Posts that are engineering edu-ish

“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.


ASLCore: stress/strain curve zoom levels


This is partly a follow-up on my post on why I can’t (yet) teach engineering in ASL (short version: lack of technical vocabulary). This month, I’ve had the great pleasure and honor of working with one of the teams tackling that problem – ASLCore. I get to spend three weeks this summer working on engineering and computing vocabulary as one of their content experts; so far I’ve been there for two weeks, with a third week coming later in July. As of this writing, the first few signs have started to appear on the website — most are not there yet (we have several hundred), but Kai, our wonderful film/web guru, is working nonstop to continuously edit and add the new ones.

It’s one of the most fun jobs I’ve ever had. My role is to teach engineering and computing (the latter with my friend Ian Smith) to a team of amazing ASL masters — Deaf linguists, actors, translators, and poets — and watch them turn my fumbling non-native signs into vivid, clear, visual renderings of technical ideas. We created both signs and expansion videos of how and in what circumstances to use which sign for what concept — for instance, for signal processing, the sign for “frequency” in the time domain is different for the sign for “frequency” in the frequency domain.

Signs also need to link and flow together in ways that make them usable for visually discussing technical topics. Among other things, this means that two signs that will frequently appear together must be easy and smooth to sign together, both physically (hand shapes should be similar/efficient to transition between) and in the ways we use them to visually represent related concepts. A good example of this would be how we revised the sign we’d been using for “stress” (as in stress-strain curve) when we realized that it depicted the concept at the level you would see with the naked eye, but that all the other signs describing points on the stress-strain curve depicted what happened on the molecular level. We didn’t want to switch to the naked-eye magnification (zoom-in) level for one sign only, but have molecular-level signs for everything else; it would be confusing, similar to the effect of counting “one, two, tres, four” (counting in English and switching to Spanish only for the number “three”). Instead, we revised the sign for “stress” to fit the magnification level of the other signs in that conceptual cluster.

We also came up with naked-eye zoom-level signs for most (but not all) of the same concepts, so signers would have the option of depicting (for example) elastic deformation either at the molecular level or the level we would typically see with our own eyes in the lab or out in the world, with an object bending or stretching past the point where it ceases to spring back to its original form. (Since the molecular-level sign set was complete, but the naked-eye level sign set couldn’t be completed because of how human hands can and can’t move, the molecular-level set became the default conceptual signs, and the naked-eye set became supplementary/explanatory.)

“Stress” is also a good example of a sign that seems to have an English-ASL equivalent already, but which we wanted a technical sign for. There is a sign that’s often used as a translation for the English word “stress,” but that one word in English doesn’t always refer to the same concept — the word “stress” in English often means an emotional state, as in “to be stressed out” or “to be under a lot of pressure.” Engineering stress on a material refers to a totally different thing; the material is not psychologically freaked out by the forces applied to it, as far as I’m aware… or at least that’s not generally what we mean by that phrase in engineering. (I won’t go down the new materialist / posthumanist rabbit holes for this particular discussion.)

The ASL sign that’s often used for the English word “stress” portrays a force pushing down on a surface, so it’s a good conceptual fit for the physics concept of pressure, as in force-over-unit-area. In engineering — primarily in mechanical/materials engineering — we do talk about stress (on a material/object) with the same units as we use to discuss pressure, so our team did discuss just using the one existing sign to mean both concepts. But we ended up deciding we wanted to distinguish them, because we use the two English words (stress vs. pressure) in a different context within engineering, for different purposes — it’s the stress/strain curve, not the pressure/strain curve (the latter phrase is not allowed as a synonym for the former in English).

The translation team asked what the difference was. I had to think about it for a bit, but then explained that we often talk about pressure as being applied to an object, whereas stress in this context is more about the material that the object is made of, and we discuss much of that at the molecular level… so maybe the sign should also be portraying things at the molecular level, and then…

Anyway, you can see how we might have gotten there — and that’s just one example of the kinds of conversations we’d have throughout this process. It is fun.

