Posts that are engineering edu-ish

Test Driven Learning: setting learning goals for yourself, Software Engineering edition

Stacey asked me for a refresher on Test Driven Learning for Hacker School, so here we go.

Test Driven Learning is a software engineer’s articulation of Wiggin & McTighe’s Understanding by Design framework after being strongly influenced by Ruth Streveler’s ”Curriculum, Assessment, and Pedagogy” course at Purdue.

Many software engineers are familiar with the process of Test Driven Development (TDD).

  1. Decide on the goal.
  2. Write the test (“how will you know if it’s working, exactly?”)
  3. Make the code pass the test.
  4. Celebrate.


Test Driven Learning (TDL) simply says “it’s the same thing… for your brainnnnn!”

  1. Decide on the goal (“learning objective”).
  2. Design the assessment (“how will you know if you’ve learned it, exactly?”)
  3. Go through the experiences/etc. you need to pass your assessment.
  4. Celebrate.


That’s it. Really.

Step 2 is the part most people flub. With software tests, you have a compiler/interpreter forcing you to be precise. With learning assessments, you don’t — but you need exactly the same level of precision and external execution. If you asked a group of external people (with appropriate expertise) whether you’d passed the assessment you set for yourself, there should be no disagreement. If there’s disagreement, your assessment needs a redesign.

A good assessment is a goal that helps you stretch and reach it; sometimes it encourages you to do more. But sometimes it also gives you permission to stop doing stuff – you’ve written the code, you’ve delivered the talk, they met the criteria you set —  and now you’re done. You can absolutely set a new goal up and keep on learning. However, you’re no longer allowed to say you Haven’t Learned X, because you’ve just proven that you have.

Here are some rough-draft quality TDL assessments you might start with, and a bit of how you might improve them.

I will learn Python. (What does that even mean? How will you know you’ve learned it?) I will complete and pass any 50 CodingBat exercises in Python. (But I could do that by solving 50 really easy problems.) Only 10 of those 50 problems can be warm-ups, and at least 20 of them must be Medium difficulty or greater. (Does it matter if you get help with the problems?) Nope, I can get as much help as I want from anyone, as long as I could explain the final solution to another programmer.

I will get better at testing. (What do you mean by “testing”?) I write a lot of code, but I’ve never written tests for any of it. I hear the nose framework is nice. (What do you mean by “better”?) Well, I’ve never written a test at all, so even going from 0 to 1 would be an improvement. I could use nose to write tests for 3 different pieces of working code I’ve already written. (Do these need to be big or exhaustive tests?) Nope, I’m just trying to learn what writing tests is like, not get full test coverage on my code… at least not yet. Even if I write a 3-line test that checks out one minor function, it counts as one of the 3 tests. (What does it mean for a test to be “done”?) When someone else can check out and successfully run my code and my test suite on their computer without needing to modify either bit of code, it’s done.

I will understand how databases work. (By “understand,” do you mean the mathematical theory behind their design? Or how to actually implement and use one?) Oh geez, the latter. I don’t care about the math so long as I know how to interface with a database. Any sort of database. (So you need to make a demo.) Yeah, but that’s not enough; I can blindly type in code from a tutorial, but that doesn’t mean I’d be able to field questions on it. (What could you do about that?) I will give a presentation to fellow Hacker Schoolers demonstrating a small database interaction in code I have written. That’s an easy binary to check; either I’ve given the presentation or I haven’t.

Thoughts, questions, ideas? Got your own example TDL assessment (at any stage of revision), or ways to improve the ones above? Holler in the comments.

Creaking forward into Prelim v.1 – thoughts on an imperfect process of scholarly writing

Here’s the next iteration of my dissertation proposal, a big step up from the first version. By “big step up,” I mean that it’s written in complete sentences (I think!) instead of bullet points, actually references specific pieces of literature, and (maybe?) even describes the project in a way that’s understandable to someone who’s not on my committee.

That having been said: not done yet. Good grief. The process of getting through my prelim is a grueling one that I am glad for, because it’s exposing so many structural weaknesses in my practice as a scholar. These are highly related to what Ignatius might call my “disordered attachments” as a person — that which leads me away from being the best Mel I could be. I did not expect my prelim to be a spiritual exercise, but there are some definite connections. For instance, as Robin said, “you tend to hide out when you are really struggling.” Yup! Escapism! Because the best way not to disappoint the world is to hide from it until you can prove your worthiness All By Yourself, right?


