Students Assign Me Homework, Fall 2018 edition

I’ll sometimes let my students assign me “homework” (which typically means determining what and how some of our course meetings will focus on). My first year honors course (co-taught with the fantastic Corrine Occhino) took to this task with particular glee, so I am simultaneously delighted and terrified to announce that two of our after-Thanksgiving meetings will feature…
A puppet show about digitization (academic friends: I’m basing it on Porter’s book “Trust in Numbers”), with a handout that is at least 50% memes by surface area, and written in comic sans and papyrus. (I asked if they were sure about the font choice, since they’re going to have to do it as a pre-class reading. They were very, very sure.)
A musical about open data and the open science movement. With a pinata. There must be scientific data inside the pinata. (I can totally do this. Paywall pinata.)
Each of these is supposed to explore multiple stakeholder perspectives on the issue, so if anyone has suggestions on good songs to parody for the musical – something with multiple viewpoints, like Les Miz’s “One Day More” — I will totally take them.
(What have I gotten myself into?)

Starting point: constructs of culture and curriculum (with Tess Edmonds)

Once upon a time, Tess and I were going to do a systematic literature review on how the notions of “culture” and “curriculum” have been used in engineering education literature. In other words, how do we conceptualize (and then use) these two ideas in engineering education, and how are they related (in the various ways they’re used)?

Then… life happened. While it’s still an analysis I want to do, it’s… not at the top of either of our lists right now, for Many Good Reasons. But it does seem worth thinking and noodling around the categories we were using as a starting place, based on an incredibly nonsystematic literature review. Tess and I had been thinking and reading and writing about culture and curriculum in engineering education for a while, and wanted to get more… structure, more solidity, into our thinking.

Anyway. NOTES! So I can finally reclaim my whiteboard.

Constructs of culture:

  1. Global/national/ethnic (ex: Brazilian culture, Texas culture, Asian culture)
  2. Disciplinary (engineering culture, business culture, physics culture)
  3. Institutional (MIT culture, UIUC culture, Olin culture)
  4. Curricular (the culture fostered within or by a particular curriculum, though our notion of this is fuzzy and was one of the things we were kinda hoping would clear up via the systematic lit review)
  5. Individual (“which cultures do you identify with / to which cultures do you belong” — more a shift in focus than a category type. The cultures identified-with/belonged-to could be any of the above options, but the unit of analysis is an individual person who may belong to one or more cultures, rather than a culture that relates to one or more peoples.)
  6. None Of The Above (ostensibly, more categories would emerge from this catch-all bucket as they came along.)

Constructs of curriculum in relation to culture:

  1. Culture Consists Of The Things We Should Teach Students (including notions of assessment and success that focus on “And How Well Are We Doing So?” — likely highly implicit, ex: “It is important to learn calculus!” is a cultural notion within many engineering education college curricula.)
  2. Curriculum as situated with/in and/or influenced by culture (ex: drones are hot right now, so we’re starting a new degree program focused on them)
  3. Curriculum as an influencer of culture (ex: we’re training our students in design because we want them to go out and bring that way of thinking into the world)
  4. The curriculum can/should change culture, and we can deliberately design it to be so (note how this bleeds into #2 and #3; again, this is something we hope will be clarified as we analyze)
  5. Curricular culture impacts individuals within it (in both positive/negative/other ways – this one is likely to be tied to diversity/inclusion work)
  6. How does (or does?) curriculum have, or relate to, culture? Or vice versa? (Basically, works that seek to understand/define/articulate their usage of this construct, rather than simply taking it for granted.)
  7. Unspecified (the opposite of #6).
  8. Curriculum should “inoculate students against” [ostensibly harmful aspects of] culture (a sort of “world-proof-the-baby” approach). For instance, if a school thinks the dominant engineering culture is far too theoretical, they might design their curriculum to train students to go more quickly towards fabrication and testing than the norm. Or you might see phrasing like “out there, the world is ___, but we are going to be ___” — such as “out there, the world is sexist… but we are going to work towards gender equity in our field.” (Again, this kind of blurs into #3, but there the goal is to change the culture; here it is to defend against an unchangeable culture — but again, actual analysis needed to see how this would play out.)
  9. None Of The Above

Yeah, these groupings and categories (especially the “curriculum in relation to culture”) are a big pile of fuzz right now. But this is how thinking starts.

Raw thoughts, maybe papers someday, who knows? I do better when I think out loud, in searchable public. Testing that hypothesis.

The time when I met Rebecca and Stephanie together (a Deaf academics story)

I want to write about something that happened a while back and had a tremendous impact on me that’s still quietly unfolding into realization. I knew it had been big at the time, and I could articulate some aspects of it then… but had a sense that there would be a ripening of that articulation into something — not perfect or final — but something worth waiting for.

