Posts that are engineering edu-ish

Postmodernism: a (reluctant) historical progression

Postmodernism may be impossible to define, but this does not provide an excuse for avoiding attempts to articulate or understand it further. The postmodern refusal of clear definitions makes it tricky to talk about what the word “postmodernism” “means,” since a postmodernist treatment of “meaning” denies a singular meaning that can be found in absolute or stable form. However, a postmodernist treatment of meaning does acknowledge that meaning exists, and that it can be constructed, found, and played with by looking at the relationships of the thing (“sign”) at hand (the one you’re investigating the meaning of) and other things. Therefore, in this section, I will position postmodernism relative to other viewpoints that might be historically familiar to engineering readers, with the intent of providing more material with which readers and I can employ to make sense of the concept.

As its name implies, postmodernism is a movement which grew in response to modernism. It is therefore instructive to look at the philosophical paradigms of premodernism and modernism in order to see postmodernism’s relationship relative to both. The image below provides an overview: premodernism viewed reality as static and predetermined, modernism brought with it an emphasis on continuous progress in the name of human liberation, and postmodernism questioned modernism’s relentless pursuit of that notion of “progress” while inquiring what, exactly, “progress” might mean. (Note to blog readers: the images below are from an earlier blog post and I would love ideas on how to do a decent text description of this for screenreaders and so forth, or whether such a description is redundant with the explanation below.)




Prior to the 19th century, premodern (or sometimes “romantic”) viewpoints were widespread across Westernized societies such as the US; such a viewpoint viewed the world as ordered by divine and governmental authority, and a human’s role within that world to be pre-ordained by the circumstances of their birth. In other words, if your parents were farmers, you would probably be a farmer, because that was the will of God; one’s identity was fixed.

Modernism came of age during the time of the Industrial Revolution, revolting against the notion of a fixed identity. The importance of the individual and the “sovereign self” that could determine its own destiny was reflected in narratives about self-starting bootstrappers who pursued “The American Dream” and went from rags to riches. This notion of identity developed in parallel with the rapid development of technologies that made the average 19th and 20th century American’s life dramatically different from their parents, and the narrative of constant economic, technological, and social progress. With modernist thinking, the stock market would always go up in the long term; transistor density (and thus computing power) would always become smaller and cheaper (Moore’s law), and humankind was on an inevitable trajectory towards upwards and measurable progress.

Simulaneously, in the biological sciences, Darwin’s theory of evolution also provided a narrative of ongoing progress that was literally encoded into the nature of humans and the world around them (Darwin, 1859). Scientific quests for knowledge and betterment, and a belief in progress and perfectability became highlights of a modernist way of thinking. Also associated with modernism and its philosophy of science was structuralism, a movement associated with linguistics which emphasized the search for underlying structure and facts and presupposed the existence of such structures and absolute facts. (Ward, 1996, p. 86-104).

The “postmodern turn” pushed back against modernist assumptions with the challenge that there are no facts, only interpretations. Whereas modernist and structuralist thought emphasized the finding of intrinsic meaning and truth and the categorization and increasingly fine-grained naming of things in order to further optimize society’s understanding and evolution, postmodernism questioned its incessant gaze towards those goals. Whereas modernism and structuralism enshrine the primacy of individual choice and upwards progress, postmodernism questions these assumptions. What does “better” mean, and who gets to decide it? What are the boundaries of an individual, and why is it so important to separate people into stable units of analysis? A modernist pursuit on measurable progress requires trackable units of measurement (students with grades, countries with GDP, etc.) whereas a postmodern query asks: why do we use these particular methods of measuring and meting out?

Postmodernism is a response to the modernist emphasis on unrelenting “progress” towards a “better” world that interrogates the assumptions and power structures behind those terms and asks how they might be otherwise. Correspondingly, the postmodern inquirer’s work is not towards the increasingly “better” articulation of knowledge and truth which they are attempting ot teach their audience. “The postmodern text is evocative as opposed to didactic; extended argument is displaced… [in favor of] pastiche, montage, collage, bricolage, and the deliberate conglomerizing of purposes [that] characterize postmodern art and architectural styles” (Lather, 1991, p. 10). By questioning the very concept of a single, infinitely extendable “better” and the promise of certainty that the grand, sweeping narrative of continuous improvement and the search for truth and meaning offers, postmodernism exemplifies an “incredulity towards metanarratives,” or totalizing narratives that exclude the search for other explanations (Lyotard, 1984, p. xxiv). The postmodern movement, or “turn,” is deeply steeped in such refusals to settle, opting instead for the constant motion of “keeping meaning at play” (Jackson and Mazzei, 2012, p. 70-71).

For a further discussion of the historical relationships between premodernism, modernism, and postmodernism, a reasonable starting progression might be to consult Tierney (1993) for a brief and self-admittedly oversimplified historical retrospective, Lyotard’s classic “The Postmodern Condition” (1984) for one of the seminal first attempts by a postmodernist to explain postmodernism to the world, or “The Postmodern Turn” (Best, 1997) for one comprehensive historical look at the postmodern movement across disciplines alongside Cavallaro’s “Critical and Cultural Theory: Thematic Variations” (2001) which provides a brief, encyclopedic-style introduction to relatively up-to-date discussions of key concepts in postmodern thought.

Postmodernism: in engineering (education) praxis

Again, writing these out of order, see preceding posts.