Right. So I told her that, look, I don’t want to squeak through this exam with a paper produced by a crappy process (of running away, and slipping deadlines, and late-night work sprints with terrible ergonomics) even if the paper itself might squeeze itself over the bar. (I’m not convinced this paper does that in the first place.) I want to pass with a good process, a way of working professionally with my committee, a way of working in a steady and satisfying manner on scholarly writing — none of which I have right now. (I’m so sorry, committee.) It won’t be a perfect process, but I want it to at least be one I’d be ok using (and improving on) for the remainder of my dissertation — a baseline habit I can build on for my career as a professor. That good process should produce a good paper and a happy, humanely rested and non-anxious Mel.

So, what things need to improve for the next version? Freewriting below.

On a mechanical level: the typesetting is wonky; I want to fix that by finishing my implementation of a workflow that will automate its beautiful creation. For this round, I experimented with github, tex, and Scrivener for writing workflow, which works much better than writing in one giant LibreOffice document. However, I didn’t fully finish creating that workflow, so this version’s typesetting/references were ultimately done via the method of  ”argh I don’t have time to figure out these formatting configurations so I’m going to copy-paste into LibreOffice and edit inconsistently in WYSIWYG.”

Side bonus for finishing that workflow (which should not take me more than a day to finish up): a better implementation of “release early, release often” that automatically pushes my daily edits to github. I’m trying to get away from my habit of hiding my scholarly work, which is really misaligned for someone who gives talks and teaches workshops on “release early, release often” and the importance of transparency in research.

Also on a mechanical level: my references section is undisciplined. Zotero continues to be a Very Good Idea despite its suboptimal search functionality, and I’d like to get in the habit of inserting and cleaning up every reference I put in a paper. I almost always do this, but sometimes I use the Magic Import Tool and live with whatever capitalization, punctuation, missing fields, etc. it populates until it’s Time To Ship A Paper, when I need to go back and fix what I didn’t fix before. But mm, citation/notes management. Such a good thing to be comfy with, and I am proud that I am. Freewriting, reverse-outlining, and shuffling around index cards for outlining are also a comfortable part of my workflow now, which is awesome.

On more than a mechanical level, I get a little vague. I need to not look at this document for a little while before I can answer that question. Actually, I need outside feedback. So I’ll rest and let that happen for a bit. But I suspect I could benefit from another round of reverse-outlining, pruning, re-outlining, and fleshing-out to structure my ideas into a more logical flow of support. And I suspect I could use the literature better as support structures, especially for the sections on existing faculty development scholarship and change. Currently those sections are “hey, here’s a paper/book on this, and now I wave my hands around!”

I do want to say that I am really proud of myself for making work lower priority this semester. More important than work: consistently nurturing my physical (exercising, sleeping, eating well, stretching and bodywork), social (taking dedicated time to really be present with friends and family), and spiritual (prayer, Mass) selves. When those things are in balance, I do better work, and I learn more from the work I do (and the mistakes I make while doing it). My intellectual side is healthier when it’s not overemphasized.

If I ever have graduate students myself, and they are reading this post in the future, I just want to say: working on this draft involved a lot of angst, frustration, late nights, and more than a few tears, and I’m not done yet. I don’t know what I’m doing, and I’ve been avoiding the people who could help me with it because these are my professors! and I love and respect them tremendously and don’t want to waste their time! And I want to show them (and myself) that I am Really Good At Stuff and Worthy of Existence by producing perfect work via a perfect process, and boy is this output and process totally not worthy of anyone’s time, and… well, it’s hard to capture the thought patterns in words, but if you picture me slouched in bed at 5am desperately swigging water from a massive gallon jug as a nervous tic while alternating between writing Yet Another Passive Voice Sentence and going “aaah aah it’s not done yet aaah,” you might get a bit of the jumbled picture I’ve been feeling like. I’m writing from an agonizing sense of knowing what it’s like to be midway through this apprenticeship, fumbling in a fog, repeatedly dropping my sense of direction and self-confidence only to have it dusted off and handed to me again by some very kind colleague or mentor in the middle of a panicked hour.

Someday I will be on the other side of that dynamic. Right now, I’m on this side. And right now, here’s what I’ve got.

