Posts that are hearing-ish

The time when I met Rebecca and Stephanie together (a Deaf academics story)


I want to write about something that happened a while back and had a tremendous impact on me that’s still quietly unfolding into realization. I knew it had been big at the time, and I could articulate some aspects of it then… but had a sense that there would be a ripening of that articulation into something — not perfect or final — but something worth waiting for.

Which is, perhaps, why I’ve been so quiet for these past 3.5, almost 4 years. So many people have asked me to write about… well, they usually ask specifically about my CI surgery, which is telling (there’s a lot to that story, but it’s by far the smallest of the seismic shifts in my identity and practice that have taken place in the past half-decade). Or maybe they ask what it’s been like to learn ASL, or some other really small specific aspect of the whole I still can’t point to, but — I think — have now learned how to live out, in a way that works for me. And I have to, I think, learn how to live a story — or live as someone who can make sense of that story — before I can tell it.

Anyway. This is the telling of a story, and the remembering of a trip, and it’s going to be long and poorly edited, and that’s fine because I can write and tell it better later, someday. This is also a tremendous thank-you to Rebecca Sanchez and Stephanie Kerschbaum.

In February 2016, Rebecca gave a seminar on her newly-released book, Deafening Modernism (which remains one of my models of Books To Which I Aspire To Live Up To Someday). Stephanie was to give a (formal) response afterward, thus opening a discussion. The seminar was in NYC; I was in the first year of my two years back in Boston. I was a new, barely conversational signer, and still reeling from my CI activation a few months prior.

I was also still quite new to the notion that Deaf academics existed. And, therefore, still new to the notion that I might be one of them as well. But I didn’t know how to do that, or what that meant.

(As an aside: does that idea seem strange, that you might be something — or possibly something — as long as you can remember, and not know how to be that kind of person, or what it could possibly mean? To many people, it might. But to those who’ve had a coming-out in one way or another, perhaps some of this journey might feel… if not familiar, perhaps as if it rhymes with something that is.)

In any case, at that point, I’d met — I think… four? Deaf academics, ever… Patti, then Maren, then Stephanie during an impetuous 6-hour road trip because I couldn’t imagine what it would be like to meet someone like me in all these ways, and would have driven to the ends of the earth to see it — and Rebecca briefly during a stopover in NYC, where we had chicken wings and I skipped half of a (very expensive) Broadway show because I didn’t want our conversation to ever end. I think I hadn’t yet met Teresa, who I finally caught at an airport when I was flying out (to Poland) and she was flying in (from… I forget) and — again, the moving of heaven and earth and flight logistics to get even a few precious minutes in with someone who is finally — finally! — like you in ways you have a million questions about, so many gaping holes in a future for yourself you can’t see yet, don’t know how to navigate, are still trying to imagine if it’s even possible at all.

This was the sum total of my exposure to Deaf people (Deaf women! Even some Deaf women of color!) in academia. So few. So brief. So far away, and yet a fellowship I was so ravenous for that I was essentially on pilgrimage searching for it.

I had never seen two Deaf academics together. I had never seen two other Deaf scholars in conversation. I had… it sounds like a weird variation of the Bechdel-Wallace test, right? Two Deaf people, signing to each other, about something other than ASL (or Deafness or ablism or something like that) — I cannot express enough that I had absolutely, utterly, zero concept of what this might even be like.

And so every moment – every detail – every bit of “oh, this is how each of us chooses — differently! — to navigate the everydays of life” — was something I watched, and drank in, and went: oh. Oh. Is this what it’s like, to see someone you might grow up to become?

Is this how it is, when you’ve been staring at a blank canvas for years and years trying to figure out how anything could possibly appear on it, and suddenly a splotch of color clears and blossoms in a few small inches on the vast white sheet – not the full painting, but the thing that tells you that it’s possible for something to exist here at all, at all, at all?

The feeling of seeing a complex intellectual joke and laughing immediately, and with full comprehension, of why it was funny – and not automatically laughing because everybody else is laughing and you’re using it as cover while your brain tries frantically to make sense of what, from the partial information you have gotten, might possibly be so hilarious. The feeling of spontaneously replying with another joke — in your fourth and newest language — and being stunned that you… can even do that at all, because you… you don’t sign expressively. You don’t. Why would you, when everyone around you is just always hearing, and you speak clearly enough?

The feeling of being with people, in the academic world you’re trying so hard to join. The feeling of having the life of the mind become… communal — with a clarity and ease you’ve never had before.

We signed with each other on the train — about research! — and it was my first time lobbing out my nascent thoughts on poststructural theory and engineering education in ASL, and having people understand me, and engage and draw my thoughts into their far more eloquent web — we signed to each other walking through the city… is this what academic conversations look like in this language, when it’s direct and not in translation? Is this what it’s like to experience this sort of intellectual banter directly, in a way that’s not exhausting and full of holes? It was all so new to me, the notion that I might… discuss… research with other people, and understand it fully, straight from the source language, and be understood, and not have to strain to drop my consonants into all the right places in my throat.

Let me repeat that for the hearing academics in the house. Imagine that you are a PhD candidate, and never once have you had a direct, in-person conversation with someone about your research, or about theirs, without a heavy muffle and a thick fog of radio static blanketed over the entire dialogue, exhausting you. Imagine what it might be like to have that for the first time; how strange, how awkward, how full of information, how overwhelming, and how wonderful (and simultaneously scary!) that might feel.

We went to lunch in the cafeteria, and I hesitated by the door — it was loud, it was noisy, I had to rip my CI off because I couldn’t yet handle the background din. I didn’t know what the cashier would say, and I didn’t think I could fake it this time — but I didn’t know how to do this any other way than to pretend, really really hard, to be a hearing person. So I hung back and let Rebecca and Stephanie go first, because… how does one pay for lunch at a cafeteria any other way than “try to pretend to be hearing”?

