Postmodernism: in engineering (education) praxis

Again, what is ed writing these out of order, order see preceding posts.

Postmodernism may be an unfamiliar set of research paradigms and theories within the disciplines of engineering, but part of my goal in the preceding sections was to show that postmodern ideas are not as foreign to engineering and engineering education practice as they may initially seem. In fact, these ideas are alive and well in some aspects of engineering practice, with postmodernism providing a theoretical language to describe some elements of that practice in alternative ways. The playful bricoleur’s restlessnes of the postmodern practitioner is echoed in the cleverness and humor of the hacker/maker culture that has grown up intertwined with its more formal “engineering” cousin, and in areas like design thinking that cut across the two.

If engineering education practice has postmodern elements, but engineering education philosophy and research do not yet widely use postmodern language, it comes as no surprise that articulating those practices might be an issue for the field. Trying to describe postmodern practices with modernist terminology is working at cross purposes. It is like translating Shakespeare into scatterplots; it can be done, but much is lost in translation, and the end representation leaves something to be desired. There is plenty of structured, optimization-focused, modernist practice within engineering education as well, which works well with the current paradigms and theories and languages used to describe them. However, the playful materiality of the field and its charge to (re)make the world has a distinct postmodern thread that would benefit from connections to postmodern language, theory, and praxis.

In a way, postmodernism is what engineering education researchers are doing when they call for curricular change. A call for curricular change implicitly recognizes that the current structure for educating engineers is something that can be questioned and disrupted, that it is a power system to be probed and tinkered-with. The thrust of critical, feminist, queer, and other diversity-focused efforts in engineering education research is in keeping with this focus on disruption with the hope of different types of inclusion, and in keeping with postmodern’s treatment of excluded parties. “By insisting on the multiplicity of social positions, postmodernism has seriously challenged the political closure of modernity with its divisions between the center and the margins and in doing so has made room for those groups generally defined as the excluded others.” (Giroux, 1988, p. 166).

The practice of engineering can be seen as a bricolage; it is a heuristic, not an algorithm. It incorporates many elements of hacking and making and incompleteness. Changing engineering education is a postmodern act.

Postmodernism: what is it? (for engineers)

Yeah, website my citation formats are a mess.

Postmodernism is not monolithic, cialis and it would in fact be highly ironic if it were a single, unified school of thought, methodology, or movement with a clear goal, for that is what postmodernism itself critiques (Tierney, 1993).  This poses challenges to the engineering reader encountering postmodernism for the first time. Engineering is a high-consensus field (Biglan, 1973) meaning that part of the engineering disciplinary culture is an expectation that terms have precise and widely agreed-upon definitions (Storer, 1967). In contrast, postmodernism grew out of arts and humanities fields with traditions of lower-consensus. One challenge for engineers encountering postmodern and other culturally-low-consensus research for the first time is setting aside expectations based on a high-consensus culture’s expectations of stable and consistent terminology (Borrego, 2007). When reading the subsequent explanations of postmodernism by postmodernist scholars, it is important to keep such cultural differences around the notion of definitions in mind.

The task of this section is to provide a brief overview of postmodernism, so I will of necessity oversimplify what is a broad and complex transdisciplinary sociocultural movement with a rich history that is impossible to cover in full in a short space. I will begin by simplifying the language that I use: throughout this document, I use the word “postmodernism” as an umbrella term to refer to a movement that is encompassed by various terms sometimes called “the posts”: poststructuralism, postcolonialism, postmodernism, post-post, and so forth. These multiple and intertwining movements have a complex co-evolutionary history, and there are fine distinctions and debates on the differences between them, but such a discussion is outside the scope of this document. Instead, my aim is to give the engineering reader a general overview of postmodernism through the words of postmodernist scholars and theorists, and bridge their theoretical concepts to ideas and practices within the engineering domain. As such, I will use the term “postmodernism” for the remainder of this document to mean any of the various “post” movements, and then specify poststructuralism, etc. if a specific historical reference or theoretical idea requires more detailed unpacking.

As a philosophy, postmodernism extends to the very first principles of things. Foucault, one of the major “post” philosophers, described postmodernism as “involv[ing] a critique of metaphysics: of the concepts of causality. of identity, of the subject, of power, knowledge and of truth” (Foucault, Politics, philosophy, culture: Interviews and other writings, 1988, p. 18). It is a foundational paradigm that seeks to destabilize the foundational, which makes it difficult to describe.

This attribute of destabilization is evident in one of the most-quoted definitions of postmodernism from Lyotard’s “The Postmodern Condition”: “The postmodern would be that which,in the modern, puts forward the unpresentable in presentation itself; that which denies itself the solace of good forms, the consensus of a taste which would make it possible to share collectively the nostalgia for the unattainable; that which searches for new presentations, not in order to enjoy them but in order to impart a stronger sense of the unpresentable.” (1984, p. 81) Here one can see the resolute insistence of postmodernism at remaining a low-consensus field; to “deny itself the solace of good forms” is to keep meaning always in flux.

