(New comic): Mastery (Dreyfus model of skill acquisition) on one page

The Dreyfus brothers developed their model of skill acquisition for the US Military in the 80′s. It describes mastery as the process of increasing one’s ability to independently improvise through a complex environment. Later, Crismond and Adams pointed out that “mastery” (according to this scale) is an unrealistic expectation for a semester-level course, or even a senior undergraduate — 4 years of college will not make someone an expert in their field. “Competence” is a more reasonable level to strive for — basic proficiency that sets a new graduate up to continue learning as a junior practitioner in the working world.

As with the Self-Authorship comic, this was produced for the Purdue Polytechnic Institute (PPI) and is open-licensed and available online (as you can see), so yes — feel free to share this with your friends however you would like.

Mastery (Dreyfus model of skill acquisition on one page)

Can you take over my sponsorship of a special-needs child in Zambia?

Short version: I’m looking for someone to take over sponsoring Deborah, a Zambian child with disabilities who is receiving care from Special Hope Network.

Longer version: Most people reading this blog know that I narrowly missed growing up as a disabled child in the developing world. (I am profoundly deaf, and my family is from the Philippines.) Growing up as a disabled kid in the developing world sucks. There aren’t resources to support you, so you don’t get the therapy you need, and have virtually no chance of being educated. Culturally, you’re likely to be seen as not just a burden, but a shame to your family — your very existence is seen as punishment, clear proof that a close relative has done something horribly wrong. Fathers abandon their families to avoid this shame. Mothers keep disabled children confined inside the house at all times for fear of it. There is no witness to society that your life is worthwhile — that your life even exists. You get an entire society who does not know how to deal with a person with a disability, because they’ve never seen a person with a disability, never watched someone else interact with them with graciousness and dignity.

Special Hope is a small organization that works in Zambia with the most marginalized of these kids — those with severe intellectual disabilities. It started with a family who left their comfortable lives in America and moved to Zambia to work and live as a family — who happens to have 3 kids with Down’s Syndrome. After noticing their kids were the only disabled kids they ever saw outside, they asked around and realized the others were being shut in at home — and decided to minister to those kids. They placed themselves right in the center of the poorest neighborhoods, so caretakers don’t need to spend precious cents on a bus ride. They teach siblings, parents, and grandparents how to do physical therapy with the children at home. They feed them (both the kids and the caretakers). They teach these kids whatever they can learn — singing, dancing, the alphabet — kids who would never otherwise set foot inside a school. These families meet other families with special-needs kids for the first time, and learn that they’re not alone, and that their child’s condition is not divine punishment. Most of all, they witness that these kids and their lives are worthwhile, and that these kids are loved.

I met Deborah during my trip to Zambia with Purdue’s audiology program. She was about 3 years old then, sitting on her mother’s lap — a young woman close to my age. They were fairly new to Special Hope, but Deborah’s mom was joyful at her child’s progress, and determined to learn and do whatever she needed to help her daughter — now that she knew she could do something, which filled her with hope. As I followed them into the physical therapy portion of their day, I remembered a photo of my mom coaxing 3-year-old me through physical therapy after I came out of a 7.5-week coma. And when I got back to America, I signed up and started to sponsor Deborah out of my tiny grad school stipend.

Two years later, my tiny grad school stipend has gotten (significantly) tinier, and I need to taper off my sponsorship — but I didn’t want to just quietly drop and run. So in my letter to the Special Hope folks, I promised I’d try to spread the word and ask if someone might be interested in picking up on my monthly $35 contribution for Deborah. They’re a small organization, and cash flow is crucial — and these folks make every dollar count. $35 gets Deborah nutrition, medical care and physical therapy, school for her and education for her family on how to love a special-needs child, and sets her up to do the very important work of advocating — in her own tiny preschool-child, simple-witness way — for a better world for everyone, including people with disabilities.

If this sounds like something you might be interested in doing, head to the Special Hope Child Sponsorship Page and sign up — let me know if I can help in any way. And thanks for listening.

