Silliness: how one might possibly set fire to the rain (as per song lyrics)

From a completely silly but entirely deadpan debate about how, exactly, one would go about setting fire to the rain as described in the Adele song.

The rain obviously needs to contain or consist of some type of flammable liquid, and yet not be so volatile, and not disperse so much in vaporized form that an open flame would cause a chain reaction explosion. That would just explode the rain generating apparatus, and I argue that the song assumes a continuous event of fire setting and not a one-time incident.

The alternative option is that one sets fire to the rain after it has fallen, as one sets alight newspaper drenched in lighter fluid on the grill. However, I find this unlikely as well because the next line refers to the rain touching the singer’s face in ways that grammatically hint at an ongoing action.

Now, rain could refer metaphorically not to the fall of liquid, but to a cascade of many small falling flaming objects. Or rather, small falling flammable objects, as setting fire implies a state transition caused by the singer – that is, one only sets fire to objects not yet aflame. This seems to me to be the most acceptable interpretation. Additionally, credence is given to the falling objects theory by the additional attribute that it is screaming out the addressee’s name.

Here’s my best theory. The rain refers poetically to a shower of small audio recording and playback devices upon which the singer has recorded the addressee’s name. They have a thermally sensitive trigger. The electronics are well sealed. In particular, the battery is relatively well protected from the heat.

The insulated, nonflammable casing is wrapped in a wicking material and then doused in kerosene or similar. The singer places a large quantity of these soaked playback devices in a crane or other sturdy overhead construction apparatus, places the addressee nearby, lights the pile via a remote starter, touches the addressee’s face, and then triggers the crane dump. The fire activates the thermal trigger. Devices playback the addressee’s name. The singer hears it and cries on cue.

For added visual bonus, the casing only protects the electronics for so long, but eventually the battery overheats and explodes, which seems to match the drama of the piece.

I am unsure if this utilizes similar techniques as one might employ to set fire to the third bar, but if so, that would be an additional source to consider. That one is easy, though: enter two bars, do not set fire to them. Enter third bar, evacuate the third bar, put on appropriate personal protective equipment, set fire to the third bar.

Is the author of the rain song referencing the bar? We don’t know! There are no details on where they acquired their methodology. This is why citations are important.

Thoughts on Matthew Guterl’s piece on “surviving graduate school”

Via Steph Daza: a post by Matthew Pratt Guterl on surviving graduate school. Here are some parts that stood out to me.

From #8: Search for something that appeals to you and that connects with bigger issues. So choose wisely and be excited. This echoes Ruth Streveler’s advice: “The shiny thing can definitely detract from productivity. So I’ve tried to learn how to find the shiniest thing, and really get clear about what the shiniest thing is, and let myself ignore the less shiny.”

13. Learn how to craft and control the narrative of your career, from the presentation of your CV to web pages to wardrobes to public performances. This means learning how to distinguish between the truly impressive and the superficial. I still struggle to do this; the narratives I’m trying to write feel so strange in so many ways that they’re often seen (including by myself!) as fundamentally incompatible ones. But hrgh, it’s… possible…

18. Know this: there is really only one question at job talks and conferences and grad student get-togethers: “Your work is interesting. How does it relate to mine?” So do your homework. Know what people care about. I miss these gatherings; I miss professional socialization; I feel like I’ve been in a hole under a bucket for the last few years (probably a massive overexaggeration, but…) and that I desperately want to work on excellent teams again.

20. People will treat you like crap all the time. They will ignore you, or try to hurt you, or even try to ruin you. If what they are doing is illegal, don’t be silent. Do what must be done. If what they are doing is merely cruel, just remember, and don’t be that person. And mobilize for a better world. Basically. I will say that it is hard — I don’t know about “harder” because this is the only experience I’ve lived — but it is hard to be at the intersection of a bunch of marginalizations; if one thing isn’t slapping you in the face, another thing is, and I cherish the spaces where I can exhale and feel safe being myself. It’s one of the reasons I want to build sanctuaries for others wherever I go.

23. Learn how to tell the difference between those faculty who will help you get things within the context of your department/your university, and those faculty who will help you do the same thing while also teaching you how to get these things on your own. Still need to learn this. Since I literally don’t overhear things, accidental learning in my field only exists for me in text formats (which largely means it doesn’t exist). I have to be very, very deliberate about seeking to learn academic-cultural things I don’t yet know that I don’t know.

And finally, I appreciate the last point from… a number of different perspectives.