Present-day postmodern theorists Jackson and Mazzei continue in this vein. “[Postmodernism] seeks… to cut meaning loose, and to keep that difference (and therefore meaning) at play… there is a constant deferral of meaning, leaving traces of other [choices] that had to be excluded…” (2012, p. 70-71). Similarly, postmodern scholars Tierney and Bensimon describe their own qualitative work as postmodernists who “…reject the notion that we can ever understand ultimate Truth through reason; instead, truth is considered ephemeral and subject to multiple, conflicting interpretations… Postmodernism is… centrally concerned with decoding the multiple images that occur and brings into question previously unchallenged ideas about language and identity” (Tierney and Bensimon, 1996, p. 15). Patti Lather, one of the first scholars to take a postmodernist approach to qualitatve research in education, offers that “[postmodernism] ask[s] questions about what we have not thought to think, about what is most densely invested in our discourse/practices, about what has been muted, repressed, unheard.” (Lather, 1991, p. 145).

Postmodernism cannot be concretely defined. Foucault famously claimed that such a task was impossible, as “the premises of [postmodernism] disallow any denominative, unified, or ‘proper definition of itself” (Foucault, Politics, philosophy, culture: Interviews and other writings, 1988, p. 18). Postmodernism adamantly resists concrete definitions “…presumably because such practices represent an attempt to pin down an essence which does not exist” (Gavey, 1998:119, Feminist Poststructuralism and discourse analysis: Contributions to feminist psychology. Psychology of Women Quarterly, No. 13, 1989, p. 459-475.)

Since the practice of postmodernism gives itself to the questioning of meaning, it involves a great deal of linguistic play. Consequently, the words postmodernists use to describe their practice also vary widely: Derrida calls his work “deconstruction” (1967), Lather and Smithies call theirs “troubling” (1997), and St. Pierre and Pillow call theirs “working the ruins” (2000). However, there are characteristic attributes and themes that arise from this refusal to concretely define foundations and settle on definite meanings and “good forms,” to borrow Lyotard’s phrase. Postmodernist practice carries an ethos of play and disruption that Lather compares to that of the archetype of The Fool (2007). It is a paradigm in constant motion, always questioning and refusing to settle — even refusing to settle on the notion of “refusing to settle.”

In fact, as good a definition of postmodernism as any might be to compare it to the Tao, or “the way,” in the classic Chinese mystic text “The Tao Te Ching” (here translated by Ursula LeGuin).

the way you can go
isn’t the real way.
The name you can say
isn’t the real name.

In the following sections of this document, I will unpack a little more about postmodernism by comparing it to more familiar ideas from qualitative research within engineering education, beginning with other research paradigms that are more commonly used in the discipline. In fact, two separate reviews of paradigm usage in engineering education research found that while other paradigms such as postpositivism and interpretivist perspectives were represented in the literature, postmodernism was conspicuously absent (Koro-Ljungberg & Douglas, 2008; Beddoes & Borrego, 2011). In contrast, educational studies went through its “postmodern turn” in qualitative research over the course of the past half-century. The effect, if one steps from education research in education studies to education research within engineering, is one of a time warp; the philosophical paradigms used in engineering education research today largely parallel those used in educational studies half a century ago.

However, postmodern practice is not unfamiliar to engineering education; one of my desires to bridge the two disciplines comes from the conviction that postmodern theory provides language for some aspects of engineering education practice that we currently struggle to define. I see them as two halves of a praxis — a conscious, self-reflexive practice that can articulate its own theories — that are searching for each other. Therefore, after making a paradigmatic comparison to other philosophies more familiar to engineering education researchers, I will use examples from engineering and engineering education practice in order to illustrate and explain key ideas from postmodern theories that were used throughout the project.

Postmodernism: slicing and separations (agential and other cuts)

And yet another! (Yeah, pregnancy see previous posts.)

Another aspect of a postmodern perspective is the subjective and arbitrary nature of the “slices” that divide the world into differentiated items. By using language, we describe the world as if it had cleanly separated components: for instance, one might say that a man is not a woman, or that blue and red are different colors. However, the line between “male” and “female” or the line between “blue” and “red” and “purple” is not necessarily clear. It’s not that there are no differences or distinctions among things; quite the opposite. The distinctions and separations are real because they are decisions made by thinking beings who decide and determine where the differences split to make seams between items, and could also decide to split them differently.

To draw an example from the discipline of engineering, take the division of engineering into sub-disciplines. A given university might have multiple engineering majors: mechanical, chemical, electrical, and so forth. However, interdisciplinary projects and programs cross between those boundaries, challenging them. After all, what determines the boundary between bioengineering, materials engineering, mechanical engineering, etc. when studying the design of a medical device? How is the separation between computer engineering and electrical engineering determined — and are they two separate programs, or a unified degree in “electrical and computer engineering”? What is the difference between engineering compared to engineering technology? These boundaries are not only socially constructed and contested; they wobble simultaneously in many places at once, like an electron.

This challenging of boundaries can be referred to as “deconstruction,” a concept usually associated with Derrida’s treatise “Of Grammatology.” As might be expected with a boundary-challenging concept, the boundaries of the concept itself are not clear — which is to say there is no on clear definition of what “deconstruction” is.  Deconstruction is at once theory, methodology, and method. It asks what binaries and categorizations exist, what those boundaries suppress/prohibit, and whether they contradict each other. (Saukko, 2003, p. 135-152)

Deconstruction is not a verb that we as agents execute on a text as object; rather, it is something that we notice the text has always done to itself. (Derrida, 1998; Cavallaro, 2001, p. 26). When we deconstruct a text, we make our world more writerly because we see texts as shifting, changing things; one signifier may refer to many signifieds (as with classifiers), and many signifiers may refer to the same signified (as with synonyms). Lather depicts the goal of deconstruction as “neither unitary wholeness nor dialectical resolution.” Instead, deconstruction seeks to “keep things in process, to disrupt, to keep the system in play, to set up procedures to continuously demystify the realities we create, to fight the tendency for our categories to congeal” (Lather, 1991, p. 13).