How To Use Your Design Studio Instructor: a short comic book

Students do not magically know how to work in a studio environment. Asking good questions, knowing when to ask instructors for feedback, figuring out which instructor to ask about what topic, articulating how you need an instructor to help you on a particular topic — these are all learned skills. My intent in these handouts is to start making them more explicit and to scaffold students into mature studio-learning behavior, very, very fast.

I’m experimenting with making hand-drawn handouts for my college-level teaching. Rich Dionne and Davin Huston have been super-gracious about letting me jump in and help coach teams through the PPI design lab’s end-of-term push, and to get myself up to speed on the students — and vice versa — I decided to… draw things.

It occurs to me that these sheets may see more general usage in the future, so here’s the two-page handout — it’s designed for undergraduate (STEM) studio courses I teach. The first page is a manual on “how to utilize the Mel,” including accessibility considerations and a starting list of my skillsets. The second page is a group status check-in document. Feedback/edit-suggestions for future versions is quite welcome. And yes, Olin students, you’ll be seeing this sort of thing if you take any of my classes.

How To Use A Mel-Instructor For Your Studio Design Team

(New comic): Baxter-Magolda’s Self-Authorship Theory On One Page

Self-authorship is an adult learning theory developed by Marcia Baxter-Magolda based on studies of college students. It describes a progression from making sense of your life as “something authored by others” to “something I author and negotiate.”

Below is a one-page graphic overview of the theory produced for the Purdue Polytechnic Institute (PPI). The document is open-licensed and available online (as you can see), so yes — feel free to share this with your friends however you would like.

Self Authorship On One Page

Special thanks to Emily Dringenberg (Purdue University) who introduced me to this theory last year, and Lindsey Vanderlyn (Olin College) for thought-provoking conversations on applying it to computing education.

Dear world: if I work on accessibility for 5 years, can I have it for 50?

I’ve been organizing and speaking at conferences for years. I always mainstreamed myself because I didn’t know what conferences would look like if I let myself be deaf. I was afraid they wouldn’t look like anything — that my choices were either to mainstream myself… or not go to conferences at all.

Now that I’ve tried having ASL interpreters and CART at 3 academic conferences, I can confidently say:

  1. Accessibility is a stressful, multi-week/multi-month pain in the butt to set up.
  2. It is so much better than mainstreaming myself that I don’t ever want to go to a conference without accessibility again.

Because you know what people do at conferences? They talk. They meet each other, share ideas, network, eat together, congregate in hallways and exhibit halls and chat. This blew my mind. I used to go to conferences, talk with a few people I already knew in 1:1 situations, deliver my talks, maybe go to a friend’s talk for support, and then collapse in my hotel room and stare at the ceiling.


Dear World: If I spend the next 5 years of my life working on accessibility — helping my colleagues and conferences and institutions and so forth set up things like captioning and interpreters, learning Yet Another Foreign Language (ASL) and getting electronics drilled into my skull (hybrid cochlear implant) and re-learning how to process sound like a baby, tinker with flashing doorbells and reading up on disability theory and making peace with my relationship(s) with d/Deaf culture(s) and coaching friends and family through How To Please Communicate With Mel, and… all these things –

…will you pick up at least some of the burden for the 50+ years of my career (and more importantly, life) after that, so I can rest, and breathe, and be with friends, and maybe — I dunno, raise a family? And write books? And teach, and do the narrative research that I love to do, and play the piano, and have friends (and students!) over for tea and dinner, and see the world, and draw, and… basically do things without having to set up communication logistics for everything in advance, and without being very, very tired from lipreading all the time?

This sounds like such a plaintive, childish thing to ask. But that’s all I’ve got and that’s how I feel — like I want to move within the world, connect with it — and unlike my usual, highly-competent, highly-independent adult self, this is something I can’t do on my own. I rely on other people for accessibility; I rely on hearing colleagues making their dialogues accessible to me, on interpreters translating what they say, on conferences to bring in the services I need to be there and not be exhausted. My own earnestness will not be enough. I need to actually ask the rest of the world for something I cannot pay back.