Which is, perhaps, why I’ve been so quiet for these past 3.5, almost 4 years. So many people have asked me to write about… well, they usually ask specifically about my CI surgery, which is telling (there’s a lot to that story, but it’s by far the smallest of the seismic shifts in my identity and practice that have taken place in the past half-decade). Or maybe they ask what it’s been like to learn ASL, or some other really small specific aspect of the whole I still can’t point to, but — I think — have now learned how to live out, in a way that works for me. And I have to, I think, learn how to live a story — or live as someone who can make sense of that story — before I can tell it.

Anyway. This is the telling of a story, and the remembering of a trip, and it’s going to be long and poorly edited, and that’s fine because I can write and tell it better later, someday. This is also a tremendous thank-you to Rebecca Sanchez and Stephanie Kerschbaum.

In February 2016, Rebecca gave a seminar on her newly-released book, Deafening Modernism (which remains one of my models of Books To Which I Aspire To Live Up To Someday). Stephanie was to give a (formal) response afterward, thus opening a discussion. The seminar was in NYC; I was in the first year of my two years back in Boston. I was a new, barely conversational signer, and still reeling from my CI activation a few months prior.

I was also still quite new to the notion that Deaf academics existed. And, therefore, still new to the notion that I might be one of them as well. But I didn’t know how to do that, or what that meant.

(As an aside: does that idea seem strange, that you might be something — or possibly something — as long as you can remember, and not know how to be that kind of person, or what it could possibly mean? To many people, it might. But to those who’ve had a coming-out in one way or another, perhaps some of this journey might feel… if not familiar, perhaps as if it rhymes with something that is.)

In any case, at that point, I’d met — I think… four? Deaf academics, ever… Patti, then Maren, then Stephanie during an impetuous 6-hour road trip because I couldn’t imagine what it would be like to meet someone like me in all these ways, and would have driven to the ends of the earth to see it — and Rebecca briefly during a stopover in NYC, where we had chicken wings and I skipped half of a (very expensive) Broadway show because I didn’t want our conversation to ever end. I think I hadn’t yet met Teresa, who I finally caught at an airport when I was flying out (to Poland) and she was flying in (from… I forget) and — again, the moving of heaven and earth and flight logistics to get even a few precious minutes in with someone who is finally — finally! — like you in ways you have a million questions about, so many gaping holes in a future for yourself you can’t see yet, don’t know how to navigate, are still trying to imagine if it’s even possible at all.

This was the sum total of my exposure to Deaf people (Deaf women! Even some Deaf women of color!) in academia. So few. So brief. So far away, and yet a fellowship I was so ravenous for that I was essentially on pilgrimage searching for it.

I had never seen two Deaf academics together. I had never seen two other Deaf scholars in conversation. I had… it sounds like a weird variation of the Bechdel-Wallace test, right? Two Deaf people, signing to each other, about something other than ASL (or Deafness or ablism or something like that) — I cannot express enough that I had absolutely, utterly, zero concept of what this might even be like.

And so every moment – every detail – every bit of “oh, this is how each of us chooses — differently! — to navigate the everydays of life” — was something I watched, and drank in, and went: oh. Oh. Is this what it’s like, to see someone you might grow up to become?

Is this how it is, when you’ve been staring at a blank canvas for years and years trying to figure out how anything could possibly appear on it, and suddenly a splotch of color clears and blossoms in a few small inches on the vast white sheet – not the full painting, but the thing that tells you that it’s possible for something to exist here at all, at all, at all?

The feeling of seeing a complex intellectual joke and laughing immediately, and with full comprehension, of why it was funny – and not automatically laughing because everybody else is laughing and you’re using it as cover while your brain tries frantically to make sense of what, from the partial information you have gotten, might possibly be so hilarious. The feeling of spontaneously replying with another joke — in your fourth and newest language — and being stunned that you… can even do that at all, because you… you don’t sign expressively. You don’t. Why would you, when everyone around you is just always hearing, and you speak clearly enough?

The feeling of being with people, in the academic world you’re trying so hard to join. The feeling of having the life of the mind become… communal — with a clarity and ease you’ve never had before.

We signed with each other on the train — about research! — and it was my first time lobbing out my nascent thoughts on poststructural theory and engineering education in ASL, and having people understand me, and engage and draw my thoughts into their far more eloquent web — we signed to each other walking through the city… is this what academic conversations look like in this language, when it’s direct and not in translation? Is this what it’s like to experience this sort of intellectual banter directly, in a way that’s not exhausting and full of holes? It was all so new to me, the notion that I might… discuss… research with other people, and understand it fully, straight from the source language, and be understood, and not have to strain to drop my consonants into all the right places in my throat.

