Thinkaloud: missing home and missing people, but where are the spaces in which I can actually live?


I often wonder how to discuss access within engineering in a way that jives with the way engineers already identify as a discipline… and yet doesn’t fall into the rhetoric of “fixing,” which can so easily frame atypical bodies and minds as problems in need of a solution. I am thankful for the work of Sara Hendren and others who show me how to live out this kind of work in dialogue with engineering, including the engineers who speak in public dialogues with her so that I can see that discourse from both sides. (That includes you, Deb Chachra. And you, Tess Edmonds. And you, Lynn Stein. I miss you all so tremendously.)

Working in a Deaf space, in a lab specifically focused on access technologies, I often think about how dangerous it is for me to discuss access within engineering, because it runs the risk of being totalizing with respect to all the rest of my work and myself. Access is not my primary focus, nor my first love. Once upon a time, I loved theoretical mathematics, and the cross-disciplinary complexity of robotics, and the mind-boggling scales of massive software engineering projects. I fell in love with educational philosophy, postmodern theories, the histories of higher education systems. I’m still in love with all those things. And it’s not that “access” is separate from or opposed to any of these things. But the way the world is right now, it’s hard to love the others well, because disability work — access-related work — is a jealous lover, and one that plays altogether far too well to the oversimplified narratives of the news, and the black-and-white of so much technical discourse. The things people say about the access space, and the things they say about you when you even touch the access space — they’re hard to live with, sometimes.

And yet. This space — the space of marginalization and intersectionality (and access and disability) — so often has the types of conversations that I need. You have no idea how hungry I am to overhear this kind of discourse, how much I do not know about how these conversations take place in casual spaces, before they are fully formed. How to think with others about things as they emerge. How fragile and hesitant I still so often feel about joining these kinds of conversations, but how impossible it is for me to grow as a scholar without them, because so much of scholarship is diving into this kind of discourse, being able to join the conversation.

And I have so few opportunities to actually join the conversation. And I mean join it directly, as myself — not mediated or transmuted in some way, no matter how much I enjoy working with skilled interpreters and captioners. My native modality of text is the one “mainstream” world that I can join seamlessly without an accent of some sort to mark me. (I have both a deaf spoken accent and the awkward movements of a non-native signer.) It’s my home, my first community, my comfort zone. It’s been feeling increasingly lost to me as I’ve continued my way through academia and all of its expectations about what writing is and who it’s for. I want to come home again; I want my language and my ways of being and thinking and expressing not to be alone.

This is the company I need; not only support, but support and conviviality with and from those who I can relax with, and who speak my language — not in terms of signing or speaking (and it’s an “or,” not a “versus”) — but in style of thought and willingness to try and hold the world in all its trembling, together. I am so thankful for friends and colleagues who live with me within a world we’re building — not as a separate one onto itself, but as one that intertwines with and permeates and creates itself within the world that we already live in. A grateful shout-out to Rebecca Sanchez for a long conversation on Sunday that helped me remember why scholarship kindled a fire in my soul in the first place, and to Holly Pearson and Todd Fernandez for being my pacing buddies these past few weeks, and the thousands who have been holding me up and helping me breathe.

I wonder if any of my students will see this. I wouldn’t mind if they do. I make no claim of having all (or any) of the answers. It’s always hard to figure out where to go and who we are and what we ought to do, but I know I’m better when I do those things more out in the open, in community, and that’s why I’m writing all these things down this morning. My blog has always been written for my future self, but right now it’s very much a place for my present self to be home, and think out loud, and be among friends as well.


I love the rhetoric in this guide to online conference accessibility.


Blogging things that have caught my attention, so I can close browser tabs.

This concise guide to online conference accessibility (from the Society for Cultural Anthropology) has such lovely prose. It links to a resource on in-person conference accessibility from the Society of Medical Anthropology, if you’re looking for that kind of thing as well. But — back to that prose…

In disability theory and activism… conversations about access seek to ensure that the widest swath of human variation can be a part of an activity, collectivity, or space. As a result, reflections on access bring into view unmarked forms of privilege that are built into material and technological forms.

