Posts that are engineering edu-ish

The CAT Lab Abstract Sorting Hat, Version 0.1


Another post based on stuff I came up with for my lab on the spur of the moment. I know I’m probably reinventing many wheels here, but one reason I’m posting this is so that when I stumble back across wheels others have made later on, I can bring mine out to play as well.

Last week, I had the pleasure of embarking on a spontaneous research discussion with several undergraduate students in our lab (and oh my gosh, everyone, it’s really fun to sign about research because of how much you can play with space*). For context: our lab has historically built things, and publishing papers on the things we build is a fairly new concept. The students are working (some for the first time) on poster abstracts for an upcoming conference, and one had asked for feedback on their draft. I realized it was a teaching moment, rounded up everyone who wasn’t busy, and proceeded to do a group-run workshopping of the first student’s abstract (which, by the way, is a clever museum access system that I’m pretty eager to see written up).

In this particular moment, I realized that the biggest gains were to be had in helping the student realize what they had already said. There were some great ideas in the first draft — in fact, most of what they needed was already there. The trouble was that it was all jumbled up; context trailed into conclusion with a detour through a sentence full of technology-related acronyms. So I made a quick reference to Common Things Your Abstract Might Be Trying To Do, a.k.a. The CAT Lab Abstract Sorting Hat (below) and we went sentence by sentence through the current draft, sorting each bit into its respective house(s) — I mean, uh… sections.

I apologize for the Harry Potter metaphor, but it could have been worse. (Contextpuff! Problemdor!) Examples are paraphrases from our discussion today — I’ve removed details so as to not ruin surprises for their eventual publication.

The CAT Lab Abstract Sorting Hat, Version 0.1

1. Context. What is the situation you are designing within? Start with things your audience will recognize. (Example from today: Museums often include audio-recorded or live spoken-language tours to teach visitors about the history and context of the exhibits they are viewing.)

2. Problem. What is the challenge you are addressing? Be conscious of how you frame the problem, especially if you are working with access-related technologies. (Example: Deaf and hard-of-hearing (DHH) visitors to museums don’t have the same level of access to spoken/audio-recorded tour information. In our framing, it is important that the problem is not that we are DHH, it is that museums have not considered visual access and have therefore left out DHH audiences.)

3. Prior work. What have you and others done in the past to address the problem? What work are you building upon?

4. New work. What is the new contribution you are describing in this specific publication? (Example: our lab has built device A to address problem B; in this paper we describe the new features we just added, namely C and D.)

5. Technical details (optional). if you are utilizing specific technologies that you would like to note, they go after #4 (which describes what the solution does). In the context of a lab full of excited engineering/CS undergrads, I added a note that oftentimes, these details are not important for the abstract compared to what we might usually be inclined to put down.

6. Implications / “so what” / (ASL:for-for)? Why is your work important – what could it change? What would happen if the problem you described in #2 was solved? Be as specific as possible (“allow native ASL users to study STEM topics using their native language” is better than “helps DHH students learn”).

End of the CAT Lab Abstract Sorting Hat, Version 0.1

It’s wonderful to watch students just… be around the lab, working on things. As someone who didn’t get to grow up in this (American Deaf) culture or with this language (ASL), I’m learning a lot from them in just… how to… be. People. Who sign. About engineering. I wonder if this is how new Olin faculty feel, landing as teachers inside a culture they were never students within.

*regarding playing with space to discuss research: even if we weren’t getting into the actual content of our papers, the papers themselves lent themselves to spatial setup. The relative lengths and positions of paragraphs and sections (with accompanying facial expressions denoting emotions about various parts), cutting and pasting and twiddling phrasings and words – I’ve thought about editing spatially even before I learned to sign, but watching students (who are more fluent signers than I am) basically collaboratively editing a document in their shared imagination in mid-air — man, that was pretty cool.


Lab research setup email: creating Zotero accounts


I like sharing reusable text I come up with. In this case, part of setting up research infrastructure for my lab includes getting everyone into a citation management system and giving us a way to share reading notes. I don’t have anything against EndNote or Mendeley (and may someday switch, if massive advantages become apparent), but this email is written for Zotero.