I don’t think these thoughts are yet entirely formed, and they don’t make sense to me yet, and that’s okay. I’ve mulled around this long enough to put this work-in-progress out there.

ok, I’ll try learning how to run; this should be funny

The wonderful and infuriating thing about friends is that they push you to do things you think are beyond your capabilities. Yesterday, during Abbee And Mel Go To the Gym Time*, Abbee started asking me if I wanted to train for a marathon with her.

Now, Abbee is a former high-school cross-country runner. I have never been a runner; my lung capacity has been constricted by chest-tube scar tissue since I was 2 years old, resulting in a constant borderline-asthmatic peak-flow test score. In other words, imagine being on the edge of a very, very mild asthma attack your entire life. Rolfing (deep myofascial therapy) significantly improved my lung capacity a few years ago, but oxygen is still kinda hard. My temperament is also far more of a sprinter’s than a marathoner’s; I work almost entirely in short spurts and am mildly horrified by the idea of doing anything (except sleeping) for several hours in a row.

But I’m intrigued. I thought my brain was a sprinter’s brain, and so my body must be a sprinter’s body, with fast-twitch rather than slow-twitch muscle fibers. But that’s not necessarily the case. Last year, a kinesiology major watching me lift weights commented that I was powering slowly out of lifts rather than exploding through them, and that my agility drills were quick to plateau — indicating that I might have a distance runner’s muscle composition, if only I’d develop it instead of training for exactly its opposite. “You’d probably be a good marathon runner,” he said.

I laughed, and then I thought about it, and then I laughed again. And then I kept thinking about it. I do want to develop the sort of discipline that distance running would force me to develop — the long-term haul, the consistency, the quiet solitude I find so difficult. I wonder what my limitations are. So I told Abbee I’d train for a 5k with her for the end of the semester, and then we’ll decide more based on how that goes.

This post is to remind me of that decision (although I’m pretty sure Abbee is going to do that anyway).

*One of many “Abbee and Mel Do Action X” formats. Other common formats include “Abbee And Mel Cook European Food,” “Abbee and Mel Pray A Multilingual Rosary While Laughing Uproariously,” “Abbee and Mel Do A Late-Night Diner Run,” “Abbee and Mel at Daily Mass,” and dozens of other little things that constantly remind me how blessed I am to have friends like this.

not burning out during Bad Accessibility Week, and career advice from deaf academics

I burned and skidded hard last week regarding deaf accessibility — one thing after another, multiple events, multiple people, no safe “home” to relax in. It’s like running off the battlefield and coming home and taking off your armor only to have your family and friends come up and punch you in the face. At some point, you just don’t take off your armor, don’t let down your guard.

Every day, for over a week, I pulled myself away from burning out, accepting that just functioning — sleep, eat, pray, sleep, eat, pray — was sapping all my energy right now, and that it was ok to prioritize not-breaking-down over “getting real work done.”

I did not burn out. I’m proud of this. The storm’s not done, but it’s getting better.

I mustered up the courage and internal resources to reach out to friends. It’s a hard thing to reach out when the very thing you’re suffering from is a struggle to connect and communicate — you could just be setting yourself up for another blow, another frustration. And I’d like to say that it is wonderful having friends who study speech/hearing sciences and can translate your frustration into validated intelligibility, friends who study linguistics and have been the struggling-to-understand outsider in a room of native speakers of a different language — friends who make you homemade pasta and feed you tea and muffins and San Pellegrino and set up the chairs and lighting so you don’t need to strain to understand just that one conversation — because those few hours are enough to remind you that yes, this exists; yes, you belong within humanity; yes, this is what it’s like to live inside that sort of space and community, and this is how it can and should be. This is possible.

I also got some really, really good advice from other deaf academics for the first time (another side effect of reaching out was unexpectedly being introduced to a wonderful group of these people). I’ve summarized/synthesized their advice below, and placed my responses inline.

0) It sucks and we’ve been there too.

Thank you. This is so, so helpful to hear. My hearing colleagues almost never say this when I talk with them about accessibility, but I need to hear it before jumping into solutions-brainstorming. If I don’t, my subconscious keeps hearing “and it’s your fault and you should just try harder,” which makes me believe it and feel all sorts of guilty that I’m not, y’know, trying hard enough.