Mel’s Prelim v.1

Chua’s 3 criteria for Radically Transparent Research (things sound silly when I put my last name on them)

Aha! This is the best version so far of my criteria for Radically Transparent Research (website really needs rewriting; it’s currently a mess of writing from my first year of grad school), which is basically “a methodology for producing Free Scholarship.” I know, I know, there all tons of Open Research movements and projects out there; I’m trying to write an examination right now and will loop back and check in with them again after I pass it, ok?

  1. The work is public and freely accessible.
  2. The artifacts (data, analysis, etc.) used to create the work is also public and freely accessible so that it can be studied and peer-reviewed by communities of practitioners.
  3. The work and its artifacts can be freely modified and distributed so others in these communities can benefit from and build atop it.

“Chua’s 3 criteria for RTR” (or whatever less-silly name I can tack on that later) comes directly from a Free Culture + Academia mashup. From academic-land (specifically, the scholarship of teaching and learning), we have Lee Shulman’s 3 criteria for scholarship (paraphrased):

  1. It is public
  2. It is peer-reviewed by the practitioner’s community
  3. It can be used by that community as a stepping-stone towards future work

From Free Culture, Richard Stallman’s 4 criteria for software Freedom:

  1. The freedom to run the program, for any purpose.
  2. The freedom to study how the program works, and change it so it does your computing as you wish. Access to the source code is a precondition for this.
  3. The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbor.
  4. The freedom to distribute copies of your modified versions to others. By doing this you can give the whole community a chance to benefit from your changes. Access to the source code is a precondition for this.

See the connections between Shulman and Stallman? I don’t imagine this is the final or best statement ever (and look forward to seeing what future version comes up), but it sounds pretty good to me right now.

Nelson Diversity Surveys: statistics on USA faculty diversity (spoiler: depressing)

It strikes me that I use the word “depressing” far too often in conjunction with readings from “Class, Race, & Gender” class. I’d like to use words like “action-inspiring” (or some other trumpet-blasty, call-to-action sound effect) instead, but… there’s so much to notice, problematize, and fix, and I… am tired. So here is thinking and writing, which is an action in and of itself.

Of all the readings on intersectionality last week, the original data grabbed me most: the Nelson Diversity Surveys are now-famous statistics of faculty diversity in “top 50″ USA STEM departments. Wikipedia’s summary is pretty good. Nelson tracked down complete statistics for every. single. faculty member. in each of those departments. Every. Single. One. I have an overwhelming respect for how much tenacity that must have taken: universities don’t publish these statistics (probably because they sound bad), so Nelson had to write and call and hound and hound and hound department chairs with superhuman persistence.

Click on any dataset. Look at the “Native” column. Empty, almost always. Hispanic? Black? Asian? So many singletons. So many lonely individuals: not only are you the only Hispanic woman in your department, but (as Alice said in class) now you can look around and see that you’re the only Hispanic woman with tenure at a top research university in your entire discipline. You are a unicorn!*

Compare the 2002 and 2007 versions of the same dataset. See any changes? In minority groups, can you pick out individuals — ah, there was a Black male assistant professor of Computer Science at University of Such-and-So in 2002, and not in 2007; he probably did not get tenure, and if we look at the old university directory we can probably find his name…

As an Asian-American, I also wondered: how many of the Asians in the “Asian” column were American-born? I stroll the hallways of my own R1 and see the office doors of Chinese professors strung out down the hallway, but they feel like people who are Not Like Me — not that international hires are fundamentally bad, but not all Asians are alike and we can’t ”support diversity” by importing people; their genes may be similar to mine, but their culture isn’t. So in a department full of Chinese-born Chinese, I still feel very, very much alone.

Nelson Diversity Surveys” Donna J. Nelson, Diversity in Science Association: Norman, OK, 2004;

*The Unicorn Law, coined by Emma Jane Hogbin, states that “If you are a woman in Open Source, you will eventually give a talk about being a woman in Open Source.” I personally think the Law extends to STEM in general.

What does a PhD preliminary proposal look like before it’s done? Here you go.