And one of them signed and gestured and pointed and held out their card and paid; and one of them spoke and told the cashier how to communicate in ways they could understand, and I forget what I did, because I was still processing the first time I had ever seen the phrase “Deaf people have a wide variety of approaches to communication” actually lived out on a college campus — I mean, I knew that! But I’d never seen it, and my brain was still going oh, oh, OH, that’s REAL and it’s OKAY and… and… I have options!

And I remember walking through the campus signing, asking questions, marveling at how I was still able to engage and participate and understand – and walking into the seminar room and watching all three of us codeswitch to “hearing mode” the moment we walked through the door. (Which was a lesson in and of itself, and which we talked about afterward as a choice we all automatically made but were not completely comfortable with.)

And yet.

Hands went down, but eyes did not. Voices turned on, and at the same time – there was a constant flicker of backchannel, of mutual monitoring, and… this strange but oddly comforting feeling that other people saw what you could see, was keeping pulse on the same things (interpreters! seating! body language! eye gaze!) you were tracking, that you were all doing this dance of survival that nobody else could see, and that each of us usually did alone. And for the first time, I felt like… the responsibility of holding all that up, of keeping track, of constant vigilance – was not entirely on me. That if I slipped (because I did dance awkwardly, as newer dancers are wont to do) it would still be okay, because someone else was holding the beat up, no matter what I did.

And folks… I understood their conversation, and I learned from it. Which was – again – remarkable to me, because I went my entire academic career showing up at discussions/classes/etc. because I had to, or because I had to perform and demonstrate that I knew things — I didn’t really go to learn things, I would have to had learned them before arriving to have any shot at following even parts of the lecture or conversation at all.

I’m looking through some of my old notes now tonight and I found the copy of Rebecca’s talk, which I had annotated (this is what prompted this whole blog post to begin with) — and it’s scrawled thick with margin notes and underlines and references to our conversation. Turns out that it’s so much easier to read and connect and practice thinking like a slightly more mature scholar… when you get to actually have conversations with those more mature scholars, and eavesdrop on their discourse, and use it as a model for your own.

That stapled sheaf of paper was immediately on top of one of my written reflections for a grad school class less than a year prior, where I can now see how immature my writing/thinking is in comparison. I can now start to see — oh, this is what my professor was trying to tell me. These were the gaps they were pointing out; these were the things I didn’t know I wasn’t doing, but couldn’t understand their cues for at the time — the marks of the art of scholarly discourse. The moves I hadn’t yet seen in action, live, away from the ink outlines pressed into a book attempting to describe something so much more dynamic and full. The dialogue practice I hadn’t actually gotten to try.

It’s hard to read your way into being conversational in a language, but that’s how I’ve done it in every other language that I know. It’s much easier to converse your way into being conversational in a language. And (after a year in Rochester, after seeing more and having more of these scholarly conversations and everyday academic interactions in ASL), I can now start to see them in my writing, in the writing of others, in the moves and subtleties and richness that gets layered into excellent thinking and writing.

I have always been a strong reader, but I did not have much access to the internal worlds of people in the process of writing, or windows into those (eventually beautiful and polished) thoughts as they were being formed. I’d walked through museums looking at the best pottery made through all of history, behind a glass wall, on a shelf — and then been trying to make pots without seeing or talking with other people about how they used a studio. It has been so, so strange to walk into a studio that’s full of people. And it is still so strange, this notion that I can watch and interact with other people while they’re at work. The work I want to learn to do.

Anyway.

I remember that visit. I remember driving home wondering how I would ever explain to any of my hearing friends why it was so important, why I was so happy to have seen how people pay for food at a cafeteria, why… why I would drive over 8 hours on a single day just to spend a few hours with people I barely knew, talking about a topic entirely out of my field, in a language I had scarcely learned.

I remembered it again when I saw students this semester walk into my classroom, or my office, and see my signing, or my interpreting team, or my CI, and blink, and sometimes hesitantly sign to me: you’re Deaf? You’re the professor? and sometimes watch me intently until I introduce myself as – yes, I’m Mel, I’m your professor, and I’m Deaf – and… I’m not going to say it’s always a look of happiness, or at least not purely so. Sometimes it’s puzzlement. Maybe sometimes it’s nothing. Probably a whole host of things I can’t read at all; I’m no telepath — it’s their internal world.

But I think, that for at least some of them, there’s the flicker of a world rearranging itself behind their eyes.

We need elders in our tribe. We need people to span a broad, broad space of many, many possible options, so that we have as wide a plain as possible to imagine ourselves exploring. That trip – those few hours – showed me what it looked like for Rebecca and Stephanie to be Deaf academics, and it made it much more possible for me to think in different ways about what it might mean for me, and I take absolutely none of this for granted; none at all.

And I think that’s all I have to say on that tonight.


Wingsuits and giant eagles


I have an analogy for (ASL) interpreting from a Deaf user’s perspective that involves parachutes and squirrel suits and such. Ian Smith asked for it to be publicly available, so… here is a hastily written post. Perhaps someday it will be edited into something more eloquent; today is not that day.

Ok. So you know wingsuits (sometimes called squirrel suits after the flying squirrels they resemble), the skydiving suits with wings that let you kinda glide around? (If you don’t, here’s a video of one.)

That’s lipreading. It looks like flying, but really it’s more like… “falling, with style,” to quote Toy Story. To the untrained eye, squirrel suiting can masquerade as flying, but you can’t actually continue doing it. You have to bail out of it and activate your parachute at some point before you smash your head open on a rock.

Interpreters are like the giant flying eagles from the end of the Lord of the Rings. (And yes, that’s what it looks like on the inside after lipreading, sometimes. Not all the time, but… sometimes.)

Giant eagles can swoop in and pick you up — and when they do, you are obviously definitely not flying on your own. It’s all a bit, uh… bulky and noticeable, but also, you’re… not smashing your head open on a rock. And you can keep flying for a lot longer.