Hi, folks – you should have invitations to create Zotero accounts. The only action item you need to take now is following that link and creating an account, which should take a few minutes. You can safely ignore the rest of this email right now, but read on if you want more information/context.

Zotero is a reference management system. It’s useful for keeping track of reading notes and bibliographic information (which we’ll need for our references section every time we write a paper). Other systems include Endnote and Mendeley; there’s no huge advantage of one over the other, but Zotero is (1) familiar to the librarians at RIT and (2) something I already have a lot of notes in, so I’m starting us out with this.

Zotero is free and open source. When you create an account, you’ll probably be prompted to download and install the Zotero browser extension. I prefer to use the standalone desktop software, but that’s your choice.

Right now, the group library is empty. That will change as I begin writing the literature reviews for our ASEE papers. Feel free to add any citations of your own, and/or to start your own individual Zotero libraries (mine is huge; as I find things in it that may be useful to CAT as a whole, I will copy them into the group folder as well).

I have my own conventions for taking notes in Zotero in ways that are easy to write papers from later  – if you really want to, you can read about it here (http://blog.melchua.com/2015/01/28/how-i-use-zotero-to-take-research-reading-notes/) but I am also happy to show you my system any time we sit down to work together.

Here’s to better research infrastructure!

–Mel


Things that have made me happy lately: qual methods companion resource in ASL, my upcoming review of wake-up systems


These are random things that have made me happy today.

The first is that there is an ASL companion to a qualitative research methods textbook (focused on education and psychology, to boot!) I am already fascinated by the design and translation choices they have made in figuring out what it even means to have an ASL qual methods textbook… how multiple signers in the introduction switch between freezing in black and white when it’s not their turn, and becoming full-color and in-motion when it is, so your eye immediately knows who it’s following. How they’ve translated the phrase “chapter author” not as [chapter write-person], but rather as [chapter sign-person] — “they who have signed the chapters” rather than “they who have written down text for the chapters,” because the “text” is in ASL. These little subtle things that tell you that… yes, this is another culture; this is a different world. (Or in my framing: this is an alternate ontology.

Second is that I am giving my portion of a technology review lecture series (1) on ASL and (2) with a fairly decent dose of snarky humor. My topic? “Wake-up systems for DHH sleepers.” I plan to cover…

  • Cheap Hacks for People With Residual Hearing: makeshift and wholly mechanical scoop and rattle amplifiers for phones (put them on big hard hollow things or in cones made of hard materials… like hotel ice buckets!) Also, reasons why these setups may not be the greatest for smartphone users and/or profoundly deaf deep sleepers like myself.
  • Sonic Alert’s Sonic Boom, which emits ear-splitting shrieks at modifiable frequencies, flashes lights (or rather, intermittently turns on and off power to an electrical outlet embedded into its side), and rumbles a bed-shaker. (And, in high school when I had it close to my CRT monitor, it degaussed my monitor. Anyone want to check out a cute little EMP source?) Also, a brief overview of the sleep cycle, and how this device, while highly effective at actually waking one up, is terrible for waking one up pleasantly.
  • Philips Wake-Up Light: awesome, but expensive-ish, and… let’s talk about the usability of the physical design, shall we? (And the choice of bird sounds as the wake-up recording, which… to me, are setting options of “silence,” “other silence,” and “more different silence.”)
  • Philips Hue system as a cheaper and more hack-ish way to replicate some of the functionality of the wake-up light

Gotta work on my content, draft, translate, and rehearse this. It’ll be fun.


Reading effectively: how my practice evolved from engineer to scholar


I came across Reading Effectively via a tweet by Sara Hendren (thanks, Sara!) and it spurred me to reflect on how I read as a scholar, how I have learned to read, and how I want to continue developing these skills both for myself and those I mentor/teach. Specifically, I’m writing from the perspective of someone who was trained in a STEM field (electrical/computer engineering) and then worked in tech before returning to academia and being plunged into the world of theory.

I thought I mostly knew how to read “theory” when I started grad school. After all, I would read non-technical books (!!!) from fields like anthropology (!!! look at how cross-disciplinary I’ve become!!!) and they would kinda make sense, you know? Maybe it was slow and hard and I had to look up some words on Wikipedia, but… fundamentally, I thought I kinda got it. Wasn’t hard. I mean, I was an engineer. I just… needed to read more stuff.