A particularly important categorical separation is the one between the observer and the observed — or in the case of this project, the narrating self and the narration, or the self and the world it narrates. The self and the world are inextricably intertwined; as Heidegger famously pointed out, it is impossible to have the notion of “being” without somehow “being-in-the-world” (the usual English translation of his German term “Dasein”) amongst other things (Heidegger, YYYY). However, there do exist notions of “observer” and “observed” as different and separate things, so some sort of “slice” must take place. Such a slice is what Karen Barad calls the “agential cut” — the cut between an agent (self) and things that are not-that-agent. This cut is itself arbitrary and subjective; consider the example of a researcher recording interviews through a transcriptionist, as I did in this project. Is the transcriptionist part of the “researcher” (observer/self) apparatus, or the “narrator” (observed/world) apparatus being observed by the “researcher”? I could choose either, both, or neither (somewhere else) in deciding where to make the agential cut. Although the agential cut itself is subjective, it is what makes the notion of objectivity possible, since objectivity demands exteriority (2007, p. 139-40).

This idea has other parallels to engineering practice. Systems diagrams are used in multiple engineering fields to convey the separate components of a system and the interactions therein. [IMAGE: SEVERAL EXAMPLES OF SYSTEMS DIAGRAMS]. The decision of how to separate a system into interacting components is the same sort of slicing as discussed in this subsection. Each component in a systems diagram is then treated as a “black box,” where the inner workings don’t matter as long as the input and output are as expected. Decisions about “black-boxing” something (for instance, purchasing Components Off The Shelf (COTS) for usage in a project) and “popping the hood” (modifying the interior workings of a previously black-boxed device) are similarly decisions to become aware of and/or modify the “slicing” decisions previously made. On the part of the designing and constructing engineer, some of these decisions take on the nature of agential cuts as the engineer decides which part is “theirs” (i.e. their responsibility to understand and modify) and what they will therefore care about and see as lying within their locus of control.

Postmodernism: many truths and meanings (intersubjective, intertext, signs, signifiers, slippage)

Continuing the “just write stuff and post it” flood. Because I can. And because someday I’ll be able to use these crappy drafts as examples for my own students, hospital all-caps “I DON’T KNOW WHAT TO DO HERE, BUT KEEP GOING!!!” notes and all.

The act of proliferation is frequently used in postmodernist thinking. When applied to the concepts of truth and meaning, proliferation decenters the notion of a single big-t Truth by playing with the idea of a multiplicity of little-t truths; it decenters the notion of a single big-m Meaning by playing with the idea of a multiplicity of little-m meanings. What would it mean to have many meanings and many truths? In probing the notions of truth and meaning, postmodernism does not mean to reject those notions — indeed, it would have nothing to work against if it did so. Rather, postmodernism seeks to question and interrogate what our assumptions about meaning and truth by exploring alternate possibilities for what they might be. It frames viewpoints as inevitably situated, partial, and perspectival.

Proliferation of perspectives on meaning and truth are a common practice within engineering education; they are a key concept in design thinking and exhibited in the practice of design reviews. [CITATION? FROM ROBIN'S CLASS?] A cross-disciplinary dataset of design review practice in educational settings (DTRS, 2015/2016?) exhibited both different student approaches to the same design task (mechanical engineering teams making a robotic fish, industrial design students sketching a chair for office use) and different faculty perspectives on the same student works (dance pieces made by science and engineering students). In a design review context, seeing a multiplicity of viewpoints and perspectives was an explicit goal, even if those perspectives might conflict; instead of being immediately framed as errors, perspectival conflicts became gifts and ways to flag intriguing areas for further exploration.

The word postmodern practice gives to this proliferation of perspectives is “intersubjectivity.” It refers to to the interactions between interpretations proposed by multiple people. For instance, a conversation between faculty members reflecting on a shared experience is intersubjective; although their interpretations of the experience may not ultimately converge, their interpretations will interact and change during the course of the discussion. To draw an even more specific example, the responses of a committee to a PhD dissertation in engineering education (such as the document you are presently reading) are intersubjective. Each committee member reading the proposal goes through the process of interpreting the document for themselves, but their interpretation interacts with the interpretations of the other committee members and the graduate student author. Based on these culturally-shaped interactions, the interpretations of particular community members may be accepted or rejected by each other member of the group.

Intersubjectivity is influenced by the different intertexts each member of the group is drawing from. The term “intertextual” refers to the interconnected nature of reality; it is a citational practice akin to the notion of scholarly texts referring to each other in APA style and footnotes. For instance, each engineered product is a “text” that refers to the many things that shaped and influenced it — a set of bookends might refer to the flatness, size, and heft of the books and shelves it is designed to sit among, as well as the material constraints of the manufacturing processes that shaped it, and the icon and gameplay from a popular video game its designer enjoyed. [IMAGE: PORTAL BOOKENDS] Extending this idea is the notion that all texts “always absorb and transform other texts” and “can be thought of as a tapestry of quotations, a mosaic of allusions”(Cavallaro, 2001, p. 60).