Mmm. See that? Straightforward, incisive, and “this is what we do” rhetoric. Not wheedling, not othering those “poor disabled people” we should “help,” not painting it as some kind of charity cause or something that nice abled people do because they’re so nice. Just… okay, let’s be conscious, let’s bring the widest swath in from the start, and let’s attend to what doing so might make-visible to us. This is the rhetoric of a world where access is Already A Thing; this is the rhetoric of someone who doesn’t have to beg for a seat at the table; this is the way you speak when you are confident about how the world is, and who you are, and how we ought to be to others. let’s continue.

All speech should be at an easy-to-follow pace. No speed-reading! It’s not just inconsiderate when your remarks are too long and you rush through them; it actually excludes people from accessing what you are saying. Invite people in. Share your words and images in a way people can digest and enjoy them.

Notice the framing of “don’t you want people to understand, digest, and enjoy what you’re telling them about?” They’re framing access as something that also benefits the presenter (and it does). We don’t tell people to copyedit their writing because we assume a deficit on the part of readers; we tell people to do it because it makes their writing better and helps them communicate their idea more clearly. Of course readers would struggle to comprehend a page full of misspelled words and incomplete sentences; it’s not them, it’s the author. Of course attendees will struggle to understand rushed remarks; it’s not them, it’s the presenter. This is just… good communication practice.

The guide points at complexity without getting bogged down in discussing it (as I often do). For instance, while giving an example of how to make visual elements accessible to conference participants with non-normative vision, they discuss how “assumptions about race and ethnicity may come to the fore when you translate the visual into the verbal.” Do you describe people as “light-skinned” or “white”? What do these words mean? When do they make a difference?

Where and how do we become cautious of our desires to communicate in straightforward ways — “that’s a white woman” — and when does it become important to disrupt exactly that kind of straightforwardness? “Light-skinned, female-presenting… but we don’t know how this person identifies?” I appreciate the guide pointing at these kinds of questions, and then leaving us with this:

There is no simple answer that fits all cases, only important choices that demand reflection… The point here is to be conscious of ways that conference participants may or may not be able to access your presentation, and to create something that strives to include…

The final paragraph frames accessibility as an art of conviviality, and therefore as a way to follow the tenets of the anthropological disciplines themselves. This is a brilliant framing; “these practices are not other, they are inherent to being better at who we already are.”

Ultimately, accessibility is an art of conviviality, a means of acknowledging and incorporating disabled and nondisabled people alike. As an art of living together, it requires conscious reflection, creativity, and openness to difference. Thus, while practicing accessibility may be new to many anthropologists, its fundamental premises are at the heart of our discipline.


RIT FOSS projects: midterm praxis reflection assignment (feedback welcome!)


As part of the RIT FOSS Projects course this year, we are having students write a substantial mid-term reflection on praxis. Here’s the current version of the assignment – feedback welcome, of course! (For Spring 2018 students: both this version of the assignment and any edited/updated versions are acceptable for submission – you can choose which you’d prefer to do.)

Your praxis reflection consists of answers to the following questions, submitted to MyCourses in English and/or ASL in any format readable by your instructors (.txt, .odt, .pdf, .doc, and links to signed videos are all safe; ask about other options and we’re likely to say yes).

This reflection should be several pages long and reflect substantial amounts of thinking; it has the same point value as a two-week project sprint. Only you and your instructors will see your answers to these questions. Grading is 5% for each of the 18 mandatory questions, plus 10% for spelling, grammar, clarity of writing, etc.

You will be scored on the quality of your reflection, not the behavior you are reflecting on (i.e. a thoughtful analysis of “in hindsight, I really messed up” will get a high grade, whereas simply saying “I did well” without explaining what you did well and why will get a low grade).

  1. In 1-3 sentences, summarize your overall project, as you currently understand it. This summary should reflect your evolving understanding of your project, FOSS contributions, and feedback from classmates/instructors so far.

