If I were to teach 1cr/cocurriculars at Olin, what would they be?

Emily Wang recently asked me if I’d ever considered teaching a 1-credit evening course at Olin (which alumni can do, now — it’s a great idea to get multiple Olin generations interacting). Here’s the resultant brainstorm. Note that these are things I’d like to teach, not things I will teach, because of the finite amount of bandwidth humans have…

  1. A Brief Survey of Engineering Education History and Philosophy (springboarding off the Purdue graduate class for inspiration, but with some major tweaks)
  2. Radical Tansparency (applying open source philosophy to both software and non-software settings)
  3. Somatic awareness and bodywork (I will probably do this informally in the dining hall or somewhere else on a semi-regular basis anyway, because MY shoulders need it)
  4. Using Engineering Analogies to Explore Learning and Pedagogical Theories (something I’ve wanted to do again since 2007, when MetaOlin delved into it; we were the first student-run course/StuCourse at Olin)
  5. Awkward Dialogues: Techniques and Practice (the topics we’d practice on would probably be stuff like feminism, spirituality/religion, leadership/politics, sexuality, etc — the content would be “here are techniques and participation architectures that make it possible to dive deep into things without snapping into habits we may not want in the room”)
  6. A Sign Language Subset for the Olin Campus (I’d need to have a co-instructor who was actually fluent in ASL for this, but basically — I believe there’s a fairly small subset of phrases, words, etc. that would make lots of sense to add to the Olin gestural language — we already have a few Olin-specific gesture practices that we teach first-years when they come, like the thumbs-up during discussions.)

Being deaf is: unlearning “paper face” (proceed until NAK vs. wait for ACK)

Edited on May 17 to expand and clarify a few thoughts.

One of the first things a mainstreaming deaf kid learns is how to hide how much they’re missing. Facial expressions can give you away. If I looked confused every time I missed something someone said, I would look perpetually confused. And frustrated, and sometimes angry and heartbroken, left-out, lonely, helpless. Not the most fun emotions to have running across your face and body all the time. Not the greatest emotions to let others see, either — they overreact in entirely non-helpful ways.

Solution: don’t show (eventually, don’t even feel) those emotions. I ended up with a semi-permanent “paper face” in school — a blank sheet, carefully screened, regardless of the content or how much of it I was missing. (Curiosity and excitement were allowed through — hungry for knowledge, I smiled a lot when I got it.) If it was important, let’s just hope I could figure it out later somehow.

One side effect of “paper face” is that, to hearing people, I look like I understand a lot more than I do. The hearing world operates under the communication assumption that “if they’re not complaining about it, then they understand it.” You’re assumed to have accurately received a message by default. If you say something, and I want you to think I’ve understood you, I do… nothing.

And since we so often mistake understanding for competence and intelligence, rather than considering how lack of access can so easily mask the two — I do… nothing — so hearing people will (accurately) assume I’m competent and intelligent. In order to perform my identity as “intelligent” to the hearing, I fake understanding, ironically denying my intellect the data it thrives on. Run faster with a weighted vest, and don’t complain.

The Deaf world works differently. Instead of the hearing protocol of blithely proceeding until you get a NAK, the Deaf protocol is to constantly monitor for ACKs. The default is to assume people did not get the message unless they specifically indicate otherwise. Eye contact. Nodding. The linguistic equivalents of “Mm-hmm” and “uh huh, yeah, yeah, gotcha.” Constant mutual monitoring and affirming of connection. To Deaf people, my facial blankness makes it look like I understand a lot less than I do.

So far, in terms of cultural adjustment, this has been the biggest gut-punch. I don’t know if I want to adopt this aspect into what it means for me — Mel — to “be deaf.” I don’t know if I want to visibly show people, in realtime, when I do and don’t understand. I know that most of the time, I don’t understand — and I know that hurts. It hurts to realize it, and it hurts to show it.