To borrow terminology from semiotics (Saussure, 1986), a intertextuality is created when the “signs” within a text (roughly: words, shapes, colors, movements, or whatever is being used as a reference to something else) point towards the “signifieds” in another text (roughly: meanings, interpretations). A postmodern view of texts is that they are collections of signs that “do not embody specific meanings or concepts” and only “become meaningful when they are decoded according to cultural conventions” (p. 15-16). In computer science terms, the signifier and signified can be loosely thought of as the pointer and the memory location, respectively; neither has an innate meaning on its own — it must be assigned one by the author, and its meaning draws from its relationships to other variables at play in the program.

Just as a pointer can be renamed and reallocated in a computer program, the link between signifier and signified is arbitrary, socially constructed, and forever shifting. Multiple signs might refer to the same signifier, as with synonyms. Similarly, one sign might refer to a variety of signifiers, depending on the context; for instance, two faculty members may use the signifier “curriculum” to refer to very different signifieds (loosely, “ideas” or “meanings.”) Even a single faculty member may use the word “curriculum” in more than one sense in the same sentence — to give one example, one can talk about the “[hidden, implicit] curriculum that happens alongside the [formal, explicit] curriculum.” (Anyon, YYYY)

It may be tempting to diagnose this as a problem of insufficiently precise language; if we had more words for “curriculum,” we would not need to repeat it to signify slightly different meanings. However, the repetition of the word “curriculum” is entwined with its representation; a sign obtains meaning only when it’s used in multiple contexts, since community adoption is what distinguishes a “nonsense” word from a “real” one. Because of this, when we speak, write, or use any other sign system such as language, we represent — re-present — our signifieds with signifiers that already exist, and the way we choose to do so can be illuminating to examine (Cavallaro, 2001, p. 39).

A postmodern approach to interrogating meanings and truths contributes a different perspective than a paradigm that seeks convergence on a single “objective” truth. Postmodernism works against the assumption of a “neutral point of view” from which one could represent, “fairly, proportionately, and, as far as possible, without bias, all of the significant views that have been published by reliable sources on a topic.” Although the preceding description was drawn from Wikipedia’s article on its “Neutral Point of View” policy (2014), it mirrors a broader unspoken ideology that assumes such things as what qualifies as a “significant view” or “reliable source.” In contrast, the postmodern approach casts narrators and their narratives as “polyphonic texts that challenge dominant ideologies by articulating diverse discourses… thus resisting the notion of a unified viewpoint” (Cavallaro, 2001, p. 19). The postmodern perspective challenges the notion of objectivity and the assignment and privileging of particular opinions as truth. It asks: how did we come to privilege these things as significant views and reliable sources, and what other choices might we be able to make instead?

The notions of proliferating multiple truths and meanings in an intersubjective manner are reflected in other arenas adjacent to engineering and the experience of many engineers. For instance, in addition to the design review process, the notions of forking/branching and patching/merging in software development contribute to an intersubjective development practice. “Branching” and “forking” refer to when a software engineer creates a copy of a piece of code, so that multiple versions of the code can be developed in different directions at the same time; “patching” and “merging” refer to the process of proposing, then combining, multiple differing versions of a piece of code (perhaps created from an earlier branch/fork). The idea is to allow multiple variants of an idea to easily proliferate and reconverge, so a variety of perspectives and approaches can be tried without much overhead. A similar concept in modern physics is the notion of multiverses or parallel universes. These concepts also show up in popular books and films that deliberately present multiple conflicting narratives that don’t converge to a single neat “truth” — for instance, the narrator in “Life of Pi” tells several stories of how he survived a shipwreck, and the narrator in “Hero” offers several stories of how he defeated warriors who were a threat to the Emperor. From a postmodern perspective, conflicting truths, tensions, and linkages are sought as intriguing spaces to explore, rather than being treated as errors to be squashed.

Postmodernism: power and agency (readerly/writerly)

I’ve broken my lit review chapter into a series of short, and connected essays on postmodernism, page narrative, and and ontology. Todd said that those were sort of like blog posts, and that he’d read them if I posted them. So here goes… crappy early drafts disclaimer and all that. Have fun. Not in sequential order.

Postmodernism plays extensively with ideas of power and agency, as part of its quest to disrupt structure and authority. Postmodern projects frequently examine the notion of who has permission to modify the world. Who has this privilege, and who believes they have this privilege? Which aspects of the world are they able to modify, and how?

Permissions for modification are a familiar idea in engineering, particularly in computing. The entire concept of file permissions is built around the notion of granting or denying various people access to read and write to various areas on the computer. In the case of a large software project, one engineer might have the permissions to examine a piece of code and see what it does, but not have the permissions to modify it. This is called “read access,” because it lets the engineer read the file, but no more. A different engineer might be able to not only read that piece of code, but also edit it and change what it does. This is called “write access,” since the engineer has the power to write (or re-write) the file in question.

The notions of “read access” and “write access” to software files in the technical realm map to the notions of “readerly” and “writerly” approaches to a text in the philosophical realm. The terms writerly and readerly were coined by Roland Barthes in his 1973 book Le Plaisir du Texte (which the 1975 English translation renders as “The Pleasure of the Text”) in order to refer to the role of a text’s reader. Here, a text refers not just to printed words on paper, but more broadly to include other things that convey meaning, such as software code, videos, dance moves, and so forth.