  2. How has the summary above changed from the summary in your initial/simple project proposal (or, if you switched projects, the first time you summarized/presented it to the class)? Why/why not? What feedback and/or learning experiences have informed your writing of the current version? (minimum 3 sentences)

  3. What have you learned about your FOSS community and its culture and health, and/or individual contributors you’ve been interacting with so far this semester, and how does that affect your project plans for the rest of the semester? (minimum 3 sentences)

  4. What have you learned about your intended end-users so far this semester, and how does that affect your project plans for the rest of the semester? (minimum 3 sentences)

  5. Are your goals clearly defined (is it unambiguous whether you’ve achieved them or not), do you regularly measure your progress against them, and do you recalibrate them as new situations come up? Why or why not? (minimum 3 sentences)

  6. Are you using existing tools, libraries, and knowledge from others whenever possible, instead of reinventing the wheel? Why or why not? (minimum 3 sentences)

  7. How are you choosing tools? If some of them are new to you, are you giving yourself adequate time to learn them? Are you investing in tools and practices up-front that will make your life easier later on (i.e. automation of test/build infra, documenting as you go, etc.) Why or why not? (minimum 3 sentences)

  8. How are you getting feedback on your community contributions and/or development products, and from whom? Are these the right people? Why or why not? (minimum 3 sentences)

  9. How are you planning for the future in terms of making it possible for you and/or others to continue using or building on your work? Why or why not? (minimum 3 sentences)

  10. Rate yourself 0-5 on the following (0 = whoops, 5 = amazing), and give a 1-3 sentence explanation for each rating. Ratings are about you individually, not your team as a whole.

    1. Clarity of goals

    2. Technical progress towards goals

    3. Leaving a trail (code commenting, documentation, blogging, issue tracker usage, etc.)

    4. Engaging your users

    5. Engaging your FOSS community

    6. Adapting as things change

    7. Other (optional, please specify)

  11. What qualities does a good FOSS contributor and/or teammate have? List at least 3, with rationale for each. (Ex: “A good FOSS contributor/teammate is X, because Y.”) there is not a canonical right/wrong list; we are interested in seeing how you are thinking, not whether you guess the “correct” list of qualities.

  12. If you have teammates: how do you feel about the way your current team is working together? If you are working alone: who have you engaged with regarding your project so far, both within class and outside of it, and how do you think these engagements have been going? Be specific and give examples (ex: “we can resolve disagreements quickly; for example, last Tuesday we were debating whether to do X or Y…”) (minimum 5 sentences regardless of which option you choose.)

  13. What qualities do good development and/or learning goals have? List at least 3, with rationale for each. (Ex: “A good development/learning goal is X, because Y.”) Again, there is not a canonical right/wrong list.

  14. We acknowledge your goals can and should keep changing as your project progresses, but what are your current development and learning goals for:

    1. Sprint 3? (minimum 5 sentences or bullet points)

    2. Sprint 4? (minimum 2 sentences or bullet points)

    3. Sprint 5? (minimum 2 sentences or bullet points)

  15. What is the most unexpected or surprising thing you’ve learned about contributing to FOSS projects so far this semester? (minimum 3 sentences)

  16. What is the most unexpected or surprising thing you’ve learned about yourself so far this semester? (minimum 3 sentences)

  17. What is the one thing you could do this semester that would have the biggest impact on your approach to this course / your ability to contribute to a FOSS community / your development as a professional? (minimum 3 sentences)

  18. How will you approach the remaining sprints this semester differently than the sprints you have done so far, and why? (minimum 3 sentences)

  19. (Optional.) Any notes for us on how to run this class next year? We’re interested both in things we should keep/do again, and things we should do differently.

  20. (Optional.) Anything else we should know?


Liveblogging RIT’s FOSS projects class: initial questions for community spelunking


Stephen Jacobs (SJ) and I are co-teaching “Project in FOSS Development” at RIT this semester, which basically means “hey students, want to get course credit for contributing to a FOSS project?” The class is centered around 5 project sprints of two weeks each. The first 3 weeks of class are preparing for the sprint periods; the week before spring break is a pause to reflect on how sprints are going. Otherwise, class efforts will be centered around executing project work… (aka “getting stuff done”).

From the syllabus (http://bit.ly/rit-foss-projects-syllabus-2018):

This course is a studio-centric experience designed to immerse students in the praxis of FOSS (Free and Open Source Software) communities. Notice that we focus on praxis, which is a conscious enactment of practice deeply informed by theory. In other words, it’s important to be practitioners who can think about their shared practice.

