Posts that are engineering edu-ish

First, funny stuff: Genderbread Person and APA sexuality definitions


I’m chunking this week’s reading reflections for “Class, Race, & Gender in Engineering Education” based on reading, because my reactions to each one are quite distinct.

The first one is the most lighthearted: the Genderbread Person 2.0, a way to explain (to beginners) various aspects of sexuality and gender that fits on one page and is cute. Like all models, it’s limited — a compromise between simplification for quick communication across diverse contexts and the complexity of the world it’s trying to reflect. If you have time and interest, the comments section is a good way to get into respectful dialoguing on a messy topic where we can’t simply say “AHA: this is the capital-T TRUTH, and we are DONE.”

And that’s one of the things I appreciate the most about this resource. It is unashamedly a work in progress, a model that admits that it (and all following models) have and will have imperfections, that we can and will keep trying but that not everything will be accurately described or feel represented by it — but the trying is the way we keep succeeding. It’s not something we succeed at by “finishing up” and putting aside as “done.” This is hard. I feel the pull towards the “Engineering Thinking” that the world consists of Problems that are Solved and then are Finished, and you can’t Succeed at something until it is Finished — so this “gender” topic feels like it is constantly within the category of not-success, which means it feels like failure.

My personal “hm, could be improved” notes on Genderbread Person 2.0 are that an individual can feel spread-out on a spectrum (not just confined to a point on it), and that these smears change over time and with context (I perform more masculinity in technical meetings than in family reunions, but I used to perform more masculinity in technical meetings when I was younger). Also, the expression (or “performativity,” which is the more academic-sounding theory-word) of each element is independent; one could perform biological sex but not gender identity, and so on. Finally, I agree with comments differentiating sexual from romantic attraction; it’s possible to be bisexual (physically attracted to men and women) and homoromantic (romantically/emotionally attracted only to the same gender), or heterosexual and heteroromantic (most people, or at least the “default” setting our society expects), or demisexual and heteroromantic (me, I think; still figuring it out).

However: Genderbread Person == awesome starter resource. It’s the sort of thing I could print out and talk about with my parents (conservative Chinese Catholics) over the dinner table with the awkwardness mitigated somewhat by the cuteness of the — I mean, look at it! Awwww. (And this is my strategy as well: I tackle complex research topics… with cartoons! Without, I hope, pretending that the “real” picture is as complex as the cartoon — the cartoon is the simple entry-level door into a complicated conversation.)

If you’d like a primer on some of the terms in the Genderbread Person diagram, the APA (American Psychological Association) has good short (Sexual Orientation, Transgender, and Intersex topics. They’re not perfect, but hey; they’re complex topics discussed in 6 pages, so give ‘em a break. They do take the “scientific” voice of “neutral” authority — by this I mean they say things like “there is no scientific support for…” (as if science were the Legitimizing Force of Truthiness). It’s not a criticism of the choice of voicing, by the way — just an observation that this was the voice that was (likely deliberately) chosen. Sometimes we use the power of Authority to open up a space so people can consider possibilities within it without being buffetted by (quite as many) stormy winds in the meantime.

And in the intersectionality space, the APA Transgender materials sound a lot like arguments I’ve heard in Disability Land. Is being transgender a mental disorder? “Some contend that the diagnosis inappropriately pathologizes gender noncongruence and should be eliminated,” says the APA. “Others argue that it is essential to retain the diagnosis to ensure access to care.” Is deafness a disability? If not, how would we ask for resources for things like ASL interpreters?

A lot of times it’s easier to just not ask, not rock the boat. So thanks, Genderbread Person and things like that, which do a little bit of gentle boat-nudging in a playful, so-cute-it-makes-you-seem-mean-to-criticize-it-nonconstructively sort of way.

References (for Alice, my professor, who is reading this as a homework assignment):

Killermann, Sam. “The Genderbread Person V2.0.” It’s Pronounced Metrosexual, March 2012. http://itspronouncedmetrosexual.com/2012/03/the-genderbread-person-v2-0/.