Postmodernism may be an unfamiliar set of research paradigms and theories within the disciplines of engineering, but part of my goal in the preceding sections was to show that postmodern ideas are not as foreign to engineering and engineering education practice as they may initially seem. In fact, these ideas are alive and well in some aspects of engineering practice, with postmodernism providing a theoretical language to describe some elements of that practice in alternative ways. The playful bricoleur’s restlessnes of the postmodern practitioner is echoed in the cleverness and humor of the hacker/maker culture that has grown up intertwined with its more formal “engineering” cousin, and in areas like design thinking that cut across the two.

If engineering education practice has postmodern elements, but engineering education philosophy and research do not yet widely use postmodern language, it comes as no surprise that articulating those practices might be an issue for the field. Trying to describe postmodern practices with modernist terminology is working at cross purposes. It is like translating Shakespeare into scatterplots; it can be done, but much is lost in translation, and the end representation leaves something to be desired. There is plenty of structured, optimization-focused, modernist practice within engineering education as well, which works well with the current paradigms and theories and languages used to describe them. However, the playful materiality of the field and its charge to (re)make the world has a distinct postmodern thread that would benefit from connections to postmodern language, theory, and praxis.

In a way, postmodernism is what engineering education researchers are doing when they call for curricular change. A call for curricular change implicitly recognizes that the current structure for educating engineers is something that can be questioned and disrupted, that it is a power system to be probed and tinkered-with. The thrust of critical, feminist, queer, and other diversity-focused efforts in engineering education research is in keeping with this focus on disruption with the hope of different types of inclusion, and in keeping with postmodern’s treatment of excluded parties. “By insisting on the multiplicity of social positions, postmodernism has seriously challenged the political closure of modernity with its divisions between the center and the margins and in doing so has made room for those groups generally defined as the excluded others.” (Giroux, 1988, p. 166).

The practice of engineering can be seen as a bricolage; it is a heuristic, not an algorithm. It incorporates many elements of hacking and making and incompleteness. Changing engineering education is a postmodern act.

Postmodernism: what is it? (for engineers)

Yeah, my citation formats are a mess.

Postmodernism is not monolithic, and it would in fact be highly ironic if it were a single, unified school of thought, methodology, or movement with a clear goal, for that is what postmodernism itself critiques (Tierney, 1993).  This poses challenges to the engineering reader encountering postmodernism for the first time. Engineering is a high-consensus field (Biglan, 1973) meaning that part of the engineering disciplinary culture is an expectation that terms have precise and widely agreed-upon definitions (Storer, 1967). In contrast, postmodernism grew out of arts and humanities fields with traditions of lower-consensus. One challenge for engineers encountering postmodern and other culturally-low-consensus research for the first time is setting aside expectations based on a high-consensus culture’s expectations of stable and consistent terminology (Borrego, 2007). When reading the subsequent explanations of postmodernism by postmodernist scholars, it is important to keep such cultural differences around the notion of definitions in mind.

The task of this section is to provide a brief overview of postmodernism, so I will of necessity oversimplify what is a broad and complex transdisciplinary sociocultural movement with a rich history that is impossible to cover in full in a short space. I will begin by simplifying the language that I use: throughout this document, I use the word “postmodernism” as an umbrella term to refer to a movement that is encompassed by various terms sometimes called “the posts”: poststructuralism, postcolonialism, postmodernism, post-post, and so forth. These multiple and intertwining movements have a complex co-evolutionary history, and there are fine distinctions and debates on the differences between them, but such a discussion is outside the scope of this document. Instead, my aim is to give the engineering reader a general overview of postmodernism through the words of postmodernist scholars and theorists, and bridge their theoretical concepts to ideas and practices within the engineering domain. As such, I will use the term “postmodernism” for the remainder of this document to mean any of the various “post” movements, and then specify poststructuralism, etc. if a specific historical reference or theoretical idea requires more detailed unpacking.

As a philosophy, postmodernism extends to the very first principles of things. Foucault, one of the major “post” philosophers, described postmodernism as “involv[ing] a critique of metaphysics: of the concepts of causality. of identity, of the subject, of power, knowledge and of truth” (Foucault, Politics, philosophy, culture: Interviews and other writings, 1988, p. 18). It is a foundational paradigm that seeks to destabilize the foundational, which makes it difficult to describe.

This attribute of destabilization is evident in one of the most-quoted definitions of postmodernism from Lyotard’s “The Postmodern Condition”: “The postmodern would be that which,in the modern, puts forward the unpresentable in presentation itself; that which denies itself the solace of good forms, the consensus of a taste which would make it possible to share collectively the nostalgia for the unattainable; that which searches for new presentations, not in order to enjoy them but in order to impart a stronger sense of the unpresentable.” (1984, p. 81) Here one can see the resolute insistence of postmodernism at remaining a low-consensus field; to “deny itself the solace of good forms” is to keep meaning always in flux.

Present-day postmodern theorists Jackson and Mazzei continue in this vein. “[Postmodernism] seeks… to cut meaning loose, and to keep that difference (and therefore meaning) at play… there is a constant deferral of meaning, leaving traces of other [choices] that had to be excluded…” (2012, p. 70-71). Similarly, postmodern scholars Tierney and Bensimon describe their own qualitative work as postmodernists who “…reject the notion that we can ever understand ultimate Truth through reason; instead, truth is considered ephemeral and subject to multiple, conflicting interpretations… Postmodernism is… centrally concerned with decoding the multiple images that occur and brings into question previously unchallenged ideas about language and identity” (Tierney and Bensimon, 1996, p. 15). Patti Lather, one of the first scholars to take a postmodernist approach to qualitatve research in education, offers that “[postmodernism] ask[s] questions about what we have not thought to think, about what is most densely invested in our discourse/practices, about what has been muted, repressed, unheard.” (Lather, 1991, p. 145).