Notice also that we talk about the praxis of FOSS communities, which includes but is not limited to software development — ways of communicating, collaborating, designing, testing, marketing, budgeting, meeting, etc. are just as much a part of FOSS (and software engineering) praxis as writing code. You will be creating FOSS software, and you will be engaging with the rhythms, relationships, and routines of an established FOSS community with a complex set of sociotechnical dynamics that exist independently of yours. It is our hope that this course will help you navigate the kinds of delightfully messy, large-scale, long-term projects that you will encounter out in the real world.

I’ll be liveblogging the class, as one does. Right now, students are working on their project proposals, which is a big messy task that involves spelunking into existing FOSS communities, figuring out what’s up, and thinking about what’s possible to accomplish during the course of the semester. During our last class, we collaboratively brainstormed a list of starter questions we want to find out while doing that initial community spelunking. I was impressed by how much the students were already thinking about sociotechnical dynamics (instead of just starting to myopically look at the code in isolation), which makes me super happy.

Here’s what we came up with, in thematic clusters.  You can think of these as guiding questions for a spelunking quickstart such as http://blog.melchua.com/2010/10/08/possesa-fri-5-minutes-of-improvisation/ (basically, if you only had a few minutes to get a sense of whether you wanted to contribute to a FOSS project, what questions would be the highest-priority ones to ask)?

  1. What are we gathering around?
  2. What are the goals and the roadmap to get there?
  3. What’s the purpose of the project? Do they have use cases?
  4. Why should I want to contribute?
  5. How do I find people and information and ask for help?
  6. How do they communicate? Do they have forums, chatrooms, mailing lists, etc. and how can I start lurking?
  7. Who’s leading it and who’s working on it?
  8. What is the governance/leadership structure? How do decisions get made, and how fast?
  9. Do they have local meetups and/or online ones I could attend?
  10. How complete are the docs?  Where do I go and what do I Google if the thing I want isn’t in the docs?
  11. How thoughtful have people been about the contributor experience (and do I want to have that contributor experience?)
  12. Do they have a code of conduct? How good is it?
  13. Do they have contributor guidelines?
  14. How well do they Onboard?
  15. How can I help and what skills do I need? (Can these questions be answered easily?)
  16. What does the code activity look like?
  17. What’s the infrastructure?
  18. What is the license? (Make sure it’s actually a FOSS project.)
  19. What and when was the last commit to a core repo?
  20. What/when was the latest release and how is it working?

What goes through my mind on the first day of teaching as a faculty member


Today is my first day of teaching as a faculty member. I am nervous, woke up early (read: couldn’t sleep), and forgot to eat breakfast because I was so nervous I ran out the door without grabbing the food I’d planned. I spent way too much time stressing out about what I should wear so I would look not-like-a-student, but not like a boring professor (whatever that means), while still being comfortable, while… actually, I’ll just wear the same outfit I’ve worn for all my interviews in grad school ever and just leave off the jacket, because… I know it looks good, or at least the colors don’t clash. Okay.

I feel so very underqualified, and am constantly wondering “who thought it was a good idea to let me do this?” I know this is an emotional reaction and not a logical one because I’ve been teaching undergrads since 2004 and my rational brain is telling me that, by all signs (including lots of overwhelmingly positive student comments through the years), I’m pretty good at it. But. Still. Feelings.

I’m struggling with the feeling that I should redo all the course materials!!!! for the stuff that I’m inheriting, to… y’know, make it better! As if, somehow, revising my syllabus would change students’ lives!!!! Intellectually, I know that actual student gains from a last-minute couse overhaul would likely be minimal, and that the more likely outcome is that everyone would be confused, I would die of exhaustion, and zero other work would get done. I’m making peace with doing an okay-ish job of super-quick teaching prep that leans heavily on material I’ve inherited from the past, and then being really awesome and present in the classroom when I’m with my students. My teaching isn’t going to save the world. (At least not this semester.) And I’m learning (wrestling with) how to be okay with that.