I haven’t really thought through the parallel analogy for captioning, but perhaps it’s like steering your fall over one of those giant fans like they have for indoor skydiving places. It shoots you upwards, it can work for “flyers” (hearing people) as well, but the captioning isn’t portable – it only shoots air upwards from that one spot.

Anyway. I explain this to my interpreters at conferences and such (it’s really fun to explain using ASL classifiers), and will also tell them that sometimes I will jump off their backs (so to speak) and squirrel-suit for a bit. It’s not a reflection on their skill (they can be the best interpreter in the world, and I’ll still do it!) or my need for the access they provide — it’s because that’s how I use all my tools/options with fluency.

I can get to some places with my squirrel suit that they can’t quite reach as giant eagles. When it’s working, it works beautifully — I’ll jump on and off really fast, and the choreography of a good interpreter/Mel team can be gorgeous when it works out.

Just for fun:

The Star Wars Ep II scene of Anakin jumping out of the shuttle is actually a fairly accurate portrayal of extroverted puppymel asking questions of a… somewhat less extroverted person, with the requisite ADHD losing-of-things.

And a conversation that happened amongst Deaf friends when I was explaining the analogy:

Samir: Why couldn’t my terps have swooped in to pick me up to take me to Mordor in the first place?
Mel: One does not simply walk into Mordor.
Mel: One requests reasonable accommodations, then works one’s way through an increasingly bureaucratic chain, then says “sod it” and walks into Mordor, because it’s easier that way sometimes.


ASLCore: affordance theory, or “thing-inform”


Okay. In my last post, I danced around happily exclaiming about how cool the ASLCore project is for engineering and computing (and all the other fields it covers — philosophy, art, biology, literature, physics, etc.). In that post, I used the stress/strain curve (and its related group of concepts and their respective signs in ASL and words in English) to explain a bit of our process.

In this post, I want to discuss one of my favorite parts of working on ASLCore, which is that it leads to great conversations about what these words are, what these terms mean. These conversations happen both within the ASLCore team and outside it.

For instance, Mitch Cieminski (hearing, non-signing friend and colleague) and I were talking this week about affordance theory in the context of some of their work. During our conversation, I showed Mitch our new sign for “affordance.” (Crucial note: our intent is not to be prescriptive or say that our sign is the “correct”one — it is to offer it to the ASL community as an option, and let people choose whether and how to take it up and play with it, because this is how language works: organically, communally.)

Now, unlike some other technical terms, there’s no universalized set meaning for what, precisely, “affordances” are in English (or any other language, as far as I’m aware). If you’re new to the concept, check out the Wikipedia page, and you’ll rapidly find that the jury is still out on precisely what it means for something to “afford” something else; are we using Gibson’s definition? Norman’s? Someone else’s? (Can any of these definitions really be viewed as formal definitions?) The design fields have been debating this for a while, and I don’t think we’ll resolve that debate of anytime soon. One reason I am really proud of our signs for “affordance” and “afford” is that they feel (to me) as if they capture the shared essence of the concept represented in that discourse… without attempting to come down on one side or another of the definition debate.

The sign for “afford” (which is a verb) comes from an ASL sign that is often translated into English as “to inform.” It is directional, which means that it can be signed in ways that indicate who is informing whom. If I signed it starting from me and towards you, it can be translated “I am informing you.” If I signed it towards myself, that might be translated as “inform me,” or “let me know.” You can use it in many ways, but it’s typically set up as going between two beings/persons – person X is informing person Y.

Our sign for “afford” takes that same sign’s motion and handshape — but instead has it come from a thing (here, represented by an invisible object held in the signer’s other hand).  It’s what the object tells us. It’s what the object lets us know — about itself, about how we might use it, and so forth. For an object to afford something is for it to be informing us via how it exists as an object (as opposed to, say, having separate documentation telling us how we ought to use it).

The noun form — what an object affords — is an “affordance.” The sign adds the possessive marker (how we would indicate concepts like yours, mine, ours, etc.), which assigns the affordances as belonging to the object, and also changes it from verb to noun. Again, roughly speaking — the concept is that of the things that the object tells us about itself. (“See that object? See how it tells us things about itself? Those things it tells us — they are affordances.”)

Mitch caught on immediately as to how we could play with the concept of “affordances” via playing with the sign. Would it, Mitch asked, be signed differently if I talked about what an object affords me, as opposed to what an object affords someone else? Yes, I answered; I’d just change the directionality — the object informs me, or informs you, or informs them, and you can tell which one I mean by which direction I make the sign in. We both grinned, because this is how affordances work — an object’s affordances are relative to whoever might be using it. (An infant car seat affords sitting for my friends’ tiny children — but it does not afford such for me as a full-grown adult who wouldn’t fit.)

Thing-inform; what it is that the thing informs us of. Affordance.

Flash back to the ASLCore team discussion several weeks earlier, where I was attempting to explain the (very abstract, philosophical, and ponderously worded) formal definitions I had found to the translation team, using objects around the room as examples. A chair affords sitting. The loop on my water bottle affords my picking it up and dangling it on my finger; as does the handle on this mug, but this smooth-sided glass does not have this affordance. This door handle affords pushing, and also opening the door — but in a different way than that doorknob, or this plate on a swinging door.

We went through several translation options. Was an affordance something that was “possible” to do with a thing? No — it would be possible, albeit awkward and painful, for me to sit on my water bottle, but I would not say my water bottle afforded sitting in the way that, say, a chair does. Did “to afford” mean “to permit” or “to allow”? (This had been my previous closest sign for the concept.) No, that didn’t feel quite right; we needed something stronger. Was it what was “all right” to do with the thing? No, this wasn’t so much about social acceptability; weapons clearly afford harming people, but it’s often explicitly not ”all right” to use them to do so in most situations. 

(We also punned bilingually. Until we settled on the current sign, we occasionally used the phonetic equivalent of “Afford-Dance” as a placeholder — the signs that you’d use to mean “afford” as in “afford the cost,” and “dance” as in “dance to the music.” The room was full of winks and grimaces, snark and linguistic play.)