Texts themselves can be said to take a more readerly or writerly approach. A readerly text treats readers only as readers, passive recipients of knowledge. Readerly texts place readers in the epistemological position that Baxter-Magolda calls “following formulas” (2001) and Kegan calls the “third order of consciousness” whereby external voices serve as privileged authorities (1994). In a sense, if expertise is the ability to independently create and navigate within a complex context, readerly texts restrict readers from reaching for higher levels of expertise (S. Dreyfus & H. Dreyfus, 1980)

By noticing and naming the “readerly” approach to texts, postmodernists draw attention to them and remind readers of their agency with regards to interpretation of the texts that they encounter. There are two main approaches to rendering a text “readerly.” The first is narrative seduction, where an author uses authoritative-sounding words to “convince” readers “of the author’s right to serve as ‘The Great Interpreter’” (Lather, 1991, p. 10). The second is banality (Bruner, 1991, p. 9-10), where an author deliberately writes in a boring style that “assum[es] shared and standard meanings” which habituates readers to overlook things they might otherwise examine, thus “suppressing the discourse” (Mishler, 1986, p. 65).

Foucault’s 1969 lecture “What is an Author?” and Umberto Eco’s essay collection titled “The Role of the Reader” (1979) speak out against readerly texts and echo Barthes’ call for the death of the author (1967) and the deliberate exposure of the hermeneutic richness inherent in all texts. Instead, they call for writerly texts, which demand that readers co-construct meaning with the author as they work through the text. A good analogy for a writerly text is a workbook with blank spaces for reflective exercises; it is clearly incomplete unless a reader is actively grappling with it, working as a co-author and using their own context to inform a hermeneutics of suspicion.

Now, it is possible to treat any book as a workbook even without explicit blank spaces and the word “workbook” printed on its cover. Active and critical readers will scribble margin notes and write commentary, effectively rendering any book a “workbook” that allows their own co-authorship. This was Barthes’ key insight: all texts are writerly. Cavallaro points out that the very word “text” comes from the Latin “texere,” meaning “to weave.” (2001, p. 59). The fabric of texts can be endlessly made and unmade; they aren’t closed, finished, or exclusive to one maker. It is simply that some texts pretend to be readerly and make readers forget their own agency.

The continued tongue-in-cheek awareness of one’s own agency and writerly power shows up in spaces that are not unfamiliar to engineering educators. In particular, it shows up in hacker and maker culture. For example, the hThe Maker’s Bill of Rightsof-rights/) makes statements like “screws, not glues” and “if it snaps shut, it shall snap open” (Torrone, 2006), design tradeoffs oriented towards keeping technologies “hackable,” or modifiable by their owners. [IMAGE: popular maker t-shirt that says "I void warranties," from Thinkgeek]. “Nightwork,” a book documenting MIT hacker culture, describes its practitioners as simultaneously laughing at authority’s attempts to keep them out of “off-limits” spaces, such as placing a faux police car on the roof of a building — and respecting authority’s ability to get things done; hackers occasionally leave notes informing official maintenance workers of overlooked spaces in need of repair (Peterson, 2011).

The notion of a readerly approach to the world also appears in formal engineering education research and advertising. “Changing the Conversation,” the National Academy of Engineering’s project to investigate the “branding” of engineering as a discipline, ended up recommending taglines like “engineers make a world of difference” and “engineers shape the future,” emphasizing the writerly power engineers have to reshape the world they live in (NAE, 2008). The theories of Barthes and other postmodernist philosophers who wrote about power and agency can be used to illuminate the discipline’s aspirations for empowering its practitioners.

The Feast of the Assumption always makes me smile.

There’s an image that comes to my mind every time the Feast of the Assumption rolls around — this is why this day always makes me smile. I won’t do it justice in writing, sildenafil but here goes.

There’s a young mother kneading bread dough on a hot day, hemophilia dark hair framing dark eyes, strong arms streaked with flour. There are a million things to do to keep the household running, and there’s never enough money no matter how hard Joseph works, but they make do, they manage –

She is interrupted by a tugging on her skirts, a tapping on her knee. “Mama?” pipes her toddler, in that baby voice that breaks her heart with gladness. “Mama!” Her son raises his hands in that universal tiny child gesture that means I Want To Be Held, Right Now.


And her strong hands bend down, wrap around him, lift him up into the light of the sun; he shrieks and giggles with delight and joy because his mama is here, his mama is with him, and he’s flying high above the world…

This is probably the laughter she remembers when she holds his bloodied body thirty years later, laying him down, dead, in the tomb. Her little boy, her baby. A mother’s grief.

Fast forward many years.

Now she is old, lying in bed; breathing is hard. White hair framing dark eyes, clouded with age. Trembling arms, spotted with sun. There were a million things she did to keep their spirits burning, but now the men and women who were among the first disciples are gathered around her, praying softly, keeping vigil –

She is interrupted by a tugging at her blankets, a tapping on her knee. And that familiar baby voice.


Her eyes have not seen clearly for some years now, but she turns towards that voice that breaks her heart with gladness. “Mama!” And her son, now fully grown — her Lord, her God — is there, stretching his pierced hands towards her, and she Wants To Hold Him, Right Now.