So: do I work at showing that? Do I blip packets of “understanding status” back towards my interpreters, and risk them being intercepted and translated (and mistranslated) by the hearing folks around me? Do I let all that frustration seep into my face, my body, my thoughts and feelings — is that something I want to admit into my way of being? Will that take away from my ability to think? Communicate? Or will it strengthen and empower it, ground it in presence and reality?

This is not a matter of how much grit I have, or how much hurt I can tolerate. This is also about very real tradeoffs regarding what impact I want my effort and my suffering to have. My suffering will exist regardless, in a world not made for people like me. My choice is how to use my rare ability to pass for hearing — how to voice my experiences to hearing people as a deaf person who plays their game and speaks their language better than most of them do.

Do I clip a huge part of my heart and soul out in order to stay inside the dialogue — because even half of my voice is half a voice that wouldn’t be inside the dialogue otherwise? Or do I speak from all of who I am, and risk being kicked out of it? Risk ruining my ability to be accepted as “one of them,” risk being dismissable as one of “those disability activists,” just like we dismiss “those feminists” as an excuse to stop trying to understand them? Every time I use my voice, I risk diminishing its power. Or perhaps it’s not a risk; perhaps in some ways, that’s always the tradeoff, as if I had a finite store of voice-power to use in changing the world. That, too, is lack of privilege.

On the one hand, this is small. Eye contact, nodding. What’s the big deal? On the other hand, the personal becomes political becomes philosophical, without my desire or intent to do so. Because for me, that eye contact means “Help me. We have created a world in which I am insufficient. Will you come back to get me, and others like me, so we can all fix it together?”

Members of the Olin community respond to NYT “How To Attract Female Engineers” article

A collaboratively written letter to the editor of the New York Times article (April 27, 2015) “How To Attract Female Engineers,” which inspired my previous blog post on the subject.

To Professor Nilsson we say: “Yes, and.”

Increasing the percentage of women in engineering will better the field, expanding the kinds of work engineers do. We are professors, students, staff, and alumni from an engineering school enrolling 50% women, many in traditional fields of Electrical and Mechanical Engineering. Here students, across the curriculum, do technical engineering work embedded in social context, from designing equipment for small-scale farmers to building prosthetic fingers for a grandmother who wants to play LEGO with grandchildren.

We absolutely need more of this in engineering. But let’s not accidentally create “caring enclaves” for women, where this work may be perceived as less technical (and thus easier) than traditional engineering work. We often hear that traditional engineering (i.e., male-dominated, ultra-technical, not-people-oriented) is technically more difficult. This assertion is untrue and damaging: it can lead to the expectation that the rest of engineering is fine as is. Siloing women in “caring” forms of engineering may perpetuate the very gender-based stereotypes and hierarchies that many of us work to eradicate as we battle everyday sexism in the field.

The authors of this letter are all affiliated with Olin College of Engineering in Needham, Massachusetts (faculty, staff, students, alumni).