Was an affordance like a feature? asked the translation team. Did something need to be a product in order to afford things, did it need to be a final product, or could a design or prototype or an object that was not designed by humans also have affordances? (Yes; a chair affords sitting, but so does a fallen tree stump in the woods.) How was the notion of affordance related to our earlier discussion of the functions of a product? (Later, we would discuss how a software function in the context of computer programming was both related to and distinct from this notion of the functions of a product.)

The team pushed my understanding of the topic, of the term, of it usage, of its interconnections. I’ve written papers using affordance theory, and I had never thought so hard about what it means for an object to afford something, or what an affordance was, or was not — I could no longer take the term for granted. Creating language is hard, folks! Creating language is hard, and it’s one of the most wonderful kinds of hard I’ve ever experienced.

Anyway. We went off on this for a while, and then at some point, someone signed so, it’s what the thing tells you about itself? and I swiveled around, electric: that, THAT! Yes! It’s what the thing tells you about — how you can use it, what it’s for… 

And so they tweaked it, and then – thing-inform. Afford, the verb form. And then the noun form… what it is that the thing informs you of – affordance(s).

We had a sign. I was so happy that I think I actually jumped for joy. I definitely fist-pumped, and a bunch of (hearing) friends who knew affordance theory got all-caps, multiple-exclamation-points text messages during the next break that WE HAD A SIGN FOR AFFFORDANCE!!!! because I was… uh… maybe just a little bit excited. (There’s a reason why my name sign comes from the image of a puppy’s tail enthusiastically wagging.)

So that’s the story of “affordance” and “afford,” as best as I can tell it. I want to write this out for so, so many other signs as well — most of them have a story like this, and a meaning packed in, that is hard for non-signers to understand. I want to share with my non-signing friends some of the complexity and richness of what we are doing, in this world of engineering and computing ASL — because I hope you’ll start to see how Deafness and Deaf culture and signed languages in engineering might be something marvelous to learn from, not something to pity or treat as a mere “accommodation” or “support” to help people “catch up” (which implies that they are “behind” to start with, which is not the way it has to be).

I want you to see this with the sense of play and joy and wonder and intensity we brought to it; I want you to see why it is beautiful — so you will want to see and use this language, too.


ASLCore: stress/strain curve zoom levels


This is partly a follow-up on my post on why I can’t (yet) teach engineering in ASL (short version: lack of technical vocabulary). This month, I’ve had the great pleasure and honor of working with one of the teams tackling that problem – ASLCore. I get to spend three weeks this summer working on engineering and computing vocabulary as one of their content experts; so far I’ve been there for two weeks, with a third week coming later in July. As of this writing, the first few signs have started to appear on the website — most are not there yet (we have several hundred), but Kai, our wonderful film/web guru, is working nonstop to continuously edit and add the new ones.

It’s one of the most fun jobs I’ve ever had. My role is to teach engineering and computing (the latter with my friend Ian Smith) to a team of amazing ASL masters — Deaf linguists, actors, translators, and poets — and watch them turn my fumbling non-native signs into vivid, clear, visual renderings of technical ideas. We created both signs and expansion videos of how and in what circumstances to use which sign for what concept — for instance, for signal processing, the sign for “frequency” in the time domain is different for the sign for “frequency” in the frequency domain.

Signs also need to link and flow together in ways that make them usable for visually discussing technical topics. Among other things, this means that two signs that will frequently appear together must be easy and smooth to sign together, both physically (hand shapes should be similar/efficient to transition between) and in the ways we use them to visually represent related concepts. A good example of this would be how we revised the sign we’d been using for “stress” (as in stress-strain curve) when we realized that it depicted the concept at the level you would see with the naked eye, but that all the other signs describing points on the stress-strain curve depicted what happened on the molecular level. We didn’t want to switch to the naked-eye magnification (zoom-in) level for one sign only, but have molecular-level signs for everything else; it would be confusing, similar to the effect of counting “one, two, tres, four” (counting in English and switching to Spanish only for the number “three”). Instead, we revised the sign for “stress” to fit the magnification level of the other signs in that conceptual cluster.

We also came up with naked-eye zoom-level signs for most (but not all) of the same concepts, so signers would have the option of depicting (for example) elastic deformation either at the molecular level or the level we would typically see with our own eyes in the lab or out in the world, with an object bending or stretching past the point where it ceases to spring back to its original form. (Since the molecular-level sign set was complete, but the naked-eye level sign set couldn’t be completed because of how human hands can and can’t move, the molecular-level set became the default conceptual signs, and the naked-eye set became supplementary/explanatory.)

“Stress” is also a good example of a sign that seems to have an English-ASL equivalent already, but which we wanted a technical sign for. There is a sign that’s often used as a translation for the English word “stress,” but that one word in English doesn’t always refer to the same concept — the word “stress” in English often means an emotional state, as in “to be stressed out” or “to be under a lot of pressure.” Engineering stress on a material refers to a totally different thing; the material is not psychologically freaked out by the forces applied to it, as far as I’m aware… or at least that’s not generally what we mean by that phrase in engineering. (I won’t go down the new materialist / posthumanist rabbit holes for this particular discussion.)

The ASL sign that’s often used for the English word “stress” portrays a force pushing down on a surface, so it’s a good conceptual fit for the physics concept of pressure, as in force-over-unit-area. In engineering — primarily in mechanical/materials engineering — we do talk about stress (on a material/object) with the same units as we use to discuss pressure, so our team did discuss just using the one existing sign to mean both concepts. But we ended up deciding we wanted to distinguish them, because we use the two English words (stress vs. pressure) in a different context within engineering, for different purposes — it’s the stress/strain curve, not the pressure/strain curve (the latter phrase is not allowed as a synonym for the former in English).