Did I mention that I feel underqualified? And that I don’t want to mess it up? And that I’m worried — even if it’s a slight worry — that I’ll somehow fail students, and everything, and everybody, and… thereby demonstrate that I am Not Ready To Be A Grownup? I mean, I didn’t even take this class in undergrad! Again, not logical responses; rationally, I can teach this, but… my lizard brain is telling me to flee and stress-eat cookies and ice cream. Which I might do tonight regardless.

I have been told that all these feelings and thoughts are completely normal. And I think they are, and I’m not worried (I mean, okay, I am worried, but I’m not worried about being worried). But I wanted to write this down on my actual first day of teaching as a faculty member, so that (1) someday, when other new faculty look at me with the same kind of mild panic in their eyes as I have now, I can point them to this post and say totally normal, I felt this way too… and also (2) so that if I do end up going down in a fiery explosion and turn out to be the WORST TEACHER EVER, I can say “I told you so.”

I’m gonna hope for (1). We’ll see how this all goes.


Seeing myself in the (literal) mirror at NTID’s IT office


Some of you already know (and my previous blog post has hinted) that I’m working in a Deaf environment for the first time in my life — the Center on Access Technology (CAT, pronounced like the animal and signed as an acronym) in Rochester, NY. There’s far too much to say about this — I am glad to be here, it’s an incredible learning experience, and I often feel like a stranger in a strange land… but if there’s anything my training in writing and qualitative research has taught me, it’s the power of vignettes and thick descriptions of small moments. So that’s what I’ll start to share. This one is a very small moment, but it was one of the first things that struck me.

So I’m a new faculty member, trying to figure out how one connects to internet, printers, and so forth, as one does. I’m hitting snags, so I walk over to the IT office inside NTID (basically, the Deaf college within RIT). As I’m waiting for the IT staffer to fiddle with my laptop and fix my connectivity issues, I look around. It’s an IT office, full of familiar-looking cords and bins and tables of acronyms pinned to the walls. I see the student workers perched in front of monitors, typing into a ticketing system.

And then I notice that all of the desks facing the wall have mirrors on that wall, behind the monitors. And my first thought is “oh, that’s nice – I guess it makes the room look bigger.” And then one student walks up behind another and begins to sign, and the second student turns around to smoothly engage them. And I suddenly remember: they’re all Deaf, too.

Like me, they can’t hear footfalls from behind. Like me, they would startle from their monitors with a sudden touch on the shoulder. The mirrors let you see someone approaching from behind, a gentle nudge of motion in your periphery, the visual equivalent of footsteps walking up. And all of this is set up so matter-of-factly, just… how it is, of course we put mirrors behind our monitors! and not as some odd flustered accommodation that treats me as a conundrum in the hearing world (“well, Mel can’t hear footsteps, because she’s deaf, so what do we do?”).

I’m used to having my existence in hearing spaces not forethought (“it never occurred to us that a deaf person might be interested in this event, so we didn’t make it accessible”). I’m used to having laborious forethought be the best-case scenario, where I’m a solitary trailblazing oddity (“we’re open to setting up captions for this; can you do the setting-up in your copious amounts of free time?”). It is strange to be in a place where my individual existence doesn’t need to be forethought, because the space has already been created and inhabited by — and expects to see more of — people like me. It is strange to, at least in this one significant way, not be the Other.

Of course, it’s more complex than that. Even NTID is by no means fully accessible (likewise with Gallaudet). The Deaf (and hard-of-hearing) communities are not homogenous; not everything meets everybody’s needs. I’m not just Deaf, I’m lots of other things as well, and many of those things are still unexpected, unanticipated, not-forethought. There’s a lot of solitaire trailblazing work to do here still.

But dang. A world that is accessible to me regardless of whether I’m there or not? A space that stays Deaf-friendly without me, whose Deaf-friendliness is not dependent on my constant nudging and performance of my life as a reminder that people like me exist? Approaches and solutions that go beyond the things my friends and I can think of on our own?

Whoa.


Talk notes: “Technologies that wake you up” from a DHH perspective


Today’s accomplishment: giving part of a (group) talk in my 4th language, and making people laugh both directly and through an interpreter. Watching the audience grin and nod and crack up in two waves was just this… super-gratifying experience — first the audience members who knew ASL, then the ones who were listening to the interpreter translate my signing into English, and I could just… track that.