American Psychological Association. (2008). Answers to your questions: For a better understanding of sexual orientation and homosexuality. Washington, DC: Author. [Retrieved from www.apa.org/topics/sexuality/sorientation.pdf.]

American Psychological Association. (2011). Answers to Your Questions About Transgender People, Gender Identity, and Gender Expression. Washington, DC: Author. [Retrieved from www.apa.org/topics/sexuality/transgender.pdf.]

American Psychological Association. (2006). Answers to Your Questions About Individuals with Intersex Conditions. Washington, DC: Author. [Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/topics/sexuality/intersex.pdf.]


Call for ideas: help design a “Gender/Race/Class” class on “interrupting the discourse that perpetuates inequity”


Our “Gender/Race/Class in engineering education” class has an “open topic” period that I’ve volunteered to help design… which means I’m going to Ask The Internet for help. (Hi!)

Based on our class discussion just now, we are interested in tackling this question: How do we interrupt the discourse that perpetuates inequity in engineering education? (Subquestions: who has access to this discourse as a listener? A speaker? What is that access based on — gender, race, class… age? geography? language? disability? intersections of any subset of that? What strategies do we have for doing this dialogue-interrupting work in professional and personal contexts?)

The course will be Monday, November 18, which is 2 weeks from now. We’re mostly PhD students in engineering education (technical backgrounds, social science research interests, lots of future engineering professors who care deeply about teaching). We have 3 hours in class, plus the ability to ask people to read a reasonable amount (<100 pages, English) before class. I’d love to hear thoughts, especially half-baked ones, on:

  • “learning objective” suggestions — in other words, what do we want to learn during the course of the 3 hours? (Can be fact-based, skill-based, emotion-based, perspective-expanding-based…)
  • “assessment” suggestions — given those learning objectives, how will we tell (at the end of the 3 hours) whether we’ve learned them, and how well? Does not need to be a test; could be questions for reflection on our own, etc.
  • Reading suggestions — scholarly or not. (For instance, Alice Pawley has offered to let us read her CAREER proposal on feminist engineering — a short, highly competitive grant for junior scholars whose committee was probably not used to getting “feminist” proposals.)
  • Activity suggestions — discussions, games to play, short bits of theatre to act out and/or improvise upon, provocative question prompts, etc…

Potential inspiration: our guiding question/framing about “interrupting discourse” came from a discussion on “how do we talk to people about this?” and an interest in intersectionality, especially with disability/access. I’m personally curious about the history of opening these dialogues in STEM: who (tenured? white? male? western?) started the conversations about women in physics, minority races in computing, wheelchair-accessible chemistry labs, etc — and when, and how, and what were the responses?

Comment away! I will post readings (or reading notes, if readings are not freely available), discussion questions/guidelines, and a story of what happened in the class once we run it — basically, whatever I can do to make the experience we’re creating here available and reusable by more people.


A book review in comic form: The alphabet vs the goddess


(The actual comic is at the end. Scroll to skip my ramble.)

I had to summarize a book related to Gender, Race, and/or Class for homework, and came across The Alphabet vs the Goddess, which intriguingly purported to show how feminine/holistic/visuals lost out against its binary complement of masculine/linear/words in spirituality, science, politics, and everything else under the sun. Knowing nothing other than that (gleaned from the blurby back cover), I borrowed the book from Alice and flew to NYC the weekend before the thing was due, intending to do my summary as feminine/holistic/visuals in order to play with whatever points the book was going to make about it.

The book turned out to be full of masculine/linear/words, an irony that did not escape me. Irate at the self-reflexivity of the book, Mel-commentary exploded all over my “summary,” turning it into a book review. It’s not a bad book, I just… why is this a bestseller? It has interesting ideas from an obviously very smart and curious author, but that’s what it is: a semi-researched, not-particularly-backed-up braindump of (eloquently-phrased) thoughts that sound more solid (thanks, eloquent phrasing!) than they actually are under scrutiny.