The translation team asked what the difference was. I had to think about it for a bit, but then explained that we often talk about pressure as being applied to an object, whereas stress in this context is more about the material that the object is made of, and we discuss much of that at the molecular level… so maybe the sign should also be portraying things at the molecular level, and then…

Anyway, you can see how we might have gotten there — and that’s just one example of the kinds of conversations we’d have throughout this process. It is fun.

The idea is that bringing together Deaf expertise in an academic field with Deaf expertise in (American) signed language will lead to — finally — linguistically, culturally, and conceptually accurate ways to express some of these ideas. We also have interpreter consultants who help us see how those signs might be used in spoken-instruction classroom situations, as well as a behind-the-scenes team doing the heavy lifting of logistics, filming, editing, annotating, and keeping the entire team happily stuffed with coffee, cheesecake, and granola bars. I can’t thank them enough for letting me be part of this.

I got a chance to try some of the new signs out with friends at the annual American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE) conference. And… and… they work. I signed an explanation of version control to a group that included non-technical ASL interpreters (who didn’t know what version control was) and technical friends (who knew what version control was, but don’t know ASL). The interpreters translated the everyday signs, and then when we got to one of the new (technical) signs, my friend Todd Fernandez blurted out — and in some cases, explained – precisely the right word to fill in the gaps. Typically, for that level of technical precision when I am signing, I have to fingerspell endlessly (and my fingerspelling is terrible) and otherwise keep on pointing to or borrowing from English. But that night, I didn’t. And it felt amazing.

I want to unpack more of these signs for my non-signing, English-reading friends so you can see a little bit of why I’m so excited by this process. More on this in my next post, where I’ll work on unpacking just a single word.


Why I can’t (yet) teach engineering in ASL


I’m a Deaf engineering professor. I want to teach my engineering college classes in ASL. This is a goal I have for the next couple decades of my engineering faculty career — to teach my way through all the core undergraduate engineering courses, plus the required undergraduate ones in my field of electrical/computer engineering (ECE) — in ASL.

Right now, this is not possible.

This might seem strange, because — I’m Deaf! I sign! I’ve taught engineering at the college level for years! But nope: being an expert at teaching a topic and being fluent in a language… does not mean you’re automatically able to teach that topic in that language. You need to be fluent in that topic, in that language.

And for that to be possible, vocabulary needs to exist. You need ways to efficiently express disciplinary concepts in the target language (in this case, ASL). Vocabulary is a key part of language; language has to be there for communication to happen; communication must happen for teaching to occur. And right now, I don’t have (good) signs for basic concepts such as “voltage,” which is an idea so fundamental that I can’t teach elementary school electronics without it, let alone college-level classes.

Now, I can (and do) teach engineering voice-off, signing, but I’m not using ASL when I do so; I’m using a signed form of English (which some people would call PSE or contact sign). I’m basically transliterating, with the occasional insertion of ASL grammar and a couple of classifiers. I’m not voicing, but you could read an entire English engineering lecture off my lips. In other words, I’m teaching in “English, with hands.”

ASL is not “English, with hands.”

We need vocabulary. We need ways to express these ideas within Deaf language and Deaf culture — ways that are efficient, that don’t require tons of expansion every time. In English, we say “voltage,” not “the electric potential difference between two points.” The latter is a definition, not a term. Similarly, I can explain voltage in ASL (perhaps as “electric pressure point point compare”), but I need a sign for the concept, and other concepts like that. If I can’t, I don’t have a professional vocabulary. It is akin to restricting technical communication to Basic English or Up Goer Five. If someone used the phrase “funny voice air” instead of “helium,” we’d figure they didn’t know what they were talking about, because there’s a word for that.

We also need ways to express these ideas within this language, not just ways to refer to the concepts as expressed in another language, as with fingerspelling. Yes, short fingerspelled words can turn into lexicalized signs, like “bank” and “OK,” and in this case perhaps “amps,” but what do we do for “semiconductor” or “bypass capacitor” — abbreviate? “SC” is already “South Carolina,” and “BC” is birth control, and I’d like to use my brain for things other than figuring out sentences like “You’ll need a BC in P to smooth the MC input V.” Or if we break the English word into components and then sign those, we get things like “tiny administrative person” for “microcontroller” (micro-controll-er). And then I flinch again, hard.

At that point, we’re just pointing to the English. If I wanted English, I would use it. I want ASL.

Every other Deaf engineer I know does this exact same thing. The moment we begin discussing technical topics, our signing shifts — hard — towards English. Perhaps we flinch a little and apologize to each other for using mouthing (and only mouthing/lipreading) to distinguish between “electric,” “battery,” and “circuit.” Perhaps we comment that, yes, signing “tolerate” (as in “to put up with, to bear”) is a poor sign for “tolerance” (permissible variation in a measured value). But we do not have other ways to do this. Not yet.

Fascinatingly enough, this has happened before — in engineering and computing and other college-level STEM fields, even — with spoken languages. There are plenty of examples of decolonizing the language of (collegiate/professional) instruction — I recently learned that Japan is doing this, for instance — but my favorite example is Hebrew and the War of the Languages. When the first Jewish (later Israeli) universities were being established, they knew that Jewish culture was amazing, and that Hebrew was a rich and beautiful language with a deep, deep history and multiple ways of expressing the concept of “God” — but no way to express the concept of “computer.”

And guess where a lot of their professors had trained? Germany. Austria. All their notes, all their books, all their training on… say, computers — they were obviously not in Hebrew, because there was no Hebrew word for “computer.” But yeah, it was a little problematic to be teaching programming… at a Jewish university… in German. And so, rather than capitulate to “eh, I guess we have to teach in German,” they built up the Hebrew language so that they could have technical discussions within it. They enriched their language and their culture instead of switching to another. This took a tremendous amount of work — many people, over many years, working to create a world where it was possible to teach computing in Hebrew. And now they have it.