1) Consider only attending events where accessibility has been set up, and don’t feel guilty; there are tons of opportunities.

I may be able to do this for some (nonacademic) venues where I’m now invited to speak (instead of trying to persuade people to let me speak). None of them are accessible, but I can set accessibility as a condition of my attendance/speaking. The tricky part will be not having that “count against” other things I can negotiate (for instance, “we can pay for an ASL interpreter or your plane ticket, but not both”).

2) If you want to bring accessibility into a non-accessible venue because you’ll be attending it for decades, recognize it’ll take 3-5 years of work for them to “get” it. Build networks and allies and push your institution for flexible pools of funding for smaller events, especially during this transition time.

The two major academic conferences in my field (and the few outside it I may want to regularly attend) definitely don’t “get it,” so I think I’m in for a long-term project. I wonder how I can make this work visible and get credit for it.

3) Slow down. You’re carrying a workload that would crush any grad student, deaf or not.

I really didn’t want to hear this one, but you’re probably right. I think I need to know this isn’t a “lower your expectations because you’re deaf” thing, and that people would say the same things to a hearing student. My whole life has been full of people telling me I can’t do XYZ because I’m deaf (and being wrong), so I’m… hypersensitive to any statement about limitations, and need to stop myself from constantly trying to empirically disprove its truth value. Sometimes it’s true. It’s just hard for me to tell what’s true.

4) Delegate aggressively to the DRC (disability resource center) on campus; you and they need to calibrate that they’ll set up this stuff, not you.

This was a wake-up call. Thanks. Email sent and at least one conference’s worth of stuff delegated. I’ve never seen anyone “at my level” interact with interpreters, captioners, disability centers, etc. before, so I have no calibration for expectation for that interaction outside my own experience — and it is super-helpful knowing that I’m not “supposed” to do all this setup.

I will say I appear to be a weird first-case for a lot of things for my university, so they do legitimately need to ask me for a lot of details more often than not — but I need to recognize that as the exception rather than the rule (even if the exceptions are far more frequent than the rule right now).

5) Recognize the rhythms of the academic year for faculty — which are different than for students — and plan your workload accordingly.

The rhythm-differences between faculty and student life surprised me this year, so thanks for pointing that out. October’s definitely a crushing month for my discipline, and I’ll need to watch and plan for the rest. I’m glad I have a 3-year postdoc (starting next year) to do that in, which also gives me 3 years to get conference access set up before I do… whatever I do next.

Being deaf is: holding a hidden, uncollapsed wave function on your side of a conversation at all times.

Being deaf is holding a hidden, uncollapsed wave function on your side of a conversation at all times.

Think of predictive texting: if I type “Good” into my phone, it offers potential spelling corrections (“Did you mean ‘God’ or ‘Goods’ instead?”). After I finish typing the word and reassure it that no, I meant “good,” it offers statistically likely follow-up words: “morning,” “luck,” and “night,” because I’m more likely to say “Good luck” than “Good cucumber.” My phone is running through a word tree, constantly updating: In case she typed that wrong, what else could she have said? Based on what she’s said before, what might she say next?

My brain does the same thing, constantly, in the background. I hear fuzzy blobs of intonation, accented by body language; I turn it into English somewhere in my mind, ”constantly translating every line of language into itself,” as Josh Swiller says in Andrew Solomon’s book Far From The Tree. When I hear a word-like sound, multiple options for “what word couldthat be?” spring into my mind with equal probability. As fuzzy-wordlike-sound probability trees pile up, sentence-like shapes begin to form and snap into clarity in bits and pieces. That cognitive effort happens for every sentence of every conversation that shapes my job, my studies, my relationships, my ability to order pizza, stay informed of gate changes for my flight, or leave a building in emergencies.

