Posts that are engineering edu-ish

Reading notes: Whiteness of a different color: European immigrants and the alchemy of race.

My top 5 reactions (in no particular order) to Jacobson, M. F. (1999). Whiteness of a different color: European immigrants and the alchemy of race. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

  1. “White” means “whoever we feel like admitting as a citizen of our country at this time,” (p. 22-31 and 234-236), much like how “low-status work” is “whatever work immigrants and women are doing.” Humans are very good at redrawing boundaries for their own convenience and making it sound like it’s (of course!) always been that way.
  2. Science is a very good social tool for conveniently rewriting social boundaries (p. 31-38) and thereby erasing inconvenient history. Why is it such a good social tool? Because it pretends that it’s not a social tool — it’s all objective and stuff, it must be true!
  3. On that theme, I like this quote from p. 94:

    What did “Caucasian” mean in the mid-twentieth century? What is the relationship between “white” on one hand, and “Caucasian” on the other? Although the categories “white” and “Caucasian” may have overlapped almost entirely, the idea “Caucasian” did accomplish something that the more casual notion of whiteness did not: it brought the full authority of modern science to bear on white identity… whiteness racheted up to a new epistemological realm of certainty… naturalizes both the grouping and the authority by which that grouping is comprehended… evokes a scientific certainty regarding its boundaries and integrity.

  4. I found the early 1900′s thinking on racial mixing (p. 81) to be a disturbingly current description of some cultures my own lived experience has been… er, experienced within. The thinking was that if a child was born of mixed races, they were “degraded” to the “lower” race they were mixed from: white + Indian = Indian, white + Jew = Jew, white + Negro = Negro, and so on. I’ve heard phrases like “but then your children would be half black!” said in tones of voice that made it clear that your children would then be “beneath” you. I’ve also caught myself thinking things like  ”but then my kids would be half Asian (and half white)!” as if my racial heritage would be “dragging my kids down.” Why would I do such a terrible thing to my children, giving them Asianness? And why do I say that as if it were a dreaded maternally transmittable disease? (But I’m getting into my own experiences/personal-reactions now, not the broader scholarly discussion…)
  5. Shouldn’t our lived experiences be part of scholarly discussion? How do we dance that dance, constantly toe that equilibrium of shifting balance?

White privilege in engineering education

Inspired by Peggy McIntosh’s Invisible Knapsack, here are some ways white privilege appears in engineering education:

  1. If I talk about or study “diversity topics” in engineering, I’m seen as open-minded rather than self-serving. (“Not everything I do will be seen as ‘about [my race].’)
  2. Nobody will assume I got into my program because of affirmative action.
  3. The people who grade my assignments, develop my curricula, and decide whether I graduate or not will probably be of my race.
  4. I will probably not be asked to represent the “perspective of my race” in classroom discussions or design meetings.
  5. I can flub a question, fail a test, or even drop out of a class/major without having it negatively reflect on my entire race.
  6. People are likely to assume I chose engineering as a field out of personal interest (not family pressures, financial reasons, etc.)
  7. I will not get surprised looks when I tell someone I’m an engineer.
  8. People I meet will assume I had a fairly happy, comfortable childhood.
  9. Clients for my service learning projects will probably not look like me.
  10. I can join a study group of non-minority students without being perceived as a “sellout” by members of my race.
  11. When other students are choosing who to study with, I will not be assumed to be “overly studious” (Asian) or “a stupid slacker” (Black/Latino) by default.
  12. I will be assigned to talk with suppliers/clients based on interest rather than nationality (“oh, of course you’ll talk with all the Chinese suppliers.”)
  13. People will not automatically assume I’m an international student. When I name my hometown, they will accept my answer rather than asking “no, where are you really  from?”
  14. I will not be asked to spend my limited free time volunteering for [Minority]-in-Engineering programs.
  15. The professor wouldn’t be able to easily tell when I was absent from class.

This is a partially-remembered remix from a much longer list our class generated on Monday. My brainstorming group was (randomly) entirely composed of non-white women, which was an experience of its own — many of our items fit the format of “if I were white, people wouldn’t [do this negative thing they do to people of my minority group].” I personally struggled to think of anything that wasn’t in that format — white privilege, as opposed to non-white non-privilege that I then flipped into white privilege.

Another group entirely composed of white women was hard-pressed to think of white privilege, so they took male privilege (or rather, female non-privilege) and then tried to extend it to race — an interesting manifestation of intersectionality, that. It was like trying to see water while swimming; we could barely do it, and even if the words were written on the whiteboard in front of us, we kept forgetting them.

1, 2, 6, 8, 11, 12, 13, and 14 are mine, by the way. (I can’t claim uniqueness. Many of these were also independently brainstormed by others.)

It was only during the course of this discussion that I realized I was the only Asian in the class. We have two men (and a lot more women — interesting, that I know exactly how many men there are but not women — see #15), and perhaps a 50/50 breakdown between white women and nonwhite women, some American-born, some international. The race most of us would call “black” is disproportionately represented.

As I wrote that last paragraph, it felt vaguely wrong to categorize my classmates so clinically; these are all living, breathing people I appreciate and respect and am becoming increasingly close to. They’re so much more than “white American-born woman” — that phrasing stamps a clinical factuality of “truthiness” on their identity, an “oh they must be that way” association that I want to outright reject here. We so often describe people as “he/she is [category], but they’re [adjective]” — for instance, “she’s Asian, but she’s super-chill, she’s not one of those that studies all the time.” It’s almost like you start with an “Asian” template and then add/subtract customizations from that in order to get a person (like a Mel).

