Posts that are engineering edu-ish

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 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?

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.