Cogito, Ergo Sumana
Sumana oscillates between focus and opportunity

: One Way Confidence Will Look: The personal narrative in this NYT piece reminded me that we often socialize men to think that the absence of a NO implies a YES*, and that we often socialize women to think that the absence of a YES implies a NO.

We install different defaults. One entitled, the other deferential.

Generally, then, the errors that one makes will more consistently be, for some people, errors of overconfidence, or, for other people, errors of overreticence. (I'm talking more about professional life than about personal relationships, although I imagine there's some overlap.)

Which do you want to encourage? "Go for it" or "don't do anything bold"? "File bug reports" or "assume no one wants to hear your point of view"?

Therefore, when you see a woman erring in the right direction, don't slap her wrist. In your workplace, in your school, or when you read about an entrepreneur or an artist or an activist who's taking a risk, don't call women pushy or bitchy or naggy or arrogant or know-it-all or bossy or "difficult" for erring in the direction we want women to err!

If she has to yell to be heard when she's the only one who sees trouble ahead, the answer is to make sure she gets heard in the future without having to yell, rather than punishing her for yelling.

Don't punish her for assuming people need to hear her perspective, for defaulting to yes, for reading the absence of a no to be a yes.

I know this feels like it might end up unfair, subjective, messy. But it's already that way. I used to worship logic and I had no patience with nuance, tact, or drawing-out. In particular it took me quite a long time to work out that socially constructed things are real too. "So I think it's when you're committed to rules being fair and playing by them to the point you go hunting around for new rules, the SECRET RULES, rather than admit the world is an unfair and chaotic place." As one Bitcoin enthusiast writes:

The average problem with the average libertarian though (and by this I mean someone who comes to such ideals not via a critical intellectual process, but because they like the sound of it), is that they're hypersensitive towards recognising overt forms of power - like the bouncer standing at the nightclub door - but have muted ability (or desire) to recognise implicit forms of power, the subtle structures of exclusion that actually do most of the work in maintaining a status quo.

They assume that in the absence of the bouncer there's a level playing field. ....

Indeed, in the context of a non-level playing field, not making an overt effort to include is just a subtle (albeit non-deliberate) form of exclusion.

I am trying to encourage you to make a world where it's safe for women to stop protectively apologizing to deflect criticism, to stop apologizing unless we've actually done something wrong. I have my own internalized sexism so it's something I work on, too -- I notice my own reaction, my tone policing reflex, and (try to) stop myself from saying anything harmful aloud. And as Harriet suggests, I reflect on my prejudice, sit with my discomfort, and try to do better next time.

Please join me.


* I particularly direct your attention to the dissection that starts "Another pattern of the privileged: not keeping track of the line between acceptable and unacceptable behavior." Further reading: in sexual consent, "Mythcommunication: It’s Not That They Don’t Understand, They Just Don’t Like The Answer", and in professional life, "this is a thing that happens."


(2) : Choosing to Leave, Stay, or Listen: I've recently been thinking about the power not to care -- the power to dismiss, to decide that someone else's opinion doesn't matter to you, and act accordingly, to act entitled. I've been thinking about where I've run into advice about choosing when not to care.

Around age twelve I read "Self-Reliance" by Emerson, and read it to mean that, since you can't please everyone, you may as well just try to please yourself.

Also around that age I obtained a super simplistic understanding of Buddhism: attachment and desire lead to suffering, and if you just stop wanting things, then you won't get hurt if you don't get them.

A few years later a philosophy professor had us read a bit of Nietzsche and mentioned in lecture, lightly, that Nietzsche didn't particularly care about being rational. His opponents would say "but that's irrational!" and he could say "So?"

At some point around here I read Atlas Shrugged, and basically got out of it with "the social contract is not a suicide pact" as a lesson. I probably also caught a little of, as Teresa Nielsen Hayden summarizes, "continual self-sacrifice will leave you with nothing of your own" and "if there are people out there who are like Ayn Rand's characters, they don't need Ayn Rand's books to tell them so."