For instance: the author mentions that printing presses — which used both the force of compression and the material of linen strips — arrived in China around the same time female footbinding (which used both the force of compression and the material of linen strips), and goes on about the agonizing pain of young girls! in such vivid prose that it’s easy to forget that correlation and causation are not the same thing. Harold Hill’s character in The Music Man used the same tactic: “You’ve got trouble / Right here in River City / with a capital T and that rhymes with P and that stands for POOL!” (For those unfamiliar with the tactic, think: does the fact that the first letter of a word rhymes with T make that thing inherently troublesome?) Here, we’ve got Trouble with a capital T and that rhymes with P and that stands for Printing… and I don’t buy it.

Anyway. My book review was full of the following sentiment: I wanted to like this book and I do like parts of it but BOY does it overstep with NO DISCLAIMERS on the boundary between backed-up arguments and the author’s personal poetic conjectures.

Not that my book review itself is spotless. I like the first page a lot — and then my own argument goes awry, and the pieces seem disconnected to me, in part because I didn’t want to do it in sequential comic-frame format, in an attempt to swing way to the feminine/holistic/visual side of that binary the author sets up so strongly. It’s pretty reflexive. It’s also very much a “look, Mel’s experimenting with a new format!” experiment. I am proud of the way I thought of to do citations of a visual work (on the last page of the pdf).

I’m still trying to figure out how to best store/catalogue my (growing) collection of sketches so it’s easy for people to access it, so here’s an experiment: evernote embedding. (I have a nagging suspicion this might force browsers to download the entire pdf to view this page, but if so, I will leave this up as a concrete example of my terrible mistake.)


Reflections on the role I take at Hacker School


Now for a more traditionally-formatted reflection for that reflections seminar class, this one on a specific experience at Hacker School (HS), a 3-month program that’s like “a writer’s retreat for programmers.”

What happened and how did it feel? I landed in Manhattan on Sunday afternoon and went straight into a pow-wow with the HS staffers over cheese and crackers and large sheets of butcher paper with colored markers in the back room. I was there for my second round as a Resident — what universities would call “visiting faculty.” Like the other Residents who’d be visiting later in the batch, I was an experienced programmer with a long history of contributions in the open source world. Unlike the other Residents, I studied Education Stuff as my Day Job, and thus felt a bit like an impostor. Since I started my PhD in Engineering Education at Purdue, I’ve felt, nervously, like I wasn’t a “real hacker” any more but rather “just” someone who studied them and how they learn.

Hacker School, however, has a way of making me feel instantly ok with that tension. We sat down and got right to business with the brisk comfort of those with an Understanding Between Them. One of the first things they asked me for was for more “pedagogy magic.”They didn’t know specifically what they wanted, but they knew they wanted to Learn More about Teaching and Learning, so that they could Get Better at it. Normally, this sort of phrasing drives me nuts — but in this context, it did not. Honest. I’m not trying to make HS look good here; I’m trying to write out what I felt. I knew their vagueness wasn’t some “Mel, be a Magic Wand and Fix Everything!” request for a silver bullet, but rather the careful considerations of people who know that they don’t know what they don’t know, who trust you to pick up on that, and who you completely trust to improvise with you in ways that turn out things that are unknown, but Very Good.

“I don’t know what you need,” I told them, “and I think we’ll need to do this stuff in context, so why don’t you talk about what you’re doing and then as Pedagogy Stuff crops up, I’ll pull it out?” I don’t even know if we took the moment to nod before we got to work (have I mentioned I love working with these people?) but within minutes we were full-out in the flow of improvisational expertise. At some point, we started talking “philosophy” — the question of “what makes a good student [at HS]” came up, and it became clear this was a frustrating topic for the facilitators, who knew they had to tackle it somehow but also wanted to Take Concrete Actions — an itch I sympathize with as a hacker myself.