Once upon a time, I promised I’d work on my dissertation in as ridiculously transparent a manner as possible. And so I am a bit sheepish it’s taken me this long to post one of the Big Stages towards a dissertation, a Preliminary Proposal (aka “prelim”). It’s where you say what you will do for your dissertation, a sort of contract that you make with your committee: “if I do X, then that means I’m done.” Of course, this means your committee needs to approve your prelim first. Which means you need to write it first, which means you produce all sorts of crazy halfway-scribbles on the way to that, which means…

…this document is not my prelim. Rather, it’s the first version of a document towards a prelim that I sent to my committee… oh, about a month ago. (“Here’s what I propose proposing!”) Research involves plenty of fumbling around, half-baked ideas, placeholders, dead ends, and (in my case) cartoons. This document has — unashamedly — gigantic bugs. Some I knew about, and some I missed entirely (but my committee caught).

Now, I don’t need feedback on this version of the document — I already have the next iteration which takes my committee’s first-round feedback into account (mostly). But if you’re practicing being a researcher and want to compare your comments with “the expert answers,” they’re below the document.

Mel’s Prelim v.0 by Mel Chua

Committee Feedback:

  1. Everyone: This is a really good starting point, and you’re headed in the right direction. All you have to do is flesh it out; the stuff that needs to go into the document is already in your head. (Me: *starts breathing again*)
  2. Matt Jadud: If you cut research question (RQ) #2, your dissertation project’s scope dramatically improves. (Me: You’re right!)
  3. Robin Adams: You’re proposing a faculty development initiative. What’s state-of-the-art in faculty development these days, and where does your project fit into it? (Me: Good question. I’ll get on that.)
  4. Everyone: You’re saying that you’re doing both narrative analysis and grounded theory. We call bullshit on the grounded theory. You’re really only doing narrative analysis; it’s just extremely structured and transparent narrative analysis. (Me: …oh. So, wait… just because the theory emerges from the data, it’s not grounded theory? Ohhhhhh. Yes. You’re right.)
  5. Ruth Streveler: What’s storytelling? What’s the relationship between storytelling, story-hearing, and personal identity… and why do we care about that in the context of faculty development? (Me: I have to explain that? I can’t just take it for granted? Darn!)
  6. Robin Adams and Alice Pawley: What is the difference between storytelling and narrative analysis? Why narratives? Why public performance? Why are these things important? (Me: I… but they’re… mnergh, fine, I will justify all my design decisions. Mumblegrumble. But I know you’re right.)
  7. Robin Adams: What’s your epistemology and your ontology? (Me: Epistemology is that knowledge is social and negotiated, ontology is that being is performed identity, and… oh, right, okay, then narrative as a methodology makes perfect sense. Yes. Thank you. I should write that down.)
  8. Everyone: What is your positionality with relation to your subjects? How does your poststructural viewpoint inspire you? (Me: Um… Transparency? Calling participants “storytellers” rather than “subjects”? Data display and final writeup format? Rejection of metanarratives? Yeah, let me write this down.)
  9. Alice Pawley: Your examples of data and first-pass analysis are excellent. Now show me how that first-pass analysis starts answering your research question. (Me: Oh! Sure! No problem!)

Someday, when I have graduate students of my own, I will point them here when it comes time for their prelim, and then we will all laugh at younger-me together, all earnest and confused and wrapped in a pink sweater right before my dance rehearsal. Future Doctor Mel: remember how intimidating and unfamiliar this dissertation process once was, and be compassionate. Maybe with chocolate. Grad Student Mel appreciates good chocolate.

Talking About Leaving: a book that blew me up in undergrad

Although we read other (excellent) materials on “gender in engineering education” last week, I want to unpack one of them because of the reaction to it I had… over 6 years ago now. I got this book as a 21st birthday present for myself, a few days before college graduation. (That blog post, by the way, exemplifies my highly global engineering learning style.) It’s a plain-looking tome; a faded green iceberg on the cover, plain white print that shows the title.

Seymour, E., & Hewitt, N. M. (1997). Talking about leaving: why undergraduates leave the sciences. Boulder (Colo.): Westview Press.

The short version is this: “Why do undergraduates switch out of STEM fields? The ones who switch are disproportionately female and/or nonwhite. It’s not because they’re less smart or talented. Hey, look… the world we’ve made sucks for them, such that dropping out of STEM is a rational, smart choice.” 

I remember the details of the arguments foggily; I remember they were solid, based on hundreds of hours of interviews, ridiculous amounts of quantitative data. And my subsequent recent re-reading of portions of this book are heavily, heavily colored by the overwhelming memory of the emotions this book stirred up in my younger self — this being back in a time when I did not have, or allow myself to feel, much in the way of emotions at all.