Early in college, I audited an intro sociology class because its lecturer, Andrew L. Creighton, just blew my mind in every class. I hadn't made it off the waitlist but I just showed up to every lecture anyway (at UC Berkeley in the late nineties this was fine for huge lecture classes and we called it auditing). I remember Professor Creighton talking about groups and norms and power, and saying, as an aside, that this is why he was a wild card in academic departments -- he didn't particularly want what they were offering.

In 2008, I ran across a wiki page about status play, meant for improv performers, and realized what dismissiveness looks in the small, in individual conversational transactions.

In 2009, I read N.K. Jemisin's "Cold-Blooded Necessity". "I think the shift from extrinsic to intrinsic valuation -- from caring about what others think to caring about yourself -- is a fundamental part of the transition from amateur to professional..."

A few years later, in Tina Fey's Bossypants, I read about Amy Poehler not caring whether you like it.

A little while after that, after reading How to Be a Woman by Caitlin Moran, I wrote "The Kind Of Feminist I Am" about the intersection of privilege and mobility with this particular power. "I love the means by which people can get away from their old selves and the people who thought they knew them.... Forking. For adults, the most fundamental freedom is the freedom to leave, to vote with your feet."

And then this year, in Gabourey Sidibe's speech at the Ms. Foundation Gala, I read about her deciding to be an "asshole":

I wanted that party! And what I want trumps what 28 people want me to do, especially when what they want me to do is leave. I had a great time. I did. And if I somehow ruined my classmates' good time, then that's on them.

Sidibe's comment of course could be misread as "people should take over parties where they aren't wanted," but in context that's an utter misreading. The really interesting transgressive thing Sidibe is saying is that, when you are systematically oppressed, pursuing your own pleasure will feel rude and selfish.

In retrospect, I see the variations in this theme. You get to choose whether to stay or leave, whatever They want. You get to decide not to want others' definition of success, and to listen to your own judgment.

(And related to this: the audacity to make plans, and the audacity to decide when not to listen to yourself (for instance, when ignoring internal emotional weather and just pushing forward anyway).)

Filed under:


(0) : On Insecurity: I was catching up on Tales of MU, and I read a passage that particularly caught me. For context: A working group needs help making some objects look appealing, and three women are the ones with the necessary expertise.

"Of course it's the girls," Micah said.

"It's so typically defensive to make a remark that devalues a skill that you lack right at the moment when it proves valuable," Wisdom said.

Oh that's a bit familiar.


(0) : Case Study of a Good Internship: I'm currently a mentor for Frances Hocutt's internship in which she evaluates, documents, and improves client libraries for the MediaWiki web API. She'll be finishing up this month.

I wanted to share some things we've done right. This is the most successful I've ever been at putting my intern management philosophy into practice.

  • A team of mentors. I gathered a co-mentor and two technical advisors: engineers who have different strengths and who all promised to respond to questions within two business days. Frances is reading and writing code in four different languages, and is able to get guidance in all of them. The other guys also have very different perspectives. Tollef has worked in several open source contexts but approaches MediaWiki's API with learner's mind. Brad has hacked on the API itself and maintains a popular Wikipedia bot that uses it. And Merlijn is a maintainer of an existing client library that lots of Wikimedians use. I bring deep knowledge of our technical community, our social norms, and project management. And I'm in charge of the daily "are you blocked?" communication so we avoid deadlocks.

  • Frequent communication. Any time Frances needs substantial guidance, she can ping one of her mentors in IRC, or send us a group email. She also updates a progress report page and tells our community what she's up to via a public mailing list. We have settled into a routine where she checks in with me every weekday at a set time. We videochat three times a week via appear.in (its audio lags so we use our cell phones for audio), and use a public IRC channel the other two weekdays. We also frequently talk informally via IRC or email. She and I have each other's phone numbers in case anything is really urgent.

  • Strong relationship. I met Frances before we ever thought about doing OPW together. I was able to structure the project partly to suit her strengths. We've worked together in person a few times since her project started, which gave us the chance to tell each other stories and give each other context. I've encouraged her to submit talks to relevant conferences, and given her feedback as she prepared them. Frances knows she can come to us with problems and we'll support her and figure out how to solve them. And our daily checkins aren't just about the work -- we also talk about books or silliness or food or travel or feminism or self-care tips. There's a healthy boundary there, of course, since I need to be her boss. But our rapport makes it easier for me to praise or criticize her in the way she can absorb best.