  • She’s female, but she likes martial arts and math and working on machines. (Implication: most people in the “female” category don’t.)
  • She’s Asian, but she doesn’t speak Chinese, and she often takes initiative without asking for permission. (Implication: that’s weird for an Asian person!)
  • She’s deaf, but she talks and lipreads and plays music and you can barely tell. (I can see why this surprises people, but the surprise does get old after a while.)

These template people walking around in our heads — the woman, the Asian — where do they come from?

Anyway. Generating that list made me realize I was the only Asian, because I’d see things others were writing on the board, and my brain would go:

BRAIN: [reading out loud from the board] People will not assume I’m bad at math because of my race.
MEL: But… people don’t assume I’m bad at math because of my race.
BRAIN: You don’t have this problem! So you have white privilege!
MEL: No, no, it’s the opposite problem — people assume I’m good at math because…
BRAIN: You’re Asian!
MEL: oh wait YES THAT’S RIGHT I had forgotten that.

It reminded me of how I often don’t realize I’m the only woman in a room. Since I can’t see myself, and I’m used to seeing white men around me, my subconscious goes “that’s right, we’re all white guys here, just like we are every day in Engineering-Land!” Until another woman/minority/etc walks into the room, that is.

BRAIN: Hey look, a woman in the room!
BRAIN: That’s so weird!
BRAIN: Waaaait.
MEL: Um, I’m female.
BRAIN: Now I feel weird being here. Oh man. Do I have to associate with her? Do I need to be her “girl buddy” now? Am I supposed to… argh, what do I do? Maybe the guys are also noticing I’m a girl! GAH! GAAHHH!
MEL: I… I wanted to do work? Can we focus on the work?

It’s distracting. I learned long ago to ignore it. Alas, this also meant I learned long ago to automatically ignore race, gender, etc. — which perpetuates any issues instead of addressing them. But it takes so much energy, this not-ignoring! Why should I be the one expending that energy? (Why can’t Other People Fix Everything? Boy, that’d be nice.)

Class, Race, & Gender in Engineering Edu: Race Reflections Week! (“Geez, why am I reflecting on my potential future kids so much?”)

This is a reflection for my “Class, Race, and Gender in Engineering Education” course with Alice Pawley. This week’s topic: race.

But first: a sidestep into disability. It’s hard to understate how thankful I am to Alice for getting transcripts for the radio shows the class listened to this week. I know it’s sad that my expectations for access are wired so low that the prospect of being able to do (not fake!) my audio-visual homework sends me into a thrall of joy, but it’s only through the actions of teachers like Alice, workshops like NextProf, hosts like Hacker School, and so forth that I’m able to recalibrate myself towards the notion that sometimes, the world can accommodate me. It’s hard, this rewiring into privilege. You don’t want to cause trouble; you know access that comes from outside you can also be removed from you at any time, and you don’t want to be reliant on them because — what if?

I know that there are echoes of some these things in racial privilege, and also that race and disability are completely different (but intersecting) form of kyriarchy — and I’ll leave you to your own thoughts on that. This is as good a way as any to launch into my reflections on the topic at hand.

Who decides who gets to belong to a racial group?

One radio show explored the Chukchansi, a Native American tribe with many poverty-stricken members, a casino, and the power to determine its own membership — situations not unique among Native American peoples, situations that emerged from government and tribe decisions over many years. It’s a math problem: if the casino earns $X, and there are Y members of the tribe, each member gets $X/Y in income. It’s also a membership problem: if a certain council decides that certain people are no longer tribe members, Y decreases, $X/Y increases, and the remaining tribe members earn more money. And so they do — person after person after person, decimating the tribe, multiplying their profits.

We’ll state — but leave aside for the moment — the question whether this contributes to a stereotypical portrayal of Native peoples as poor and viciously desperate for money.

But there’s the question of racial membership determination. If we assume Native peoples should have the power to determine their own membership — we could just as well assume otherwise, but let’s say we do — then who decides when “they” (a boundary — who’s the “they” who get to do deciding?) are using this “power” the “right” way? Whose values ought to be imposed? If there “should” be oversight, who “should” provide it? The tribe itself? The kicked-out former members? Other Native groups? Non-Native peoples? (How do we draw and determine and renegotiate the boundaries for all the groups we’ve just invoked?)

And what does it mean, getting “kicked out” of the tribe, when those people so ejected see it as an injustice, a misstatement of the “truth” of things? They speak their Native language, practice their Native ways; their own choice of identity remains solidly Native.

What if your race identity differs from your family’s?

Another radio show featured a family that was part black — but such a small part black that they could “pass” as white. Some of the children self-identified as black, others as white. It’s an old tradition dating back to before some of Thomas Jefferson’s part-black kids decided they were going to pass for white like dad. It’s also a good example of how race isn’t constructed by physical features; look, a white-skinned black person, an asian who looks hispanic, a native american with red hair. (I know one typically capitalizes “Asian” and “Hispanic” and so forth, but halfway through typing this sentence realized “wait, I didn’t do that for ‘white’ and ‘black,’ so what would happen if…?)