Let me repeat that for the hearing academics in the house. Imagine that you are a PhD candidate, and never once have you had a direct, in-person conversation with someone about your research, or about theirs, without a heavy muffle and a thick fog of radio static blanketed over the entire dialogue, exhausting you. Imagine what it might be like to have that for the first time; how strange, how awkward, how full of information, how overwhelming, and how wonderful (and simultaneously scary!) that might feel.

We went to lunch in the cafeteria, and I hesitated by the door — it was loud, it was noisy, I had to rip my CI off because I couldn’t yet handle the background din. I didn’t know what the cashier would say, and I didn’t think I could fake it this time — but I didn’t know how to do this any other way than to pretend, really really hard, to be a hearing person. So I hung back and let Rebecca and Stephanie go first, because… how does one pay for lunch at a cafeteria any other way than “try to pretend to be hearing”?

And one of them signed and gestured and pointed and held out their card and paid; and one of them spoke and told the cashier how to communicate in ways they could understand, and I forget what I did, because I was still processing the first time I had ever seen the phrase “Deaf people have a wide variety of approaches to communication” actually lived out on a college campus — I mean, I knew that! But I’d never seen it, and my brain was still going oh, oh, OH, that’s REAL and it’s OKAY and… and… I have options!

And I remember walking through the campus signing, asking questions, marveling at how I was still able to engage and participate and understand – and walking into the seminar room and watching all three of us codeswitch to “hearing mode” the moment we walked through the door. (Which was a lesson in and of itself, and which we talked about afterward as a choice we all automatically made but were not completely comfortable with.)

And yet.

Hands went down, but eyes did not. Voices turned on, and at the same time – there was a constant flicker of backchannel, of mutual monitoring, and… this strange but oddly comforting feeling that other people saw what you could see, was keeping pulse on the same things (interpreters! seating! body language! eye gaze!) you were tracking, that you were all doing this dance of survival that nobody else could see, and that each of us usually did alone. And for the first time, I felt like… the responsibility of holding all that up, of keeping track, of constant vigilance – was not entirely on me. That if I slipped (because I did dance awkwardly, as newer dancers are wont to do) it would still be okay, because someone else was holding the beat up, no matter what I did.

And folks… I understood their conversation, and I learned from it. Which was – again – remarkable to me, because I went my entire academic career showing up at discussions/classes/etc. because I had to, or because I had to perform and demonstrate that I knew things — I didn’t really go to learn things, I would have to had learned them before arriving to have any shot at following even parts of the lecture or conversation at all.

I’m looking through some of my old notes now tonight and I found the copy of Rebecca’s talk, which I had annotated (this is what prompted this whole blog post to begin with) — and it’s scrawled thick with margin notes and underlines and references to our conversation. Turns out that it’s so much easier to read and connect and practice thinking like a slightly more mature scholar… when you get to actually have conversations with those more mature scholars, and eavesdrop on their discourse, and use it as a model for your own.

That stapled sheaf of paper was immediately on top of one of my written reflections for a grad school class less than a year prior, where I can now see how immature my writing/thinking is in comparison. I can now start to see — oh, this is what my professor was trying to tell me. These were the gaps they were pointing out; these were the things I didn’t know I wasn’t doing, but couldn’t understand their cues for at the time — the marks of the art of scholarly discourse. The moves I hadn’t yet seen in action, live, away from the ink outlines pressed into a book attempting to describe something so much more dynamic and full. The dialogue practice I hadn’t actually gotten to try.

It’s hard to read your way into being conversational in a language, but that’s how I’ve done it in every other language that I know. It’s much easier to converse your way into being conversational in a language. And (after a year in Rochester, after seeing more and having more of these scholarly conversations and everyday academic interactions in ASL), I can now start to see them in my writing, in the writing of others, in the moves and subtleties and richness that gets layered into excellent thinking and writing.

I have always been a strong reader, but I did not have much access to the internal worlds of people in the process of writing, or windows into those (eventually beautiful and polished) thoughts as they were being formed. I’d walked through museums looking at the best pottery made through all of history, behind a glass wall, on a shelf — and then been trying to make pots without seeing or talking with other people about how they used a studio. It has been so, so strange to walk into a studio that’s full of people. And it is still so strange, this notion that I can watch and interact with other people while they’re at work. The work I want to learn to do.


I remember that visit. I remember driving home wondering how I would ever explain to any of my hearing friends why it was so important, why I was so happy to have seen how people pay for food at a cafeteria, why… why I would drive over 8 hours on a single day just to spend a few hours with people I barely knew, talking about a topic entirely out of my field, in a language I had scarcely learned.