30. Finally, write your own list. Don’t just copy this down. Edit it. Disagree with it. Improve it. Print it up. Put it on the fridge. Argue about it. The point of any such list isn’t to give you a pathway; it is to help you find your own.

On writing: a glove that fits

It’s been a long time since I simply wrote here — just wrote out thoughts, without more formal content to share, or having this be a draft of something else I was officially working on, or something of that sort. I used to need to write here as an outlet, a place where the thoughts inside me could erupt into the world, unsure of what I was becoming. I wanted a place to mark things down, to leave a trace.

I’m not sure that I need that any more — clearly, as the last year and a half (or two? it’s been a while) have shown, I can live (and live well!) without it; continue to learn and grow and meet people and do hard things and fall down and make mistakes and keep becoming more and more a Mel with every day, discovering what that means. But there are times where writing like this is a valuable exercise in and of itself; it fights my tendency towards perfectionism, makes me put something down with the full knowledge that my older self will read this someday and hear my inexperience, and… that’s okay.

I’m a better person when I write. I don’t know why this is, other than it’s probably the way that I was made. Some people were made to draw, and some to dance, and some to play music, and some to do math, and I was made to do those things as well and find deep joy in them. But writing also draws me back, and words, and language, and how I can type them out so fluently sometimes that I don’t recognize where eloquence is birthed from. Because some of these thoughts must be beyond me, and yet there they are, glinting softly in the rumpled folds of awkward sentences I recognize as much more mine. Surely my thoughts and words must be all smudgy charcoal and feet falling over themselves, so where do these tiny flights come from, peeping once, twice, and then — small soft feathered bodies zipping away as the folds of my inarticulate dust roll off them? Someone has breathed a life into my dust.

That’s probably why it’s been so hard, the past few years. Writing has never been hard for me before; words have always been my friends, sometimes my only ones. I’ve never really grappled with things on a printed page; they’ve always been smooth draughts amidst a world of blurry lips and muffled bassy sounds. I could drink them in and pour them out; even my undergrad humanities thesis, even my early grad school papers, they pulled at the familiar feeling inside my mind of thoughts crystallizing into a whole as they poured out into my hands and into type.

I never really edited, except maybe for minor typos once in a while, or a sentence or two out of place. Never rewrote. Never outlined, never structured. Never had to do more than lay out all of the books in front of me, in larger and larger piles and rings as I progressed from high school into college into the PhD — lay them all out in front of me, and then start writing. It was a vast landscape of thought before me that I could easily fly across, dip into, pull threads into the form I was weaving. And yes, sometimes that was hard, but it was always just hard in the moment, and I could make it work — I could always make written English work. And maybe sometimes what came out wasn’t particularly gorgeous — as I went farther in my studies, it became increasingly cobbled-together, as my writing spilled beyond the ways that I could naturally structure it and signpost it for others. But it was good enough; it held, my patching held, I never had to learn to sew.

Text was my home, my first language, my primary way to think and be and show my skills and my potential. And so I was completely unprepared when I started to run off the frayed edges of where my natural talent could take me. My raw ability had unspooled so, so much further beyond the other people I had seen, peeling off to gasp along the wayside when the text outpaced them; floods of reading, floods of writing, larger and larger structures that they needed tools to grasp.

And I took a certain sort of pride in running down that road barefoot and untrained, grasping at things with open hands and swinging through thickets of meaning like I was born to it. Because this was the jungle that had raised me; with so much of the human world around me closed to me without a fight, I learned to think from books, how to express myself from books, how to piece together dialogues from writers who spoke back and forth of one another through the years.

So it felt like betrayal when I stumbled, felt like words had turned against me; felt like I was cast out of my home, stripped of one of my greatest talents. I hadn’t been, of course. I could reach just as far as before, but now I was reaching for things that were farther. And I couldn’t get to them without unwinding, backing up, trying to figure out how I had done things I had never thought about. Learning the sorts of things most people learn in grade school. How to outline. What arguments were, how to structure them. How to revise and how to edit; how to accept a first draft being far from final, how to aim towards done. How to read — something I never thought I’d need to think about. How to read.

It’s like relearning your first language. Which, for me, it literally was. And is. I’m still learning, and I still miss that untrained innocence of sorts that I kept for a long, long time. But in the end, it’s a decision about the value and the choice of craft, and whether I love to write more than I love the writing being easy, and deciding that day after day.