It was surprising how natural the next thing felt: I started thinking of “what makes a good Hacker Schooler?” as a research/design question, and looked for ways to ground the exploration of that question in data. Without getting into too much detail: I asked the faculty to think of specific students they’d had in the past, and what was wonderful about those students, and what was frustrating. We came up with qualities drawn directly from their shared experiences, and rephrased and categorized our way towards personas, and it felt right, and I kept getting told how Wonderfully Helpful all this was.

Analyzing. Am I most useful to the hacker world as someone who is not a hacker in the normal sense — not working directly on technology — but as someone who hacks… hackers? A researcher of hackers, someone who deliberately chooses to stand on the side and not jump in with the messiness of making things that (for many hackers) characterizes what it means to be a hacker at all?

And if so, how do I feel about that? It certainly feels normal, natural, comfortable — I slipped into it here almost without realizing it. I feel empowered, strong, useful, functional, good. I fit into that researcher-of-hackers role in a way I never quite fit as someone who “just” wrote code. It is important that I do and have written plenty of code, know the technical roles from the inside — I would not understand the learning of hackers the same way if I’d never learned those things that way myself. But I am decidedly with at least one foot outside that world right now.

It is gratifying to discover that the things that are now obvious to me (thank you, Olin and Purdue!) are not obvious to others; that not everyone knows design and research technique, that it can be something I teach and something that’s very empowering to the people I work with. It’s also confusing to re-realize that you’ve rewired yourself so much that you are, once again, an oddball among oddballs, a someone characterized by being the “one of these things that’s not like the other” (to hum along to the old Sesame Street song). That you’re most useful when you are… a freak.

A useful freak.

A happy useful freak.

Next steps. I like this role, and I will play with it; I will acknowledge that the boundaries and definitions that I set here (hacker vs nonhacker, hacker vs researcher, hacking as “only” coding — or not! — and so on) are constructed, shifting, arbitrary, not platonic absolutes dropped down from heaven. Putting on the researcher hat gives me a particular sort of positionality that prevents me from being a “normal hacker” or a “normal student,” but I’ll play with it for now, with the knowledge that I can always take that hat off and become a “normal hacker” again. I’ll think about how to do research in a way useful to the people learning and working at HS — I’ll see that as my role for now — and talk with everyone as if it is, and thus it shall become so. And we’ll see what happens, and I’ll use my usefulness and comfort as a gauge for when I should evaluate or re-evaluate that call.


This American Life’s episode on Testosterone: quotes that struck me


I got ahead on course reading while I was in New York for research last week, specifically This American Life’s episode on Testosterone. (Testosterone. (2002, August 30). WBEZ.) This is a podcast, so it’s “course listening” for my classmates, but I’m deaf, so it’s “course reading” for me. Here are the portions of the transcript that struck me the most, along with my reactions. 

(Man who lived for several months without testosterone due to a medical condition) People who are deprived of testosterone don’t become Spock-like and incredibly rational. They become nonsensical because they’re unable to distinguish between what is and isn’t interesting, and what is worth noting and what isn’t.

I’m reminded of something Tim Coulter showed me when he taught me how to do QA years ago: how do we recognize a bug? It’s the thing that makes our emotions flare when we look at code or its output. In short, emotions. We think of programming, technology, debugging, as this activity we can do independent of emotions or any of that messy stuff. But how do we choose what things are important to do, how is it that certain things grab us more than others? Emotions. Values. That “messy stuff.”

Q: (Transgender man describing his experience upon first taking testosterone) And I walked past her. And this voice in my head kept saying, turn around to look at her breasts. Turn around, turn around, turn around. And my feminist, female background kept saying, don’t you dare, you pig. Don’t turn around. And I fought myself for a whole block, and then I turned around and checked her out… now I’m just a jerk.

How does this intersect with agency? We tell people (especially young ones, especially men) to “control themselves” (especially when it comes to sex), as if their libido were some animal they were responsible for keeping on a leash. Perhaps with great effort, perhaps only with the barest of margins… and perhaps sometimes accidents would happen, that animal would surge beyond their control. Their fault? Depends.