I remembered it again when I saw students this semester walk into my classroom, or my office, and see my signing, or my interpreting team, or my CI, and blink, and sometimes hesitantly sign to me: you’re Deaf? You’re the professor? and sometimes watch me intently until I introduce myself as – yes, I’m Mel, I’m your professor, and I’m Deaf – and… I’m not going to say it’s always a look of happiness, or at least not purely so. Sometimes it’s puzzlement. Maybe sometimes it’s nothing. Probably a whole host of things I can’t read at all; I’m no telepath — it’s their internal world.

But I think, that for at least some of them, there’s the flicker of a world rearranging itself behind their eyes.

We need elders in our tribe. We need people to span a broad, broad space of many, many possible options, so that we have as wide a plain as possible to imagine ourselves exploring. That trip – those few hours – showed me what it looked like for Rebecca and Stephanie to be Deaf academics, and it made it much more possible for me to think in different ways about what it might mean for me, and I take absolutely none of this for granted; none at all.

And I think that’s all I have to say on that tonight.

Compagnie Kafig (old notes writeup)

Found an old essay I wrote for dance class at Purdue some years back, and thought – why not? I’ve been trying to remember my love of dance and movement more and more lately, so I figured I’d share.

Last Friday, I went to see Compagnie Kafig’s Convocations performance of their works “Correria” (Running) and Agwa (“Water”).  Compagnie Kafig is hard to characterize; they’re a sort of all-male hip-hop street dance crew, but their range of expression goes beyond the stereotypical b-boy moves, costuming, and music. The dancers all had gorgeous isolation technique – crisp, clear, and used in fascinating ways to great visual effect – and instead of trying to conform them into an identical corps, the phrases built on their individuality.

As its name implies, “Correria” was about running – it started with two men on their backs with white-sneakered feet pedaling in the air, swiftly joined by more chanting men running around them in circles. A series of solos punctuated the piece; one solo, the first of the evening, was a gorgeous extended sequence of isolated movements that made me want to copy whatever the dancer was doing for his mobility routine. Another notable solo in “Correria” was done by a lanky-limbed dancer in a white shirt and long striped socks. The piece took advantage of his individual body – long and almost gawky in the costume, but articulate and clearly comical as he dropped into a series of hip-hop poses while lip-syncing opera music. It ended with a tongue-in-cheek reference, with fingers “running” in the air.

“Agwa,” on the other hand, was danced with, around, and between plastic cups of water. One extended phrase repetition involved two men, one standing and dragging the other through their legs and feet on the floor; you could see the difference between a short, stocky dancer (the evening’s first soloist) and a long, lanky dancer (the opera hip-hop soloist) as they crawled and slid around two other people. It also featured isolations of body parts in a way that changed the scale of the dance; after backflipping, hand-standing, and whole-body-shaking their way across the stage, the dancers flopped on their bellies and used their fingers as running “legs” to dance around the now-huge plastic cups that had seemed so tiny next to their gigantic bodies a few moments ago. I would be remiss not to mention the amazing precision backflips between all the cups – although when I saw the piece excerpts played silently in the dance division hallway, I would never have expected baroque-ish music to be the auditory setting for that phrase.

In terms of choreographic elements, we saw pretty much everything; there was some unison, a lot of beautiful soloing, and moments of canon – for instance, when the troupe went into push-up position, one by one, with each dancer’s feet on the previous dancer’s solos. Yes, you have amazing abs and core strength, guys. Yes, you may show them off. As each dancer whirled his way through moves and inversions, I couldn’t spot a single instance of head-tail disconnection or core collapse. These guys have abs.

My overall experience was one of inspiration and envy. These guys have such fine-grained articulation and control over their entire bodies; they play jazz with their muscles, showing off their individual personalities. The use of unexpected costumes (knee-high striped socks), props (dixie cups and truncated stilts with shoes at the end), and music (seriously, opera?) was a genre-defying comical poke I very much enjoyed. I could have done with brighter lighting, though; the dimness often obscured the clarity of the movements.

As a female dancer, I also wonder – what would this sort of dance look like with women’s bodies? I’ve seen videos of b-girls, but they’re all “standard” hip-hop videos, none of this genre-bending, socially-satirical choreography exhibited by Compagnie Kafig. I’d love to see more things in this vein, set on an even wider variety of bodies, and for a range of skill levels. When Streb visited last year, they showed us the “beginner” versions of their hardcore circus-style dancing so that we could slowly work our way into their sorts of moves if we wanted. What’s the equivalent for this?

Post-conference happiness from FIE

We learn things at conferences! Here are some notes from the last one I attended (FIE, or Frontiers in Education, an engineering edu conference I attend most years).

I learned (via Margot Vigeant) that I’m not the only comic-drawing engineering education researcher. She’s doing visual work in the discipline, as is Lucas Landherr (who, like Margot, is a chemical engineer).