Debbie Chachra
Ingrid Hagen-Keith
Caitrin Lynch
Alisha Sarang-Sieminski
Lynn Andrea Stein
Lauren Taaffe
Yevgeniya V. Zastavker
Rehana Patel
Sara Hendren
Anne LoVerso
Mitchell Cieminski
Gabrielle Waldman-Fried
Ellen Chisa
Diana Vermilya
Carmella McCormack
Kari Bender
Kate Maschan
Eric Munsing
Boris Taratutin
Rebecca J. Christianson
Elizabeth Kneen
Kate Dramstad
Mikell Taylor
Carisa Rubi Leal
Jessica Townsend
Emily Wang
Kristina Cary
Sarah Waskom
Joanne Pratt
Meagan Vaughan
Melissa Yu
Rachel Mathew
Chen Santillan Wang
Pearl Elizabeth Donohoo-Vallett
Maruta Vitols
Jennifer Simonovich
Natalie Mattison
Julianna Stockton
Alison Shin
Ananya Kejriwal
Erika Swartz
Jessie Lin
Suzy Hong
Rachel Nancollas
Jessica Anderson
Mariah Dunn
Tiana Veldwisch
Victoria Hsiao
Preeta Willemann
Jessica Noglows
Jackie Rose
Morgan Boes
Meryl Stark
Kristen Dorsey
Mel Chua
Heena Mutha
Emily Tisei Moscol
Ash Walker
Angela Sharer
Casey Landey
Kimly Do
Bukky Adebayo
Leah Mendelson
Kendall Pletcher
Gracie Sanford
Rachel Bobbins
Jessi Murray
Sara Wheeland
Jessica Donahoe
Rebecca Schutzengel
Kristina Raposa
Sharon Breitbart
Linda Canavan
Molly Farison
Charleen Laughlin
Lawrence Neeley
Rob Martello
Jordyn Burger
Andrea Lai
Herbert Chang
Ilana Walder-Biesanz
Alyssa Levitz
Jeffrey Atkinson
Sarah Walters
Siddhartan Govindasamy
Sebastian Dziallas
Becky Belisle
Allison Bahme
Chris Carrick
Matt Wootton
David Adamec
Harold Jaffe
Stanislaw Antol
Allen Koh
Joan Liu
Erika Boeing
Ariana Chae
Jennifer Wei
Ambika Goel
Bill Warner
Cody Wheeland
Dave Rowley
Sarah Leavitt

(If you’re an Olin community member and want to support this post, feel free to add your name and Olin affiliation in a comment below.)

On the diversity-readiness of STEM environments: “It’s almost as if I could only enter the makerspace as a janitor.”

My thoughts from an online discussion with other female Olin engineers on this NYT article on “how to attract female enginers,”, edited for context. In particular, we brought up the (well-worn) claim that women don’t want to “just focus on the tech stuff” and want to “do sociotechnical/humanitarian work that makes a difference in the world.”

I’ve built my career as a “technical community person” who “thinks beyond the technology,” and as a teacher and researcher of learning environments — so this may come as a surprise to people who know and have worked with me. But if my teenage self had had her way, I would have VASTLY preferred to “just focus on the tech stuff.”

As a kid, I wanted to choose the privilege of being oblivious and keeping my head down and immersing myself into the beauty — the sheer beauty! — and joy of STEM for STEM’s sake. I didn’t become an ECE to work on educational computers or hearing aids or anything like that. As my friend (and former roommate) Kristen Dorsey said, “I just geek out about nerdy stuff, OK?”

But I couldn’t “just geek out about nerdy stuff.” The environments where I was trying to “learn about nerdy stuff” were sociotechnically broken in a way that made it hard for me (as a disabled minority woman, among other things) to join in. If I wanted to even start being part of the technical community, I had to start by fixing the technical community — patching the roof and fixing the plumbing, so to speak — before I could even walk inside and start to live there. And when I patched the leaking roof, I patched the roof for everyone, and other people who needed non-leaky roofs to be in the community could now… be in the community as well!

For instance, I got really, really good at facilitating meetings because it was the only way I had to make meetings accessible to me — when other people facilitated meetings, they’d often forget I need to lipread, so… I just quietly started leading them myself, and ended up making meetings work better for everyone. And I found that when I drifted towards “humanitarian” projects, the people there were much more conscious of sociotechnical things and more likely to have already-healthy environments, so I would have less leaky roofs to patch, and less resistance when I tried to patch the roofs — and people actually recognized and valued roof-patching labor instead of looking down on me for not writing code full-time.