I used to pride myself on being a risk-taker, good at uncertainty. In actuality, I am terrible at uncertainty. What I am good at is turning uncertainty into certainty — bounding and quantifying fuzziness, slapping error bars on everything. The moment something crosses my Line of Maximum Uncertainty — the point at which I can no longer bound that uncertainty into certainty — I snap into a grumpy monster who resolves things into black-and-white too soon, because holding uncertainty is hard, and I am very, very tired.

I’ve worked on deliberately expanding my capacity to hold uncertainty, thanks to painfully patient practice with circles of older, wiser women. They tell me when my wave function is wobbling prematurely, and they are strong enough to hold the tensions of our conversation against my stumbling and occasional fighting-back. I’m learning. It’s fascinating how my impatience in the face of something unresolved melts away in a good listening environment where people speak clearly and with intention. (And when my hearing aids are on.) I thought this impatience was part of me, but now I see how my growing-up-this-way could partially be a knot, a burl, formed in response to this fungus of silence constantly gnawing away at my younger sapling-self.

I burn through all my uncertainty-holding capacity trying to understand simple sentences in my native language. I’d rather use that capacity to hold the uncertainty of ideas themselves — tensions and paradoxes, multiple viewpoints, wonderful subtle complex things. I want to turn my (massive! but overused!) uncertainty-holding capacity towards hospitality, which is the holding of uncertainty within you — welcoming the Other into your midst while letting them remain Other, surrounding them with safety without bludgeoning them into a convenient box where they can be labelled and controlled. If I do the never-ending housekeeping of clearing out the uncollapsed waveforms that come from struggling through silence, I am left with a large space that I can gift to others who need help holding a transformation open until it’s ready to be born. That’s work I want to do.

So when you see me snapping into black and white and grumpy, now you know why. Please remind me and help me get the space I need to breathe. And when I ask for subtitles, or less background noise, or talking sticks — when I insist on captions or interpreters, or things that seem to “stifle” the conversation — know that I’m trying to wrest energy free from the parsing-of-words and direct it towards the holding-open of our mutual thoughts. Know that I’m doing this because I’m trying to stay inside this place of uncertainty with you.

Please help me stay.

Research Is Fun: Using children’s art supplies for my first-pass data analysis

This blog post started as an explanation of my personal research process for my Hacker School Book research team. We were talking about the various ways people take first-pass, rough notes on transcripts, and I offered mine as an example. Tiago Forin and I co-created this specific technique variant for our DTRS analysis, but we’re pretty sure we’re not the only ones who’ve reinvented this particular wheel.

The picture shows an interview transcript with a bunch of marker scribbles on it. Basically, it’s a way of marking codes (“themes”) in text so I can see big patterns and go back for finer-grained analysis and checking later. For instance, in an interview with furniture designers, I might want to mark all the times someone is talking about how important shapes are in furniture design. So every time I see that code occurring in the data, I write a short word for that code (“shape”) right on the data, and draw an arrow through all the text I want to encapsulate with it.


a text transcript annotated with colored markers


Important disclaimer: the document pictured (including the transcript) is entirely open-licensed, so the picture can be shared far and wide. However, to create this example, I picked random codesets (that don’t really apply to the data) and I randomly scribbled those codesets across the page with no particular rhyme or reason, so don’t try to actually read the text and figure out how in the world this sentence is an instance of “4th wall” or “model” or whatever — or even what those codes might mean — because these codes do not correspond in any way to the transcript!

When I have multiple codesets, I color-code the codesets. For instance, I might have a green codeset for “everything related to how the furniture design looks,” like “shape” or “form.” I might have a blue codeset for “acting techniques they use when presenting their work,” like “breaking the 4th wall” or “monologue” or “dramatic pauses.” I might have a red codeset for “pedagogical techniques” like “modeling behavior” or “coaching the audience through a process.” This lets me see where codes overlap/co-occur; for instance, does “coaching” often happen when people talk about “form”?

This also makes it super-easy to collaboratively first-pass code with someone, since we’ll just split up marker colors. I might take green and pay attention to shape/form as we’re going through the transcript, while you take the red and watch for pedagogical techniques. We can do this sort of coding simultaneously, discussing the transcript while we both scribble on it — or asynchronously, where I take the data to my desk and mark up all the shape/form codes in green, then hand it to you to do the pedagogy pass in red. We end up with a useful boundary artifact for discussion, which helps us do a more detailed analysis pass with better precision and sophistication. Eventually, we load the codes into a computer for even more analysis.

