If I post this thought I’ve been avoiding, can I start focusing again?

January 5, 2016 – 4:38 pm

Another “get these thoughts out so I can focus again” writing run. In the midst of reading “Scholarship Assessed” by Charles E. Glassick, Mary Taylor Huber, and Gene I. Maeroff, I started thinking about how I wanted to be assessed — which led to thinking about what I wanted to be assessed on — or in other words, “what might I want to work on next?”

I suspect that one of my secret terrors with finishing the dissertation is that I kinda know what I want to work on next, and I really do not want… to want… to work on that. (Thanks to Julia Thompson for poking me on this topic.) Heck, I can barely bring myself to explore it in the (comparatively) safe confines of my private/personal life. I’m having trouble even typing it into this blog post. Which. Seriously, Mel.

Rationally, this makes no sense. I have a primary project to work on next; it’s my postdoc investigation of Olin’s impact on engineering education (which is a really really cool project that I am super-stoked about). That makes it worse; it means that I’m terrified to even think about this as a potential side project. Or even a potential side interest that has nothing to do with research/work/anything except… me being interested in it.

Oh man. I’m… afraid of even being interested in something. What the heck is wrong with me?

You can probably figure out the topic from omission: it’s Deaf culture and sign language and… all the… deafness… stuff. Stuff. Things. Vague noun phrases make things safer to talk about, right? Yes, I know I’ve pumped out blog posts and comics about hearing aids and cochlear implants  – that was hard intellectual work, but almost no emotional work. It feels entirely different. I’m an engineer, and I know how to write about technology and how it works. But this isn’t technology; it’s more identity. And I don’t know how to deal with that. Because technology is not-me, and this… could be. (I don’t want to say “is” just yet.)

Almost all my family and friends have wanted me to blog about… that stuff. For people who haven’t stepped inside that space with me (which includes most of my family), it’s usually a “so, how is the cochlear implant?” query, as if it were The Biggest Thing. (I’ll admit that it Has Been A Thing, yes.) But the people who have stepped inside that space with me and listened to me talk, noticed what has caught me and what scares me and compels me — it’s always language, culture, something in that space — identity and relationship and things that are Not Surgery. I talk through terror I’ve thought through enough to share a little, and they listen, and they tell me: my gosh, that was… powerful. You… really ought to write that down. Please write that down. Please do. Please do that work.

I can’t. I can’t yet, I can’t. It’s too raw and new and painful still and I don’t want to set it down in any place that might be permanent or… linked to me, or… nope. I use the word “yet” in an attempt to open a small crack in the door, but dang, that door is huge. And made of steel. And guarded by Cerberus. Just so you know. (Cerberus is my hearing dog. It goes RARF RARF RARF Mel someone is at the door asking about the d-word shall I make them go away for you? and I say yes, good dog, please do.)

Right now, “all this stuff” is waaaaaay on the “completely optional, just for fun” side of the line. I’m simultaneously terrified and fascinated, and want to be able to drop and run at any time. I want to study engineering education. Faculty. Electrical engineering? Software? Maker culture! Philosophy of higher ed! I don’t care! Anything but this!

Aaaaand yet. And yet and yet. Working with Sara Hendren’s class was one of the best things I did last semester (my Minions team… amazing. Awesome awesome awesome). The things I want to read are starting to accumulate in drifts that pile around Deaf and disability studies. I’m reading faculty development because that is my current work; I love it, it compels me — and yet… so does this. It’s scary, because it’s happened before. It’s always how something becomes my Next Thing.

And every time I converse with colleagues in a way that plays with this as a potential research topic (for instance, Ian and I geeked out repeatedly about the cospeech gestures of engineering students through the lens of ASL linguistics), it feels like… fire. And I could choose — again, when I am done with the dissertation and in the clear for other projects — to start pursuing it as an Actual Research Topic — and that is both a terrible and an excellent possibility.

Yes, I realize that this is an arbitrary line; the activities I’m doing and the questions I am asking might not change at all, but the labels and the framing would, and… those matter. Glassick et al note that activities done by scholars aren’t automatically scholarly (I cook dinner and make my bed, but that’s not “scholarship”). “To be considered scholarship, service activities must be tied directly to one’s special field of knowledge and relate to, and flow directly out of, this professional activity” (p. 12).

But there is overlap. I’m infuriated and energized by the lack of support for disabled faculty in higher ed culture (and America does a comparatively good job; I don’t even want to think about what would happen if I went somewhere on a Fulbright now). I’m intrigued by the pedagogical hacks of other mainstreamed engineering oral deaf kids; we independently invented so many of the same strategies, share so much empathy that it feels like a culture even if we’ve never met. Stephanie and Margaret’s idea of “disabled research methods” fits perfectly with my usage of CART for realtime transcription during research interviews. I can’t put the “classifiers for engineering cospeech gestures” ideas down; that’s haunted me for months even before Ian and I talked about it.

And yet my own ability to use classifiers is… primitive, at best. And… okay. Yeah. I pretty much outright refuse to sign outside of clearly marked “This Space Is An ASL Space” boundaries (my Deaf parish, Eric’s ASL class at MIT, the tiny weeklong microresidency bubble at Olin when Ian and Sarah came). I speak in complex English sentences while shoving my hands in my pockets, cutting out my normal tendency to gesture. I used to perform being hearing — and now that I’m not doing that, I perform fitting-into-hearing-culture. And I perform it hard, with the dial slammed past 11. And I usually know exactly what I’m doing. It’s… all right, fine, I’ll call myself deaf now, even in public. But don’t you make assumptions about what that means. Because I don’t even know myself, yet. And in the meantime, here’s the way I know best how to be.

It’s exactly the sort of terror research is good for. It’s exactly the sort of thing that the academy is missing. It’s the kind of thrust towards community (both in the academic and the Deaf world, and their overlap) that I think might help me grow. I don’t know. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe my next project will be looking at… nature-based approaches… to teaching… statics… to 2nd graders. Or… creating a rock opera score for a computer architecture musical (actually, that would be kinda cool). But maybe it will be this. Maybe.

I’m glad there’s lots of room inside that maybe.

There. That’s out. I’ll post the other stream of thoughts that have been distracting me, and then I think I can grit back into the “faculty as learners” section I’ve been struggling with since last month.

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  1. One Response to “If I post this thought I’ve been avoiding, can I start focusing again?”

  2. I love you, Mel, and I am here as you tell your story, watching the cup fill and empty.

    By Sumana Harihareswara on Jan 5, 2016

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