After a while of patching roofs and unclogging toilets and plastering the rotten drywall, I got a reputation in industry for being really, really good at open-source software/hardware (technical) community facilitation. It’s almost as if I could only enter the makerspace as a janitor. And part of me resented that, but never said so. But, I told myself, at least I was in the building. And I saw that my “janitorial” work made it possible for other people to enter the building and do the things they wanted to do — which were often the things I wanted to do, too! — and so I thought: okay. That’s okay. At least somebody gets to do it. I can see my gift to the community doing so much good, that I will give up my desire to learn and do the technical things — so I let my own STEM learning slide. I am good at “community work,” and I did come to genuinely love it, over time.

But if I had the choice, I would have never gone into “community work.” I would have chosen — if I had the choice — to focus on “shiny tech stuff” that… didn’t save the world at all. If my teenage self had had her way, I would not do community-facilitation-anything, I would not be thoughtful about women or minorities or disabilities or any underprivileged group in engineering… I would be oblivious to all my privilege. I’d be a kernel hacker, or an embedded geek, or something “hardcore technical,” Because I could be.

But I didn’t have the wherewithal (or the desire) to shovel all the stuff out of the way that I would have to do in order to do that. If you think of “caring/environmental labor” as a sort of tax some people have to pay in order to get to “learning/doing technical things,” my tax rate has always just been too frickin’ high.

So I have been “the full-time community person who is ridiculously good at tech stuff that she no longer gets to do,” instead of “the technical person who understands and listens to and cares about inclusion and community.” Because I cannot not patch a leaky roof. But I have always wondered what I might have grown up into, if I had learned STEM in an environment that was ready for me — without me having to fix it first.

Megan, or: holding pool towels at the First Luminous Mystery, and satellites, and light

It’s hard for me to be fully present sometimes, so I am seeing what it’s like to start my mornings by writing from somewhere that I actually am. (This morning’s post completion was delayed by dropping Morgan off at the airport, and that’s okay.)

I want to write about my friend Megan. One of my memories of Megan is from last year, sitting in our kitchen, talking about satellite trajectories — which is the work she does now as a rocket engineer. We were on the couch, using a chair back as a frame of reference, stacking and tangling all of the fingers of both our hands in an attempt to build axes atop of axes atop of axes, pointed into outer space (our living room). Megan’s hand swooped in, becoming the satellite, launching from origin. Her steady explanations built and built and built, and my mind followed — I’m a quick study at math, and a strong visualizer — and she and the satellite and the calculations climbed into the thinning atmosphere until my lungs burst and I could no longer follow, and my fragile understanding tumbled like a deck of cards, and I could see Megan’s mind sailing on, out and up into space, out into things I could not grasp or understand…

She’s brilliant, and I don’t say this lightly. It’s a beautiful sort of brilliance, being able to admire a friend whose mind can far outstrip your own on certain matters.

Last year, during the epic Indiana power outage, she brought me light — quite literally so. It was my prayer hour, and I was sitting in the chapel, doggedly trying not to be too scared of the dark. Even as an adult, I struggle with a fear of the dark — I’m so dependent on my visual input that the darkness feels like being thrust into a great unknown. But I had promised, so I was sitting there, trying very, very hard to not leave the Tabernacle. Very hard.

Finally, feeling like a foolish preschooler, I whispered: “Look, God — I… I want to stay here, I do — but I need some light, I’m scared, I can’t stay here without being able to see, I need…”

A short while later, I heard footsteps — and then a familiar voice broke in. “You know where the candles are, right?”

“What are you doing here?” was my stunned response. Apparently she’d felt like it was just a good idea to swing by. Randomly. Because. We lit big fistfuls of candles from the sacristy until the chapel glowed enough by candlelight for me to lipread, and she waved and left me sitting there, laughing at God’s sense of humor, and in gratitude for friends who carry out the joke for Him.

Megan’s a swimmer. She was a competitive swimmer all the way through her time at MIT. I want to write about the first Luminous Mystery (of the Rosary), because that’s something that reminds me of Megan. (Explanatory websites for the Rosary are generally hideously designed and dull as dishwater, by the way). It’s the Baptism of Christ at the Jordan, and I was praying a Rosary for Megan one day when this image hit me.