We pick our categories all the time. We know how other people see the groups we’re going to choose to identify with. I can be Asian, American, Asian-American, Chinese, Chinese-Filipino, Chinese-Filipino-American… which one gets me treated like an immigrant to my own country? Am I trying just a little bit too hard to assimilate? Which plays the sympathy your-family-comes-from-the-third-world card, and which makes people think I’m a rich foreign student? What language do I speak? Am I good at math? So, Mel/Mallory, what’s your real name — your Chinese name? (I sometimes have a hard time remembering what my Chinese name is.) Where are you from? No, I mean where are you from? No, I mean where are you really from? (Record so far: 5 times in a row before “Illinois” was accepted as an answer.) And it’s not just the social capital: what scholarship category are you going to lump me into?

With race, I have the luxury of choosing my descriptive word (sometimes), but I’ll always look Asian. With disability, I have the choice of which way to appear; I lipread well enough to play a (somewhat clueless) hearing person with an accent. Or I can say I have “a little hearing loss, but I’m ok.” Or that I’m hard-of-hearing or hearing impaired. Or deaf, or Deaf (the two are different). I have the privilege of saying nothing and having people assume I’m hearing by default, and oftentimes — as outspoken as I can be about my hearing now — I’ll take that privilege, because it’s much less effort in so many ways. (But: Scholarships! and Resources! for Disabled People! and also: Stereotypes! and Untrue Things! about Disabled People!)

And what can we choose about the race of others?

I get to choose, to some extent, the race my kids will be. They’re going to look part-Asian (assuming they are biological and not adopted), but the other part… Asian? Or something else? They’ll grow up with some Chinese-Filipino traditions, mostly because I like diniguan and think Simbang Gabi is beautiful and want to teach them through the burning of incense that we honor our ancestors the way the ancestors asked to be honored. But they’ll also grow up speaking English as one of their mother tongues, because it is their mother’s tongue — and they’ll grow up signing because otherwise I won’t be able to have conversations with my offspring until they’re 5 or so (I can’t hear kids’ voices) — and they’ll probably grow up in Western culture of some sort because I will go crazy in an Asian country.

But I can choose whether they get exposed to Mandarin as kids to forestall the dirty looks I’ve gotten as a Chinese-looking person who speaks awful, American-accented Chinese. And I can choose whether they look to all the world like mixed-race kids, or whether they look like they come from a Specific Somewhere larger than the home their father and I make for them. And if they’re mixed, I have the luxury of choosing which country they look mixed in, whether they’re surrounded by people who regard them as anomalies that should-not-quite-be, or whether mixed is normal. One of the weirdest parts of being in Germany this summer was realizing that nobody was staring at my half-Chinese, half-white-American nephew when we went out. Part of me wanted to shout “Hey, people! Do you not see this kid’s half-Asian?” and the other half was going “YES! It doesn’t MATTER here!”

It’s resource allocation time!

They’ll be my kids, no matter what race they are. But it does matter — at least for the census bureau, for school funding, for how the neighbor kids will treat them, for a lot of things – what race they are. Omi & Winant’s book Racial Formation in the United States: From the 1960s to the 1990s (2nd ed.) makes the point that race categorization (and other sorts of categorization, such as gender, sexuality, etc.) is important in our society because we’ve decided it partially determines how resources are allocated.

Of course, it takes a Really Dang Long Time to allocate resources to individuals. Too long. So we say all Black people are Black and all Hispanic people are Hispanic and so on, despite the tremendous range of diversity within each of those categories. And the categories are made up! “Hispanics” used to be “Persons of Spanish Mother Tongue” in the 1950 census, when the category was first created. The concept of the “Hispanic vote” did not exist, because “Hispanics” as a group did not exist; the individuals did, but they hadn’t assembled into the political power block they are today.

Which brings up another point: the lumping-together is a disempowering thing, but it can also be an empowering thing. “Asian Americans” united Japanese, Chinese, Koreans, etc. in the 1960′s who formerly didn’t see their interests as aligned. But by the 1980′s, they could protest the secret “Asian quota” (maximum) set by university admissions offices. And they could be incredibly stereotyped as studious and Good At Math… and if the Asians could do well in school despite a terrible school system, and the Jews could too, then the Chicanos must be lazy bums whose group norms don’t encourage academic performance. (I’m being sarcastic, by the way. This is the same argument that made me cross my own culture’s line of respect-to-elders and publicly contradict my grandmother.)

Categorization is a double-edged sword; you can put yourself in a box with some other people, but you don’t always get to choose the other things that other-other people throw into the box with you.

Why don’t they all assimilate? I mean, the Europeans did it.

Omi and Winant’s book explains something called “ethnicity theory,” which is based on the “immigrant analogy,” which was based on Europeans; if all these different Europeans integrated into America, can’t Black/Red/Yellow/Brown/etc people do the same?

Um, no. “American” culture was made by Europeans. Guess who’s going to have an easier time assimilating into it? Yep. Europeans. (I mean, eventually. Let’s not forget the way this country used to treat Irish. Or the Italians. Or the Polish, or the…) The argument “the white people did it, why can’t you?” sounds to me like the argument of “well, all these guys fit into engineering just fine, why can’t all these women?”, which in turn sounds to me like “I got this suit custom-tailored to my individual body shape! Why can’t you wear it and look awesome? Wait, why… why don’t you want to wear it? It looks great on me!