(Same transgender man) Something that happened after I started taking testosterone, I became interested in science. I was never interested in science before. (Interviewer: No way. Come on. Are you serious?) I’m serious. I’m serious. (Interviewer: You’re just setting us back a hundred years, sir.) I know I am. I know. Again, and I have to have this caveat in here, I cannot say it was the testosterone. All I can say is that this interest happened after T. There’s BT and AT, and this was definitely After T. And I became interested in science. I found myself understanding physics in a way I never had before.

I don’t know how to react to this one. I’m tempted to say it’s limited evidence, N=1, sweep it under the rug, but that’s dismissive in a way I don’t want to be. I’ll leave my discomfort at that, leave that door open.

(Same transgender man) And now I’m five foot four, and I work out, but I’m not real muscular. And I’m pretty small. I’m pale-skinned, and my hair has started to thin. And I’ve got glasses. And of course, I’m also, I’m a sensitive guy now. I used to be the butch dyke. And I was seen as very aggressive. And I was more masculine in many ways, outwardly, anyway, before testosterone. And now I don’t have to prove anything. So I can lay back and talk with my hands and all that stuff that you’re not supposed to do.

Here’s another instance of the idea of performativity; before this man “became male,” he was a she, and she performed he-ness as a butch dyke — making sure people treated “her” as belonging to certain categories, perceived “her” in certain ways. Now, as a male, and someone outwardly perceived by default as male, he doesn’t need to engage in “butch” behavior to earn “male” treatment… and he doesn’t. Someone who was “very masculine” (butch) on the female spectrum — but still female — has become “very feminine” on the male spectrum — but still male.

The mental model here is that of assuming (or being thrust into) a certain category with certain base attributes inherited, and then using performance to add/subtract qualities from that base set until the desired effect is accomplished. It’s very much like playing an RPG: you start off as an Elf or a Troll or a Human, and then use your points to build atop that. Most people try to start with the base category closest to their desired end goal so they don’t have to spend as many points to get there (and can spend those points on cool armor or something instead). It’s one mental model of many, and it’s interesting that this particular interviewee seems to exhibit this one.

In writing about these topics, I keep using words like “interesting” that do not quite satisfy me, but I do not yet have a better way to talk about something without immediately jumping into the space of value judgments and action. I need words that let me stay as an observer, taking things in, reacting within myself, trying not to judge for a moment because my judgements may change in that moment (including changing into things that aren’t judgments… although I’m not sure what non-judgment things they may change into). But it’s in this sort of messy iterating, struggling, trying, reading, listening — it’s these cycles and this spiral learning that get us (somehow, eventually) to a place of being “better” at “doing it.” Whatever that means.

And that’s… what I’ve got to say about that.


Notes on “Short Introductions: Gender” by Raewyn Connell – red and blue and paint mixing


Let me start off with Connell’s definition of gender: “Gender is the structure of social relations that centres on the reproductive arena, and the set of practices that bring reproductive distinctions between bodies into social processes.” (p. 11)

Now let me try something different for reading notes on this book: instead of a frantic attempt to discuss all my exhaustive thoughts on it, what if I (gasp) prioritized and didn’t say everything?

Connell, R. (2009). Gender: in world perspective. Cambridge: Polity.

I’d like to focus my reflections here on two related points: first, that gender ultimately refers to reproductive differences (male/female), and that language and gender (and performativity) are inexorably intertwined.

On page 42, Connell brings up Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble, which rocked the 1990′s gender-research world: “Gender is performative, bringing identities into existence through action, rather than being the expression of some pre-existing reality.” This is exactly what p. 18-19 illustrate when telling the story of Mpondo migrant mine workers and their families, who saw ubudoda (manhood) as something that women could — and did — possess, managing households and holding together rural communities in the absence of their men, who were working in the city mines. The women performed masculinity.