Jesus grins, eyes sparkling mischief, glory, tears. He cocks an eyebrow. “Mama. Up?”

She laughs, and strong hands bend down, wrap around her, lift her up into the light of heaven; they both are wordless with delight because His mama is here, His mama is with Him, flying with him high above the world…

And she still remembers this, the long, long life of joy and suffering entwined, as she prays and walks with each of us always, next to Him. Her little boy, her baby. A mother’s joy.

Brief notes from England: Sally and Steph

Stopping by Sally Fincher’s office yesterday for a quick chat, psychiatrist I came across the 5 questions of power from Tony Benn, a long-time British politician and immediately thought: this would be fascinating to investigate from a disability studies point of view someday.

  1. What power have you got?
  2. Where did you get it from?
  3. In whose interests do you use it?
  4. To whom are you accountable?
  5. How do we get rid of you?

Other tidbits from Sally yesterday: McNay’s quadrants of university organizational culture (which potentiallly make a nice little discussion with my dissertation analysis chapters, though I might save that for later writing) and the existence of the UK’s “Research and Development Series,” a collection of reports on fascinating topics like “how do you lead teaching at a research-focused university?” and other… things that… I am not allowed to read… until I defend, because… they’re far too shiny.

But probably the most helpful bits from yesterday’s conversation with Sally was the feeling of vindication that I am not, in fact, entirely inept at searching the literature. I’ve been searching for folks in engineering education — and then (in mild desperation) anywhere in STEM education — who use faculty narratives in a way that honors their mess and their complexity and their non-generalizability, non-sortability, non-resolvability, and so forth. Y’know, the sort of thing I’m trying to do. And basically, I found… Sally. And a few folks from education studies who have (almost incidentally, it seems) touched STEM.  A whole slew of education studies folks, yes — but inside my discipline, specifically looking at engineering? Not so much.

Sally pointed out to me yesterday that her own work wasn’t situated in computing education — she and Josh and the others had situated it in studies of teaching/education, and then sort of incidentally looked at computing. The other folks I’ve seen have done the same. It’s like a bunch of people all ringed around a lake, touching the water from a shore that lets them stand on firm ground — and me sitting there wondering “why isn’t someone standing on the water?” It was one of those duh, why haven’t I seen this pattern? moments. What is it about the disciplinary education of STEM (ok, engineering and perhaps computing) that makes it such a hard place for “this sort of narrative work” to root there, instead of having to root somewhere else and trellis over?

Also, Sally suggested I might want to look into Kurt Lewin’s work on institutional change. He theorizes that the world needs to unfreeze to change, but also needs to re-freeze in order to preserve that change, or it will all collapse when the new thing leaves. (Sally’s words, not necessarily Kurt’s.) This reminded me quite a bit of John Gardner’s thoughts on change and revolution… how do you strike the balance between chaos and ossification, which is the place where things are alive? Both authors are writing in ways that could feed into the ontological turn I’m attempting to articulate, and apparently am on the forefront of even if I didn’t know that earlier.

Both authors are writing in ways that could feed into the ontological turn I’m attempting to articulate, and apparently am on the forefront of… even if I didn’t know that earlier. That knowledge was one of the best things that I learned during my time in Manchester with Steph. I spent a good chunk of my time there asking her who’d done ontology like this before, then sputtering “what do you mean, nobody’s done that yet?” It’s simultaneously comforting and terrifying to have academics you respect tell you that the stuff you’re doing is quite difficult and quite new; it means that my work is in the right place, and I’m making real contributions, and… oh, that’s why it’s hard, huh? Nobody has thought in this particular space before.

Grandparent communications

From the category of “thoughts that won’t leave your mind until you write them down, sovaldi sale ” I’m taking a brief writing break from my thesis to get some thoughts out, erectile and then… back to it.

When I was little, my grandparents were largely Phones To Shout Into. They lived in the Philippines (later, my mom’s parents moved to Seattle). I was growing up in Chicago. We called each other on special occasions — Christmas, New Year’s, maybe birthdays — and it was always short, because long distance calls were pricey.

There’s no way to lipread on a phone call, so my general impression of my grandparents came from my bewildered looks at nearby parents to explain the blurry audio and prompt me for the proper answer.

“Hello, merry Christmas! (Mom: “They’re asking how is school.”) Uh, school is good! Uh, yeah! I love you too. Here’s mom! Bye!”

Not much in the way of conversation. More like hoping I could guess the right phrase to say into the phone, successfully enough and long enough that they would let me go. I knew they loved me, and they knew I loved them, but it’s hard to get to know someone like that.

Fast forward ten years later. It was my last semester of college, and it had been a good day. After spending hours volunteering at the tech nonprofit that would later become my first job after college, I had reluctantly logged out of an office flooded with rapid-fire English text conversations — computing discussions, made accessible to me for the first time by a distributed international group of contributors who happened to choose text chat as their collaboration medium. Warmed by the unfamiliar fuzzy feeling of full-throttle, large-scale communication, I was walking to the train on rain-slicked Boston cobblestones. It was a warm night.

My phone rang. I recognized my cousin’s name and was momentarily disgruntled at my family. “They know I don’t do phone calls, I can’t hear them.” And then: “Oh crap, I don’t do phone calls. Maybe something is wrong.”