That’s what I want for ASL and engineering (and computing, and technology). It’s going to take a long time. Probably the rest of my career. (“Congratulations, you’ve found a lifetime side project.”) It’s going to take a lot of collaboration with a lot of people and a lot of work and it’s never going to be done, because languages are never done. It’s going to be a lot of awkwardness and stumbling experimentation and a lot of new engineers brave enough to go out into the world not just with technical skills, but with language (ASL) to communicate those skills, and we’ll have a lot of short-term inefficiencies compared to “but why don’t you just teach it in English or signed English?” — but look: we’re going to make a world.

It does not yet exist. That’s why we need to make it.


Parents have visited, semester winding down


Freewrite/braindump/linksave.

My parents came to visit me in Rochester this weekend, which was nice – and not only because I got to eat out more than I usually do. I like how my relationship with my parents has been slowly evolving into one between adults, one of whom happens to be the child of the other two.

They came to Imagine RIT, which is a huge student (and non-student) project display festival. It’s massive. Massive. And it’s also the largest-scale interpreting setup I’ve ever seen to date — interpreters everywhere, stationed across campus, ready to walk over to whatever exhibitions needed them. Seeing DHH folks in a mix of both presenter and visitor roles was also quite nice.

I’m still navigating how to interact with groups of people when some of them know me as “a person who speaks” and the others know me as “a person who signs” — which language do I use when? — but it was also nice to watch my parents interacting (fairly smoothly!) with signing DHH people. Mostly I stood back and watched them chat with each other, but a few times I dropped in (signed) comments and it felt pretty smooth. (But generally, it would feel weird to sign to my parents through an interpreter… about as odd as if they spoke Chinese through a translator to me. The presence of other people is what allows us to use those combinations of modalities and moderations with each other.)

The semester is winding down, and I’m staring at the research projects that remain. I am quietly excited about some of them, eager to be challenged by others, and (honestly) hoping to find ways to redirect yet others towards other people as quickly as possible before I’m locked into something I don’t actually want to commit to – the work of how to say no and frame that no in ways that actually work for others. (It seems silly when I write this, but… the intellectual and emotional labor associated with that last part are tremendous sinks for me right now. Tremendous.)

I’m still trying to… maybe not “rediscover” my scholarly soul, but to keep a scrawny, struggling flame alive. I want to read things. I want to just sink into ideas and learn and think, and sometimes it feels like there’s so much friction around all of it I want to give up on it all. Still working on this.

And then random links I don’t want to lose. I found an old newsletter from Erik Kennedy about Magic Ink, which is a lovely longform piece on interface design that would probably make for a nice inflight reading at some point. And then there are the things I want to read and do, like the Chinese chicken soup recipe my mom just sent me (yep, we ate this as kids).

Okay. Back to… things. I feel like these posts are me surfacing for air and gasping; this space (online, text, long-form) is still where I can most easily breathe. And I need air, and company, in spaces where I can breathe… well.


ASL lector notes for the Easter Vigil Mass – 1st reading (Genesis 1-2, Creation)


It is Holy Week, one of my favorite weeks of the year. I have the privilege of signing the 1st reading for the Saturday Vigil Mass this year in Rochester, and I’ve posted my translation and performance notes in case it might be useful to someone who wonders about the translation process (which I’ve written about elsewhere: part 1 and part 2).

The first reading (long version) is most of Genesis 1-2, or the (Yahwist) Creation story. I inadvertently wrote my notes so that they will (hopefully) make sense to both signers and non-signers — I hope this will be useful to my non-signing friends as an explanation of what it’s like (for me) to think in ASL. Basically, the left column is the English translation, and then the middle column is me trying to describe the images that come to mind when I read it.

This isn’t analysis of any sort, it’s not translation, it’s… what is the movie in my mind, right now, when I read through these words? The short version is that God is a lot like a really excited 5-year-old, because… I’m the one signing this, and I’m a lot like a really excited 5-year-old.

After the imagery description in the middle column, another round through the reading follows on the right, with the gloss (as best as I can capture it) for what I sign during the Vigil Mass. I wrote most of this post while I was preparing to lector for the Boston Deaf Catholic Vigil Mass last year (2017). At the time, I still felt really awkward, shy, and hesitant while signing; my expressive usage of the language was very new and limited, and I’d never worked or lived among other Deaf people or otherwise had much of a cultural/linguistic immersion. Vigil Mass 2017 was a linguistic/spiritual/identity landmark for me; it was the first time I felt like I was expressing exactly what I was trying to express in ASL. Which… was a huge deal for me, as a hesitant new signer (thanks, growing up oral).

Thanks to Deacon Patrick Graybill for last-minute feedback on Holy Thursday 2017, and to God for… well, basically… everything, right? That’s what this reading is all about.


The doors we leave open


I’ve been thinking about the doors we leave open, even if they don’t look like they’ll be taken at the time.

One version of this, for me, is that I grew up deaf and oral in the mainstream (local public school with hearing kids). I grew up with speaking and listening as doors that were flung wide open with flashing neon signs and adults hurrying me towards them — but the doors of ASL and Deaf culture were also there, in ways that were important to how I engage with them now, as an adult trying to learn.

There was the itinerant Teacher of the Deaf who visited my elementary school and (briefly) showed 7-year-old Mel a few signs before her parents put a stop to it. I don’t have clear memories of this, but discovering that IEP note as a graduate student was a jolt: my younger self had shown promise for learning how to sign at a remarkable rate, and seemed to enjoy it? Signing was a thing that I had… and maybe could… enjoy, not only fear? These were doors it took me twenty years to walk through.

Even if my parents stopped me from learning ASL (or whatever variant of contact sign people were going to use with me), they did bring me to watch the local children’s theatre, which had Deaf performers. As a slightly older child, I wanted nothing to do with ASL or the Deaf community; it was foreign to me, and everyone kept telling me I was so smart precisely because I could act so much like a hearing kid. I loved music (“like a hearing kid,” I thought, not knowing that Deaf people could also love music). I loved musicals. So my parents brought me to Oliver, and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, and there was signing on the stage… which I couldn’t understand. But later, I could look back and think: there was art there, dancing, theatre, music… and there was ASL there, blended in with them. Exploring this strange new Deaf world wouldn’t mean giving up these things I loved; it might even expand what I could imagine in those spaces. These were doors that took me fifteen years to walk through.