Postmodernism cannot be concretely defined. Foucault famously claimed that such a task was impossible, as “the premises of [postmodernism] disallow any denominative, unified, or ‘proper definition of itself” (Foucault, Politics, philosophy, culture: Interviews and other writings, 1988, p. 18). Postmodernism adamantly resists concrete definitions “…presumably because such practices represent an attempt to pin down an essence which does not exist” (Gavey, 1998:119, Feminist Poststructuralism and discourse analysis: Contributions to feminist psychology. Psychology of Women Quarterly, No. 13, 1989, p. 459-475.)

Since the practice of postmodernism gives itself to the questioning of meaning, it involves a great deal of linguistic play. Consequently, the words postmodernists use to describe their practice also vary widely: Derrida calls his work “deconstruction” (1967), Lather and Smithies call theirs “troubling” (1997), and St. Pierre and Pillow call theirs “working the ruins” (2000). However, there are characteristic attributes and themes that arise from this refusal to concretely define foundations and settle on definite meanings and “good forms,” to borrow Lyotard’s phrase. Postmodernist practice carries an ethos of play and disruption that Lather compares to that of the archetype of The Fool (2007). It is a paradigm in constant motion, always questioning and refusing to settle — even refusing to settle on the notion of “refusing to settle.”

In fact, as good a definition of postmodernism as any might be to compare it to the Tao, or “the way,” in the classic Chinese mystic text “The Tao Te Ching” (here translated by Ursula LeGuin).

the way you can go
isn’t the real way.
The name you can say
isn’t the real name.

In the following sections of this document, I will unpack a little more about postmodernism by comparing it to more familiar ideas from qualitative research within engineering education, beginning with other research paradigms that are more commonly used in the discipline. In fact, two separate reviews of paradigm usage in engineering education research found that while other paradigms such as postpositivism and interpretivist perspectives were represented in the literature, postmodernism was conspicuously absent (Koro-Ljungberg & Douglas, 2008; Beddoes & Borrego, 2011). In contrast, educational studies went through its “postmodern turn” in qualitative research over the course of the past half-century. The effect, if one steps from education research in education studies to education research within engineering, is one of a time warp; the philosophical paradigms used in engineering education research today largely parallel those used in educational studies half a century ago.

However, postmodern practice is not unfamiliar to engineering education; one of my desires to bridge the two disciplines comes from the conviction that postmodern theory provides language for some aspects of engineering education practice that we currently struggle to define. I see them as two halves of a praxis — a conscious, self-reflexive practice that can articulate its own theories — that are searching for each other. Therefore, after making a paradigmatic comparison to other philosophies more familiar to engineering education researchers, I will use examples from engineering and engineering education practice in order to illustrate and explain key ideas from postmodern theories that were used throughout the project.

Postmodernism: slicing and separations (agential and other cuts)

And yet another! (Yeah, see previous posts.)

Another aspect of a postmodern perspective is the subjective and arbitrary nature of the “slices” that divide the world into differentiated items. By using language, we describe the world as if it had cleanly separated components: for instance, one might say that a man is not a woman, or that blue and red are different colors. However, the line between “male” and “female” or the line between “blue” and “red” and “purple” is not necessarily clear. It’s not that there are no differences or distinctions among things; quite the opposite. The distinctions and separations are real because they are decisions made by thinking beings who decide and determine where the differences split to make seams between items, and could also decide to split them differently.

To draw an example from the discipline of engineering, take the division of engineering into sub-disciplines. A given university might have multiple engineering majors: mechanical, chemical, electrical, and so forth. However, interdisciplinary projects and programs cross between those boundaries, challenging them. After all, what determines the boundary between bioengineering, materials engineering, mechanical engineering, etc. when studying the design of a medical device? How is the separation between computer engineering and electrical engineering determined — and are they two separate programs, or a unified degree in “electrical and computer engineering”? What is the difference between engineering compared to engineering technology? These boundaries are not only socially constructed and contested; they wobble simultaneously in many places at once, like an electron.

This challenging of boundaries can be referred to as “deconstruction,” a concept usually associated with Derrida’s treatise “Of Grammatology.” As might be expected with a boundary-challenging concept, the boundaries of the concept itself are not clear — which is to say there is no on clear definition of what “deconstruction” is.  Deconstruction is at once theory, methodology, and method. It asks what binaries and categorizations exist, what those boundaries suppress/prohibit, and whether they contradict each other. (Saukko, 2003, p. 135-152)

Deconstruction is not a verb that we as agents execute on a text as object; rather, it is something that we notice the text has always done to itself. (Derrida, 1998; Cavallaro, 2001, p. 26). When we deconstruct a text, we make our world more writerly because we see texts as shifting, changing things; one signifier may refer to many signifieds (as with classifiers), and many signifiers may refer to the same signified (as with synonyms). Lather depicts the goal of deconstruction as “neither unitary wholeness nor dialectical resolution.” Instead, deconstruction seeks to “keep things in process, to disrupt, to keep the system in play, to set up procedures to continuously demystify the realities we create, to fight the tendency for our categories to congeal” (Lather, 1991, p. 13).