Further uncomfortable thoughts await!

But I don’t have time/room/space/RSI-buffer left to write about them here and now. A sample, though:

  • Is race/class a zero-sum game? If rich (or white) people win, do poor (or colored) people always lose the same amount? (What does it look like in a world(view) that is not zero-sum?)
  • How bothered I always am in Manila when I, a casually-dressed Chinese-looking stranger, stroll through the gates of my grandmother’s subdivision… as Filipino workers, some of whom are more well-dressed than I, some of whom probably pass these gates far more often than I do, are stopped by the gun-wielding guard at the door for an ID check.
  • The phenomena (described by Omi & Winant) of wealthy whites moving into suburbs where they can take care of themselves — local property taxes support local schools and so on — leaving racial minorities and the poor behind in the big cities and effectively withdrawing federal support from them. For one: is that “bad”? (Why? What’s “bad” about it?) and two: I keep seeing the shiny subdivisions in the Philippines where my family lives in nice houses behind barbed wire.
  • Omi & Winant also point out that viewing racial status as “victimization” was actually a triumph — before then, killing/enslaving natives/Africans/etc. was just the natural order of things, something those people deserved. Seeing it as wrong and victimizing was a step forward. I see it as only a starting point, though (and I think they do as well).

I say “uncomfortable” because I was surprised at how strong my emotional reactions on this topic have been — in an academic discussion, where the readings and the conversation came from the safe place of intellect, these things have still found ways to reach me. And “race” isn’t even my biggest bugaboo; I’m from a privileged class (the middle one) and a privileged race (Asians have “positive” stereotypes compared to most racial minorities). What’s going to happen when we hit gender? What’s going to happen if I try to tackle disability? (We’ve seen these two are like a giant volcano locked behind a thick steel door for me. Oh, yeah. STEEL DOOR.)

I found that in order to engage intellectually, I had to let myself feel emotionally. That I could not only engage intellectually — that cutting off that part of my humanity would be a different sort of wrong. And so I had to read slowly, and pause, and let myself race through parts, and let myself loop back through parts, and let myself stop and rant and rage and then go back and circle through and ask “why are you so bothered by this, Mel Self?” It’s not that “self-therapy” was the goal, but… I found that it was a means, a necessary stage and step and tool, towards my actual goal of the beginnings of good solid intellectual engagement.

Because my brain is connected to the rest of me.

And because the rest of me — actually, all of me — has a race, and experiences shaped and defined by that race, and how other people have seen and treated that race.  And I like being all of me at once, all that I am.

I’ll end with one of my favorite quotes from Omi & Winant (p. 158): To oppose racism one must notice race.

Aaaand… that’s a wrap.

Citations (for Alice)

Tribes (Part 1: I know I am, but what are you?). (2013, March 29). This American Life. WBEZ. Retrieved from

As Black As We Wish To Be. (2012, November 28). State Of The Re:Union. Retrieved from

Omi, M., & Winant, H. (1994). Racial formation in the United States: from the 1960s to the 1990s (2nd ed.). New York: Routledge.

Class theory in engineering education (notes 2 of 2, “AAH we’re perpetuating it!” and “whoa intersections with deafness!” edition)

“Social Class and the Hidden Curriculum of Work” by Jean Anyon fascinated me so much that I would love to sketchnote it sometime, but in the absence of time to do so: Anyon studied 5th grade classes at a number of schools, and observed a “hidden curriculum” — just like the heavily-conditioned kids in the dystopian novel Brave New Worldchildren are being taught not just how to do math or write, but how to do math as members of the worker class, the middle-class, the professional class, or the elite class… depending on the occupations of the parents of the students at each school.

Working class students are taught to do work as “following the steps of a procedure” (p.73). It’s mechanical, rote, and based on the teacher’s instructions. You aren’t evaluated on correct answers so much as you are on whether you follow the correct steps (from the teacher’s instructions). ”Remember, when you do [long division], it’s the same steps over and over again — and that’s the way division always is.” (p. 74)  Teachers control classroom time, space, and materials: students need to sit still and ask permission to move. Classroom equipment “belongs” to the teachers, who will order students to get “my garbage can.” And it is an order; there’s no would-you-please, could-you-please, if-you-like. (It reminds me, actually, of a lot of education in the Global South.) They’re being taught to take orders… but also how to subtly sabotage those orders by following them too slowly, complaining about them, and other forms of resistance that adult factory workers carry out against their management.

Middle class students are taught to do work and get the right answer, usually from books or the teacher. There’s some degree of choice: as long as the kids get the right long division answer and can explain how, they can do it the long way, the short way, or in their head. Lessons are textbook-based. Controversy is avoided, especially visible in history classes, because parents might complain.”What has happened in the past, and what exists now may not be equitable or fair, but (shrug) that is the way things are, and one does not confront such matters in school.” (p. 78) Creativity/self-expression exists, but peripherally; it is on the side, for fun. These kids are developing a bureaucratic relationship to capital. Do your job, know the answers/procedures, and you’ll get paid.