Also via Margot was a heads-up about Project Hieroglyph, an initiative at ASU that paired sci-fi writers with researchers to “provide not just an idea for some specific technical innovation, but also to supply a coherent picture of that innovation being integrated into a society, into an economy, and into people’s lives.” I couldn’t think of a better framing example for what I’m trying to do with my “alternate universe engineering/tech/computing education cultures” work, which is still in those lovely early stages of “I have no idea what I’m doing with this.” Stories. Stories are so important.

I got the opportunity to catch up with several friends, including James Huff (whose work on shame in engineering edu with Nikki Sochacka and Jo Walther is something I am so looking forward to) and Ana Rynearson (who is starting a new program at Campbell), and Allison Godwin (who has very good NSF CAREER award advice). And Rebecca Christianson and Siddharthan Govindasamy, who are wrapping up the 3rd year of the QEA experiment and have stories to tell, and and and and…

And meet new ones! It was a tremendous pleasure to meet Adam Masters, who is looking at makerspaces designed specifically for marginalized groups, and who I really want to collaborate with on the “alternate universe curricular cultures” thing at some point down the line. And Julianna Ge, who is pursuing the fascinating notion of “engineering thriving” (thesis: if you’re successful in engineering academics and are thoroughly miserable, we’re not doing a great job with engineering education for you yet). Which reminds me that I should introduce the two of them.

Oh, and I got to spend more time with the incomparable Tess Edmonds, which is always a great joy. She also was the third performer in the special session that Ian Smith, Samir Jain, and I did on an alternate-universe engineering culture where engineering is dominated by Deaf people, and hearing(ness) is seen as a disability… more on that later, I hope. But right now, conference happiness. And a lot of catching-up on email.

Wingsuits and giant eagles

I have an analogy for (ASL) interpreting from a Deaf user’s perspective that involves parachutes and squirrel suits and such. Ian Smith asked for it to be publicly available, so… here is a hastily written post. Perhaps someday it will be edited into something more eloquent; today is not that day.

Ok. So you know wingsuits (sometimes called squirrel suits after the flying squirrels they resemble), the skydiving suits with wings that let you kinda glide around? (If you don’t, here’s a video of one.)

That’s lipreading. It looks like flying, but really it’s more like… “falling, with style,” to quote Toy Story. To the untrained eye, squirrel suiting can masquerade as flying, but you can’t actually continue doing it. You have to bail out of it and activate your parachute at some point before you smash your head open on a rock.

Interpreters are like the giant flying eagles from the end of the Lord of the Rings. (And yes, that’s what it looks like on the inside after lipreading, sometimes. Not all the time, but… sometimes.)

Giant eagles can swoop in and pick you up — and when they do, you are obviously definitely not flying on your own. It’s all a bit, uh… bulky and noticeable, but also, you’re… not smashing your head open on a rock. And you can keep flying for a lot longer.

I haven’t really thought through the parallel analogy for captioning, but perhaps it’s like steering your fall over one of those giant fans like they have for indoor skydiving places. It shoots you upwards, it can work for “flyers” (hearing people) as well, but the captioning isn’t portable – it only shoots air upwards from that one spot.

Anyway. I explain this to my interpreters at conferences and such (it’s really fun to explain using ASL classifiers), and will also tell them that sometimes I will jump off their backs (so to speak) and squirrel-suit for a bit. It’s not a reflection on their skill (they can be the best interpreter in the world, and I’ll still do it!) or my need for the access they provide — it’s because that’s how I use all my tools/options with fluency.

I can get to some places with my squirrel suit that they can’t quite reach as giant eagles. When it’s working, it works beautifully — I’ll jump on and off really fast, and the choreography of a good interpreter/Mel team can be gorgeous when it works out.

Just for fun:

The Star Wars Ep II scene of Anakin jumping out of the shuttle is actually a fairly accurate portrayal of extroverted puppymel asking questions of a… somewhat less extroverted person, with the requisite ADHD losing-of-things.

And a conversation that happened amongst Deaf friends when I was explaining the analogy:

Samir: Why couldn’t my terps have swooped in to pick me up to take me to Mordor in the first place?
Mel: One does not simply walk into Mordor.
Mel: One requests reasonable accommodations, then works one’s way through an increasingly bureaucratic chain, then says “sod it” and walks into Mordor, because it’s easier that way sometimes.

How do I make my conference more accessible/inclusive?

I was recently asked how to make conference presentations more accessible to Deaf/hard-of-hearing attendees. Now, I have written a guide on that, but I’d like to broaden the question to include other forms of conference access. There are a number of good guides out there, so I’m not going to rehash them; instead, I will link to some of them.

Two more notes here – first, at least for my field (engineering education), I think the real question will be not so much how willing a conference is to enforce some of these things (either through requirements, design, or likely some combination or the two) as opposed to simply suggesting them as nice things for attendees to do. Quite frankly, if people don’t have to do these things… many don’t. A lot of them require advance planning and other aspects that are not part of academic conference presentation culture by default (finishing your slides before the day you present them? what?!!?)