A particularly important categorical separation is the one between the observer and the observed — or in the case of this project, the narrating self and the narration, or the self and the world it narrates. The self and the world are inextricably intertwined; as Heidegger famously pointed out, it is impossible to have the notion of “being” without somehow “being-in-the-world” (the usual English translation of his German term “Dasein”) amongst other things (Heidegger, YYYY). However, there do exist notions of “observer” and “observed” as different and separate things, so some sort of “slice” must take place. Such a slice is what Karen Barad calls the “agential cut” — the cut between an agent (self) and things that are not-that-agent. This cut is itself arbitrary and subjective; consider the example of a researcher recording interviews through a transcriptionist, as I did in this project. Is the transcriptionist part of the “researcher” (observer/self) apparatus, or the “narrator” (observed/world) apparatus being observed by the “researcher”? I could choose either, both, or neither (somewhere else) in deciding where to make the agential cut. Although the agential cut itself is subjective, it is what makes the notion of objectivity possible, since objectivity demands exteriority (2007, p. 139-40).

This idea has other parallels to engineering practice. Systems diagrams are used in multiple engineering fields to convey the separate components of a system and the interactions therein. [IMAGE: SEVERAL EXAMPLES OF SYSTEMS DIAGRAMS]. The decision of how to separate a system into interacting components is the same sort of slicing as discussed in this subsection. Each component in a systems diagram is then treated as a “black box,” where the inner workings don’t matter as long as the input and output are as expected. Decisions about “black-boxing” something (for instance, purchasing Components Off The Shelf (COTS) for usage in a project) and “popping the hood” (modifying the interior workings of a previously black-boxed device) are similarly decisions to become aware of and/or modify the “slicing” decisions previously made. On the part of the designing and constructing engineer, some of these decisions take on the nature of agential cuts as the engineer decides which part is “theirs” (i.e. their responsibility to understand and modify) and what they will therefore care about and see as lying within their locus of control.

Postmodernism: many truths and meanings (intersubjective, intertext, signs, signifiers, slippage)

Continuing the “just write stuff and post it” flood. Because I can. And because someday I’ll be able to use these crappy drafts as examples for my own students, all-caps “I DON’T KNOW WHAT TO DO HERE, BUT KEEP GOING!!!” notes and all.

The act of proliferation is frequently used in postmodernist thinking. When applied to the concepts of truth and meaning, proliferation decenters the notion of a single big-t Truth by playing with the idea of a multiplicity of little-t truths; it decenters the notion of a single big-m Meaning by playing with the idea of a multiplicity of little-m meanings. What would it mean to have many meanings and many truths? In probing the notions of truth and meaning, postmodernism does not mean to reject those notions — indeed, it would have nothing to work against if it did so. Rather, postmodernism seeks to question and interrogate what our assumptions about meaning and truth by exploring alternate possibilities for what they might be. It frames viewpoints as inevitably situated, partial, and perspectival.

Proliferation of perspectives on meaning and truth are a common practice within engineering education; they are a key concept in design thinking and exhibited in the practice of design reviews. [CITATION? FROM ROBIN'S CLASS?] A cross-disciplinary dataset of design review practice in educational settings (DTRS, 2015/2016?) exhibited both different student approaches to the same design task (mechanical engineering teams making a robotic fish, industrial design students sketching a chair for office use) and different faculty perspectives on the same student works (dance pieces made by science and engineering students). In a design review context, seeing a multiplicity of viewpoints and perspectives was an explicit goal, even if those perspectives might conflict; instead of being immediately framed as errors, perspectival conflicts became gifts and ways to flag intriguing areas for further exploration.

The word postmodern practice gives to this proliferation of perspectives is “intersubjectivity.” It refers to to the interactions between interpretations proposed by multiple people. For instance, a conversation between faculty members reflecting on a shared experience is intersubjective; although their interpretations of the experience may not ultimately converge, their interpretations will interact and change during the course of the discussion. To draw an even more specific example, the responses of a committee to a PhD dissertation in engineering education (such as the document you are presently reading) are intersubjective. Each committee member reading the proposal goes through the process of interpreting the document for themselves, but their interpretation interacts with the interpretations of the other committee members and the graduate student author. Based on these culturally-shaped interactions, the interpretations of particular community members may be accepted or rejected by each other member of the group.

Intersubjectivity is influenced by the different intertexts each member of the group is drawing from. The term “intertextual” refers to the interconnected nature of reality; it is a citational practice akin to the notion of scholarly texts referring to each other in APA style and footnotes. For instance, each engineered product is a “text” that refers to the many things that shaped and influenced it — a set of bookends might refer to the flatness, size, and heft of the books and shelves it is designed to sit among, as well as the material constraints of the manufacturing processes that shaped it, and the icon and gameplay from a popular video game its designer enjoyed. [IMAGE: PORTAL BOOKENDS] Extending this idea is the notion that all texts “always absorb and transform other texts” and “can be thought of as a tapestry of quotations, a mosaic of allusions”(Cavallaro, 2001, p. 60).

To borrow terminology from semiotics (Saussure, 1986), a intertextuality is created when the “signs” within a text (roughly: words, shapes, colors, movements, or whatever is being used as a reference to something else) point towards the “signifieds” in another text (roughly: meanings, interpretations). A postmodern view of texts is that they are collections of signs that “do not embody specific meanings or concepts” and only “become meaningful when they are decoded according to cultural conventions” (p. 15-16). In computer science terms, the signifier and signified can be loosely thought of as the pointer and the memory location, respectively; neither has an innate meaning on its own — it must be assigned one by the author, and its meaning draws from its relationships to other variables at play in the program.

