; that which denies itself the solace of good forms, the consensus of a taste which would make it possible to share collectively the nostalgia for the unattainable; that which searches for new presentations, not in order to enjoy them but in order to impart a stronger sense of the unpresentable.” (1984, p. 81) Here one can see the resolute insistence of postmodernism at remaining a low-consensus field; to “deny itself the solace of good forms” is to keep meaning always in flux.

Present-day postmodern theorists Jackson and Mazzei continue in this vein. “[Postmodernism] seeks… to cut meaning loose, and to keep that difference (and therefore meaning) at play… there is a constant deferral of meaning, leaving traces of other [choices] that had to be excluded…” (2012, p. 70-71). Similarly, postmodern scholars Tierney and Bensimon describe their own qualitative work as postmodernists who “…reject the notion that we can ever understand ultimate Truth through reason; instead, truth is considered ephemeral and subject to multiple, conflicting interpretations… Postmodernism is… centrally concerned with decoding the multiple images that occur and brings into question previously unchallenged ideas about language and identity” (Tierney and Bensimon, 1996, p. 15). Patti Lather, one of the first scholars to take a postmodernist approach to qualitatve research in education, offers that “[postmodernism] ask[s] questions about what we have not thought to think, about what is most densely invested in our discourse/practices, about what has been muted, repressed, unheard.” (Lather, 1991, p. 145).

Postmodernism cannot be concretely defined. Foucault famously claimed that such a task was impossible, as “the premises of [postmodernism] disallow any denominative, unified, or ‘proper definition of itself” (Foucault, Politics, philosophy, culture: Interviews and other writings, 1988, p. 18). Postmodernism adamantly resists concrete definitions “…presumably because such practices represent an attempt to pin down an essence which does not exist” (Gavey, 1998:119, Feminist Poststructuralism and discourse analysis: Contributions to feminist psychology. Psychology of Women Quarterly, No. 13, 1989, p. 459-475.)

Since the practice of postmodernism gives itself to the questioning of meaning, it involves a great deal of linguistic play. Consequently, the words postmodernists use to describe their practice also vary widely: Derrida calls his work “deconstruction” (1967), Lather and Smithies call theirs “troubling” (1997), and St. Pierre and Pillow call theirs “working the ruins” (2000). However, there are characteristic attributes and themes that arise from this refusal to concretely define foundations and settle on definite meanings and “good forms,” to borrow Lyotard’s phrase. Postmodernist practice carries an ethos of play and disruption that Lather compares to that of the archetype of The Fool (2007). It is a paradigm in constant motion, always questioning and refusing to settle — even refusing to settle on the notion of “refusing to settle.”

In fact, as good a definition of postmodernism as any might be to compare it to the Tao, or “the way,” in the classic Chinese mystic text “The Tao Te Ching” (here translated by Ursula LeGuin).

the way you can go
isn’t the real way.
The name you can say
isn’t the real name.

In the following sections of this document, I will unpack a little more about postmodernism by comparing it to more familiar ideas from qualitative research within engineering education, beginning with other research paradigms that are more commonly used in the discipline. In fact, two separate reviews of paradigm usage in engineering education research found that while other paradigms such as postpositivism and interpretivist perspectives were represented in the literature, postmodernism was conspicuously absent (Koro-Ljungberg & Douglas, 2008; Beddoes & Borrego, 2011). In contrast, educational studies went through its “postmodern turn” in qualitative research over the course of the past half-century. The effect, if one steps from education research in education studies to education research within engineering, is one of a time warp; the philosophical paradigms used in engineering education research today largely parallel those used in educational studies half a century ago.

However, postmodern practice is not unfamiliar to engineering education; one of my desires to bridge the two disciplines comes from the conviction that postmodern theory provides language for some aspects of engineering education practice that we currently struggle to define. I see them as two halves of a praxis — a conscious, self-reflexive practice that can articulate its own theories — that are searching for each other. Therefore, after making a paradigmatic comparison to other philosophies more familiar to engineering education researchers, I will use examples from engineering and engineering education practice in order to illustrate and explain key ideas from postmodern theories that were used throughout the project.