Sure, I know there are still all these dysfluencies in my sign production. I’m not fully fluent yet, and I’m incredibly aware of that, and working hard on it. But to know that my personality, my sense of humor, can come through in ASL even to people who don’t sign — that’s a tremendous milestone I was afraid that I might never actually reach. It’s difficult to understate how personally significant this accomplishment is for me — I’ve gone from “I will never learn sign language! I’m not one of those Deaf people!” to “I mean, okay, I guess I could learn it as… another language, because interpreting gives me so much that I just miss, but… I’m always going to speak for myself, especially in a work context with hearing people around,” to… well… this.

My talk notes follow. I wrote them, memorized them, and then deviated from them (as one does). The larger context is that my lab (which is basically a Deaf engineering design firm) is doing a series of consumer technology reviews. These aren’t technologies specifically designed for DHH people, but rather everyday technologies from a DHH perspective. For instance, other colleagues looked at various items from Nest, Alexa, etc. — and did you know lots of these devices, even if they are visual, feature an audio-only setup? Annoyance. Folks had to keep calling over their hearing spouses, ask their kids to come over and put on their CI, etc. in order to just get through installation.

Anyway, my segment was on “technologies that wake you up,” because… well, I don’t own a house. And a substantial portion of our community is made of students. And I sleep super deeply, and get uber-grumpy when I’m woken up against my will — just ask my parents; this is a lifelong known cause of Grouchy Mel.

  • most alarm systems are designed for hearing people and are based on sound
  • obviously doesn’t work so well for DHH
  • known problem: historically, all kinds of solutions – rube goldberg contraptions that drop heavy things, hearing humans (hi mom!) who will wake you up at the appointed time, praying that you’ll wake up before X and not be late
  • but now we have TECHNOLOGY!
  • I’ll examine several more modern systems for waking up DHH sleepers
  • First: Can I use “hearing” alarms and somehow make them better?
  • Residual hearing: amplify! plug into speaker system… okay, maybe this isn’t so great for hearing housemates, and it still doesn’t wake me up all the time.
  • Mechanical-only solutions: put phones inside convex objects to concentrate/amplify the sound. Definitely not loud enough for me.
  • Okay, another mechanical solution: set a phone alarm to vibration mode, put on a thin and hard-walled hollow clattery object and close to the edge of stuff that makes noise when other things fall on it. Yeah, terrible idea. Not the most reliable solution, good luck getting up in the middle of the night without wrecking everything, and an alarm that relies on literally dropping your multi-hundred-dollar phone on the floor every day is maybe not the wisest.
  • Enter: specific devices! This is an alarm designed for DHH folks… how many of you have the Sonic Alert alarm clock? (hands go up)
  • Wakes people up in three ways: audio, the sound is customizable (frequency-set knob, volume-set knob)
  • “light flasher” which is an on/off outlet flasher, could plug anything in there
  • “bed shaker” which is an off-center load on a motor in a case (like cell phone vibrators)
  • It’s definitely effective at waking you up. Abruptly. Might not be the best for your mood for the rest of the day, but it works. (Insert explanation of sleep cycles here, with a lot of hamming it up)
  • Okay, but how about stuff that isn’t DHH-specific? Sound aside and vibration/tactile aside, what’s left as a way to wake folks up?
  • Smell and taste might not be useful for alarms (although the smell of tea makes me super happy when I wake up)
  • What’s left is sight
  • Did you know: most deaf people can see
  • Did you know: most hearing people can also see
  • Did you know: although sound might not work for both hearing and DHH folks, light might work for both
  • This is the idea behind the Philips Wake-up Light
  • Idea: you know how the sonic alert wakes you up abruptly? this wakes you gently, like the sun coming through the windows
  • You set the time you want to be awake, and for a period of time before that, the lights will gradually turn on so that you’re sleeping more lightly and close to waking by the time the alarm rings (with the lamp at full brightness)
  • Gentle light wakeup is amazing (display, in contrast, the book cover of Alexander and the Terrible Horrible No Good Very Bad Day)
  • Except that it doesn’t always wake you up all the way, so you need a last-minute push-over into full consciousness
  • Alas, the pre-recorded audio settings on this alarm consist mostly of birdsong (from my perspective, “silence 1,” “silence 2,” “silence 3,” and “silence 4″)
  • I personally need a separate alarm to make the startle sound/vibration/light at the appointed time, but the wake-up light does get me to the point where being woken up by something else is pretty pleasant
  • Not a DHH-specific access issue, but the UI for button placement stinks
  • Alternative, if you already have Philips Hue lights: hack the Hue to be a wake-up light
  • Program the Hue! set something to turn on gradually at an appointed time
  • Not as smooth as the Wake-up light, which starts from zero and smoothly goes up; definitely turns on abruptly and is a more jarring wake-up
  • For me: solves the problem of “the Wake-up light needs a tip-over”
  • And then Sonic Alert for mega-uber backup.
  • End the talk somehow and turn the floor back over to Brian.