  • Frances is great. I encouraged her as an applicant; from her past work and from our conversations, I inferred that she was resourceful, diligent, well-spoken, analytical, determined, helpful, and the kind of leader who values both consensus and execution. I know that many such people are currently languishing, underemployed, underappreciated. A structured apprenticeship program can work really well to help reflective learners shine.

    I got to know Frances because we went to the same sci-fi convention and she gave me a tour of the makerspace she cofounded. Remember that just next to the open source community, in adjacent spaces like fandom, activism, and education, are thousands of amazing, skilled and underemployed people who are one apprenticeship away from being your next Most Valuable Player.


  • Scope small & cuttable. Frances didn't plan to make one big monolithic thing; we planned for her to make a bunch of individual things, only one of which (the "gold standard" by which we judge API client libraries) needed to happen before the others. This came in very handy. We hadn't budgeted time for Frances to attend three conferences during the summer, and of course some programming bits took longer than we'd expected. When we needed to adjust the schedule, we decided it was okay for her to evaluate eight libraries in four languages, rather than eleven in five languages. The feature she's writing may spill a few days over past the formal end of her internship and we're staying aware of that.

  • Metacognition. As Jefferson said, "If men were angels, we would have no need of government." But we're flawed, and so we have to keep up the discipline of metacognition, of figuring out what we are bad at and how to get better. I asked Frances to self-assess her learning styles and have used that information to give her resources and tasks that will suit her. Early in the internship I messed up and suggested a very broad, ill-defined miniproject as a way to learn more about the MediaWiki API; since then I've learned better what to suggest as an initial discovery approach. Halfway into the internship we realized we weren't meeting enough, so we started the daily videochat-or-IRC appointment. I have let Frances know that I can be a bad correspondent so it's fine to nag me, to remind me that she's blocked on something, to ask other mentors for help. And so on. We've learned along the way, about each other and about ourselves. My mom says, "teaching is learning twice," and she's right.

Setting up an internship on a strong foundation makes it a smoother, less stressful, and more joyous experience for everyone. I've heard lots of mentors' stories of bad internships, but I don't think we talk enough about what makes a good internship. Here's what we are doing that works. You?


(P.S. Oh and by the way you can totally hire Frances starting in September!)


(0) : A Failure In Fluff Recommendation: A friend mentioned that she's particularly interested in reading fluffy fiction novels authored by people who are not white men -- comfort fic, and (in her case in particular) preferably not mystery or romance. (And I believe she reads only in English.) I told her I would blog a list of books like that, and was certain I'd have a few.

I started trying to come up with recommendations and realized that I find this quite difficult! The Perilous Life of Jade Yeo by Zen Cho (review) is a romance, albeit a very unconventional one that satirizes usual romance tropes. A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth has comfortfic bits in it but lots of wrenching passages too. I personally found The Red Carpet: Bangalore Stories by Lavanya Sankaran comforting, but if you are not Karnatakan you might not, and it's short stories rather than a novel. R.K. Narayan's My Dateless Diary is nonfiction. A lot of people like Naomi Novik's Temeraire novels and Mary Robinette Kowal's Glamourist novels, but there sure is death and gore in Novik's work, and I haven't read the Kowal yet. Most of these recommended books are by white men. Jean Merrill's The Pushcart War, Laura Ingalls Wilder's The Long Winter, Tamora Pierce's Tortall books, and Crescent by Diana Abu-Jaber all have really quite high stakes, now that I think about it. I can reassure you that everything is basically going to come out all right, but is that good enough to make it fluffy comfort fic?

Why is this so hard?!