Now I am pretty sure I don’t know how to “read theory,” and am fumbling my way through complex webs of thought that are larger than what my brain will ever be able to hold. It’s fun. It’s grueling. I love it. And my reading as a scholar is very different from the way I learned to read as an engineer.

There are a lot of similarities. In engineering school (and then at work), I learned that sometimes, reading was slow and hard. Whether it was code, documentation, a technical paper, or a detailed email, sometimes you had to pick through and parse, and backtrace, and look up things that were being referred to (what was that code library for, again?) and sometimes the history of things was important because this part was compatible with an earlier version of thing X, not the current version. I learned that speed was not a metric of success; I learned that sometimes, wrestling with my reading yielded fruit I’d never seen on the first skim through it. I learned to keep an eye out for boundaries and limitations (

I learned that speed was not a metric of success; I learned that sometimes, wrestling with my reading yielded fruit I’d never seen on the first skim through it. I learned to keep an eye out for boundaries and limitations; this device was only tested up to such and such a speed, this wiki page was last updated N months ago and surely the codebase has evolved since then… nobody has done A, or B, or C, and so I could contribute there. These are all useful patterns I continue to employ as a junior scholar.

However, my reading as an engineer (that’s what I’m going to call it for now, since that’s what I was at the time, although this isn’t how all engineers read nor how engineers have to read) is, at its core, different from the reading I do as an engineer-who-is-a-scholar… and specifically, who has spent time in more social-science and arts and humanities environments and methodologies and discourses, and who is super aware that she is still learning it as a new and unfamiliar world.

Here’s the difference.

As an engineer, I was working hard to figure out what the text meant, and this was a task that I could do. Because there was a meaning — singular — to be extracted. The author had thought of a math proof, noted it carefully down, published it, and now I had that in my hands and my task was to… unzip the file, so to speak — unpack and install the archive of their thought into my brain, perhaps adapt it slightly to its new environment. And later I could build upon it. But as a reader, my task was fundamentally to understand the thing (singular) that the author said. And oh, maybe that thing they said had been built-upon later, superseded, whatever… but if so, it would be a fairly simple historical march of continuous improvement towards… uh… I don’t know. Betterness!

Now, as a junior scholar… I’m still working hard, but I’m now trying to get glimpses of what the text could mean. To whom, and how, and why… and where, and how it could mean different things, and which meanings I wanted to pull out and relate to, and how things I did and said and wrote could open different possibilities for what the text could mean. Writing is part of reading. Discussing is part of reading. Breaking from the page in frustrated exhaustion, slumping into a friend’s couch, and having a random thought strike me differently while staring at their bookshelf over dinner… also part of reading.

This is not a finite task; this is not a task that I can do in the sense of completing it and being-done — but it is a practice that I can engage in, and it is a practice that mandates socialization. In my engineering-model of reading, reading-with-others was a means to sometimes get to the same end point (understanding the author) faster, but if I were smart enough and had enough time, I could do exactly the same thing alone. In my current junior-scholar-model of reading, reading-with-others is fundamentally different from reading alone. My interactions with others become part of the text we work with (yes, yes, you can make jokes about this); any “end points” I come up with are decisions I’ve made (I will stop because we’re going to submit this paper; we will stop when the semester ends etc.) — and they’re less periods than semicolons, pauses that can be picked up again at any time in the future, whether we do or not.

The article that spurred these thoughts seems to speak to the latter kind of reading, seems to assume that — well, yes, that is the kind you’re doing. But for some fields, that’s not how scholarly reading works. That’s not our practice. Maybe for good reasons, too (if the end goal is “make the device run, NOW,” you may not need to exhume the racial context of the time period during which the documentation was written in order to accomplish it). To someone with a different disciplinary practice of reading, this article feels really, really weird. And I’ve had to learn my way into it, and I will constantly be learning my way into it — I’m old enough now that new things I encounter will never become my “native” ways of being; even if the new ways become more dominant, I’ll always have had a practice (or absence thereof) for that thing before.