It was a bombshell of depression linked to (and fueled by) righteous indignation. Some combination of that’s totally unfair! the world is broken! I want… I want to, to fix it — if I tried really hard, then maybe — but… it’s so big, even if I try, it won’t get fixed…

There was an edge of of course the world is broken all around me but I’ve done it anyway haven’t I so it’s possible and these people need to try harder… countered by an immediate no, that’s the story that you and the rest of the world want to tell, and the point of the book is the un-telling of that story, and the world is broken.

Mostly it was that the world was broken, which I knew but never wanted to admit. I’ve heard this from a lot of smart kids who’ve grown up outside some fairly major privilege category (race, gender, sexuality, disability, class, whatever). You think that if you really are smart and hard-working, you should eventually be able to mostly “get past” “all this.” (Note the vagueness of both the “all this” that we’re navigating and the verb-phrase indicating how we’re going to deal with it.)

I remember analyzing the arguments and appreciating their solidity, admiring the research: the evidence was solid, the mixed-methods approach a good one to play to an engineering audience who would be used to numbers, the analysis was too damn good (it looked fantastic to an undergrad who was just starting to read engineering education research, and it still looks fantastic to a grad student who’s done it close to full-time for a few years now). I remember going to Gill’s office (he was my undergrad advisor) in wide-eyed sputtering “but Gill, this can’t be true, because it isn’t fair.” And when he, with great compassion, listened and nodded sadly, I went off on a rage run. That’s what I used to do on Olin’s campus when I had a lot of steam to let off. It’s just going off as fast and as far as you can until you collapse and not really caring what happens to your body in the meantime. This time I did it on a bike and came back covered in mud and scrapes and bruises and the bike in need of a hosedown and mild repair. (Thanks, Greening Olin bike club.)

So that’s how I remember this book. The research, yes. The data and analysis, yes. Absolutely yes. But also, every time: the mud, the burning in my lungs when oxygen gave out before my rage did, limping back to the dorms wanting to go back out and explode again, and a body that was too tired to let me.

I think this means I ought to read the book again. I’ve been avoiding anything but the most functional and feelings-numbed skims because I associate it so strongly with something that triggered me in a huge way before. Alice asked me last week how it feels, reading the book now — and it was funny, really. I realized that lots of the research I read this days are just as rage-worthy, just as “HEY MEL LOOK THE WORLD IS BROKEN”; if I were reading Talking About Leaving for the first time now, it would be… unremarkable, in terms of the visceral response provoked. It’s just that — it was my first one, because there had to be a first one at some point. And I don’t think I’ve numbed myself, although that would be easier in some ways. If I stop and pay attention, then I find that I do feel every paper just as deeply, maybe even more (now that I’ve gotten better at this “having emotions” thing) than when I was an undergrad.

Maybe it’s that my interior space has gotten bigger, more able to hold and acknowledge the magnitude of all these… burning fires that… make you want to… change things. (I am speaking slowly and hesitantly, unsure how these words form into thoughts. I am testing out this thinking; I do not know what I’m saying.) I wonder if this is one of those things that doesn’t get easier, but that you get better at dealing with — if that’s the way I want to look at it for now, if that’s a useful model.

Good enough, I decide as I type this. Good enough to put down for a little while; I can come back and try again later, but I don’t have to. It’ll come up if it needs to, and this blog post will be out there. It’s enough.

Then, less-funny stuff: readings on sexual orientation in engineering education

To set the tone for transitioning between the last blog post and this one, here’s a podcast episode called The Pink Stallion, which is about… bike shopping. And a lot of other things. [Trigger warning: homophobic slurs used during portrayal of an anti-gay experience.]

So, yes — now with this transition from “awwww… funny!” into “oh geez uncomfortable uncomfortable heavy”… there were the Other Readings for this week, which I’m going to recommend as good starter pieces to think with (I’ve provided download links for all of them). I am (with difficulty) going to not really write about, not in the way I’d like to, because there’s too much to unpack and too little time because I really need to write my prelim. All three readings are “hey, nobody has studied this before, so we’ll begin” studies, so things like “huh, small sample size!” are (to me) quite excusable; these are early fumblings-around in a new space, but they’re good fumblings-around by people who are brave enough to get in there (and pretty good at stumbling).