There were the educational interpreters who were assigned to me for a few years, after my parents stopped the ToD from teaching me to sign. (Yeah, I’m not sure what the logic behind this was either.) I had already learned how to learn everything from books, and didn’t know this strange new language they were using with me, so I resented and mostly tried to ignore their presence as much as a lonely child could. As soon as I was able to formulate the argument that I didn’t “need” interpreting, I did — and breathed a sigh of middle-school relief that these people wouldn’t follow me through all my teenage years. But a few years ago, when I started thinking about (willingly) learning ASL and (willingly) seeing what this whole “interpreted access” thing was about, I had two people to reach out to. And they responded! (Thanks, Jamie and Christine… and further back, though I couldn’t find her, Francesca.) These were doors that took me thirteen years to walk through.

There were the folks who were (ex-)interpreters, or captioners, or signers, and kept being those things while we were friends and colleagues in the spaces I already worked in and wanted to be in (which is to say, tech spaces – not Deaf spaces). Who kept being adjacent to both worlds, who kept reminding me that trying these things out might be easier than I thought. Who reminded me that trying it wasn’t a permanent commitment; who walked me through how I could ask for things and set them up, when it was time. (Thank you, Steve and Patti and Mirabai.) Took me… seven years to walk through some of those doors. Or five. But I walked through them all, eventually.

So yeah, those doors. Important things. We don’t know when people will take them, but… even if it’s “not now,” even if it might well be “never,” we… just never know. Open the doors and keep them open, even when it seems completely useless. Wait, and wait, and wait. It’s important that these doors be open, because we never know who’ll come through them, at the most surprising times.


Why Deafening Engineering? Because onto(ethico)epistemologies.


Continuing to write my way through things I’m finding/reading/sorting that help me think about some of the scholarship I want to do.

While we were roommates for the CUR Dialogues conference, Corrine Occhino introduced me to the work of Julie Hochgesang, who does sign language linguistics: phonology, documentation, etc. and tons of other things. I’d been trying to figure out analysis tools for video data, as opposed to making everything a text transcript and analyzing from that. Unsurprisingly, signed linguistics does that kind of thing, and Julie is the author of a guide for using ELAN – which itself is a FOSS (GPL2/GPL3) project for annotating audio and/or video data. Chaaaaaaamp.

And then there’s Georgetown’s recent EdX release of a course on sign language linguistics (structure, learning, and change).

And then there’s Allan Parsons’ notes on Karen Barad’s work on ontoepistemology. (Or onto-ethico-epistemology, I suppose, since the ethical dimension is inextricable, at least according to Barad.) And Annemarie Mol’s brief but reference-dense guide to the ontological turn.

“What the…” you say. “Mel, these have nothing to do with each other. I thought you were doing Deaf Engineering stuff, so what’s with all the weird philosophical…”

“On the contrary,” I say. “Deaf Engineering is a case study; it’s an example of the kind of work I want to do — not the end goal of all my research.”

I’m interested in engineering and computing education ontologies. (Okay, fine, ontoepistemologies.) (Okay, fine, onto-ethico-epistemologies. Happy now?)

See, the reason I’m interested in Deaf Engineering Education — or perhaps the more active verb form, “Deafening Engineering Education” — is because of what it can help us make visible about onto(ethico-epistemo)logies of engineering (education). The phrase “Deafening Engineering (Education),” by the way, takes after Rebecca Sanchez‘s book title, “Deafening Modernism,” where she does the same thing to modernist literature, exploring it “from the perspective of Deaf critical insight.”

It doesn’t have to be Deaf engineering (and computing) education. It could be FOSS/hacker/maker engineering and computer education, a space I’ve also published and worked in. It could be feminist engineering (and computing) education, as Smith College, SWE, Grace Hopper, Anita Borg, the Ada Initiave, and others have explored. It could be engineering education as a liberal (and fine!) arts approach, which is how I’d describe some (but not all!) of Olin College’s take on it. It could be Black engineering education, which I’m curious about as it’s brought forth in HBCUs as well as NSBE (but know very little about myself). It could be Native/indigenous engineering education, which Michele Yatchmeneff and others are exploring. It could be queering engineering education, cripping engineering education, Blinding engineering (and specifically computing) education; it could be…

Here’s the thing about all of these approaches, all of these worlds: by bringing to light other ways we could or might have conceived of engineering, brought it into being, engaged it as a practice — it makes us aware of all of the assumptions we’ve embedded in the discipline thus far. Why do we typically assume that engineers are White (or can act White)? Why do we (again, typically) assume that engineers are hearing (or can interface with the hearing world)? Why do we assume… what do we assume? What else might we assume?

I am so glad for the recent widespread success of the Black Panther film, because the wide-eyed audience reaction to Shuri’s lab and Wakanda’s technology is such a great example of what I’m aiming for. That look into a different world; that plunge into a universe of possibilities, that opening-up. I want to do… not quite science-fiction, but engineering fiction, or things that start as engineering fiction, so that we might make those into engineering not-fiction. To look at these worlds and learn from them and learn how it is that they understand and articulate themselves.

Ontologies. Plural. What is, what might have been, what might yet be. This is a pretty stark contrast to ontology engineering, which is a different (and more engineering/computing-native) approach to the notion of ontology. Ontology engineering is an attempt to document the singular, rather than embrace the tensions of the multiple. Both have their place, but one has been more dominant in engineering/computing thought than the other, and unconsciously so — the same way most STEM researchers are working within a post-positivist paradigm, but don’t (yet) know it.

So why all the Deaf/ASL resources?