And the people I will teach and mentor into scholarly reading will, by and large, also be non-natives — just because of age and experience, since I teach college students, faculty… not tiny ones. And so I will be conscious of that, when I teach people how to read, and as I keep on working on my own practice. I’m not from here; I can’t assume I know; don’t get complacent, stay awake.


Playing with O*NET visualizations for degree program proposals


Edit: Found it! Paul Ingemi located the corresponding “this is for programmers!” website, which I have no idea how I overlooked. But onetcenter.org has everything for download in different db formats. Yesssss.

I’m working on a small project involving how to propose new STEM-related degree programs, and wanted to jot down this resource and think-aloud about my attempts to understand how I might use it.

The Department of Labor has a website front-end for O*NET, a database with information about jobs. Job outlooks (is this field expected to grow, etc.?) are one of the pieces of information, number of people in that industry, and other stats I expected to see — but then others I hadn’t thought of, such as “which skills does this job require?”

That last bit allows comparisons of easy lateral moves — if you’re trained in career A, and want to switch, what professions are most similar (but may not be in an obviously similar industry)? For instance, it seems logical to me that a truck driver would also probably be a good train operator, but I wouldn’t have thought they would be using skills similar to an explosives worker… but okay, yes, big risky pieces of equipment that you have to operate… yes.

This NYT article on career-switching has interactive visualizations that play with the O*NET data. I can’t immediately figure out how — there’s no source code or obvious API on the O*NET side. I wonder how easy it would be to hook to the database, or even scrape it if need be (but that seems silly; there ought to be an interface — at the same time, that doesn’t mean there actually is one). I wonder how we might use this information to think about how to choose new degree programs to start.

For instance, we could look at popular degree programs that cannot possibly accept all of the students that apply, and find skill-adjacent careers to try and expand the number of things students with similar interests can go into (if expanding existing degree programs is not an option). We could screen potential new programs not only by job growth outlook, but by lateral move possibilities – what sorts of degrees will give students the widest range of options if they want to do something different post-graduation, or make it easier to switch majors before graduation? (Engineering degrees are notoriously bad for switching-into from another major, since they require so many specific prerequisite course chains.)

So there’s that one question on my mind — what might we do with this data if we could play with it? And then there’s the second question, which is: how might we (on a technical level) play with it?

The O*NET website doesn’t have a listed API that I can find. I cannot figure out how to directly query the data, short of going all Ryan Mitchell on it and scraping the heck out of a lot of pages. This seems extremely silly. Maybe I’m missing something. But when Sebastian and I looked (thanks for sanity-checking me, Sebastian!) there wasn’t any indication how the NYT piece pulled data from the O*NET database to make the visualizations. We suspect it may be a case of “we threw programmer-hours at the problem” as opposed to “this dataset was easy to manipulate.”

So as to not wander down rabbit holes, I’ve messaged the article authors asking if there’s an easy way to learn more about their methodology. And then… onwards, to working on degree program proposals. Ah, research life.


Book braindumps: E. D. Hirsch, Jr. – Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs To Know


Once upon a time in grad school, I wrote memos on the stuff I read. This post is about a book by E. D. Hirsch, Jr., written in 1988 (it shows) and titled “Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs To Know.”

The phrases “Every American” and “needs to know” immediately sensitize me to an epistemological, homogenous, and nationalistic orientation — there’s knowledge out there, and everybody within the boundaries of this country ought to know that same knowledge. There are some pretty big assumptions in these kinds of statements, but — okay, let’s see what these assumptions might take us! There’s certainly some nifty prospects in them.

And sure enough, before we even leave the preface, Hirsch reminds us that e pluribus, unum. “[C]ultural conservatism is useful for the purposes of national communication. It enables grandparents to communicate with grandchildren, southerners with midwesterners, whites with blacks, Asians with Hispanics, and Republicans with Democrats — no matter where they were educated.” (p. xii)

I do think this is a valid argument. Shared knowledge does enable communication. However, it doesn’t ensure it — and a huge, explicit, deliberately shared corpus of knowledge certainly isn’t required for it; you can bootstrap and figure out from remarkably few things. One of my fondest memories of World Youth Day in Krakow was meeting a Deaf young man from Germany who knew as much ASL as I knew DGS (German sign language), which is to say… basically none. Over the course of one long evening, lit by flashlights and cell phones in a grassy field (we were camping), we slowly pieced together enough for conversation. Typing, gesturing, pointing, going back and forth… it worked. I watched more skilled signers from many different nations work out things with a fluency that stunned me; creoles were assembled as if from thin air (actually from lots of experience and expertise), as bits and patches of people knowing some of each others’ languages came together and jumped into making common ground where previously there was very little.