Two young guys — Jesus and John, not that much older than us as grad students — standing in the river. Soaking, grinning, breathless. Speechless, because — well, what else do you say after the heavens have opened, and the Holy Spirit has descended like a dove, and the voice of God has just declared “Hey folks, that’s my boy! This one! So proud of him!” His voice still rings inside the cousins’ ears. They’ve been preparing all their lives to hear that voice, and now — they’re still processing it, clambering half-overwhelmed onto the river banks, where people watch.

And there’s a girl there, in an MIT swimsuit. And she’s holding fluffy towels for them — pool towels — with a shy smile. Waiting for them to climb out; waiting to serve, proud to be there.

When I first saw this, I laughed out loud. That is exactly where Megan would be. Of course. And now, each time I hit the Baptism in prayer, I only have to look — and there she is, bashful and beaming, radioactively happy just to be near this man whom she adores.

I do miss Megan now that she has graduated, and I will miss her even more next year. I miss living with her, I miss driving with her, I miss working late nights inside the house with her. I miss pulling each other into prayer, I miss conversations that ended with us making dinner — and then watching an Avengers movie — and then driving to the Adoration chapel in the middle of the night, because we needed to (1) eat and (2) pray and (3) really really really wanted to go see Winter Soldier. 

I miss buying grilled cheese sandwiches and chocolate milk with her and sitting down to lunch with Jesus & the Apostles in the life-sized tableau of the Last Supper that’s about an hour from campus. We were discovered by an amused tour group and a less-amused tour guide. “He looked lonely!” I explained, as Megan turned several shades of red. Later that day, we howled with laughter at the Resurrection statue, because — well, I’ll leave these two reminders for my future self: laundry detergent and shampoo. Oh, and abs. Definitely abs.

I miss so many things, and have so many memories that won’t get written down, because that isn’t what they’re for.

It’s Megan who first helped me start to understand why women would have bridesmaids, and why women would be bridesmaids. I always thought it was about some social obligation — a place to stick your sister(s), if you had them — or some excuse to dress up pretty, which… seemed silly to me. I didn’t understand the need.

But there is a place for sisters — biological or otherwise — in that part of your life. There is a space that seems to fit that sort of person, standing there to be with you — just be with you, support you, beam at you in pride as you transition to something beyond them — soaring off, beyond your tangled hands; soaring off, beyond what even your bright minds can understand — sailing off into the stars, beyond where you can see.

Being deaf is: choosing between having emotions and communicating them (also: “met deaf wow” moment)

I’m the kind of person who realizes what she’s thinking when the words come out of her mouth. My insights surprise me as much as they surprise my listeners.

Today I said: “I’ve usually had to choose between having emotions and being able to communicate them.”

This comes from the middle of a chat between myself and Sara about communication mediums — text chat, ASL, and spoken conversations. Of the three, text chat takes the least effort for me to engage in… but it’s not my preference. Spoken conversation seems much more “alive” to me than text chat; when the dialogue is accessible, I feel much more connected to the other person. Conversations have things like emotions, pauses, timing, excitement, energy… things I can respond to.

That’s a lot harder to get across in text. Text is… bad at feelings.

I also grew up… bad at feelings, relatively unskilled at allowing myself to have them and express them. I grew up getting most of my input from text — written English, because spoken English was so inaccessible to me. I don’t think these are unrelated.

With spoken language, I can also connect even if my thoughts are incoherent. I’m able to express the state I’m in by flailing around, making noises (“wheeeeeeee!”), facial expressions, body language… I can just be. I can become verbally incoherent, and it translates as “Mel is excited! This is huge! She hasn’t figured it out yet, but it’s awesome!” (Or “Mel is tired.” Or “Mel is sad.” Or “Mel is in a complex emotional state, but you can kinda get the gist of it because she’s moving around in a particular evocative way.”)