There is a part I love, right at the end of The Amber Spyglass, where the heroine Lyra realizes that her natural childhood gift of reading the alethiometer (a device for revealing truth) has vanished. Previously, she had reveled in being able to easily wield a skill that highly trained adults struggled with, but now she has become one of those adults — with no training, since she had ridden entirely on her natural gifts so far. And now she has a choice of what to do.

“Why – ” Lyra began, and found her voice weak and trembling – ”why can’t I read the alethiometer anymore? Why can’t I even do that? That was the one thing I could do really well, and it’s just not there anymore – it just vanished as if it had never come…”

“You read it by grace,” said Xaphania, looking at her, “and you can regain it by work.”

“How long will that take?”

“A lifetime.”

“That long…”

“But your reading will be even better then, after a lifetime of thought and effort, because it will come from conscious understanding. Grace attained like that is deeper and fuller than grace that comes freely, and furthermore, once you’ve gained it, it will never leave you.”

“You mean a full lifetime, don’t you?” Lyra whispered. “A whole long life? Not… not just… a few years…”

“Yes, I do,” said the angel.

So do you spurn a lifetime of hard work because it should be natural, like it had been when you were younger, and walk away from a craft you now need to earn with sweat and blood like everybody else? Or do you ride the remnants of that childhood gift forever, only doing easy things — things that you know are probably hard for a lot of other people, but which aren’t the things you could achieve if you decided to stretch out of your plateau?

Or do you decide the craft is greater than the cost, and that slow progress that you cannot see is worth the journey, and that you love the doing of the work more than the rewards that seem to shimmer at the end, and do you pick it up and read the primers over and over again, and falter through the basics you wish you could just dismiss, and keep going even though you leave hard trails of imperfection in your wake, and don’t know where you’re going, and often feel alone?

A few years ago, when the threads of my base talent were starting to unravel beyond their limits, I complained to my classmate Julia and our department head, Dr. Radcliffe, that it felt like reaching through a thick rubber wall; the harder I pushed, the more it pushed back, so why keep trying to grasp what lay on the other side? What would I gain from it?

And Julia answered something like this, although I am rephrasing it a lot: you keep pushing to stretch the rubber wall farther out to get to where you want to go. You complain that none — or very little — of the academic writing that you see is in a voice that you can accept as someday being yours; you say that scholarship is something that doesn’t fit you, and that you can’t pretend to put on something that doesn’t fit just for the sake of getting through. And that’s all right. But here is what you’re doing — you’re stretching the wall until it flexes to fit you. It becomes a glove that fits. And then you’ll have a voice that is both yours and a scholar’s, because you’ll be a scholar.

I want a glove that fits more than I want work that is easy.

And so I will wake up in the mornings and continue to write and learn to be a scholar, even if it is hard.

Comic: Products and Practitioners: how a visibility of developmental processes aids in practitioner formation

The one-page comic below was created as a quick reference for faculty and students at Olin College, where learners can see the development of both products and processes in the domain they are learning in (whether that’s engineering, education, or something else).

The text after the comic is also in the Scribd document description and functions as an accessible image description of the one-page comic.

Products and Processes: how a visibility of developmental processes aids in practitioner formation by Mel Chua on Scribd

Another theory comic: image description follows. (Heavily influenced by Community of Practice, Situated Cognition, and Cognitive Apprenticeship theories.)

Text at the top of the page: When learners are engaged in an authentic, situated, & communal practice context, they see the development of two kinds of things over and over again in their environment:

Title text: Products & Practitioners (of their practice).

The middle of the page is divided into two columns. The left column is under the portion of the title that says “Products,” and shows three people getting clay from a big lump labeled “raw materials.” Below that, the same three people are shown starting to form pots from the clay; one person drops their pot and cries “oh, no!” Below that, the same three people are shown continuing to work on their pots; the middle person is now saying “oh, cool!” as they piece the pottery shards back together, and one of the other potters looks at them and thinks “I see how you adapted that!” Below that are drawings of the three final pots, all different; one is a squat, short pot with squiggly decorations, another is the broken pot pieced artistically back together, and the third is a tall vase made out of coils. All together, the left column shows the development process of a variety of pottery “products” from start to finish.