My cousin said something on the other side. I knew he would be speaking English, but the words didn’t make…

“What did you say?”

He said something again. He sounded serious — his prosody was far slower and more somber than I was used to.

“I’m sorry, I don’t…”

This time, I thought he might have said our grandfather — our Chinese dialect’s word for grandfather. I wasn’t sure. I said the word, hoping I’d guessed correctly. He repeated… something that was also probably that word. I thought.

I don’t know how many times I made my cousin repeat it over and over: our grandfather was dead. (“What?”) Our grandfather had died. (“I didn’t catch that last…”) He had a massive heart attack. (“Something about our grandfather?”) It was sudden and unexpected. (“Can you repeat…”) There was nothing anyone could do even once the ambulance arrived. (“Hang on, can you back up? Are we talking about our grandfather?”)

We gave up, hung up, and I made the long transit trek back to my suburban college dorm, wondering if our grandfather was dead, hoping I’d parsed the phone audio incorrectly, deciding whether I wanted to email my parents and ask if he was alive and risk looking like an idiot.

Eventually, I found my parents over email. He had died. I was to fly home for his funeral and sit while people mourned around me in languages I didn’t understand. Sometimes it was in English, but it’s hard to lipread people when they’re crying.

Fast forward a decade later. My grandmothers both live in the Philippines again. This time, we have Skype. I’m sitting beside my youngest cousin, and she’s the one relaying phrases, prompting my answers.

“Hello! (Cousin: “She’s asking how is school.”) Uh, school is good! Uh, yeah! I love you too.”

This time, I could be more eloquent about school; at the age of thirty, far more so than at the age of ten, I’ve learned to use my hyper-fluency in spoken English to cover for my inability to hear it. But our grandmother is not a native English speaker, and that language has grown harder for her over time — so I need to dial my language to a different setting than when I am sparring verbally in academia — and the awkward 10-year-old comes out.

I’m the canary in the coal mine for my family’s intergenerational communications, or at least that’s what it often feels like. When my grandmother’s English grammar started to slip due to the mental vagaries of age, I started straining more and more to understand her — without clear sentence structures to guess at, the clues I could glean from lipreading ceased to make sense, and at some point a wall slammed shut before me. In contrast, my cousins and my aunts and mother, brother, father, uncles… they get her words, unscramble them so slightly and so fast they barely noticed it at first. There are conversations I can’t be in anymore; there are thickets I cannot, with all my intellect and skill with language, force my way through.

They say she’s still quite clear in our Chinese dialect, her native language, and I believe them. But I can’t lipread that. I’m only oral deaf in English, and in German, and a little bit in Mandarin and Spanish… languages with books, languages with grammars and phonologies I can learn in clear text first, and the fuzzy, lossy mouths of speakers second. And my family is made of people, not of books.

Sometimes — often — I can’t speak to my grandparents. But I can write — and so I write. Not so much to them now, but sometimes for them.

Hello! School… school is hard now. Hard in ways I never thought it would be hard. ButI know how much it means to you that someone in the family will get a Ph.D. You might not understand the words I’m writing, but you do understand that part of why I’m writing them is in appreciation of the generations worth of sacrifice and planning that it took to get us here.

I wish that there was more that I could say to you directly. I wish there was more of your world that I could understand, and vice versa. I wish it didn’t cost so much for me to try with spoken language, but it does, so I will do it indirectly with a written one.

Uh, yeah! I love you too. So yeah, here’s… back to my dissertation.


Writing spaces

Part of the continuing adventures of Mel learning how to be an ADHD academic.

One very important thing I have learned and verified experimentally: when I write, noun I need to be in a writing place. For me, this means the coffeeshop around the corner, the coworking space inside my gym, or the Cambridge Public Library.

The point of the writing place is to increase the effort it takes for me to stop writing. If I’m at home, the effort I need to stop writing is simply… to stop writing and putter off somewhere else — the couch, my bed, whatever. If I’m at the coffeeshop, however, I have to pack up, walk home… that’s harder. I’m more likely to keep writing.

So: no writing from my house. (Bonus: I also have to stop working and go home and sleep at some point, because all the places I’ve listed close at 11:30pm at latest.)

My office also doesn’t work, because I do too many small administrative things inside my office to associate it with deep writing thought — although I do write well from other places on the Olin campus!

The one exception to this is that I can write from anywhere — including my house and office — if I am writing with someone else. If someone else is physically in the space with me and keeping me accountable to writing, I can be writing anything (and they can be doing anything) and I will be able to write. If they are not physically in the space with me but we are virtually collaborating on the same piece of writing, I can similarly write from anywhere.However, if I have a virtual accountability buddy, and we are not working on the same thing, then I have to go to a writing place.

However, if I have a virtual accountability buddy, and we are not working on the same thing, then I have to go to a writing place.

I like my writing places. At first, I thought they felt wasteful — but now I see them as infrastructure and investment, and they’re also beautiful places; one has great coffee (wonderful for ADHD focus), one has spaces where I can run around and lift heavy things and climb on other things (wonderful for ADHD focus), and one is beautiful and home to many wonderful books (okay, maybe not that great for ADHD focus, but it makes for a very happy Mel).

Reading the labels of canned beans

My friend Sheila recently shared this article about two (hypothetical) deaf kids of hearing families at the dinner table. It’s absolutely worth a read. Both children in the story are about 8 years old, sovaldi and go to a school where they’re taught in ASL; both are bilingual in spoken English and ASL, and both have hearing parents who care for them greatly and want only what will give their children a better life. There are no bad guys here.