Affluent professional students do independent, creative work. It’s important whether they’re satisfied with their work outputs or not, and “when right answers are called for [as in math], it is important that the children decide on an answer as a result of thinking about the idea involved in what they’re being asked to do.” (p. 80) An example is given of a language arts lesson where children remix the punctuation in a book excerpt and discuss how satisfied they are with how it sounds — in contrast to the middle class classroom where the goal would be “getting it right” (aka “imitating the book”),  the book here isn’t “The Right Answer,” but rather simply a point of comparison. In contrast to the working class students, the teacher primarily “controls” the class by trying to have them understand the consequences of their actions, and allow the children to negotiate with them on what will be done. This trains them to have an instrumental/expressive relationship to capital as adults: they may need to negotiate for resources to do their projects, but then their project work will be largely autonomous and self-determined (as with, say, engineers).

At the executive elite school, the development of analytical intellectual powers is emphasized. Children move freely through the school space. Creativity, critical thinking, and individuality is emphasized. Not only do teachers ask students to come up with sample test questions, they critique those questions: ”That’s just fact. If I asked you that question on a test, you’d complain it was just memory! Good questions ask for concepts.” (p. 84) This is the only school that teaches students how to manipulate the “socially legitimated tools of analysis of systems” (p. 89) — the only school that specifcially teaches students that the system is a system to be shaped and gamed by them, because these kids will be the owners of capital when they grow up; their parents manage hedge funds, run multinational companies, and that sort of thing.

My take on this: lower-class students are all steered away from mastery-gaining behaviors. I’m a fan of the Dreyfus model of skill acquisition, as anyone who’s read any research I’ve ever done will know. That model describes the journey towards mastery as an increasing grasp of context. Novices follow rote instructions, blind to the bigger picture around them. Experts move freely through a world they hack. By Anyon’s description, the students with “executive elite” parents are being groomed for expertise, where as the children of “working class” parents are penalized for exhibiting anything other than novice behavior. Hm.

Now, this is interpretative research – it’s painting a somewhat oversimplified picture of what the researcher was probably looking for in the first place. I do wish contradictory evidence had been included, and that there were more disclaimers that the story was simplified. But it’s a good primer nevertheless.

On a more personal note, I think my hearing trumped the “class” I would have otherwise been educated in. My parents would probably now be classified as “executive elite” or “affluent professional,” but when I was young we were pretty solidly middle-class immigrants from a third-world country whose school system is largely of the working-class mentality. But I was deaf! So even as a little kid, I got asked by teachers to “hack my system” all the time — to tweak the rules, to work around the situation, to do whatever worked for me so I could learn without needing to hear. And so when I got older and went to a magnet high school and an excellent engineering college, I slipped right into the “higher-class” pedagogy because I was used to hacking my universe. (I also thought that people would only “hack the universe” if they were broken. It didn’t quite occur to me that the universe could be broken, and I could be making it better.)

This reading isn’t about engineering per se, but it’s got a ton of applications to engineering education. Why do the undergrad engineering stories of state school students sound so different from MIT, Olin, and Harvard students, and how does that affect the jobs we get, the expectations we have of our employment environment, the way we think “school ought to be”? What effect might the elimination of full-scholarships-for-all at Olin have on the class background of the students coming in — and why do working-class students sometimes struggle (especially in the beginning) with Olin’s super-independent, super-creative pedagogy? Why might activities like Honors classes or creative-style engineering projects (like engineering community service capstones, build-a-racecar teams, and so on) or startup incubators be populated mostly with affluent students? What sorts of signifiers gain you social capital in what realms of engineering — following orders? Disobeying them?

I also found myself thinking, unavoidably, about how I want to raise and teach my kids someday. I… I don’t know. I want them to be hackers of the universe, to see the world as something big that’s theirs to wander and explore. But I also don’t want them to take that perspective for granted and dismiss those who don’t share it, which is something that really frustrates me about some of my classmates at the “excellent” schools I’ve gone to (no, not everyone looks at a computer and thinks “IT IS MINE AND I CAN MAKE THE THINGS I WANT ON IT!” — first of all, not everyone has a computer, and secondly because sometimes you get drilled to think the computer is for Doing Things Grownups Tell You To Do…). My worldview spans and sympathizes with a lot of these perspectives because of how I grew up between cultures and between classes — I’ve thought, at one point or another, that all these schooled relationships to capital were basically normal — but my life’s been such a weird individual path that I can’t really replicate it for my kids (for one thing, my hearing’s not hereditary). So that’ll be an adventure, if and when it comes.

Class theory in engineering education: it’s actually a thing! (notes 1 of 2)

Class! It can mask and unmask race effects. (Ohland et al)

Race is correlated with matriculation and degree completion in engineering. In other words, if you’re white, you’re more likely to sign up to be an engineer your freshman year of college… and you’re more likely to graduate as an engineer, too. But Ohland and his coauthors managed to almost get rid of the race effect by sorting students by socioeconomic class. Turns out that when you sort engineering students by Peer Economic Status — not how rich their families were, but how rich their childhood classmates were (as measured by the proportion of free/reduced lunch recipients in their area), race matters a lot less.  Quote, p. 173: …once the model included PES, the size and significance of the effect of being Black diminished.

Men and women are also equally effected by Peer Economic status, meaning that being from a poor neighborhood doesn’t “hurt” women any more than men — at least in this dataset of large engineering-focused schools. Fascinating. That’s all from “Viewing Access and Persistence in Engineering through a Socioeconomic Lens” by Ohland et al, from the book Engineering and Social Justice: In the University and Beyond.