The CAT Lab Abstract Sorting Hat, Version 0.1


Another post based on stuff I came up with for my lab on the spur of the moment. I know I’m probably reinventing many wheels here, but one reason I’m posting this is so that when I stumble back across wheels others have made later on, I can bring mine out to play as well.

Last week, I had the pleasure of embarking on a spontaneous research discussion with several undergraduate students in our lab (and oh my gosh, everyone, it’s really fun to sign about research because of how much you can play with space*). For context: our lab has historically built things, and publishing papers on the things we build is a fairly new concept. The students are working (some for the first time) on poster abstracts for an upcoming conference, and one had asked for feedback on their draft. I realized it was a teaching moment, rounded up everyone who wasn’t busy, and proceeded to do a group-run workshopping of the first student’s abstract (which, by the way, is a clever museum access system that I’m pretty eager to see written up).

In this particular moment, I realized that the biggest gains were to be had in helping the student realize what they had already said. There were some great ideas in the first draft — in fact, most of what they needed was already there. The trouble was that it was all jumbled up; context trailed into conclusion with a detour through a sentence full of technology-related acronyms. So I made a quick reference to Common Things Your Abstract Might Be Trying To Do, a.k.a. The CAT Lab Abstract Sorting Hat (below) and we went sentence by sentence through the current draft, sorting each bit into its respective house(s) — I mean, uh… sections.

I apologize for the Harry Potter metaphor, but it could have been worse. (Contextpuff! Problemdor!) Examples are paraphrases from our discussion today — I’ve removed details so as to not ruin surprises for their eventual publication.

The CAT Lab Abstract Sorting Hat, Version 0.1

1. Context. What is the situation you are designing within? Start with things your audience will recognize. (Example from today: Museums often include audio-recorded or live spoken-language tours to teach visitors about the history and context of the exhibits they are viewing.)

2. Problem. What is the challenge you are addressing? Be conscious of how you frame the problem, especially if you are working with access-related technologies. (Example: Deaf and hard-of-hearing (DHH) visitors to museums don’t have the same level of access to spoken/audio-recorded tour information. In our framing, it is important that the problem is not that we are DHH, it is that museums have not considered visual access and have therefore left out DHH audiences.)

3. Prior work. What have you and others done in the past to address the problem? What work are you building upon?

4. New work. What is the new contribution you are describing in this specific publication? (Example: our lab has built device A to address problem B; in this paper we describe the new features we just added, namely C and D.)

5. Technical details (optional). if you are utilizing specific technologies that you would like to note, they go after #4 (which describes what the solution does). In the context of a lab full of excited engineering/CS undergrads, I added a note that oftentimes, these details are not important for the abstract compared to what we might usually be inclined to put down.

6. Implications / “so what” / (ASL:for-for)? Why is your work important – what could it change? What would happen if the problem you described in #2 was solved? Be as specific as possible (“allow native ASL users to study STEM topics using their native language” is better than “helps DHH students learn”).

End of the CAT Lab Abstract Sorting Hat, Version 0.1

It’s wonderful to watch students just… be around the lab, working on things. As someone who didn’t get to grow up in this (American Deaf) culture or with this language (ASL), I’m learning a lot from them in just… how to… be. People. Who sign. About engineering. I wonder if this is how new Olin faculty feel, landing as teachers inside a culture they were never students within.