That last sentence, “the women performed masculinity,” could be seen in a number of different ways. If we think of gender as a pre-existing reality, ubudoda would be something the women “put on” in a sort of… deceptive, or false, or somehow lesser way. Performances are fake. “Real” members of a group don’t need to “perform” membership in that group. However, if gender is a performance by everyone in the first place (how else do you see outward signs of group membership?), the womens’ performance was no more or less “true” than the performance of masculinity by men.

I nearly typed “actual men” in that last sentence, and wonder how it’d change the meaning of the sentence if I did — acknowledging the many people in the world who don’t identify as one side or the other of a neat male/female binary. This is one reason I stumble over Genesis 1:27:

So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.

Do we read these words and infer a binary — “a bucket for male and a bucket for female he created, and in one bucket or another he created each individual human being, and if you’re not neatly in one bucket or the other you’ve got it wrong“?

Or do we read them and infer a spectrum — “maleness and femaleness he created, and with some mixture of the two he created each individual human being”?

Or do we read them and think about something else entirely — “maleness and femaleness and hey who knows what other things he created…”

There are an infinite number of ways to express femininity and womanhood, but there are also an infinite number of shades of red. Do we say:

  • There is one shade of red (pure red) and one shade of blue (pure blue) and everyone is either red or blue.
  • There are infinite shades of red and infinite shades of blue, but everyone is either (some sort of) red or (some sort of) blue.
  • Whoa, purple!
  • Whoa, yellow!

My understanding of Connell’s take on Butler is that we, each of us, mix our own colors constantly throughout life, based on what we want to show others on our canvas.


Scattered notes on race in engineering education: stereotype threat, Asians as model minority, racism-without-racists, OLPC


I’m finally typing up these “Class, Race, & Gender in Engineering Education” reflections after spending far too long mulling over how to write up my conversations with Andrew around them. When an old engineering college friend (who happens to be a straight, white, able-bodied young Protestant man) visits your class on such a topic (and you’re a young deaf Asian Catholic woman), really interesting ponderings result.

First, quick reactions to the readings of the week.

Steele, C. M., & Aronson, J. (1995). Stereotype threat and the intellectual test performance of African Americans. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 69(5), 797–811.

I’ve read this and many related articles before, but never with such focus; I’ve always quickly skimmed and skipped to the conclusions. This time, for whatever reason, I paid attention to the (lengthy) methods section. From a writing point of view, I appreciate the narrative style which unravels their train of thought; “We tried experiment X, and ended up with these questions. So we modified the protocol and did experiment Y. But experiment Y could have had these results for some other reason, so to rule them out, we tried experiment Z…” It’s a good representation of the wonderful journey of puzzling-outness that research is.

But yeah. Stereotype threat. It’s a thing. Sorry, Alice. My reflections on this reading are pretty shallow, because I have other reading notes and reflections on it — “I’ve done this before.” I’ve pulled below one snip from my readiness assesment notes, from a section on how the “lurking” behavior afforded by radical transparency is a “participation cost reducer” for peripheral novice participants. I don’t go all the way to point out that being able to lurk and (therefore not being immediately racially identified) may mitigate stereotype threat in some limited ways, but this was a year ago now.

…if people need to participate and be perceived in order to percieve activity in a domain, they will sometimes opt not to watch at all. Engineering is currently a field with a high entrance cost precisely because it does not separate the affordance of perception from the affordance of participation… if we take the undergraduate engineering experience as being the primary “game” to get “admission” to, an introductory-level ticket is 3,840 grueling hours of one’s life plus far more dollars for tuition. With such a high initial time and monetary investment needed to “try out” the field, we shouldn’t be surprised that very few people are particulary inclined to do so, especially with the additional emotional investment needed to cope with the knowledge that “failure” means the high-visibility action of dropping out. Some novices from underrepresented groups carry the additional cost of stereotype threat (Steele & Aronson, 1995), meaning that visibility of their group membership may call attention to the fact that they aren’t “supposed” to do well, which is likely to make them actually perform less well… Decoupling participation from perception and allowing for the usage of the affordance of concealment allows more people to afford the affordance of perception. At the same time, lurking is also an acknowledgement that perception is “an evolving form of membership” (Lave & Wenger, 1991, p. 53) and itself a form of participation. To understanding lurking as an affordance is to embrace a dialetical tension, a way of being in two contradictory places at once (Nielsen, 1991, p. 25-26) — perception is both participation and separate from participation.