Just as a pointer can be renamed and reallocated in a computer program, the link between signifier and signified is arbitrary, socially constructed, and forever shifting. Multiple signs might refer to the same signifier, as with synonyms. Similarly, one sign might refer to a variety of signifiers, depending on the context; for instance, two faculty members may use the signifier “curriculum” to refer to very different signifieds (loosely, “ideas” or “meanings.”) Even a single faculty member may use the word “curriculum” in more than one sense in the same sentence — to give one example, one can talk about the “[hidden, implicit] curriculum that happens alongside the [formal, explicit] curriculum.” (Anyon, YYYY)

It may be tempting to diagnose this as a problem of insufficiently precise language; if we had more words for “curriculum,” we would not need to repeat it to signify slightly different meanings. However, the repetition of the word “curriculum” is entwined with its representation; a sign obtains meaning only when it’s used in multiple contexts, since community adoption is what distinguishes a “nonsense” word from a “real” one. Because of this, when we speak, write, or use any other sign system such as language, we represent — re-present — our signifieds with signifiers that already exist, and the way we choose to do so can be illuminating to examine (Cavallaro, 2001, p. 39).

A postmodern approach to interrogating meanings and truths contributes a different perspective than a paradigm that seeks convergence on a single “objective” truth. Postmodernism works against the assumption of a “neutral point of view” from which one could represent, “fairly, proportionately, and, as far as possible, without bias, all of the significant views that have been published by reliable sources on a topic.” Although the preceding description was drawn from Wikipedia’s article on its “Neutral Point of View” policy (2014), it mirrors a broader unspoken ideology that assumes such things as what qualifies as a “significant view” or “reliable source.” In contrast, the postmodern approach casts narrators and their narratives as “polyphonic texts that challenge dominant ideologies by articulating diverse discourses… thus resisting the notion of a unified viewpoint” (Cavallaro, 2001, p. 19). The postmodern perspective challenges the notion of objectivity and the assignment and privileging of particular opinions as truth. It asks: how did we come to privilege these things as significant views and reliable sources, and what other choices might we be able to make instead?

The notions of proliferating multiple truths and meanings in an intersubjective manner are reflected in other arenas adjacent to engineering and the experience of many engineers. For instance, in addition to the design review process, the notions of forking/branching and patching/merging in software development contribute to an intersubjective development practice. “Branching” and “forking” refer to when a software engineer creates a copy of a piece of code, so that multiple versions of the code can be developed in different directions at the same time; “patching” and “merging” refer to the process of proposing, then combining, multiple differing versions of a piece of code (perhaps created from an earlier branch/fork). The idea is to allow multiple variants of an idea to easily proliferate and reconverge, so a variety of perspectives and approaches can be tried without much overhead. A similar concept in modern physics is the notion of multiverses or parallel universes. These concepts also show up in popular books and films that deliberately present multiple conflicting narratives that don’t converge to a single neat “truth” — for instance, the narrator in “Life of Pi” tells several stories of how he survived a shipwreck, and the narrator in “Hero” offers several stories of how he defeated warriors who were a threat to the Emperor. From a postmodern perspective, conflicting truths, tensions, and linkages are sought as intriguing spaces to explore, rather than being treated as errors to be squashed.

Postmodernism: power and agency (readerly/writerly)

I’ve broken my lit review chapter into a series of short, connected essays on postmodernism, narrative, and ontology. Todd said that those were sort of like blog posts, and that he’d read them if I posted them. So here goes… crappy early drafts disclaimer and all that. Have fun. Not in sequential order.

Postmodernism plays extensively with ideas of power and agency, as part of its quest to disrupt structure and authority. Postmodern projects frequently examine the notion of who has permission to modify the world. Who has this privilege, and who believes they have this privilege? Which aspects of the world are they able to modify, and how?

Permissions for modification are a familiar idea in engineering, particularly in computing. The entire concept of file permissions is built around the notion of granting or denying various people access to read and write to various areas on the computer. In the case of a large software project, one engineer might have the permissions to examine a piece of code and see what it does, but not have the permissions to modify it. This is called “read access,” because it lets the engineer read the file, but no more. A different engineer might be able to not only read that piece of code, but also edit it and change what it does. This is called “write access,” since the engineer has the power to write (or re-write) the file in question.

The notions of “read access” and “write access” to software files in the technical realm map to the notions of “readerly” and “writerly” approaches to a text in the philosophical realm. The terms writerly and readerly were coined by Roland Barthes in his 1973 book Le Plaisir du Texte (which the 1975 English translation renders as “The Pleasure of the Text”) in order to refer to the role of a text’s reader. Here, a text refers not just to printed words on paper, but more broadly to include other things that convey meaning, such as software code, videos, dance moves, and so forth.

Texts themselves can be said to take a more readerly or writerly approach. A readerly text treats readers only as readers, passive recipients of knowledge. Readerly texts place readers in the epistemological position that Baxter-Magolda calls “following formulas” (2001) and Kegan calls the “third order of consciousness” whereby external voices serve as privileged authorities (1994). In a sense, if expertise is the ability to independently create and navigate within a complex context, readerly texts restrict readers from reaching for higher levels of expertise (S. Dreyfus & H. Dreyfus, 1980)

By noticing and naming the “readerly” approach to texts, postmodernists draw attention to them and remind readers of their agency with regards to interpretation of the texts that they encounter. There are two main approaches to rendering a text “readerly.” The first is narrative seduction, where an author uses authoritative-sounding words to “convince” readers “of the author’s right to serve as ‘The Great Interpreter’” (Lather, 1991, p. 10). The second is banality (Bruner, 1991, p. 9-10), where an author deliberately writes in a boring style that “assum[es] shared and standard meanings” which habituates readers to overlook things they might otherwise examine, thus “suppressing the discourse” (Mishler, 1986, p. 65).