In this fictional story, the parents of “Sophia” sign, and use ASL with her at the dinner table; family mealtimes are full of learning and interaction for her, active participation, question-asking, learning more about the world, about her parents’ lives, telling them about hers. The parents of “Caleb” don’t, because they think it’s important that he learn to interact with the hearing world. Caleb learns to keep his CI on to keep his parents happy, even if he doesn’t understand. He learns how to pretend. He loves them. He knows they love him. It’s not a bad childhood, honestly.

And yet.

“Over time, Caleb has learned that it’s best to pretend to understand more than he does, so he will annoy them less… [at dinner, when his parents smile,] Caleb smiles as well, because he likes to see his parents happy, even if he knows nothing about what they’re saying. He has not learned anything from this dinnertime, but he doesn’t usually, so he does not think anything of it…  Caleb clears his plate and leaves the room to brush and ready himself for bed. He is not unhappy, and is in fact mostly fine, but there is a subtle quietness in his heart that he doesn’t completely understand. He can’t identify it yet.”

I grew up closer to Caleb, without the CI, other d/Deaf/HoH kids around, ASL exposure, and with a family that regularly creamed-up English sentences into a creole’d rush of Southeast Asian languages. I know Caleb is a fictional character, but his experience hits close to mine in many ways, though I exhibited no visible academic delays (plenty of social ones, though — and although I was always at the top of my classes as a kid, I wonder what sort of learner I might have been with full access to the world… but that’s a complex experiment that can’t be re-run in any case, and I could have turned into a hypersocial party girl who thought studying was boring, too).

When I was a kid, one of the running family jokes was that I would read anything, anytime. Literally. Anything. I’d grab a can of beans out of the pantry and read the nutritional labels, and I honestly would find it fascinating (“whoa, ascorbic acid is in everything!”). Everybody found it weird and hilarious and cute; I thought it was pretty funny, too. I didn’t know why I kept wanting to read at dinner — and really, all the time — but I just did. It felt like I always had to, like the books were food and I was always starving.

The joke’s still funny, but now it’s also sad — looking at that family joke now, the books were food, and I was always starving. I look back now and see a little kid so ravenous for information that she scavenged the best of what was available to her, which was… ingredient labels. On canned beans. In hindsight, I understand this as tiny-Mel’s attempt to make family mealtime (and all times, for that matter) an information acquisition opportunity, since most of the discussion was… not entirely a closed book, but a heavily blacked-out, liquid-smeared, highly effortful one to read. In many ways, I made my own learning experiences at dinner, got my own content to the table when I was allowed or was able to sneak it.

Sometimes that content was a book I’d try to hide under the table and read until my parents scolded me for not “being present with the family” at dinner, which I could only do through lipreading. Lipreading is exhausting and inaccurate — I say this now as an adult with advanced degrees and a high degree of metalinguistic fluency and topical knowledge with which to guess, so it was probably even worse for a small child who was still developing language skills and vocabulary, and had less knowledge of the world to guess with.

Books are hard to hide under the edges of the table, so it wasn’t usually books. It was typically ingredients. Cereal boxes. The aforementioned cans of beans. Or advertising catalogues that had arrived in the mail. (I became hyper-aware of what I’d now call a typology of the rhetoric of bulk mailings.) This was the information about the world that I could make sense of as a child.

This is not too different from the information I can usually make sense of during hearing dinners now… the difference is that I have more coping strategies and use my speaking privilege like a powerfully wielded machete to get myself into discussions, I have more capacity to moderate and strategize my use of energy and brainpower to focus on important cues and topics, and I have a far richer mental model of the world and all of the ideas in it that I can use to make sense of the spots of information I am able to extract. The information, though… it’s still a crawl, a drip, a broken stream.

I remember this past fall when I was invited to the house of a Deaf family I’ve come to know in town, along with a bunch of other Deaf folks who were mutual friends of ours from church. My ASL receptive skills, at that point, were enough to make sense of most conversation — not to understand it perfectly, but it had surpassed lipreading in terms of cost/benefit (energy expenditure vs accuracy) tradeoff. I wasn’t really signing much myself, yet. I was a linguistic toddler.

I remember sitting in their kitchen and just watching… people… talk. About… local restaurants. Their jobs. Their kids. The snacks. Picking up their kids from school. Job hunting. Whether a kid was allowed to have another piece of chocolate. Topics shifted, nothing was particularly important, nothing was… it was… the most insignificant conversational content ever. And I sat there, wide-eyed, thinking: oh, this is how it is — this is a type of conversation I have never seen — this is what people talk about after meals, this is…

This is the rhetoric of everyday life, the stuff I kept on getting error pages for during my childhood attempts to access it — the “oh, it’s not important” response, or the classic of “I’ll tell you later” with a later that never came. This is the experience of an ethnographer plunged into a foreign culture, but the culture I was plunged into was actually… my own, except with (partial) access to the language for the first time.

“Making the familiar strange” is a common phrase used in training qualitative research students, but I think I might always live inside a world that’s somehow strange to me — as do we all, but I am very much aware of this particular way in which the world is strange to me because of how I grew up with communication.

That’s all I’ve got for now.