The idea is that bringing together Deaf expertise in an academic field with Deaf expertise in (American) signed language will lead to — finally — linguistically, culturally, and conceptually accurate ways to express some of these ideas. We also have interpreter consultants who help us see how those signs might be used in spoken-instruction classroom situations, as well as a behind-the-scenes team doing the heavy lifting of logistics, filming, editing, annotating, and keeping the entire team happily stuffed with coffee, cheesecake, and granola bars. I can’t thank them enough for letting me be part of this.

I got a chance to try some of the new signs out with friends at the annual American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE) conference. And… and… they work. I signed an explanation of version control to a group that included non-technical ASL interpreters (who didn’t know what version control was) and technical friends (who knew what version control was, but don’t know ASL). The interpreters translated the everyday signs, and then when we got to one of the new (technical) signs, my friend Todd Fernandez blurted out — and in some cases, explained – precisely the right word to fill in the gaps. Typically, for that level of technical precision when I am signing, I have to fingerspell endlessly (and my fingerspelling is terrible) and otherwise keep on pointing to or borrowing from English. But that night, I didn’t. And it felt amazing.

I want to unpack more of these signs for my non-signing, English-reading friends so you can see a little bit of why I’m so excited by this process. More on this in my next post, where I’ll work on unpacking just a single word.


Why I can’t (yet) teach engineering in ASL


I’m a Deaf engineering professor. I want to teach my engineering college classes in ASL. This is a goal I have for the next couple decades of my engineering faculty career — to teach my way through all the core undergraduate engineering courses, plus the required undergraduate ones in my field of electrical/computer engineering (ECE) — in ASL.

Right now, this is not possible.

This might seem strange, because — I’m Deaf! I sign! I’ve taught engineering at the college level for years! But nope: being an expert at teaching a topic and being fluent in a language… does not mean you’re automatically able to teach that topic in that language. You need to be fluent in that topic, in that language.

And for that to be possible, vocabulary needs to exist. You need ways to efficiently express disciplinary concepts in the target language (in this case, ASL). Vocabulary is a key part of language; language has to be there for communication to happen; communication must happen for teaching to occur. And right now, I don’t have (good) signs for basic concepts such as “voltage,” which is an idea so fundamental that I can’t teach elementary school electronics without it, let alone college-level classes.

Now, I can (and do) teach engineering voice-off, signing, but I’m not using ASL when I do so; I’m using a signed form of English (which some people would call PSE or contact sign). I’m basically transliterating, with the occasional insertion of ASL grammar and a couple of classifiers. I’m not voicing, but you could read an entire English engineering lecture off my lips. In other words, I’m teaching in “English, with hands.”

ASL is not “English, with hands.”

We need vocabulary. We need ways to express these ideas within Deaf language and Deaf culture — ways that are efficient, that don’t require tons of expansion every time. In English, we say “voltage,” not “the electric potential difference between two points.” The latter is a definition, not a term. Similarly, I can explain voltage in ASL (perhaps as “electric pressure point point compare”), but I need a sign for the concept, and other concepts like that. If I can’t, I don’t have a professional vocabulary. It is akin to restricting technical communication to Basic English or Up Goer Five. If someone used the phrase “funny voice air” instead of “helium,” we’d figure they didn’t know what they were talking about, because there’s a word for that.

We also need ways to express these ideas within this language, not just ways to refer to the concepts as expressed in another language, as with fingerspelling. Yes, short fingerspelled words can turn into lexicalized signs, like “bank” and “OK,” and in this case perhaps “amps,” but what do we do for “semiconductor” or “bypass capacitor” — abbreviate? “SC” is already “South Carolina,” and “BC” is birth control, and I’d like to use my brain for things other than figuring out sentences like “You’ll need a BC in P to smooth the MC input V.” Or if we break the English word into components and then sign those, we get things like “tiny administrative person” for “microcontroller” (micro-controll-er). And then I flinch again, hard.

At that point, we’re just pointing to the English. If I wanted English, I would use it. I want ASL.

Every other Deaf engineer I know does this exact same thing. The moment we begin discussing technical topics, our signing shifts — hard — towards English. Perhaps we flinch a little and apologize to each other for using mouthing (and only mouthing/lipreading) to distinguish between “electric,” “battery,” and “circuit.” Perhaps we comment that, yes, signing “tolerate” (as in “to put up with, to bear”) is a poor sign for “tolerance” (permissible variation in a measured value). But we do not have other ways to do this. Not yet.