Actually, yes. That’s it. You don’t need to preload people with lots of common knowledge. You can co-create knowledge together in the moment, too. I’m not knocking a good educational background — it helps, it’s important, it does smooth communication and enable a richness of understanding — but it is not a hard prerequisite for what is happening here.

Onwards.

“To be culturally literate is to possess the basic information needed to thrive in the modern world.” (p. xiii)

Oh boy. Unpacking that in the context of each (curricular) culture is loaded. I mean, yes, arguably… in most of the world, learning dominant culture things are needed to thrive, but it takes so much energy if you’re not already a fully accepted prestige-level member of that dominant culture.

Also, I don’t fully understand why this book has two prefaces. One is for the “vintage edition,” and the book I hold in my hands from the Fox Branch Cambridge Public Library is the vintage edition from Random House… maybe there was another, non-vintage, Random House edition… but there was also maybe an earlier book titled “What Literate Americans Know” published by Houghton Mifflin and with additional authors Joseph Kett and James Trefil? Librarians, help me!

On pages 10-12, Hirsch recaps a talk by Orlando Patterson. In that talk, Patterson argues that that cultural literacy was a prerequisite for a person, especially a minority person, to hold power. Patterson points out that cultural literacy is not “socially neutral” — it works towards a society based on merit.

So, first of all: I do appreciate that Patterson (and Hirch) acknowledge this is not socially neutral. (Nothing is.) But also, as a STEM practitioner… this is the myth of meritocracy that’s so endemic in my field. It’s the notion that if we are to have equality of power across currently disparate groups, the minorities better catch up and do all the majority things, which they can, because it’s a meritocracy open to all, right?

And there are many good things to this view! I do think there are some majority-culture tools and structures that can be profoundly helpful — libraries and written information access, colleges and the notion of higher education and scholarships to help people get there, no longer barring people from specific paths of study because of race or gender or nationality or disability or… (well, theoretically no longer barring them, anyway) so that people can get the same information…

But it’s not just about the same information. The majority cultures also need to learn and shift their literacies to be broader and more flexible, or we perpetuate colonialism. I mean, isn’t this asking for minorities to think like the dominant group? Or is it the start of the argument that you need to get into a system in order to really change it, unless you light a powder keg fuse? I think of Audre Lorde’s statement that the master’s tools can never dismantle the master’s house. I’m not sure how to interpret the broader context of that statement, and whether I agree or not. More thinking here to do.

On page 30-31, Hirsch points out that rote learning isn’t bad; lots of cultures require children to rote-learn many things (religious ceremonies, etc.) as a way of passing on “the weight of human tradition across many cultures.”

And I think: is this why I like new fields, where these things are still forming? Is this also something inflected by access for me, where I can build in access from the ground up in the things that I help to create — and don’t need to catch up in a massive, thick world built for people who aren’t like me?

My inner critical theorist comes out again some pages later, on p. 136, when Hirsch talks about building the list of “what all Americans should know” with his team. Basically, how did they know they got the list right-enough? They asked people, and they agreed.

“In consulting others about our initial list we did in fact discover a strong consensus about the significant elements in our core literate vocabulary. My colleagues and I were not surprised at this agreement, but we were gratified to find that the consensus did indeed exist far beyond our narrow circle and extended to educated Americans of different ages, sexes, races, and ethnic origins.” (p. 136)

Seems simple enough on the surface, but… I want to say, instead, that this extends to literate Americans of all types that have learned to act like cishet middle-class abled white dudes, etc. Also, who wants to bet the colleagues putting this together were largely fitting that description?

Basically, you’re working with the definitions of cultural literacy as the power dynamics currently prescribe it, so there would be some agreement because there’s some stability to that. Now, going critical on this: who has decided what is in and out, and who gets to learn it? These are the sorts of engineering epistemology questions we’re starting to raise in engineering education research with a critical turn. (For instance, why indigenous building knowledge isn’t valued as engineering knowledge, etc.)