In contrast, when I write, I have to at least make sentence clauses and find words for things. I have to pull back far enough to type sentences like “I am excited,” which means I have to make myself less-excited. I have to step away from my feelings long enough to find words and structures for them. So I’ve usually had to choose between having emotions, and being able to communicate them.

One of the exciting things about learning ASL is that I might no longer need to. It’s the strangest feeling to be able to get both the affect and the content of a communications medium without having to laser-focus all the time. I recently had my first extended voice-off conversation with a native signer. We went on for nearly 5 hours, constantly communicating, and my brain was not tired at all; I wanted to keep socializing, even with my language-learning awkwardness. I didn’t want to go home and lie on the couch with my eyes closed. I wanted more people. More. People.

This… this doesn’t happen. I don’t like meeting new people and talking with them for extended periods of time. I just… I’m not supposed to do that. But I did. And it felt fantastic. Weirdly awesome. I was later introduced to the phrase “Met Deaf Wow,” which is an appropriate description.

This doesn’t mean I’m going to switch to signing all the time. I still live and work and socialize in the hearing world, and I probably always will. But the more I can take a break from the cognitive load — the more relief I get — the more wherewithal I have to be Mel (rather than exhausted-Mel) in the hearing world. I can use my energy wisely, where it matters, instead of having to expend max effort all the time.

It’s something that’s helping me learn how to be here. And I like… being here, and I like being Mel. (It’s so much better than being exhausted-Mel. Exhausted-Mel is not a great default state to be in, but for the longest time, I didn’t have another.)

Being deaf is: unknowingly mispronouncing lots of common words

Since I am deaf, most of my native-language (English) vocabulary comes from books. Consequently, I can walk around pronouncing words incorrectly for years before someone says something. A small selection, in chronological order.

  1. Vegetable, elementary school. (“veg-eh-tay-bull,” as if I were pronouncing “table” like the piece of furniture.)
  2. Pythagorean, 6th grade. (To be fair, my Filipino-born parents also pronounce it “PITH-a-GORE-ee-yan theorem.”)
  3. Supremacist(s), 8th grade. (I gave a history presentation that mentioned the “Nazi Super-masses.”)
  4. Chef, Champagne, and all other French words beginning in ‘ch’, age 26. (“The Sheff chose a great shampain to pair with this food.”)
  5. Scheme, last week (one of my favorite CS textbooks is “The Little Sheemer.” Sadly, this means I have been butchering the title since age 19 when I first encountered it.)
  6. Aggrandizing, yesterday (this was pronounced correctly, but with the wrong syllabic stress: I guessed “aggranDIzing,” but it’s “agGRANDizing.”)

Friends, if you remember other amusing “Mel mangles her native language!” moments, let me know. I’m collecting these.

Welcome to Italy. I’m an illegal immigrant from Holland.

Part of an email conversation, reworked for sharing.

“Welcome to Holland” is an essay for parents of disabled kids. (And here’s an alternative and critical interpretation of that essay.) It makes the analogy of preparing for a trip to Italy — expecting a normal child — and then suddenly getting off the plane and finding you’re in Holland instead. “Italy” is a metaphor  for “normal” childhood, whereas “Holland” is a metaphor for disability.

To extend the metaphor (in a way that would have been entirely true 5 years ago, although I’m less sure now): I’m an illegal immigrant. I snuck out of the Holland border as a toddler — crawled on my own, nobody carried me. Now I’m working and living in Italy, but always with a constant sense of fear. At any time, someone could check my papers and discover that my passport’s fake. They could deport me. Any time. (Ok, in real-life immigration law, Holland residents don’t need visas to enter Italy, but roll with me here.)

I make repeated dashes back and forth across that border. And none of my neighbors are allowed to know — the trips I take at night, the money I send back, all the exhaustion and the stress that comes with wrangling my life so I won’t be found out — in order to stay in Italy, I need to sweep that all under a rug of excuses and can’t come clean with them on why I’m just so tired all the time.