Fascinatingly enough, this has happened before — in engineering and computing and other college-level STEM fields, even — with spoken languages. There are plenty of examples of decolonizing the language of (collegiate/professional) instruction — I recently learned that Japan is doing this, for instance — but my favorite example is Hebrew and the War of the Languages. When the first Jewish (later Israeli) universities were being established, they knew that Jewish culture was amazing, and that Hebrew was a rich and beautiful language with a deep, deep history and multiple ways of expressing the concept of “God” — but no way to express the concept of “computer.”

And guess where a lot of their professors had trained? Germany. Austria. All their notes, all their books, all their training on… say, computers — they were obviously not in Hebrew, because there was no Hebrew word for “computer.” But yeah, it was a little problematic to be teaching programming… at a Jewish university… in German. And so, rather than capitulate to “eh, I guess we have to teach in German,” they built up the Hebrew language so that they could have technical discussions within it. They enriched their language and their culture instead of switching to another. This took a tremendous amount of work — many people, over many years, working to create a world where it was possible to teach computing in Hebrew. And now they have it.

That’s what I want for ASL and engineering (and computing, and technology). It’s going to take a long time. Probably the rest of my career. (“Congratulations, you’ve found a lifetime side project.”) It’s going to take a lot of collaboration with a lot of people and a lot of work and it’s never going to be done, because languages are never done. It’s going to be a lot of awkwardness and stumbling experimentation and a lot of new engineers brave enough to go out into the world not just with technical skills, but with language (ASL) to communicate those skills, and we’ll have a lot of short-term inefficiencies compared to “but why don’t you just teach it in English or signed English?” — but look: we’re going to make a world.

It does not yet exist. That’s why we need to make it.


Parents have visited, semester winding down


Freewrite/braindump/linksave.

My parents came to visit me in Rochester this weekend, which was nice – and not only because I got to eat out more than I usually do. I like how my relationship with my parents has been slowly evolving into one between adults, one of whom happens to be the child of the other two.

They came to Imagine RIT, which is a huge student (and non-student) project display festival. It’s massive. Massive. And it’s also the largest-scale interpreting setup I’ve ever seen to date — interpreters everywhere, stationed across campus, ready to walk over to whatever exhibitions needed them. Seeing DHH folks in a mix of both presenter and visitor roles was also quite nice.

I’m still navigating how to interact with groups of people when some of them know me as “a person who speaks” and the others know me as “a person who signs” — which language do I use when? — but it was also nice to watch my parents interacting (fairly smoothly!) with signing DHH people. Mostly I stood back and watched them chat with each other, but a few times I dropped in (signed) comments and it felt pretty smooth. (But generally, it would feel weird to sign to my parents through an interpreter… about as odd as if they spoke Chinese through a translator to me. The presence of other people is what allows us to use those combinations of modalities and moderations with each other.)

The semester is winding down, and I’m staring at the research projects that remain. I am quietly excited about some of them, eager to be challenged by others, and (honestly) hoping to find ways to redirect yet others towards other people as quickly as possible before I’m locked into something I don’t actually want to commit to – the work of how to say no and frame that no in ways that actually work for others. (It seems silly when I write this, but… the intellectual and emotional labor associated with that last part are tremendous sinks for me right now. Tremendous.)

I’m still trying to… maybe not “rediscover” my scholarly soul, but to keep a scrawny, struggling flame alive. I want to read things. I want to just sink into ideas and learn and think, and sometimes it feels like there’s so much friction around all of it I want to give up on it all. Still working on this.

And then random links I don’t want to lose. I found an old newsletter from Erik Kennedy about Magic Ink, which is a lovely longform piece on interface design that would probably make for a nice inflight reading at some point. And then there are the things I want to read and do, like the Chinese chicken soup recipe my mom just sent me (yep, we ate this as kids).

Okay. Back to… things. I feel like these posts are me surfacing for air and gasping; this space (online, text, long-form) is still where I can most easily breathe. And I need air, and company, in spaces where I can breathe… well.