Bonilla-Silva, E. (2010). Racism without racists: color-blind racism and the persistence of racial inequality in the United States (3rd ed.). Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

Not so thrilled with this reading, but that’s probably because we read one section as opposed to the entire book. It presents a good argument — the current mode of racism isn’t about overt oppression of a group, but rather denying systematic disadvantaging and putting the onus on minority individuals to Just Try Harder — but I would like to have seen more evidence backing up the arguments. Ah well. I assume that came in later chapters.

During our group discussion, I brought up a piece I’d written in 2010, “Ceci n’est pas une excuse,” which was an attempt to explain the folly of saying “hey, [minority race] individuals, you can overcome everything by just working harder!” to other engineers using math. It has you imagining several different ways of scoring a math test, and goes through the reactions of various groups to that scoring under different circumstances. My discussion group enjoyed the analogy (perhaps because we’re all engineers), so I’d like to share the piece with the rest of the class. 

Trytten, D. A., Lowe, A. W., & Walden, S. E. (2012). “Asians are Good at Math. What an Awful Stereotype”: The Model Minority Stereotype’s Impact on Asian American Engineering Students. Journal of Engineering Education, 101(3), 439–468.

A definite “you’re the only Asian in the room, Mel!” moment. Amusingly, though my entire group knew we were doing this, we did it anyway: turning to the lone Black woman in the group when discussing the Black Inventors article, turning to the lone Asian woman in the group when discussing the Asian Stereotype article, asking those people for their personal experiences (although we disclaimed they were not representative of All Of Our Kind… so if we fell into that habit, we at least consciously fell into it).

I thought this article did a fantastic job of being self-aware, pointing out its own limitations, and being sensitive to their problematizations (or non-problematizations!) of the racial issues involved and their efforts to involve sweeping generalizations. In other words, thank you, Trytten et. al., for realizing that first and second generation immigrants are different, that Vietnamese and Japanese are different, and that not all second-generation Japanese are the same. And for calling me out on something I do as an Asian-American myself: “many students who denied that the stereotype applied to them projected this stereotype on other [Asian Americans].” (p. 439)

One of my (non-Asian) groupmates was deeply affected by this article; she’s worked for years with multicultural communities, including multiple groups of Asian immigrants, and is a wonderful and sensitive soul to such topics. And yet her internal models of Asian-American-ness were shattered, brought into question, by reading this paper. If I recall correctly, her summary was something like this: “I thought the first generation tried to walk as far away from their Asian culture as possible in order to Americanize, and if the second generation didn’t try to get back in touch with their Asian roots, they were lost.” I told her that while not all Asian-Americans did this, I personally resonated with the story in her head — I’d “lived that myth.”

She stopped me. “You used the word ‘myth.’ Why did you use the word ‘myth’ instead of ‘pattern’ or [some other word I've forgotten, but which also had a more scientific/solid/truthiness connotation to it]?”

I had to ponder this for a moment. “I think,” I finally told her, “that ‘myth’ reminds me that it’s a story people made up. If people made it up, people can unmake it and remake it. It’s a word that gives me choice and power over my shaping instead of being a Truth I have to either fall into or fight against.” (I was probably less articulate during my actual in-class phrasing — there were undoubtedly a lot of “ums” and awkward pauses — but this is basically what I said.) “But,” I added, “sometimes myths can be true. And things that contradict those myths can also be true. By saying it’s a myth, I’m not saying it’s false. I’m saying it’s a different sort of truth, not a forensic truth, more like a narrative truth, but maybe that’s not the way I chose to tell the narrative.”