Engineers as a middle class: we become part of The System so we can benefit from it. (Zussman)

History lesson: Until the mid 1800′s, civil/mechanical engineers tended to be of upper-class birth and used their social networks to be entrepreneurs. In the late 1800′s, large electrical/chemical companies needed to hire tons of engineers, so they turned to land-grant colleges, which trained lower-class students to be engineers; these hired engineers worked within a bureaucracy instead of being entrepreneurial like their upper-class predecessors. (This section is all from a book chapter called “Engineers and the Middle Levels” by Robert Zussman.)

The massive influx of engineers created the potential for engineers to become a power base for political action: engineering associations started writing codes of ethics, politically-minded papers, and so forth. But this all died out by the mid 1920′s, and we were left with the compromise we have today: engineers are dependent on their employers for social standing and resources, so they sat down and shut up. Sure, they couldn’t easily strike out as “independent professionals” on their own… but they could climb the management ladder. From page 8, a gender-flipped quote: Now thoroughly dependent on the organization for her social standing, the engineer repaid it with her loyalty.

Now I move into my own speculation: this quote is more true nowadays for some engineering professions than others. As a software engineer, I actually own my own means of production — my $2k laptop. So I’m not quite a proletariat. I’ve worked for companies, but I’ve also worked as a free agent and know I could easily do so again, so I’m not particularly scared of poking at The Institution(s) in ways that might upset it. My housemate, on the other hand, is an aerospace engineer, and if NASA doesn’t hire her, she has no job — she can’t build a rocket on her own. She’s more symbiotically bound with bureaucracy than I am, and it’d be harder for her to take a different position than her employer.

Let’s Not Conveniently Ignore This Class Perspective Thing (Pawley)

Pawley’s paper from Library Quarterly, “Hegemony’s Handmaid? The Library and Information Studies Curriculum from a Class Perspective” comes from the perspective of LIS, or Library and Information Studies. However, tons of it can be applied to engineering. Pawley’s basic argument is that LIS researchers have ignored class perspective, and may unconsciously be reinforcing the status quo as a result.

A frequent lens in LIS is that of the “managerial perspective,” which uses scientific language to legitimize itself and has a dominant elite who decides what problems are worthy of solutions via mechanisms such as massive grants to library schools by large corporations. LIS curricula usually doesn’t talk about class divides, and if it does, that sort of thing belongs to fluffy elective classes like philosophy or things aimed towards marginalized populations. “Oh, you want to serve the poor? Ok, I guess we’ll talk about this in your Class About Libraries For Poor People.” It shifts the question of class outside the boundaries of “normal librarianship” and into the realm of Other. Serving Poor People is a great way to become a poor, margnialized librarian. On the other hand, you want to be a high-status librarian, you distance yourself from the hoi-polloi without LIS degrees who do menial tasks like (gasp!) shelving and associate with a Real Profession by studying law librarianship or medical informatics. Quote, p. 132: From a class perspective, this failure of LIS education to confront societal questions is a sign of the power of the dominant class to exercise hegemony.


Even the push towards computer literacy as The Next Big Thing is a class issue. We argue that information skills will help people get better jobs, but it’s not lack of computer knowledge that makes folks poor, it’s that their jobs don’t pay a lot. If everyone knew how to use computers, something else would become the dividing social line: it’s happened before with plain ol’ literacy. When everyone learned to read, the poor were still poor because they didn’t read the “right stuff.” It’s like grading on a curve. If everyone scores 10 points better, the grade distribution doesn’t change.

Pawley’s paper is a critical call for… if not action, then at least conscious thought. Are librarians consciously going to adopt class perspective? Will they risk losing the support of the “haves” as they try to spread the wealth of information to the “have nots”? Will they take a stand for equal access, including engaging in politics if they need to? Some librarians already have. Educated librarians are likely to follow the convictions of their education (for instance, librarians educated about censorship are more likely to resist censorship), so if the profession believes something is important, the LIS schools can do something about it.

Mashing up the Zussman and Pawley pieces means we ask the same questions about engineers and engineering educators. What do we, as a profession, believe in? Are we aware of how our choices and everyday actions as engineers replicate class divides in our society? And if we’re aware of that… are we ok with that, or should we do something to change the way things are?

Sketchnotes: “How To Be A High School Superstar” by Cal Newport

As the oldest of 14 grandkids on my mom’s side and the first in my extended family to grow up outside Asia, I’ve done a lot of “Schools! They’re Different In America!” coaching for my aunts and cousins. As an engineer, I’m big on optimizing systems that allow me to be lazy. So when I found Cal’s book in a used bookstore in Seattle and realized (1) it had a lot of my systems in it, (2) had improved upon most of them, and (3) was already written down, I did a little jig right there in the Bellevue strip mall. Here’s my new, more-efficient cousin-college-coaching system: I sketched my take on the book (below, in black-and-white and color versions, click to enlarge) and handed it to my cousin Mia, who’s entering her senior year of high school, instructing her to add her own thoughts and pass it to the next cousin in line when she was done.

Short version? Maximize your interestingness. If you have Asian(-style) parents, they may look at you funny because wait that’s not a real metric like GRADES AND STUFF!, so get your teachers/mentors to back you up. And if you’re related to us, feel free to point at me and Jason as case studies, because that’s what Big Cousins are for.