Presenting at RIT’s Interdisciplinary STEM Ed Research Forum


I was one of the presenters yesterday at RIT’s Interdisciplinary STEM Ed Research Forum, so I’m posting my talk abstract here mostly for posterity, and because I’m too worn out at this point in the semester to say anything clever about it.

Title: Technology, Engineering, Computing, and Hacker/Maker Curricular Cultures: Alternative Universe Edition

Abstract: What is engineering? Who is a maker? What does it mean to be a technology professor? Questions like these point at the underlying ontologies of a group’s curricular culture, or their shared basic assumptions regarding teaching and learning, including how one should act, think, and feel in educational situations. My work engages with curricular cultures in postsecondary TECH (Technology, Engineering, Computing, and Hacker/Maker) education, a.k.a. “the making of people who make things.”

One aspect of this work is, quite literally, world-building and alternative universe creation. By bricolaging technical work with narrative interviews, ethnographic observations, science fiction, and the visual and performing arts, I create… not science fiction stories, but engineering (tech, computing, and hacking/making) education fiction — or rather, things that start as engineering fiction, as well as tools for making them into engineering nonfiction.

In this talk, I’ll discuss the prototyping of alternate TECH education universes and cultures with two case studies: (1) what if computer science college courses were modeled after hacker/maker community praxis? and (2) what if engineering education had been historically led by Deaf people, and hearing engineers were a minority? As with most cross-cultural encounters, seeing other possibilities for TECH cultures helps make us aware of the assumptions we’ve embedded in the discipline thus far, so we can decide what worlds we want to build going forward.


Why Deafening Engineering? Because onto(ethico)epistemologies.


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.


APA style and qualitative research methods resources in ASL


My friend Anna Murphy recently sent me St. Catherine University’s library resources on APA style — and they have ASL versions! Actual ASL with nice translations, not ”we signed the English word for word” versions. I think these are a nice high school or early-college intro for ASL users, maybe good for a first-year college seminar course. (I’ll ask Corrine Occhino about using them for ours, since this is a lovely set of matched bilingual resources.)

Joan Naturale also pointed me to an ASL companion to an introductory qualitative research methods textbook (Research and Evaluation in Education and Psychology (REEP): Integrating diversity with quantitative, qualitative, and mixed methods). ”ASL Companion,” in this case, means there are well-done chapter summaries in ASL with the blessing of the original author (Dr. Donna Mertens). This is a nice textbook, in its 4th edition from Sage, not some hastily cobbled together thing for the sake of having something signed. Good scholarship in good ASL is, sadly, scarce stuff.

This stuff is important; not only does it make these materials more accessible to those who are native users of ASL, it gives us a glimpse towards what scholarship in ASL might look like. And yes, there have been Deaf (and hearing!) researchers working on “academic ASL” for a while (and what that means is still up for debate). I’m new to the conversation and feeling my way into a world that people far smarter and wiser (and familiar with ASL and Deaf culture!) have created before me, with the hopes of contributing to it as well.

My question is: what would it look like to do this in engineering, computing, and in engineering/computing education? I’ve seen scholarship in ASL, but only for clearly ASL/Deafness related fields… signed linguistics, Deaf education, Deaf history and rights, and so on. I’ve seen stuff about ASL in other fields, but it was written in English. What does it look like to do engineering and computing work in ASL and/or in a culturally Deaf manner? What would culturally Deaf engineering look like?

And I’m pretty sure that look is a key operative word here, but it’s also going to sound like something — Deafness doesn’t mean the absence of auditory information! — and it’s also going to be a host of other things, because Deafness isn’t just about visuals; consider the DeafBlind community, consider all the tactile/kinesthetic richness of the world, consider — but I digress.

But what will Deaf Engineering (and Computing) be like? I don’t know. I’m aware that I’m continuing to write these blog posts in English, and I’m okay with that right now, so long as my actual published/presented outcomes on this front come out bilingually. In part I’m writing in English because this is my scribble pad and I’m a native English writer, and it’s what my thoughts come out most fluidly in (if I thought best in Spanish, I’d be writing in Spanish). But these kinds of resources are not just examples and resources for my future students; they’re building blocks for me of what might be, what things might look like. And I can also tell from watching them that they took tremendous amounts of work to create, so…

..examples. I leave them here as exercises for the reader.