Fouché, R. (2011). From Black Inventors to One Laptop Per Child: Exporting a Racial Politics of Technology. In L. Nakamura & P. Chow-White (Eds.), Race after the Internet (pp. 61–83). New York, N.Y.: Routledge.

(And now, of course, the entire table turned to the Black member of our group and waited for a story.)

I have seriously mixed feelings on this article (summary: OLPC is reenacting colonialism, except this time it’s the Rich White Saviours throwing technology instead of Bibles at Poor Colored People). Yes, it’s a good point, and I’m glad Fouché raises this point and many more that I felt as keen frustrations as an active contributor to the project. (Backstory: my first job out of college was as an engineer for OLPC, where I was the only one of three technical women on the project that wasn’t in an executive position; I may also have been the only disabled staff member and one of very few people of color — if not the only engineer of color, for a time. I was raised in the USA by a family that had come from the Philippines, which put me in a huge place of privilege over the kids we were designing for; most — again, if not all — of my colleagues had grown up with far less ties to the developing world, and it showed. Painfully.)

My issue with Fouché is not that he critiques a project I’m defensive about. Heck, I do it all the time myself. It’s that he critiques OLPC for foisting a metanarrative upon people, then does exactly the same thing himself. My margin notes on the chapter read as follows:

  • OLPC tells us this White Privilege Story of “TECHNOLOGY will SAVE YOU!” and shoves it down the throats of Colored People without giving them a chance to put their (myriad!) interpretations on the world.
  • See above. This is the story I am telling you. BELIEVE ME NOW!!!
  • Never mind the myriad interpretations you could have had about this project. BELIEVE ME NOW!!!

…so yeah. Multivocality, anyone?

OLPC was wonderful and terrible and all sorts of things at once, as often happens when brilliant, passionate people launch themselves into a project that they believe will make the world better in some way. There was racism, classism, privilege, all sorts of things built in. There was colonialism. There was freedom and hope and attempts to express those values in silicon, in software. There was ignorance and rudeness and blindness and unconsciousness and stupid, stupid arguments that left me enraged; there were office allnighters in the weeks leading up to shipping where we played salsa music and passed bottles of wine around, there were chats with developers in our deployment countries and local engineers who really stepped up to the challenge of making great things for their kids in their country and went out and sat down with local people to truly, truly co-design. There were cute pictures of brown kids with green laptops and big smiles used for marketing. There was a complicated picture, seen from many sides, with many shades of consciousness (in both the racial-awareness and sleep-deprivation senses of the word). Please don’t reduce it to a single story.

Ach. I’m already running long on this article and haven’t gotten to the after-conversation with Andrew yet. Writing frantically. Writing frantically. Typing what I can. I am not happy with my writing when I write quickly and try to type up everything the morning I need to type it; there are good thoughts here hidden in a snarl of words, and I want more time to chip them out and make them clear. That’s for other things I write; I’m building good writing habits, I truly am, one hour every morning on my prelim — this blog post doesn’t fall into the “deliberate practice” category on that front, though. Eh. Ship it.


EduPsych for Hacker Schoolers v.1.1 (presentation slides)


Once again I have the (incredible) opportunity to be at Hacker School playing around with my “edupsych for hackers” material… I’ve never revised and re-delivered a talk so often, and it’s good to be forced to see how this material improves with age and experience.

Differences between this and the PyCon Toronto version include the cutting-out of Bloom’s Taxonomy (it’s cool, just not high-priority), the separation of nearly all the Felder-Silverman Engineering Learning Styles material to a separate workshop for tomorrow, and dropping the emphasis on (making fun of) academia’s complicated verbiage, because… that’s not the point.

The slidedeck is at http://bit.ly/hackerschool-f2013 and embedded below. Someday, I want to get this talk taped and transcribed.

Edutalk f2013 from Mel Chua

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?
BRAIN: GAAAAAAAAAH!

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.)