Foucault’s 1969 lecture “What is an Author?” and Umberto Eco’s essay collection titled “The Role of the Reader” (1979) speak out against readerly texts and echo Barthes’ call for the death of the author (1967) and the deliberate exposure of the hermeneutic richness inherent in all texts. Instead, they call for writerly texts, which demand that readers co-construct meaning with the author as they work through the text. A good analogy for a writerly text is a workbook with blank spaces for reflective exercises; it is clearly incomplete unless a reader is actively grappling with it, working as a co-author and using their own context to inform a hermeneutics of suspicion.

Now, it is possible to treat any book as a workbook even without explicit blank spaces and the word “workbook” printed on its cover. Active and critical readers will scribble margin notes and write commentary, effectively rendering any book a “workbook” that allows their own co-authorship. This was Barthes’ key insight: all texts are writerly. Cavallaro points out that the very word “text” comes from the Latin “texere,” meaning “to weave.” (2001, p. 59). The fabric of texts can be endlessly made and unmade; they aren’t closed, finished, or exclusive to one maker. It is simply that some texts pretend to be readerly and make readers forget their own agency.

The continued tongue-in-cheek awareness of one’s own agency and writerly power shows up in spaces that are not unfamiliar to engineering educators. In particular, it shows up in hacker and maker culture. For example, the hThe Maker’s Bill of Rightsof-rights/) makes statements like “screws, not glues” and “if it snaps shut, it shall snap open” (Torrone, 2006), design tradeoffs oriented towards keeping technologies “hackable,” or modifiable by their owners. [IMAGE: popular maker t-shirt that says "I void warranties," from Thinkgeek]. “Nightwork,” a book documenting MIT hacker culture, describes its practitioners as simultaneously laughing at authority’s attempts to keep them out of “off-limits” spaces, such as placing a faux police car on the roof of a building — and respecting authority’s ability to get things done; hackers occasionally leave notes informing official maintenance workers of overlooked spaces in need of repair (Peterson, 2011).

The notion of a readerly approach to the world also appears in formal engineering education research and advertising. “Changing the Conversation,” the National Academy of Engineering’s project to investigate the “branding” of engineering as a discipline, ended up recommending taglines like “engineers make a world of difference” and “engineers shape the future,” emphasizing the writerly power engineers have to reshape the world they live in (NAE, 2008). The theories of Barthes and other postmodernist philosophers who wrote about power and agency can be used to illuminate the discipline’s aspirations for empowering its practitioners.

Brief notes from England: Sally and Steph

Stopping by Sally Fincher’s office yesterday for a quick chat, I came across the 5 questions of power from Tony Benn, a long-time British politician and immediately thought: this would be fascinating to investigate from a disability studies point of view someday.

  1. What power have you got?
  2. Where did you get it from?
  3. In whose interests do you use it?
  4. To whom are you accountable?
  5. How do we get rid of you?

Other tidbits from Sally yesterday: McNay’s quadrants of university organizational culture (which potentiallly make a nice little discussion with my dissertation analysis chapters, though I might save that for later writing) and the existence of the UK’s “Research and Development Series,” a collection of reports on fascinating topics like “how do you lead teaching at a research-focused university?” and other… things that… I am not allowed to read… until I defend, because… they’re far too shiny.

But probably the most helpful bits from yesterday’s conversation with Sally was the feeling of vindication that I am not, in fact, entirely inept at searching the literature. I’ve been searching for folks in engineering education — and then (in mild desperation) anywhere in STEM education — who use faculty narratives in a way that honors their mess and their complexity and their non-generalizability, non-sortability, non-resolvability, and so forth. Y’know, the sort of thing I’m trying to do. And basically, I found… Sally. And a few folks from education studies who have (almost incidentally, it seems) touched STEM.  A whole slew of education studies folks, yes — but inside my discipline, specifically looking at engineering? Not so much.

Sally pointed out to me yesterday that her own work wasn’t situated in computing education — she and Josh and the others had situated it in studies of teaching/education, and then sort of incidentally looked at computing. The other folks I’ve seen have done the same. It’s like a bunch of people all ringed around a lake, touching the water from a shore that lets them stand on firm ground — and me sitting there wondering “why isn’t someone standing on the water?” It was one of those duh, why haven’t I seen this pattern? moments. What is it about the disciplinary education of STEM (ok, engineering and perhaps computing) that makes it such a hard place for “this sort of narrative work” to root there, instead of having to root somewhere else and trellis over?

Also, Sally suggested I might want to look into Kurt Lewin’s work on institutional change. He theorizes that the world needs to unfreeze to change, but also needs to re-freeze in order to preserve that change, or it will all collapse when the new thing leaves. (Sally’s words, not necessarily Kurt’s.) This reminded me quite a bit of John Gardner’s thoughts on change and revolution… how do you strike the balance between chaos and ossification, which is the place where things are alive? Both authors are writing in ways that could feed into the ontological turn I’m attempting to articulate, and apparently am on the forefront of even if I didn’t know that earlier.

Both authors are writing in ways that could feed into the ontological turn I’m attempting to articulate, and apparently am on the forefront of… even if I didn’t know that earlier. That knowledge was one of the best things that I learned during my time in Manchester with Steph. I spent a good chunk of my time there asking her who’d done ontology like this before, then sputtering “what do you mean, nobody’s done that yet?” It’s simultaneously comforting and terrifying to have academics you respect tell you that the stuff you’re doing is quite difficult and quite new; it means that my work is in the right place, and I’m making real contributions, and… oh, that’s why it’s hard, huh? Nobody has thought in this particular space before.