I love the rhetoric in this guide to online conference accessibility.


Blogging things that have caught my attention, so I can close browser tabs.

This concise guide to online conference accessibility (from the Society for Cultural Anthropology) has such lovely prose. It links to a resource on in-person conference accessibility from the Society of Medical Anthropology, if you’re looking for that kind of thing as well. But — back to that prose…

In disability theory and activism… conversations about access seek to ensure that the widest swath of human variation can be a part of an activity, collectivity, or space. As a result, reflections on access bring into view unmarked forms of privilege that are built into material and technological forms.

Mmm. See that? Straightforward, incisive, and “this is what we do” rhetoric. Not wheedling, not othering those “poor disabled people” we should “help,” not painting it as some kind of charity cause or something that nice abled people do because they’re so nice. Just… okay, let’s be conscious, let’s bring the widest swath in from the start, and let’s attend to what doing so might make-visible to us. This is the rhetoric of a world where access is Already A Thing; this is the rhetoric of someone who doesn’t have to beg for a seat at the table; this is the way you speak when you are confident about how the world is, and who you are, and how we ought to be to others. let’s continue.

All speech should be at an easy-to-follow pace. No speed-reading! It’s not just inconsiderate when your remarks are too long and you rush through them; it actually excludes people from accessing what you are saying. Invite people in. Share your words and images in a way people can digest and enjoy them.

Notice the framing of “don’t you want people to understand, digest, and enjoy what you’re telling them about?” They’re framing access as something that also benefits the presenter (and it does). We don’t tell people to copyedit their writing because we assume a deficit on the part of readers; we tell people to do it because it makes their writing better and helps them communicate their idea more clearly. Of course readers would struggle to comprehend a page full of misspelled words and incomplete sentences; it’s not them, it’s the author. Of course attendees will struggle to understand rushed remarks; it’s not them, it’s the presenter. This is just… good communication practice.

The guide points at complexity without getting bogged down in discussing it (as I often do). For instance, while giving an example of how to make visual elements accessible to conference participants with non-normative vision, they discuss how “assumptions about race and ethnicity may come to the fore when you translate the visual into the verbal.” Do you describe people as “light-skinned” or “white”? What do these words mean? When do they make a difference?

Where and how do we become cautious of our desires to communicate in straightforward ways — “that’s a white woman” — and when does it become important to disrupt exactly that kind of straightforwardness? “Light-skinned, female-presenting… but we don’t know how this person identifies?” I appreciate the guide pointing at these kinds of questions, and then leaving us with this:

There is no simple answer that fits all cases, only important choices that demand reflection… The point here is to be conscious of ways that conference participants may or may not be able to access your presentation, and to create something that strives to include…

The final paragraph frames accessibility as an art of conviviality, and therefore as a way to follow the tenets of the anthropological disciplines themselves. This is a brilliant framing; “these practices are not other, they are inherent to being better at who we already are.”

Ultimately, accessibility is an art of conviviality, a means of acknowledging and incorporating disabled and nondisabled people alike. As an art of living together, it requires conscious reflection, creativity, and openness to difference. Thus, while practicing accessibility may be new to many anthropologists, its fundamental premises are at the heart of our discipline.


RIT FOSS projects: midterm praxis reflection assignment (feedback welcome!)


As part of the RIT FOSS Projects course this year, we are having students write a substantial mid-term reflection on praxis. Here’s the current version of the assignment – feedback welcome, of course! (For Spring 2018 students: both this version of the assignment and any edited/updated versions are acceptable for submission – you can choose which you’d prefer to do.)

Your praxis reflection consists of answers to the following questions, submitted to MyCourses in English and/or ASL in any format readable by your instructors (.txt, .odt, .pdf, .doc, and links to signed videos are all safe; ask about other options and we’re likely to say yes).

This reflection should be several pages long and reflect substantial amounts of thinking; it has the same point value as a two-week project sprint. Only you and your instructors will see your answers to these questions. Grading is 5% for each of the 18 mandatory questions, plus 10% for spelling, grammar, clarity of writing, etc.