Well… it’s a rethinking of the world, and one that’s taken place within a lot of living memory (and one that happens to be extraordinarily accessible to me). The past several decades have seen an explosion into the public sphere of a radical rethinking of what ASL is, what Deafness is, and what all these things could be. We’ve gone from “it’s not really a language, it’s a system of crude gestures” and “what a terrible disability” to… something that’s exploded our notions of what language is and how it works. And linguistics had to figure out and built analysis tools and systems that could work with signed languages. A rapid turn-about between “what would this even look like?” to “maybe it looks like this, or this, or…this?” because… people… made it.

And then came the (again, radical!) idea that ASL could be used as an academic language, just like one might use English (or earlier, French… or German… or Latin…) as an academic language of instruction — and then publication. What does it mean to publish in a signed language? Again, there was no existing answer. So people made one. And then things like: what would an ASL-based software interface look like? We didn’t know. And then ASLClear came out as one answer.

That’s why I’m looking at these resources. Because I see in them a making of a world; the figuring-out and birthing of things that have never existed before. They happen to be Deaf; it happens to be a very, very good example for me to look at right now — but it’s the process of the birth of worlds and universes that thrills me, and I want to look across worlds at the process of that birthing.

You see that? Do you see why I’m excited by this, why I love it, why I see it as so much bigger than just “Deaf Stuff In Engineering?” It’s what Deaf Engineering (and queer engineering, and Hispanic engineering, and…) points to. We don’t know, it doesn’t exist… (see the ontoepistemology in there? the knowing, and the being?) – and then we make it. And we find out what things might be possible. And the ethics inherent in that (re)creation of the world — what and who does our making and remaking let in, who does it keep out? — that’s where it gets ontoethicoepistemological. Nothing is value-neutral; nothing is apolitical. And nothing on this earth is going to be perfectly fair and universal and utopian; let’s not pretend it is; let’s be aware of our own footfalls in these spaces that we share.

I am so afraid of writing about this, thinking about it, letting it be known I’m interested in things that include the words “Deaf” and “ASL” and “engineering” in it, because — as I mentioned in a previous blog post — these kinds of things can be oversimplified and totalizing to one’s scholarly identity, to how others describe and understand one’s work. It’s really important to me that I not get pigeonholed into “just” doing Deaf Engineering Things. Because there’s so much more out there. There’s so much, and I want to see and play within it, too.

But this is where I want to play, and this is where I want to learn and create things and be challenged and in dialogue. And I need access to these first few worlds I play in, so that I can spend my energies on playing and figuring out the mechanics of how world-building works, rather than on hard labor trying to glimpse the snatches of it that I can. And so my first two are open source (since so much of that world takes place in text, where I am about as native as anyone can get) and then Deafness (since I can learn my way into a strange new world where things are visually accessible by default).

I’m hoping that those two will teach me enough between them (or across them) that I’ll be able to branch out to others, someday. Maybe years from now. Probably years. The other spaces will likely be less accessible to me in terms of communication, but I’ll have learned; just as I’m trailing open source practices and philosophies into Deaf Engineering (and computing) spaces with me (see: this blog post, wherein I think out loud / release earlier and more often), I will probably trail Deaf communication and accessibility practices into whatever world I go into after that.

But there will be worlds after that. This isn’t my final one.

Okay. Onwards. Again. Keep thinking and keep writing. I feel so hesitant doing this, but also brave in ways I haven’t felt in a long while.


APA style and qualitative research methods resources in ASL


My friend Anna Murphy recently sent me St. Catherine University’s library resources on APA style — and they have ASL versions! Actual ASL with nice translations, not ”we signed the English word for word” versions. I think these are a nice high school or early-college intro for ASL users, maybe good for a first-year college seminar course. (I’ll ask Corrine Occhino about using them for ours, since this is a lovely set of matched bilingual resources.)

Joan Naturale also pointed me to an ASL companion to an introductory qualitative research methods textbook (Research and Evaluation in Education and Psychology (REEP): Integrating diversity with quantitative, qualitative, and mixed methods). ”ASL Companion,” in this case, means there are well-done chapter summaries in ASL with the blessing of the original author (Dr. Donna Mertens). This is a nice textbook, in its 4th edition from Sage, not some hastily cobbled together thing for the sake of having something signed. Good scholarship in good ASL is, sadly, scarce stuff.

This stuff is important; not only does it make these materials more accessible to those who are native users of ASL, it gives us a glimpse towards what scholarship in ASL might look like. And yes, there have been Deaf (and hearing!) researchers working on “academic ASL” for a while (and what that means is still up for debate). I’m new to the conversation and feeling my way into a world that people far smarter and wiser (and familiar with ASL and Deaf culture!) have created before me, with the hopes of contributing to it as well.

My question is: what would it look like to do this in engineering, computing, and in engineering/computing education? I’ve seen scholarship in ASL, but only for clearly ASL/Deafness related fields… signed linguistics, Deaf education, Deaf history and rights, and so on. I’ve seen stuff about ASL in other fields, but it was written in English. What does it look like to do engineering and computing work in ASL and/or in a culturally Deaf manner? What would culturally Deaf engineering look like?

And I’m pretty sure that look is a key operative word here, but it’s also going to sound like something — Deafness doesn’t mean the absence of auditory information! — and it’s also going to be a host of other things, because Deafness isn’t just about visuals; consider the DeafBlind community, consider all the tactile/kinesthetic richness of the world, consider — but I digress.

But what will Deaf Engineering (and Computing) be like? I don’t know. I’m aware that I’m continuing to write these blog posts in English, and I’m okay with that right now, so long as my actual published/presented outcomes on this front come out bilingually. In part I’m writing in English because this is my scribble pad and I’m a native English writer, and it’s what my thoughts come out most fluidly in (if I thought best in Spanish, I’d be writing in Spanish). But these kinds of resources are not just examples and resources for my future students; they’re building blocks for me of what might be, what things might look like. And I can also tell from watching them that they took tremendous amounts of work to create, so…

..examples. I leave them here as exercises for the reader.