My family doesn’t entirely know that I’m an illegal alien either — they think I’ve long since traded my citizenship in for an Italian one. My parents live in Italy — not just in Italy, but in a really nice flat there; two brilliant kids with engineering degrees, a hard-working family success story. They got brochures about Holland, once upon a time, when I was small. But it’s a distant memory now, and thank goodness that their daughter ended up being Italian after all. Holland is that “other place” where “other people” go, the poor and pitiful ones. But not us, not me. Clearly, I’m not one of them.

But I am.

I still have my Holland passport. I will always have this passport. And I hate it, and resent it, and deny it. And I have carefully forged an Italian one that’s so good that even experts can’t tell it’s fake. But I know it isn’t real, no matter how hard I pretend.

The original email conversation ends here. I’ve added the rest since then.

If I don’t forge my Italian citizenship papers, I can’t go to school or get a job. I mean, kind of. But it would take a lot more effort to apply to a much smaller, crappier selection of them. And I have no route for naturalization. No matter how brave I am, how many useful things I do, how smart I am, who I marry, or how long I’m here, I’ll never magically become a citizen.

My deafness is not heritable, so my kids will probably be born Italian. I grew up seeing that you could only look at a Holland passport with pity — and I could never truly compensate for that, regardless of how hard I worked in Italy. So I used to honestly believe I ought never to put anyone in the terrible position of having me as a wife or mother — that it would be selfish and unfair of me to even open up the option. My kids will grow up with an illegal-immigrant mother — and being a first-generation child is hard, because your parents can’t coach you through early life experiences they haven’t had. Or if I choose to move to Holland, then my kids will have to go there if they want to visit me. Or if I choose to be a legal resident of Italy, I’ll have to walk around wearing a giant orange hat to visibly mark that I am from Holland — because that’s how Dutch people get “legal” status in Italy. And what kid wants to walk next to their mom when she’s wearing a weird giant orange hat?

And yet. There is a flaming hope there now, somewhere. That weird blended Dutch-Italian families with ordinary lives are possible. And that those ordinary lives would change the boundaries of what sorts of “ordinary lives” are possible. I know that other people do this, and I know it’s hard. But… I can do hard. I’ve done hard my entire life.

Hi, Italy. I’m an illegal immigrant from Holland.

Thoughts on being a deaf extrovert

It’s been a few years now since I realized I was an extrovert. This came as a surprise; my Myers-Briggs tests have always scored me as an extreme introvert, and I leak energy — not just leak, hemorrhage – in a majority of social situations, as an introvert does.

For instance, I recoil from statements such as:

  • You spend your leisure time actively socializing with a group of people, attending parties, shopping, etc.
  • The more people with whom you speak, the better you feel.

And nod vigorously when I read things like:

  • After prolonged socializing, you feel you need to get away and be alone.
  • You often prefer to read a book than go to a party.

But nope. I’m not an introvert. I’m just deaf. People energize me. But lipreading and the other things I need to do in order to communicate… they pulverize me. It’s like having to make a blood donation every time you go out to get food; you often end up spiraling onto the floor, dizzy and starving. Grumpy. And lonely. And bewildered. Or at least I was for many years — because I didn’t understand why.

I didn’t understand my reactions, didn’t understand how to recharge — didn’t understand why my recharging strategies (be alone! do things without people!) weren’t working. I thought all introverts were like me, so I’d constantly push through my own exhaustion to draw quiet friends into constant interaction, because I thought they wanted that — even if I didn’t.


A hearing introvert will tire early in a party, walk outside, and go “phew — now I can go home and recharge.” A deaf extrovert will tire early in a party, walk outside, and go “hurrah, now that the background noise is gone, I can talk to people!” It’s been a long hard haul to recognize more and more things I didn’t know I didn’t know.