Second, although the guides above focus mostly on disability-related access, remember that there are other forms of access and inclusivity that are important, too. Is your event affordably priced and/or does it have scholarships available? Is it at a location that is easy to travel to, stay at (are there wheelchair-accessible lodging options that aren’t super expensive?), eat at (will those with food allergies and vegans/vegetarians be able to find options)? Is it at an hour where people with day jobs and/or small children can attend? Is there childcare? A quiet room? Gender-neutral restrooms and buttons/stickers with different pronoun options? A code of conduct and the means to enforce it? Are you deliberately soliciting participation from a wide variety of people? There are a lot of ways to make events inclusive!

I’d also like to note: conference access is not my specialty, nor is it my area of expertise. I love conference planning, but I’d rather be on the program committee, etc. than the “diversity and access” board. In order to do this, other people need to do the diversity and access work, because I literally cannot participate in the conference without it. Until I’m able to completely trust it’ll be there regardless of what I do, I won’t be fully able to do other things. So. Please do this work so I can be on program committees and other stuff instead! Please.

Feedback on the FOSS projects course (RIT) from spring 2018

This is long overdue, but I finally sat down and processed through the course feedback we got last semester for our class on FOSS development. This post mostly consists of notes I want to remember for next time, but they’re public because… why not?

First, there were some things we didn’t have control over. An 8am start time for a computer science class? Yeah, not the most popular thing. (Though one student did like it!) Similarly, our course management system (dictated by the university) is nobody’s favorite thing. And our computer lab was not set up for groupwork — it was set up in a giant “X” shape with individual computer stations, and our interpreting team (Jess and Mo!) had to run circles around the entire room to go from student to student.

I’d love to have more control over our physical space and… uh, temporal time? (Honestly, for this class, it’s practically a studio course, so I’d rather meet once for a 3-hour work session than for 1.5 hours twice a week at 8am.) But sometimes that’s not an option.

I personally wish we’d had the bandwidth to discuss more current events in the FOSS world. We spent all our time focusing on the projects students were working on in class, with occasional mentions of how this or that lined up with an external community’s release schedule or conference timeline or whatnot, but being able to drop in asides of “today, on LWN, I read…” would have been a nice extra touch. That having been said, I was so overwhelmed during my first semester teaching at RIT that I’m totally fine with this not having been my first priority.

I also have one note about emphasizing a “high level view of open source communities before jumping into work,” which – I don’t recall if that was in appreciation of what we did and/or a request for more of it, but that’s something I want to iterate on being deliberate about next time around, too.

Similarly, we got high marks as instructors in terms of giving feedback, and doing so in ways that were incredibly tailored to their projects (which is what one does in a studio course). Students also enjoyed being able to choose their own projects, which is a central part of the course design (at least for me). Seriously, the number of student notes I have staring at me saying that kind of thing with multiple exclamation points and phrases like “SO AWESOME” is… pretty substantial. Learning how to find and scope and recalibrate on your own project is a hard skill that’s not often taught in universities, and they recognized that as a valuable skill — plus, as one student put it, “it allows students to work on a project they have motivation to work on.”

Students appreciated the repeated emphasis on stand-up presentations and getting feedback on speaking skills. Their presentations did noticeably improve during the course of the semester. Similarly, they thanked us for forcing them to write blog posts and critically analyze their own interactions with FOSS community upstreams. This is in reference to a homework variant where they had to submit a conversational artifact — an IRC transcript, an email exchange, a github comment thread, etc. — and their analysis of what happened in it. I like that homework variant as well, and probably will keep it.

We did get asked to be more explicit about our preferred means of communication. We gave students a lot of options as to how they could contact us, but they didn’t know which ones we wanted them to use — the answer was really “any of the ones we said you could use” or “you could have asked us which was fastest,” but it would also be easy to just list them in order of preference in the syllabus, so that’s a reminder to me to make things more explicit when I can, so students don’t even have to ask. Similarly, our office hours were extremely well-attended (we held office hours as an open FOSS work time) and there was a request for more opportunities for 1:1 meetings. Our response: “yes, you can always ask us for that, and people did ask – and get – that during the semester.” But again, making-explicit more is never a bad thing; it’s the reason I put a lot of thought into having text about disability accommodations, “if you’re having trouble with housing/food/finances, please let me know so I can help,” etc. in my syllabi, because even just asking can be extra work.