*regarding playing with space to discuss research: even if we weren’t getting into the actual content of our papers, the papers themselves lent themselves to spatial setup. The relative lengths and positions of paragraphs and sections (with accompanying facial expressions denoting emotions about various parts), cutting and pasting and twiddling phrasings and words – I’ve thought about editing spatially even before I learned to sign, but watching students (who are more fluent signers than I am) basically collaboratively editing a document in their shared imagination in mid-air — man, that was pretty cool.


Lab research setup email: creating Zotero accounts


I like sharing reusable text I come up with. In this case, part of setting up research infrastructure for my lab includes getting everyone into a citation management system and giving us a way to share reading notes. I don’t have anything against EndNote or Mendeley (and may someday switch, if massive advantages become apparent), but this email is written for Zotero.

Hi, folks – you should have invitations to create Zotero accounts. The only action item you need to take now is following that link and creating an account, which should take a few minutes. You can safely ignore the rest of this email right now, but read on if you want more information/context.

Zotero is a reference management system. It’s useful for keeping track of reading notes and bibliographic information (which we’ll need for our references section every time we write a paper). Other systems include Endnote and Mendeley; there’s no huge advantage of one over the other, but Zotero is (1) familiar to the librarians at RIT and (2) something I already have a lot of notes in, so I’m starting us out with this.

Zotero is free and open source. When you create an account, you’ll probably be prompted to download and install the Zotero browser extension. I prefer to use the standalone desktop software, but that’s your choice.

Right now, the group library is empty. That will change as I begin writing the literature reviews for our ASEE papers. Feel free to add any citations of your own, and/or to start your own individual Zotero libraries (mine is huge; as I find things in it that may be useful to CAT as a whole, I will copy them into the group folder as well).

I have my own conventions for taking notes in Zotero in ways that are easy to write papers from later  – if you really want to, you can read about it here (http://blog.melchua.com/2015/01/28/how-i-use-zotero-to-take-research-reading-notes/) but I am also happy to show you my system any time we sit down to work together.

Here’s to better research infrastructure!

–Mel


Things that have made me happy lately: qual methods companion resource in ASL, my upcoming review of wake-up systems


These are random things that have made me happy today.

The first is that there is an ASL companion to a qualitative research methods textbook (focused on education and psychology, to boot!) I am already fascinated by the design and translation choices they have made in figuring out what it even means to have an ASL qual methods textbook… how multiple signers in the introduction switch between freezing in black and white when it’s not their turn, and becoming full-color and in-motion when it is, so your eye immediately knows who it’s following. How they’ve translated the phrase “chapter author” not as [chapter write-person], but rather as [chapter sign-person] — “they who have signed the chapters” rather than “they who have written down text for the chapters,” because the “text” is in ASL. These little subtle things that tell you that… yes, this is another culture; this is a different world. (Or in my framing: this is an alternate ontology.

Second is that I am giving my portion of a technology review lecture series (1) on ASL and (2) with a fairly decent dose of snarky humor. My topic? “Wake-up systems for DHH sleepers.” I plan to cover…

  • Cheap Hacks for People With Residual Hearing: makeshift and wholly mechanical scoop and rattle amplifiers for phones (put them on big hard hollow things or in cones made of hard materials… like hotel ice buckets!) Also, reasons why these setups may not be the greatest for smartphone users and/or profoundly deaf deep sleepers like myself.
  • Sonic Alert’s Sonic Boom, which emits ear-splitting shrieks at modifiable frequencies, flashes lights (or rather, intermittently turns on and off power to an electrical outlet embedded into its side), and rumbles a bed-shaker. (And, in high school when I had it close to my CRT monitor, it degaussed my monitor. Anyone want to check out a cute little EMP source?) Also, a brief overview of the sleep cycle, and how this device, while highly effective at actually waking one up, is terrible for waking one up pleasantly.
  • Philips Wake-Up Light: awesome, but expensive-ish, and… let’s talk about the usability of the physical design, shall we? (And the choice of bird sounds as the wake-up recording, which… to me, are setting options of “silence,” “other silence,” and “more different silence.”)
  • Philips Hue system as a cheaper and more hack-ish way to replicate some of the functionality of the wake-up light

Gotta work on my content, draft, translate, and rehearse this. It’ll be fun.