You will be scored on the quality of your reflection, not the behavior you are reflecting on (i.e. a thoughtful analysis of “in hindsight, I really messed up” will get a high grade, whereas simply saying “I did well” without explaining what you did well and why will get a low grade).

  1. In 1-3 sentences, summarize your overall project, as you currently understand it. This summary should reflect your evolving understanding of your project, FOSS contributions, and feedback from classmates/instructors so far.

  2. How has the summary above changed from the summary in your initial/simple project proposal (or, if you switched projects, the first time you summarized/presented it to the class)? Why/why not? What feedback and/or learning experiences have informed your writing of the current version? (minimum 3 sentences)

  3. What have you learned about your FOSS community and its culture and health, and/or individual contributors you’ve been interacting with so far this semester, and how does that affect your project plans for the rest of the semester? (minimum 3 sentences)

  4. What have you learned about your intended end-users so far this semester, and how does that affect your project plans for the rest of the semester? (minimum 3 sentences)

  5. Are your goals clearly defined (is it unambiguous whether you’ve achieved them or not), do you regularly measure your progress against them, and do you recalibrate them as new situations come up? Why or why not? (minimum 3 sentences)

  6. Are you using existing tools, libraries, and knowledge from others whenever possible, instead of reinventing the wheel? Why or why not? (minimum 3 sentences)

  7. How are you choosing tools? If some of them are new to you, are you giving yourself adequate time to learn them? Are you investing in tools and practices up-front that will make your life easier later on (i.e. automation of test/build infra, documenting as you go, etc.) Why or why not? (minimum 3 sentences)

  8. How are you getting feedback on your community contributions and/or development products, and from whom? Are these the right people? Why or why not? (minimum 3 sentences)

  9. How are you planning for the future in terms of making it possible for you and/or others to continue using or building on your work? Why or why not? (minimum 3 sentences)

  10. Rate yourself 0-5 on the following (0 = whoops, 5 = amazing), and give a 1-3 sentence explanation for each rating. Ratings are about you individually, not your team as a whole.

    1. Clarity of goals

    2. Technical progress towards goals

    3. Leaving a trail (code commenting, documentation, blogging, issue tracker usage, etc.)

    4. Engaging your users

    5. Engaging your FOSS community

    6. Adapting as things change

    7. Other (optional, please specify)

  11. What qualities does a good FOSS contributor and/or teammate have? List at least 3, with rationale for each. (Ex: “A good FOSS contributor/teammate is X, because Y.”) there is not a canonical right/wrong list; we are interested in seeing how you are thinking, not whether you guess the “correct” list of qualities.

  12. If you have teammates: how do you feel about the way your current team is working together? If you are working alone: who have you engaged with regarding your project so far, both within class and outside of it, and how do you think these engagements have been going? Be specific and give examples (ex: “we can resolve disagreements quickly; for example, last Tuesday we were debating whether to do X or Y…”) (minimum 5 sentences regardless of which option you choose.)

  13. What qualities do good development and/or learning goals have? List at least 3, with rationale for each. (Ex: “A good development/learning goal is X, because Y.”) Again, there is not a canonical right/wrong list.

  14. We acknowledge your goals can and should keep changing as your project progresses, but what are your current development and learning goals for:

    1. Sprint 3? (minimum 5 sentences or bullet points)

    2. Sprint 4? (minimum 2 sentences or bullet points)

    3. Sprint 5? (minimum 2 sentences or bullet points)

  15. What is the most unexpected or surprising thing you’ve learned about contributing to FOSS projects so far this semester? (minimum 3 sentences)

  16. What is the most unexpected or surprising thing you’ve learned about yourself so far this semester? (minimum 3 sentences)

  17. What is the one thing you could do this semester that would have the biggest impact on your approach to this course / your ability to contribute to a FOSS community / your development as a professional? (minimum 3 sentences)

  18. How will you approach the remaining sprints this semester differently than the sprints you have done so far, and why? (minimum 3 sentences)

  19. (Optional.) Any notes for us on how to run this class next year? We’re interested both in things we should keep/do again, and things we should do differently.

  20. (Optional.) Anything else we should know?