I grinned at one comment, which was about our use of Google apps for some aspects of the course — because “it’s not Free Software.” True! We had them all upload their slides into a shared Google Slide deck for sprint presentations, to make fast work of transitioning between presentations. We also had things like presentation sign-ups on a Google Doc. Could we have used Beamer and github? Yes. Would it have taken more time for everyone to climb that learning curve? Probably. Would I like to have a completely FOSS stack for this course? Yes. Do we have those tools right now, in usable state to pick up and go with (given the time Steve and I had as faculty to prepare)? Not at the moment. When there’s a good FOSS alternative, I’ll use it. Until that time, I’m willing to make the compromise of using infrastructure that is ready-to-go so students have more time to work on their FOSS projects instead of learning new infrastructure simply to use FOSS software for presentation slide decks.

All in all, I thought it was a pretty good first run for the course redesign. I’d like to teach this course again and iterate on it — I need to find a better way to keep course materials online and easily findable/editable for the future. If anyone has suggestions on how to do that, I’d love them; I’ve been thinking about porting as many of my course materials to, say, github pages (or similar) as possible, but struggle with the bandwidth to think about how to do that well — so if anyone wants a curricular design related semi-tech/semi-content project, let me know!

“What is Engineering” in the inaugural issue of Murmurations

Murmurations, an open access scholarly journal on emergence, equity, and education, launched today. It works towards “systemic social equity in education by giving visibility to the views that are normally hidden,” and I’m honored to be part of the inaugural issue — and to finally have a more formally published version of my “What is Engineering” comic from 2011. The PDF version that link points to has full image descriptions inline*.

This comic (or “graphic essay,” if you want to sound fancier… but really, comic) is one of the more accidentally popular things I’ve made since the long blog post in which it first appears. As of 2018, it’s been viewed 7.8k times, assigned as homework to students in classrooms I’ve never seen, made surprise appearances in South Africa (when my advisor Robin Adams met another researcher who asked if I was her student, then pulled a copy of the comic from their bag), and… wow.

You can view the full inaugural issue now — Murmurations itself is an experiment as to what journals, the review process, and many other things might be. For instance, what if authors stated their positionality at the beginning of each piece? I’d never previously seen someone outwardly declare they were cisgender in a piece that wasn’t centered around gender identity; it’s refreshing to declare things typically taken for granted (I’m still waiting for my colleagues to “out” themselves as hearing and abled, whereas I’m often expected to walk around proclaiming that I’m Deaf).

What if “reviewer” (we call them “reflectors”) comments and dialogues on earlier revisions of a piece could be viewed along with the published version? What if the piece could continue to evolve after publication? This is what I’m hoping for mine; it was done by a much younger and less trained version of myself, and I would love to do a substantial revision and re-drawing based on the feedback and reflections of others, so please chime in!

Side comment: it is a strange feeling to look at page proofs of my writing every time it happens; the words look so much more polished, formal, and final than they ever felt during the writing process. Layout is powerful.

ASLCore: affordance theory, or “thing-inform”

Okay. In my last post, I danced around happily exclaiming about how cool the ASLCore project is for engineering and computing (and all the other fields it covers — philosophy, art, biology, literature, physics, etc.). In that post, I used the stress/strain curve (and its related group of concepts and their respective signs in ASL and words in English) to explain a bit of our process.

In this post, I want to discuss one of my favorite parts of working on ASLCore, which is that it leads to great conversations about what these words are, what these terms mean. These conversations happen both within the ASLCore team and outside it.

For instance, Mitch Cieminski (hearing, non-signing friend and colleague) and I were talking this week about affordance theory in the context of some of their work. During our conversation, I showed Mitch our new sign for “affordance.” (Crucial note: our intent is not to be prescriptive or say that our sign is the “correct”one — it is to offer it to the ASL community as an option, and let people choose whether and how to take it up and play with it, because this is how language works: organically, communally.)

Now, unlike some other technical terms, there’s no universalized set meaning for what, precisely, “affordances” are in English (or any other language, as far as I’m aware). If you’re new to the concept, check out the Wikipedia page, and you’ll rapidly find that the jury is still out on precisely what it means for something to “afford” something else; are we using Gibson’s definition? Norman’s? Someone else’s? (Can any of these definitions really be viewed as formal definitions?) The design fields have been debating this for a while, and I don’t think we’ll resolve that debate of anytime soon. One reason I am really proud of our signs for “affordance” and “afford” is that they feel (to me) as if they capture the shared essence of the concept represented in that discourse… without attempting to come down on one side or another of the definition debate.

The sign for “afford” (which is a verb) comes from an ASL sign that is often translated into English as “to inform.” It is directional, which means that it can be signed in ways that indicate who is informing whom. If I signed it starting from me and towards you, it can be translated “I am informing you.” If I signed it towards myself, that might be translated as “inform me,” or “let me know.” You can use it in many ways, but it’s typically set up as going between two beings/persons – person X is informing person Y.