The right column is under the portion of the title that says “practitioners.” At the top is a group of three small children labeled “novices,” in the middle is a group of three teens labeled “juniors,” and at the bottom is a group of three adults labeled “masters.” The novices are making small simple pots; one cries out “my first pot!” while raising their fist in excitement. One teen is looking at the excited small child and thinking “I remember that time.” Another teen is being gazed at by a small child thinking “someday, I’m going to do that,” and is in turn looking at an adult practitioner and thinking the same thing. One of the teens has made a mistake on their pot; an adult is watching them and saying “I remember that time.” All together, the right column shows the developmental spectrum of potters from novice to master, with younger practitioners looking towards the older ones in anticipation of what they will do, and older ones looking back at the younger ones in remembrance of where they once were.

Below these two images is text that reads: one thing seeing these developmental cycles constantly reinforces is the sheer diversity of ways to engage with the profession/practice and the world. Each product and practitioner is fashioned from a different mold. The question becomes not “how do I fit the norm,” but rather…

“What might I make?” and “Who might I become?” (in a thought bubble coming from a person at the bottom center, head cradled thoughtfully in hands, with a variety of ceramic pieces surrounding them at either side)

At the bottom of the page is the copyright/authorship notice: Copyright 2016 CC-BY-SA Mel Chua.

Comic: 7 Techniques Adapted From Cognitive Apprenticeship Theory

The one-page comic below was created as a quick reference for faculty and students at Olin College, where students and faculty frequently have spontaneous, complex learning interactions in seemingly chaotic studio/project environments. Cognitive apprenticeship theory provides one of many ways to make sense of the sorts of implicitly taught and culturally engrained deep teaching and learning skills that might otherwise be lost in overwhelming chaos.

The text after the comic is also in the Scribd document description and functions as an accessible image description of the one-page comic.

7 Techniques Adapted From Cognitive Apprenticeship: “Making Thinking Visible” in spontaneous, complex learn… by Mel Chua on Scribd

Header: Cognitive Apprenticeship – 7 techniques for making thinking visible (studio version)

This comic is a one-page visual description of 5 Cognitive Apprenticeship techniques developed in the 80′s by Collins, Brown, Newman, and Duguid, plus two additions adapted by the author for adult learners (denoted with an *).

The techniques are:


  • scaffolding (faculty directs attention — a faculty member frames part of a complex problem, asking a student to “please focus your work here first”)
  • bounding* (student directs attention — a student frames part of a complex problem, asking a faculty member to “please focus your feedback here first”)
  • modeling (faculty does, faculty explains — a faculty member works with a complex problem, explaining what “I am trying to…” do)
  • coaching (student does, faculty explains — a student works with a complex problem while a faculty member coaches them on what “you might try to…” do)
  • narrating* (faculty does, student explains — a faculty member works with a complex problem while a student explains what they think “you are trying to…” do)
  • articulating (student does, student explains — a student works with a complex problem, explaining what “I am trying to…” do)
  • reflecting (comparing faculty/expert practice with student/novice practice)


These seven techniques are displayed in a thought bubble being pondered by a cartoon character who has lifted off the top of their head, pointing to the gears turning inside; this is a metaphor for “making thinking visible.”

Beside that character are two ways the 7 techniques can be used:

  • used to describe spontaneous, complex learning interactions (a faculty and student interacting over a complex problem, their illegible speech bubbles overwritten by a label saying “what is happening here? Bounding.”) A note at the bottom says that the technique “switches rapidly every 1-2 sentences.”
  • used to request spontaneous, complex learning interactions (a faculty and student interacting over a complex problem; the student says “could you please Model this for me?” and the faculty replies “sure!”)

The text at bottom left (cut off by the scan): *denotes new code adapted for adult learners. Comic CC-BY-SA Mel Chua 2016.

Oral deaf audio MacGyver: identifying speakers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Starter back and shoulder workouts

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


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

Bodyweight circuit: 3 rounds of…

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

Back workout:

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

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

Shoulder workout:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Postmodernism for engineers: the (draft) collection

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

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

Postmodernism: paradigmatic comparison

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

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

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

Table 1: Qualitative paradigms in engineering education research





View of reality

Single objective reality, objective and falsifiable

Multiple subjective, constructed realities

Multiple subjective political realities constructed on the basis of power

Multiple, fragmented, unknowable

View of truth

Truth is one

Truth is many

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

Contains the signs of its own contradiction

Purpose of research

Prediction, cause and effect

Describe and understand

Emancipate, socio-political critique

Deconstruct “grand narratives”

Methods of research

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

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

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

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

Role of researcher




various changing roles

Outcome of research

Context-free generalization

Situated description

Critical essays, policy changes

Re-conceptualized descriptions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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