Why Deafening Engineering? Because onto(ethico)epistemologies.

March 12, 2018 – 10:35 pm

Continuing to write my way through things I’m finding/reading/sorting that help me think about some of the scholarship I want to do.

While we were roommates for the CUR Dialogues conference, Corrine Occhino introduced me to the work of Julie Hochgesang, who does sign language linguistics: phonology, documentation, etc. and tons of other things. I’d been trying to figure out analysis tools for video data, as opposed to making everything a text transcript and analyzing from that. Unsurprisingly, signed linguistics does that kind of thing, and Julie is the author of a guide for using ELAN – which itself is a FOSS (GPL2/GPL3) project for annotating audio and/or video data. Chaaaaaaamp.

And then there’s Georgetown’s recent EdX release of a course on sign language linguistics (structure, learning, and change).

And then there’s Allan Parsons’ notes on Karen Barad’s work on ontoepistemology. (Or onto-ethico-epistemology, I suppose, since the ethical dimension is inextricable, at least according to Barad.) And Annemarie Mol’s brief but reference-dense guide to the ontological turn.

“What the…” you say. “Mel, these have nothing to do with each other. I thought you were doing Deaf Engineering stuff, so what’s with all the weird philosophical…”

“On the contrary,” I say. “Deaf Engineering is a case study; it’s an example of the kind of work I want to do — not the end goal of all my research.”

I’m interested in engineering and computing education ontologies. (Okay, fine, ontoepistemologies.) (Okay, fine, onto-ethico-epistemologies. Happy now?)

See, the reason I’m interested in Deaf Engineering Education — or perhaps the more active verb form, “Deafening Engineering Education” — is because of what it can help us make visible about onto(ethico-epistemo)logies of engineering (education). The phrase “Deafening Engineering (Education),” by the way, takes after Rebecca Sanchez‘s book title, “Deafening Modernism,” where she does the same thing to modernist literature, exploring it “from the perspective of Deaf critical insight.”

It doesn’t have to be Deaf engineering (and computing) education. It could be FOSS/hacker/maker engineering and computer education, a space I’ve also published and worked in. It could be feminist engineering (and computing) education, as Smith College, SWE, Grace Hopper, Anita Borg, the Ada Initiave, and others have explored. It could be engineering education as a liberal (and fine!) arts approach, which is how I’d describe some (but not all!) of Olin College’s take on it. It could be Black engineering education, which I’m curious about as it’s brought forth in HBCUs as well as NSBE (but know very little about myself). It could be Native/indigenous engineering education, which Michele Yatchmeneff and others are exploring. It could be queering engineering education, cripping engineering education, Blinding engineering (and specifically computing) education; it could be…

Here’s the thing about all of these approaches, all of these worlds: by bringing to light other ways we could or might have conceived of engineering, brought it into being, engaged it as a practice — it makes us aware of all of the assumptions we’ve embedded in the discipline thus far. Why do we typically assume that engineers are White (or can act White)? Why do we (again, typically) assume that engineers are hearing (or can interface with the hearing world)? Why do we assume… what do we assume? What else might we assume?

I am so glad for the recent widespread success of the Black Panther film, because the wide-eyed audience reaction to Shuri’s lab and Wakanda’s technology is such a great example of what I’m aiming for. That look into a different world; that plunge into a universe of possibilities, that opening-up. I want to do… not quite science-fiction, but engineering fiction, or things that start as engineering fiction, so that we might make those into engineering not-fiction. To look at these worlds and learn from them and learn how it is that they understand and articulate themselves.

Ontologies. Plural. What is, what might have been, what might yet be. This is a pretty stark contrast to ontology engineering, which is a different (and more engineering/computing-native) approach to the notion of ontology. Ontology engineering is an attempt to document the singular, rather than embrace the tensions of the multiple. Both have their place, but one has been more dominant in engineering/computing thought than the other, and unconsciously so — the same way most STEM researchers are working within a post-positivist paradigm, but don’t (yet) know it.

So why all the Deaf/ASL resources?

Well… it’s a rethinking of the world, and one that’s taken place within a lot of living memory (and one that happens to be extraordinarily accessible to me). The past several decades have seen an explosion into the public sphere of a radical rethinking of what ASL is, what Deafness is, and what all these things could be. We’ve gone from “it’s not really a language, it’s a system of crude gestures” and “what a terrible disability” to… something that’s exploded our notions of what language is and how it works. And linguistics had to figure out and built analysis tools and systems that could work with signed languages. A rapid turn-about between “what would this even look like?” to “maybe it looks like this, or this, or…this?” because… people… made it.

And then came the (again, radical!) idea that ASL could be used as an academic language, just like one might use English (or earlier, French… or German… or Latin…) as an academic language of instruction — and then publication. What does it mean to publish in a signed language? Again, there was no existing answer. So people made one. And then things like: what would an ASL-based software interface look like? We didn’t know. And then ASLClear came out as one answer.

That’s why I’m looking at these resources. Because I see in them a making of a world; the figuring-out and birthing of things that have never existed before. They happen to be Deaf; it happens to be a very, very good example for me to look at right now — but it’s the process of the birth of worlds and universes that thrills me, and I want to look across worlds at the process of that birthing.

You see that? Do you see why I’m excited by this, why I love it, why I see it as so much bigger than just “Deaf Stuff In Engineering?” It’s what Deaf Engineering (and queer engineering, and Hispanic engineering, and…) points to. We don’t know, it doesn’t exist… (see the ontoepistemology in there? the knowing, and the being?) – and then we make it. And we find out what things might be possible. And the ethics inherent in that (re)creation of the world — what and who does our making and remaking let in, who does it keep out? — that’s where it gets ontoethicoepistemological. Nothing is value-neutral; nothing is apolitical. And nothing on this earth is going to be perfectly fair and universal and utopian; let’s not pretend it is; let’s be aware of our own footfalls in these spaces that we share.

I am so afraid of writing about this, thinking about it, letting it be known I’m interested in things that include the words “Deaf” and “ASL” and “engineering” in it, because — as I mentioned in a previous blog post — these kinds of things can be oversimplified and totalizing to one’s scholarly identity, to how others describe and understand one’s work. It’s really important to me that I not get pigeonholed into “just” doing Deaf Engineering Things. Because there’s so much more out there. There’s so much, and I want to see and play within it, too.

But this is where I want to play, and this is where I want to learn and create things and be challenged and in dialogue. And I need access to these first few worlds I play in, so that I can spend my energies on playing and figuring out the mechanics of how world-building works, rather than on hard labor trying to glimpse the snatches of it that I can. And so my first two are open source (since so much of that world takes place in text, where I am about as native as anyone can get) and then Deafness (since I can learn my way into a strange new world where things are visually accessible by default).

I’m hoping that those two will teach me enough between them (or across them) that I’ll be able to branch out to others, someday. Maybe years from now. Probably years. The other spaces will likely be less accessible to me in terms of communication, but I’ll have learned; just as I’m trailing open source practices and philosophies into Deaf Engineering (and computing) spaces with me (see: this blog post, wherein I think out loud / release earlier and more often), I will probably trail Deaf communication and accessibility practices into whatever world I go into after that.

But there will be worlds after that. This isn’t my final one.

Okay. Onwards. Again. Keep thinking and keep writing. I feel so hesitant doing this, but also brave in ways I haven’t felt in a long while.

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