The learning continues. Deaf extrovert friends are teaching me to be okay with taking internet-socializing breaks (chat, Twitter, Facebook, etc.) to recharge during work hours — I get a little energy from the real-time text-based communication, but without the lipreading burnout. And I have been learning how to savor solitude, to differentiate communion from communication, and to learn the shape and heft of my great hunger for community. It’s a hunger I’ve long ignored and matted down.

I love walking into a room of people I know, and sitting and simply being in company, in silence, maybe with occasional nods and waves. Places where I don’t need to constantly reach out to prove and/or reestablish the connection, because I trust it. Being able to relax into that sharedness of understanding. This makes me happy, and I want to find and nurture spaces like this everywhere I go. Places I can recharge.

I think these are my thoughts for now. I will post them and go to lunch.

On contract/specs-based grading and intrinsic motivation

My undergrad roommate Kristen (now Dr. Dorsey, after earning her PhD in ECE from CMU) emailed me about an article on specs-based grading, asking what effect it might have on intrinsic motivation (which we’d been discussing with some of our former suitemates over an extended email thread. I love my suitemates).

My reply was that I’ve also heard the technique called “contract grading,” and it has pluses and minuses. This Chronicle of Higher Ed article has a decent discussion of the minuses, which mostly consist of “watch out for loopholes and students trying to game your system to do minimal work.”

Contract or specs-based grading is exactly what it sounds like: writing out detailed instructions as to what students must do to earn a certain grade in class. And I mean detailed. Turn-your-class-into-a-videogame detailed. The kind of contract you’d write out when specifying a technical component you’re outsourcing to a subcontractor. “If you submit 4 of these 10 assignments and are absent fewer than 3 times, you get a B.” “To earn an A, your essay must answer the following questions in grammatically correct English…”

There’s been a limited amount of empirical research on its effects. Via the POD mailing list, here’s a study on contract grading’s effects on a science class (psychology) and a humanities class (composition). Spoiler: contract grading was “more effective” at student retention and higher grades than a traditionally-graded control group.

Now: what about intrinsic motivation — the sort of thing most teachers wish their students had? You know, the students who want to learn about nanoelectronics because it’s so beautiful! and they love love love electronics! just like you do.

Here’s where it gets tricky. Intrinsic motivation can be fragile, and extrinsic rewards can destroy it. If a kid loves playing the violin, and you start rewarding her with ice cream every time she plays, she may learn to play in order to get ice cream — and will stop playing the violin as soon as the ice cream ceases.

This means (in my opinion) that contract grading contracts should be written so that students who are on fervent fire can keep on running without needing to stop to puzzle out bean-counting. Your expectations should be clear and flexible enough that students who do have a project in mind can see how they would do those things anyway if they were doing the project well — the goal here is minimal re-routing of an intrinsically motivated student who’s already running full-tilt down a path. Also, the contract should explicitly state that students can talk with you about renegotiating the contract to fit a project they really want to do.

Depending on your student population, you may or may not not have a lot of intrinsically motivated students from the first day. Hopefully you won’t have many amotivated ones who just don’t care at all. If so, the contracts can help by turning amotivated students into extrinsically motivated students. Extrinsic motivation means that they are motivated, but by something other than an inner love for the subject.

Extrinsic motivation has a bunch of sub-categories, but it’s not necessarily “bad.” Heck, we try to extrinsically motivate students: “you should do well in this class because it’ll help you get a job.” (People often confuse intrinsic with extrinsic motivation. “He’s so motivated to do well because he wants to keep his scholarship!” is still extrinsic motivation — you may not need to keep prodding this student to do his work, but the scholarship is what’s driving him, not necessarily a deep-seated love for circuit theory.)

Basically, contracts can turn all students into extrinsically motivated students — which is great for amotivated students, but not so good for intrinsically motivated ones. So be careful when writing your contracts so that the amotivated students can’t find loopholes — and the intrinsically motivated students won’t get distracted by having to worry about “playing the game” in order to get points.