Our sign for “afford” takes that same sign’s motion and handshape — but instead has it come from a thing (here, represented by an invisible object held in the signer’s other hand).  It’s what the object tells us. It’s what the object lets us know — about itself, about how we might use it, and so forth. For an object to afford something is for it to be informing us via how it exists as an object (as opposed to, say, having separate documentation telling us how we ought to use it).

The noun form — what an object affords — is an “affordance.” The sign adds the possessive marker (how we would indicate concepts like yours, mine, ours, etc.), which assigns the affordances as belonging to the object, and also changes it from verb to noun. Again, roughly speaking — the concept is that of the things that the object tells us about itself. (“See that object? See how it tells us things about itself? Those things it tells us — they are affordances.”)

Mitch caught on immediately as to how we could play with the concept of “affordances” via playing with the sign. Would it, Mitch asked, be signed differently if I talked about what an object affords me, as opposed to what an object affords someone else? Yes, I answered; I’d just change the directionality — the object informs me, or informs you, or informs them, and you can tell which one I mean by which direction I make the sign in. We both grinned, because this is how affordances work — an object’s affordances are relative to whoever might be using it. (An infant car seat affords sitting for my friends’ tiny children — but it does not afford such for me as a full-grown adult who wouldn’t fit.)

Thing-inform; what it is that the thing informs us of. Affordance.

Flash back to the ASLCore team discussion several weeks earlier, where I was attempting to explain the (very abstract, philosophical, and ponderously worded) formal definitions I had found to the translation team, using objects around the room as examples. A chair affords sitting. The loop on my water bottle affords my picking it up and dangling it on my finger; as does the handle on this mug, but this smooth-sided glass does not have this affordance. This door handle affords pushing, and also opening the door — but in a different way than that doorknob, or this plate on a swinging door.

We went through several translation options. Was an affordance something that was “possible” to do with a thing? No — it would be possible, albeit awkward and painful, for me to sit on my water bottle, but I would not say my water bottle afforded sitting in the way that, say, a chair does. Did “to afford” mean “to permit” or “to allow”? (This had been my previous closest sign for the concept.) No, that didn’t feel quite right; we needed something stronger. Was it what was “all right” to do with the thing? No, this wasn’t so much about social acceptability; weapons clearly afford harming people, but it’s often explicitly not ”all right” to use them to do so in most situations. 

(We also punned bilingually. Until we settled on the current sign, we occasionally used the phonetic equivalent of “Afford-Dance” as a placeholder — the signs that you’d use to mean “afford” as in “afford the cost,” and “dance” as in “dance to the music.” The room was full of winks and grimaces, snark and linguistic play.)

Was an affordance like a feature? asked the translation team. Did something need to be a product in order to afford things, did it need to be a final product, or could a design or prototype or an object that was not designed by humans also have affordances? (Yes; a chair affords sitting, but so does a fallen tree stump in the woods.) How was the notion of affordance related to our earlier discussion of the functions of a product? (Later, we would discuss how a software function in the context of computer programming was both related to and distinct from this notion of the functions of a product.)

The team pushed my understanding of the topic, of the term, of it usage, of its interconnections. I’ve written papers using affordance theory, and I had never thought so hard about what it means for an object to afford something, or what an affordance was, or was not — I could no longer take the term for granted. Creating language is hard, folks! Creating language is hard, and it’s one of the most wonderful kinds of hard I’ve ever experienced.

Anyway. We went off on this for a while, and then at some point, someone signed so, it’s what the thing tells you about itself? and I swiveled around, electric: that, THAT! Yes! It’s what the thing tells you about — how you can use it, what it’s for… 

And so they tweaked it, and then – thing-inform. Afford, the verb form. And then the noun form… what it is that the thing informs you of – affordance(s).

We had a sign. I was so happy that I think I actually jumped for joy. I definitely fist-pumped, and a bunch of (hearing) friends who knew affordance theory got all-caps, multiple-exclamation-points text messages during the next break that WE HAD A SIGN FOR AFFFORDANCE!!!! because I was… uh… maybe just a little bit excited. (There’s a reason why my name sign comes from the image of a puppy’s tail enthusiastically wagging.)

So that’s the story of “affordance” and “afford,” as best as I can tell it. I want to write this out for so, so many other signs as well — most of them have a story like this, and a meaning packed in, that is hard for non-signers to understand. I want to share with my non-signing friends some of the complexity and richness of what we are doing, in this world of engineering and computing ASL — because I hope you’ll start to see how Deafness and Deaf culture and signed languages in engineering might be something marvelous to learn from, not something to pity or treat as a mere “accommodation” or “support” to help people “catch up” (which implies that they are “behind” to start with, which is not the way it has to be).

I want you to see this with the sense of play and joy and wonder and intensity we brought to it; I want you to see why it is beautiful — so you will want to see and use this language, too.