Startup/shutdown and research circuit routines

One of the best things I’ve started to do consistently this semester is to think of my research work the same way I think about my physical training. I do equipment setup, warmup, cooldown, and takedown for all my workouts and rehearsals… so why not for my scholarly life?

This isn’t an analogy. As an experiment, I’m taking it as literally as possible and doing my research as a workout, with various research tasks as a part of circuits that include planks, rows, turkish get-ups, and so forth.

Sample circuit: As many rounds as possible (AMRAP) in 2 hours (I usually get through 3-4 circuits).

  • Shoulder mobility circuit, 20 each of T/Y/L/Ws (similar to this set of exercises, but standing)
  • Read and sticky-note a chapter in the book I’m reading. If all chapters are sticky-noted, type notes from one chapter into my personal Zotero format.
  • 2 turkish get-ups on each side, using kettlebell of appropriate weight
  • 5 kettlebell haloes in each direction
  • Complete and send feedback/assessment on one student project (20 minute maximum; set a timer)
  • 10 straight-leg situps, 10 burpees; another 10 straight-leg situps, another 10 burpees
  • Write setup/context paragraph before one piece of data in a dissertation chapter
  • At least 5 minutes of recovery, during which I must drink water.

This circuit changes each time I do work, depending on what I need to get done. However, there are some consistent things.

Setup checklist

  1. Put on appropriate clothes (in my case, I need to be able to move my shoulders so they don’t get stiff; this might mean changing a shirt or taking off a jacket).
  2. Ergonomics setup: wristguards on, or monitor raised and external keyboard in position.
  3. Earbuds ready, music set up (FocusAtWill)
  4. Water bottle (+ coffee, if applicable) on the table.
  5. Notebook and pen open to the next blank page.
  6. Pomodoro timer (Toggl button) ready to go.
  7. “Locating” text document from the end of last work session open

Warmup (every time):  Once everything in the setup checklist is complete, I do this; it should take 20 minute max.


  1. Shoulder muscle routine (combination of arm circles and other light mobility work)
  2. Use “Locating” document and notebook/text editor to design the current day’s research sprints/circuits
  3. …then do my physical warm-up (a ~5 minute series of stretches, squats, etc. that I do each time)
  4. …and then sprints/circuits can begin.


Cooldown (every time): This should take about half an hour max.

  1. One short (10-15 minute) pomodoro to get to a good closing place on whatever I have worked on that day.
  2. Stop pomodoro timer, put away.
  3. Stop music, put away earbuds.
  4. Clear browser tabs and open documents on my computer.
  5. Gather up water bottle, coffee/food and walk to put it away. Before returning to my computer from this trip, I think about (1) what I need to characterize about where I’ve left off to locate myself, and (2) whether tomorrow’s-Mel needs to keep anyting else in mind.
  6. Return to computer and type those things into “Locating” text document for tomorrow. Make this the first thing I’ll see when the laptop opens.
  7. Close laptop. I’m no longer allowed to open it again for the day.
  8. Put away ergonomics setup.
  9. Arm circles,  trunk spirals, and cooldown stretch routine.
  10. Shutdown complete; pack everything inside my bag, clean up any additional items, and I’m done.

Qualitative research: the discussion section, or: “kryptonite – so what?”

Originally written as an explanation for my qualitative research methods students.

The discussion section of your project is where you answer the question: “so what?” This typically comes at the end, because you are discussing that question in relation to the results of your project, not the problem statement like you did at the beginning. Here’s the difference.

The introduction comes before you talk about the results, and tells us what problem you’re trying to solve (or what question you’re trying to address) and why it is important. For instance, ”we should find out what kinds of things make Superman weak, because if he’s going to keep saving the world, we need to know what might prevent him from doing so” would be an introduction that explains the motivation behind the research question of “what effect do various ore forms of radioactive elements have on the strength and flight abilities of Superman?”

Now, suppose you find that among the elements you tested, only kryptonite has a measurable effect on Superman’s strength and flight abilities, and that it strips him of his powers and makes him physically ill. Those are your results — see how they’re a direct answer to the question you asked earlier?

The discussion comes after your results. Now that we know that kryptonite weakens Superman… so what? What difference does this specific answer make to how we operate? Well, maybe we want to preserve Superman’s superpowers, so this means need to make sure Superman doesn’t come in contact with Kryptonite… perhaps we should make it illegal to possess the substance. Or maybe we want to give a subset of people access to Kryptonite so that they can take Superman down in case he goes evil.

That’s a discussion. Note that the discussion depends on the results you got — if the results change, the discussion changes. For instance, if you found that no ore forms of radioactive elements had measurable impacts on Superman’s abilities, you wouldn’t recommend outlawing Kryptonite because it’d make no difference in this case. If you found out that all ore forms of radioactive elements came close to killing Superman, but only on alternate Tuesdays, and only if he ingests them, you might talk about creating a Superman Radioactivity Food Scanner that only operated once a week to save resources. You get the idea.

The discussion question of “so what?” is not a question you need to have an answer to until the end, but you should know at every point in time that you will need to answer it… in other words, it’s something to constantly keep in mind, and you’ll find it along the way as you develop your project. The introduction and discussion are both important places where you tell us why your work matters — but the introduction is where you tell us why the question is important, and the discussion is where you tell us why the answer is.

QualMIP week 11: semester feedback

Part of the QualMIP series, introduced here. 

Technically, it’s week 12 but blog entry 11, since week 11 was a review of the semester plus a presentation of projects. Tonight… was feedback night.