I’m being unfair to Hirsch a bit, though. It was 1988. And they do acknowledge their positionality and the social construction of knowledge.

On page 136: “We do not claim that the initial list is definitive… its design must be somewhat arbitrary for mechanical reasons alone. Further words that literate people associate with individual items could be represented by further entries… We therefore had to rely on our own experience and judgment in deciding what is central and what is subordinate in compiling such a list.”

They also have a lovely bit shortly thereafter on how any bounds they put around the “things Americans should know” are inevitably going to be arbitrary, since knowledge connects and at some point you need to figure out how far you’re going to go down the rabbit hole.

Alright, I made a braindumping blog post! Awesome. My formal reading notes have far more depth and detail, but blogging out loud about the things I’m reading helps me think… and I have missed being here, doing this kind of writing. I’ve been a little burnt out with scholarly writing, honestly. And I’ve also worried that, now that I’m starting to think about becoming faculty instead of a student only, this will seem “unprofessional.” But… faculty have messy early thoughts, too. And it’s okay for people to see that. When I publish, when I submit to conferences and books and journals… I do refine things more, put order to them — but this is a stage of thinking, too. And I do love it, and love sharing it, so… here we go. This is part of who I am as a scholar, too.


Dissertation defense slides and transcript now available (help me find a better way to publish it?)


(Edit: separate image descriptions now added to all slides, erectile in addition to the visual information that’s been embedded in the transcript from the start – thanks to Christian Vogler and Sina Bahram for feedback and ongoing learning on how to make things more accessible to others.)

Slides and a lightly edited transcript of my dissertation defense are now available online in full, approved for those who have been asking.

The slides alone don’t make much sense — but the transcript (in the speaker notes) describes all the images and diagrams, so the transcript alone should actually make sense. The transcript also includes the audience questions, with the audience members anonymized.

I’m struggling a bit on how to publish this online in a reasonable way, and would love feedback/suggestions. But for right now:

  1. You can go straight to the slide deck (look at the speaker notes!) at this google slides link, though I doubt that’s a good long-term hosting solution for this content… so that link may stop working at some point in the future. I also have no idea how this works with screenreaders (edit: but the notes have full image descriptions now.)
  2. You can also download a PDF that has the slides and transcript (edit: and image descriptions), and this is likely the easiest way to read it. However, it’s a format that’s hard to modify, and again — I don’t know how various screenreaders will treat it. (I need to up that portion of my accessibility game.)
  3. Slides are embedded below, and if you click on them, they will open up full-screen. Then you can click on the gear icon in the bottom-left, then “speaker notes” to view the speaker notes — or type ‘s’ as a keyboard shortcut.

Everything is creative-commons licensed (image credits are in the notes) and the deck itself is licensed CC-BY-SA, which means you can share as long as you give credit, and you can remix/use this work as long as you cite it and release your own work under similar conditions. If you honor those conditions, you don’t need to ask me for permission — just go ahead and do it. If you want to use the work under different conditions, contact me.


Curricular principle: being as well as knowing


This is the first post of a series on Olin’s curricular culture principles (draft versions!) which is my attempt to bring transparency into the work I’m doing with Tess Edmonds (‘11) and others. The short backstory is that Olin gets a lot of visitors from other institutions — mostly faculty — who want to learn how to do “what we do.” This requires us to articulate “how we do things around here” — in other words, allergist our curricular culture — to talk about not just the surface-level features of our practice (“students work on teams!”) but the underlying principles that manifest in those surface-level formats. You can find all the posts in this series here.

A note before beginning: I’m writing this for an audience of fellow Oliners, and while I’ve tried to unpack acronyms and terms, I may be missing some. Let me know in the comments if there are things I need to unpack more, and I’ll edit accordingly.

The first principle I’m going to unpack is: learning is about being a practitioner, not just knowing about practice. As Rick Miller has said, Olin students learn to become engineers rather than learning about engineering.