If a broke grad student can do it, you can too: donate to @adainitiative and patch the open world to be better for EVERYONE.

TL;DR – if my work in open source has helped you in some way, please donate to the Ada Initiative, which supports women in open technology and culture. Not convinced yet? Here’s why I donated.

There’s a world out there to patch. I love the universe of open technology and culture where I’ve built much of my career and friendships. It’s a wonderful world that can be wide and welcoming — but it also has horrific bug reports of sexual abuse and gender discrimination, along with many more that haven’t been reported out of fear and shame. I’ve lived a few not-so-good stories myself; some I’ve told, some I haven’t. What saddens me most, though, isn’t the bad stories that have happened; it’s the good ones that never will — stories of women and men working together to hack the universe in marvelous ways. If we want to see these stories happen, we’ve got to make a world where they can happen, a world where it’s safe for them to happen. Don’t WONTFIX that ticket; do something. When you care about something, you want to make it better.

We change the world with millions of tiny patches. I’m a grad student; money is tight, and my $64 contribution represents half a month of groceries. I was initially ashamed of my “tiny” contribution, even if it’s a nontrivial one for me. Then I remembered: our world of open technology and culture is built one patch, one line, one edit at a time — and that’s precisely why it’s powerful. It brings billions of tiny, ordinary moments together to transform the world. If we teach it for our code, we can preach it for our giving. If you’d buy me a drink, or treat an open source newcomer to dinner, send that $3-$20 to the Ada Initiative tonight.

Someone’s got to integrate these patches into a whole… and it’d be nice if they didn’t burn out in the process. Honestly? I support the Ada Initiative because it does this work so I don’t have to. I’m young and energetic, but I’m often wiped out just being a woman in open technology and culture. It’s not just physical and mental exhaustion; it’s emotional and psychological, which is worse. And being an activist is harder still. Do I agree with everything the Ada Initiative says or does? Nope. But it’s a job I want done, and I don’t want the job. This is why we hire maintainers for Free Software; we give them the gift of bandwidth so they can help us contribute more for a project with less effort by supporting and connecting our patches with the bigger picture. Val and Mary are good maintainers for feminism in our open universe — and I’d like more. After all, it’s a big world out there that we’ve got to work on.

The last day of their fund drive is tomorrow. (I’m coming late to the game; summer travel + school year start + RSI = no internet for Mel.) But it wasn’t too late for me to throw in my $64 patch this morning — and it’s not too late for you to contribute your patch today. If my work in open technology and culture has touched, helped, or inspired you in some way, please help me pay it forward and create a supportive, welcoming environment for everyone in the open world.

Reading notes: Culture & Power, Engineers & the “Working Middle Class”

Typed notes from class because I arrived on campus too late to sketch, may not be as interesting to others. This post does not contain notes from Contemporary Sociological Theory (Wallace & Wolf, 5th ed. 1999) because that ended up being a 1-page comic on Marxism that Alice is going to scan.

Culture & Power: David Swartz, 1997

This book is a homage to Pierre Bordieu, who argued that “education actually contributes to the maintenance of an inegalitarian social system by allowing inherited cultural differences to shape academic achievement and occupational attainment.” (p. 190). In other words, even if education presumably lets “anyone” play the game of getting-ahead-in-society, the rules of the game itself are set by those who are already ahead. The game-makers have created an education system that (1) conserves, inculcates, and consecrates a cultural heritage, (2) reproduces existing social-class relations, and (3) legitimizes them. I think the fuss over unschooling/badges/credentialing and other forms of adding formality to informal educational systems is in large part due to this: people are skipping around the system entirely, so the game-makers try to turn that skipping-around into a system of its own.

My favorite quote is on p. 191: “By consecrating the cultural heritage it transmits, the education system deflects attention from and contributes to the misrecognition of its social reproduction function.” (Bourdieu helped originate social reproduction theory, by the way.) A related quote: “Education’s virtual monopoly over recruitment, training, and promotion of personnel allows the educational system to adapt its programs and activities to its own specific needs for self-perpetuation.” (p. 206)

Sure, it’s possible for “disadvantaged” kids to make it — but they’re still disadvantaged. For instance, lower-class children are less likely to have access to language that sounds high-class and refined, which is the selection criteria for acceptance for things like literary studies. It’s true that social-class background effects lessen somewhat as you move into higher levels of schooling, mostly because the surviving lower-class students represent a highly select subgroup. But it’s still detectable. Lower-class students “smart” enough to make it to the upper echelons of schooling are much more “scholastic” in their cultural style than their higher-class classmates. They’ve somehow acquired a broad base of scholastic cultural capital, but don’t have broader cultural knowledge outside their studies — think of the stereotypes: the international student who wrecks the curve on math tests, but is lonely and isolated from her American classmates in the cafeteria because she doesn’t know the music, the culture, the way party invitations get handed out — or the scholarship kid who writes brilliant papers on the history of Scandinavian cuisine but fumbles awkwardly in his tuxedo when brought to a lobster dinner.