Major takeaways

  1. Constant awareness of positionality and related concepts — bias, personal experience, etc.
  2. Rich awareness of everyday interactions. Formerly “boring” situations reveal a depth of interaction, and there are more tools with which to analyze what’s going on; there are always questions we can ask.
  3. Along the same veins, “having a larger toolbox” with which to experience the world (one of our original goals, so that’s fantastic.)
  4. The importance of self-care and sensitivity to one’s own state and emotions. “You are your own research instrument.” Along these lines, the policy of grace weeks was a MASSIVE hit, and… I will do this again.

Other takeaways, in absolutely no particular order

The value of team dynamics in learning qualitative research, which I’ll need to consider for future (presumably larger-group) iterations. It’s nice to have a team and learn about your differences in perception, and to get comfortable tossing ideas around with — but there’s also value in switching it up. Cesar, Paige, and Emily worked together super-well, and this contributed tremendously to the success of the project.

NINJAs. Instructor-student ratio is key. If I scale up much, I absolutely need course NINJAs (teaching assistants) and/or coinstructors.

More memo assignments. In perhaps the first instance of students asking me to give them more homework, the group requested more exercises focused on forcing them to try different memo formats during exercises. In a 2-credit independent study, I tried not to overload them, but this is top priority to add in for a full-scale class. Suggestions include having some group-facing memos (both small and large) in addition to individual ones, so they can see what it’s like to memo with and for different audiences as well as in different formats.

Interview nonverbals were a good skill to gain — you don’t really need to talk during an interview. (Quote from last night: “It’s kind of like therapy. They just listen so you can talk and figure it out yourself.”) Each individual has distinctive movement patterns. (I think of them like voices.)

More rounds of interviewing/observing skill practice. There was universal acclaim for more repeated practice for interviewing and observing, specifically. This fits nicely with the request for more memos. I think “more structure” will be the order of the day in the next (larger) round of the class.

Ambiguity, followed by framework introductions (worksheets, whiteboard grids, etc.) is a good pattern. Don’t give the frameworks at the beginning — let students try to figure it out — but at some point, it’s really nice to see how others have ordered topics. (I agree! It’s hard to do this without introducing reading assignments… or is it? I could make worksheets from the readings, and leave the citations at the bottom for students to optionally look at if they want, I guess.)

The introduction to various qualitative research paradigms was good (although I feel it was too theoretical). This might be something valuable to use reading assignments for (one of my restrictions in this independent study design was “no course readings,” and in a full-scale course I would relax that somewhat). Showing examples of work in each paradigm and having students do work across at least two (somehow) would be a plus, since everyone ended up in the interpretivist camp this time.

Project development lifecycle examples. Similarly, the close reading was useful so they could see parts of a project at a different stage than where their own projects were at. Finding some way to see (close readings of) different projects at different stages in development earlier on might help.

Instrument development was useful to see! This time around, it happened accidentally when Emily created one as part of her project (a massive table for sorting data about dance events). Do this more explictly next time.

Inter-rater reliability and validity could have used better discussions. (Yeah, I kinda pulled those out of the top of my head when it became clear we needed to discuss it during studio. More planning would have been good, I admit.) Also, we did not have a unit on member-checking, and should.

Using Olin as a convenient study location was a plus, largely for the exercise of “making the familiar strange,” and the ease with which we could (potentially) experiment with environmental disruptions (something we did not do this time). Using locations other than Olin on occasion was also a big plus, so… mix it up. (Me: “I’m sure I can find strange, safe, but uncomfortable situations to dump people into.”)

Protocol testing was a good exercise. However, we won’t have a convenient AHS capstone in need of protocol feedback in future iterations of the course, so teams will have to come up with protocols for that exercise and swap them (a good addition to the exercise, really). Make sure to specify those protocols be made on non-sensitive topics; this time the AHS capstone topic was about something that some people considered touchy, and about something others didn’t have experience with, which made it difficult to test as they scrambled to fabricate stories.

Keep the unicorn exercise (that we did with Insper).

The artifact analysis scavenger hunt was too much to pack into one day — split it over two class periods so we can take more time doing it.

Bounding projects was something everyone did, and a good skill to develop in general. Perhaps develop exercises specifically targeting this? (I’ve talked with faculty at other times about “project bounding” being a skill that Olin students need to develop more generally.)

Derrida. In a simultaneous I-am-proud-but-also-sort-of-scared moment, the idea that “everything is text” ended up being an impactful phrase… I think the students meant it as “everything is data” and “everything can be analyzed” or something similar, but I’ll need to be careful about introducing Derrida in the future, because… there is such a thing as just enough postmodernism to be dangerous (I’m at that stage myself, right now).

The machine trick/geneaology. Related to the above thought, the constant asking of “how did that get there? how did this come to be?” is a habit of mind that I am silently rejoicing over. Even the most intimidating, formal-looking things have some kind of backstory (and psst… the world is hackable.)

Apparently, my metaphors are popular (and help with conceptual understanding, I… think). I don’t even remember what they were, but I supposedly compare things to programming and dancing quite a bit, and there was laughter.

Mental health. One of the most surprising but gratifying comments was that QualMIP was a good influence on student mental health this semester — that it contributed to better self-care, ways to move on from cycles of overthinking, permission to be kind to oneself, awareness of one’s own state, and… well. Mental health. I’m glad for this — I’m glad this could be a space for that — and I’d like to find a way to keep making it a better space for that, because it’s SUPER important, especially at a place like Olin.

And finally, having a giant teddy bear in the office is fantastic.