This might seem obvious, but it isn’t. In the engineering education research world, we talk a lot about engineering epistemologies[1], which is the fancy word for “the study of engineering knowledge.” What is engineering knowledge, who decides what this knowledge is, how do we help people obtain it, and so forth? Similarly, when engineering faculty sit down to teach a course, they often talk about what students need to know, what they already know, how to help them acquire this new knowledge; it’s focused on the things students will learn about.

Without this principle, we end up talking a lot about the things students know, but not a lot about the people students are, except perhaps in a diversity-and-inclusion context. Even then, it’s usually in the context of how who they are affects the way they come to know — comments like “well, students from low-income communities tend to come in with less exposure to programming” or “how can we help women become more confident while learning how to use the machine shop?” However, we can’t separate knowledge and being/reality — it’s impossible to know something without there being a reality to know, and without being someone in that reality who can know[2].

This principle of “being as well as knowing” is not well developed throughout most of the engineering education world — including Olin (we don’t always do this perfectly). A lot of engineering educators focus on assessing and developing what students know about engineering. In order to adopt this principle, we also need to pay attention to how students are engineers — what it means for each of them to be their own particular kind of engineer.

To take two Olin faculty members as examples: by “their own particular kind of engineer,” I don’t just mean that Aaron is a MechE and Alisha is a BioE. I also mean that the ways in which Aaron and Alisha are engineers — the ways they embody engineering, the things it means for them specifically to be an engineer — include the things they know about engineering, but also include so much more than that. It’s important that Alisha is deeply invested in the design process and bringing it into non-engineering contexts and spent last semester working at a hospital; it’s important that Aaron has a minimalist aesthetic and works on transforming campus architecture and likes bikes. They know about things, and they also are many things (designers, bikers, people interested in medical work, etc). When Olin practices this principle well, it acknowledges and values these aspects of being (and more), and values how these aspects of being are expressed and developed — and crucially, sees this development and expression as part of engineering, not something separate from it.

This sentiment of also valuing the being of a person as an engineer similarly extends to the context of course design. Here, this looks like Olin faculty talking about what students should know, but also aspects of being they want students to have. For instance, QEA (Quantitative Engineering Analysis) faculty talk about how they want students to be engineers who enjoy doing quantitative analysis — which is related to, but separate from, their knowledge of quantitative techniques and their ability to apply them.

This aspect of Olin’s curricular culture affects the ways Olin community members work to help each other and ourselves grow as individuals[3]. Whether we’re students, faculty, staff, or alumni, we don’t just focus on developing what Oliners know; we focus on developing who they are.

Remember, these principles are drafts — I’m putting them out here for more commentary, feedback, etc. I’d love stories from Oliners (and non-Oliners) about their Olin experiences and how they do/don’t match this principle, and how this resonates with you, and especially how it does not (because that’s how I’ll learn to edit it). Post in the comments or contact me via whatever other means you have, and we’ll talk. And stay tuned for the next post, which I think will probably be on attention ownership (we’ll see!)

[1] Engineering epistemology (what engineering knowledge is and what it means to know about engineering) is one of the 5 key areas of engineering education research set forth in the 2006 paper that is still used to classify a lot of work in the field — see National Engineering Education Research Colloquies. (2006). The Research Agenda for the New Discipline of Engineering Education. Journal of Engineering Education, 95(4), 259–261. There is no mention of engineering ontology (or what it means to be an engineer) in that document, or in later iterations of an engineering education research taxonomy (current version at http://taxonomy.engin.umich.edu/). I’m… working on that.

[2] The philosophical terminology for this is ontology (the study of being/reality) and epistemology (the study of knowledge). Engineering education has a well-developed practice of talking about epistemology, but we are not used to discussing ontology. (Reality is just… real, right? And things just are. What’s there to talk about? Turns out there’s a lot.)

[3] The phenomenon of other fields looking at the ontologies of their disciplines and education practices is very recent, and is known as the “ontological turn” that is sweeping across the disciplines. Engineering education hasn’t quite entered it yet, but part of my work is attempting to bring it there. For an example of the ontological turn from medical education, see Dall’Alba, G. (2009). Learning to be professionals. Dordrecht ; New York: Springer.


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, online and really get clear about what the shiniest thing is, discount 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, remedy 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.