(I had a slight jolt of recognition on this part — growing up as a deaf nerd, I was a lonely kid who learned about the world through books. So while my adolescent self could tell you about the stages of foetal development in great detail — cell division, zygotes, Mendelian inheritance, DNA, the composition of amniotic fluid — I didn’t know sex existed until the assigned health class reading. My scholarly knowledge was great; my broader cultural knowledge was slim to nonexistent, both among my American classmates and my Chinese-Filipino family — whose Chinese dialect I never did manage to learn.)

A close second for favorite quote was on p. 197: “Whether students stay in school or drop out, and the course of study they pursue, Bourdieu argues, depends on their practical expectations of the likelihood that people of their social class will succeed academically.” This was the root of the first — and only — time I’ve (deliberately) flat-out gone against an elder in public: the ancestor in question had expressed views that people of group X didn’t seem to get that studying hard and getting a college scholarship was The Way To Success, with strong implications that group X was stupid/lazy. I stopped and argued that it made rational economic sense not to gamble on something long-term if (1)you had strong evidence that it was an impossibly long shot out of your control, and (2) it had a massive short-term opportunity cost (namely, less food for your hungry family right now).

My dissertation is on faculty development, so I started thinking: how does Bourdieu’s work apply to faculty development? He found a bipolar structure among French faculty: some (like natural sciences faculty) were scientifically dominant but socially subordinate, and others (law/medicine faculty) were the other way around. In other words, law/medicine professors tended to be richer and more politically powerful than, say, chemistry professors.

The middle levels: engineers and the “working middle class”, Robert Zussman, 1983

Zussman argues that engineers are a funny sort of middle class (based on a study of 40 engineers at 2 companies). Although only a few of the engineers in the study had formal “technical knowledge,” they were all valuable because of their “production knowledge” of how to get real things done in the factory. Compared to the factory laborers, they had a lot of autonomy; engineers were allowed to freely physically roam through the space, could decide when to work on which of their multiple projects, and were encouraged to initiate projects. While not the direct bosses of manual workers, they had authority over them via QA checks and so forth.

Zussman differentiates between the employment of engineers and manual laborers; engineering isn”t just a “job” like that of the manual laborers, where labor-time was simply exchanged for salary; it’s a “career” which lets you accumulates more skill/training/performance for future advancement possibilities. (Marx would disagree with this: since neither the laborers nor engineers own their “means of production,” they both belong to the proletariat.) The engineers in Zussman’s study described themselves as middle-class, complaining both about the lower-class (freeloaders who live off public handouts without working) and the wealthy (folks who use tax loopholes to avoid doing work).

Despite attempts to “professionalize” engineering in the mold of more “upper-class” professions like law and medicine in the 1930′s-1960′s, it never quite worked the same way. Unlike doctors and lawyers, engineers don’t have strong orientations to colleagues (rather than employers – also unlike doctors/lawyers, engineers don’t often have “private practices”) and the control over the right to practice, also known as “licensing.” I mean, they sort of do. And this article was written in the early 80′s, before little design firms started springing up everywhere. But it’s still hard to be a “freelance engineer” these days — generally, you need to be employed by a company to have access to what you need to make things.

Zussman’s 1983 article feels mostly current, but there are places it shows its age, as when it describes engineers as working  9-to-5 shifts like manual laborers, unlike doctors and lawyers with private practices who get called out at all hours of the day or night. Nowadays, flex time is a common benefit of engineering positions, and doctors increasingly giving up their private practices to work shift rotations in larger medical groups. Zussman’s article also shows its age when describing the international situation; he calls the concept of a “working middle class” something that is a “distinctively American concept, rooted in the long-standing absence of either working class or bourgeois class consciousness as acute as that found in Europe.” (p. 229) However, I feel the Western world has gotten a lot more like America in this regard, and that America itself has shifted working middle class culture a lot because of the rise of the “creative class.”

Engineering Education Discourses on Representation: Why Problematization Matters (Beddoes, 2011)

Alice Pawley asked us to take reading notes for her “Gender, Race, & Class in Engineering Education” course. Naturally, mine come out in visual form. (Click to enlarge.)

Here’s Kacey Beddoes’ 2011 article unpacking how we talk about (under)representation in engineering education, questioning our habits of thought and where they come from. Beddoes mostly focuses on gender, but her article is relevant to race/age/ethnicity/class/etc. too. The full article is open-access and worth reading if you’ve ever noticed we make the same arguments for diversity-in-technology over and over again (“Because it’s just and fair to have more Hispanics in STEM!” “Because disabled people will bring empathy to our field!” “Because more female engineers will help our country be competitive!”) and wondered where those arguments come from and what they might be sweeping under the rug. After all, as a disabled minority woman, I’d like to think I’m more than just a warm engineering body that can Help My Company Compete… and I don’t know I’m actually more nurturing/empathetic/whatever than some of the awesome white able-bodied guys I work with.



EduPsych for Python Hackers 2.0: revised, expanded, updated

EduPsych for Python Hackers 2.0 is about to go live in Toronto in 45 minutes, which means it’s time to upload slides! Questions, comments, etc. welcome as usual. This is an expanded, revised version of the previous EduPsych-For-Hackers talks I’ve given, so if you’ve seen both, I’m curious what you think of the changes.

Also: my parents will be in the audience for the first time (since I started speaking over half a decade ago), so they get a special call-out on slide 29.

Ok, off to hyperventilate!

PyCon Toronto 2013: EduPsych Theory for Python Hackers 2.0 from Mel Chua