There’s a 2013 conference paper by Erin Cech, which talks about depoliticizing queerness — how we, all too easily, use the “that isn’t technical and therefore isn’t relevant” argument to shut down (and thereby discriminate against and diminish) the experiences of LGBT engineers. A straight man can talk about his wife to colleagues, but when a lesbian woman starts to talk about her wife, we tell her it’s off-topic. That, along with the 2009 paper by Bilimoria & Stewart on LGBT engineering faculty, shout into the social-justice space: “Hey, straight privilege! It’s a thing that affects engineers!”

However, I found Cech & Waidzunas’s 2011 Engineering Studies paper (‘Navigating the heteronormativity of engineering: the experiences of lesbian, gay, and bisexual students’) the most helpful, because it gave me Vocabulary Words to use for my class final project (a comic on intersectionality with disability, of sorts; more later, but I wonder if you can guess at it from the remainder of this blog post). A list of these, plus notes for future-Mel-self:

  1. heteronormative — we distinguish between hearing and non-hearing, and the practices of “hearing” people are the only validly privileged ones. (Ablism?)
  2. climate – negotiating it daily in ways able-bodied peers do not
  3. coping techniques — MYRIAD (to the point where I won’t even start writing them down here, because it would be hard for me to stop)
  4. technical/social dualism & depoliticization – see above
  5. conformity & “passing” – I’m an excellent lipreader, and when I don’t have hearing aids (or have hair long enough to cover them) my Asian appearance allows me to pass for “hearing non-native English speaker” to most people (this is also intersectionality)
  6. “coming out” — repeatedly, to everybody, all the time; it’s always an active decision
  7. covering (as distinct from passing; covering is when you’re “out,” and do something to mitigate effects of that) — humor is a powerful tool; be the first to crack fun at your “difference”
  8. dualism / lack of consiousness of within-category diversity – I’m not like all deaf people, and they’re not all like me.
  9. using technical language as a description — plugs & outlets (sex), low-pass filters and lossy receivers (hearing)
  10. toleration vs acceptance — both of which can be rescinded at any time
  11. expertise and indispensability — working hard to “earn” a sort of power that “overrides” negative social connotations; “you must respect me because I’m so technically skilled that my participation is vital to our work”
  12. living compartmentalized lives — separating the social and professional… or deliberately blending them (I did) so my social was my professional.
  13. emotional labor — is invisible, yet required if you want to stay in the climate and be you
  14. isolation — sucks.
  15. future job security — see note on #10, and the “Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” point of “[As someone with white privilege,] If my day, week or year is going badly, I need not ask of each negative episode or situation whether it had racial overtones.”

And for those of you who at this point are guessing at my project, remember: intersectionality does not mean one can directly translate everything from one form of privilege (or oppression/discrimination) to another. This list is uncomfortably close to that for me — I don’t want people looking at this list and thinking “oh, being deaf is like being gay!” (It’s not, so please don’t; I have plenty of straight (or straight-enough) privilege and have tons of respect for those who don’t have that experience, and instead have different experiences that I will never really understand, regardless of how hard I try — and I’ll keep trying really hard.) This list, these notes: all they are is a starting point I’ll be reworking into future material (and alongside plenty of other material) with this “intersectionality is not translation!” discomfort foremost in my mind.

(Again, citations for Alice.)

White, Malic. The Pink Stallion. The Moth, n.d.

Cech, Erin A. (2013, June 23-26). The Veiling of Queerness: Depoliticization and the Experiences of LGBT Engineers. Paper presented at 120th ASEE Annual Conference and Exposition, Atlanta, GA.

Bilimoria, Diana, and Abigail J. Stewart. “‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’: The Academic Climate for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Faculty in Science and Engineering.” NWSA Journal 21, no. 2 (Summer 2009): 85–103.

Cech, Erin A. and Waidzunas, Tom J. (2011) ‘Navigating the heteronormativity of engineering: the experiences of lesbian, gay, and bisexual students’, Engineering Studies, First published on: 06 Feburary 2011 (iFirst)

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.

American Psychological Association. (2008). Answers to your questions: For a better understanding of sexual orientation and homosexuality. Washington, DC: Author. [Retrieved from]

American Psychological Association. (2011). Answers to Your Questions About Transgender People, Gender Identity, and Gender Expression. Washington, DC: Author. [Retrieved from]

American Psychological Association. (2006). Answers to Your Questions About Individuals with Intersex Conditions. Washington, DC: Author. [Retrieved from]

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.)