But that is all later — much later. This is my first quick-and-dirty step. It’s me, maybe a colleague or two, a bunch of colored markers, and a table strewn with printouts, reading quickly through these things and marking them. I can get through a 25-page transcript in less than 15 minutes if I’m only marking for a small codeset, and I’ve read the transcript before.

So if you’re in a research project that I work on, this is probably what’s happening to your transcript at some point! And if you’re working on a research project with me, you will probably be handed packages of children’s art supplies at some point. It is fun!

Unlock challenge: raise $1024 for The Ada Initiative, support women in open tech/culture, and unlock more open-licensed “programming learning styles” material!

Last year, I wrote a post asking people to donate to the Ada Initiative and support women in open technology and culture. I said:

We change the world with millions of tiny patches… our world of open technology and culture is built one patch, one line, one edit at a time — and that’s precisely why it’s powerful. It brings billions of tiny, ordinary moments together to transform the world. If we teach it for our code, we can preach it for our giving. If you’d buy me a drink, or treat an open source newcomer to dinner, send that $3-$20 to the Ada Initiative tonight. –August 30, 2013

Why do we need to do this? Well, being a woman in open technology and culture is like riding a bike on a street made for cars, where rain and dirt get kicked into your face, and you are constantly, painfully aware that if you have any sort of collision with a car… the car will win. Yes, this is happening in our world, to our friends and to our colleagues; it’s happened to me personally more times than I care to remember. The farther you are from the straight white male difficulty setting, the rougher the terrain becomes.

And quite honestly, we’re busy. I’m busy. You’re busy. This isn’t our job — we have so many other things to do. I mean, we’re all:

  • remixing music
  • playing with code
  • writing science fiction
  • co-authoring open content articles
  • redesigning user interfaces
  • <insert your favorite open technology and culture activity here>

And guess what? There are so many people who want to join us. So many people who want to help us do all this work, but don’t, because they know that work — the good work — is likely to come with a lot of really, really awful stuff, like this sampling of incidents since last year (trigger warning: EVERYTHING).

The less time women spend dealing with that stuff, the more time they have to help us with our work. And the more people will want to help us with our work. I mean, would you want to accept a job description that included the item “must put up with demeaning harassment and sexual jokes at any time, with no warning, up to 40+ hours per week”?

Making our world a good environment for all sorts of people is, in fact, our job — or at least part of it. The folks at the Ada Initiative have made supporting women in open tech/culture their entire job — supporting it, supporting people who support it, and basically being the equivalent of code maintainers… except instead of code, the patches they’re watching and pushing and nudging are about diversity, inclusion, hospitality, and just plain ol’ recognition of the dignity of human beings.

They want to support you. With better conference environments, training workshops and materials, and really awesome stickers, among many other things. (Did you know that the Ada Initiative was one of the first woman-focused tech organizations to actually say the word “feminism”?)

So please, donate and support them, so they can support you — and me, and all of us — in supporting women in open tech/culture.

Now, my own contribution is a bit… sparse, financially. I’m a grad student earning less than $800 a month, and I’m waiting for my paycheck to come in so I can contribute just a few dollars — but every little bit helps. And there’s another way I can help out: I can bribe you, dear readers, to donate.

Remember that “active vs reflective” learning styles post I wrote in August? Well, there are 3 more: sensing/intuitive, visual/verbal, and global/sequential. I’ve got them all transcribed here and ready to go. And if we reach $1024 in donations to the Ada Initiative under the Learning Styles campaign within the next week, I will release them under a creative-commons license.

What’s more: the first 3 people who donate $128 or more to this campaign and email me their receipt will get a free 1-hour Skype call with me to discuss their personal programming learning styles, and will be featured as case studies on one of those three posts (I’ll link to your website and everything).

Donate to the “learning styles” campaign for The Ada Initiative now!