In the afterword to Jade Yeo, Cho described it as "fluff for postcolonial booknerds" (more on that here), and at least one commenter discussed how difficult it can be to feel safe and comfortable reading about marginalized people who are currently happy: "I guess what haunted me through every interaction was the precariousness of Jade and Ravi's position...". And yeah. I worry! I can get pretty invested in a protagonist's happiness. Some of these books only serve as comfort fiction on a second read, when I already know what is going to happen. (One nice thing about certain genre boundaries, such as standard romance and mystery, is that I can reasonably expect the protagonist will not die, be enslaved, etc.) So I think my actual answer is: keep my eyes open.

I promised my friend a list of recommendations and am failing her. Apologies! I think I will ask you more questions about what you find comforting in fiction so I can recommend things better.

Filed under:


(1) : Resources For Starting Your Own Thing: I've had two different conversations recently with feminist women who want to start their own tech startups. Even though I have never done that, it turns out that I had things to tell them that they did not already know! NON-ORDERED LIST TIME!

I'm sure this is as incomplete as "Here Are Some Grants You Could Apply For" was. Also, as I mentioned, I totally have not done this and websearching around for startup advice from founders will get you a zillion interesting results, and if they contradict me then you should probably believe them instead.


(7) : Inessential Weirdnesses in Open Source: Class Matters features an essay by Betsy Leondar-Wright on activist culture and what we do that accidentally alienates new people, and includes the very useful phrase "inessential weirdness(es)." Please go read it so you'll understand what I am suggesting in the lists below.

Some friends and I started listing the inessential weirdnesses in open source and open culture, some of which shade into missing stairs. We came up with:

  • git (not all version control systems; specifically git because of its UI/horrible learning curve)
  • "+1" jargon
  • dismissiveness towards Windows/Internet Explorer
  • assumption of atheism
  • widespread scorn of team sports, Top 40 music, patriotism
  • how MANY licenses there are
  • all the Monty Python and scifi references/analogies
  • dismissiveness towards email addresses from certain domains, such as Hotmail, AOL, etc. (And the hierarchy beyond that as well! A few years ago, my boss's boss emailed a bunch of people, and I was on the To list, and she used my backup GMail address instead of my usual Panix address, so now I looked like just another GMail user in front of all these hoity-toity people whose emails end in @[prestigious-company].com or @[prestigious-university].edu or @[self-hosted-domain].net. I was embarrassed, because that's how email domain name status works in our community.)

Mary Gardiner added more observations (mostly her wording):

  • Use of email lists rather than web forums
  • Use of plain text rather than HTML email (or even knowing that these are things)
  • Use of IRC
  • Really context-dependent naming: Almost universal use of wallet names in email and almost universal use of pseudonyms on IRC for example
  • Our (very white?) use of standard English, with a mainstream minority using Latin plurals and into older styles of prescriptivist grammar
  • All the mathematics and CS terminology: "transitive", "orthogonal", etc.
  • Conferences themselves. They come with assumptions of a certain amount of wealth (for travel), and they focus on skills (abstract writing, public speaking) that don't closely correspond to the skills a lot of open stuff workers have developed in the course of their work. In addition, they go with a very common phobia (public speaking). They require spoken fluency in (usually) English (which is really hard on many good CS research students). They're also totalising: you conference from the time you wake up to the time you sleep. Even without travel, and even though childcare is a partial solution, they're therefore very tailored to people without dependents or regular home responsibilities.

Leondar-Wright's essay also gave me language for thinking about defaulting to unconference formats. As I said in my 2012 post "Sometimes an unconference is the wrong choice":

If you are planning an event for people who already know and trust each other, and are good at public speaking and collaboration, and are experts in the field, then an unconference might work! But for newbies who are learning not just a new skill, but a new way of thinking? Give them a more familiar structure.

I am happy with how we are doing AdaCamp, which I think is a modified unconference in the right ways, e.g., with lots of orientation and structured-for-newbies intro sessions in the first few slots.

Camille Acey added the nuance that it's important to distinguish between making a space more accessible to newbies and "dumbing down" ideas. While it's important to avoid needless erudition when teaching new learners, it can be condescending, presumptuous, and paternalistic to reflexively avoid complex topics and nuance. Acey believes we need to build safe spaces with agreed-upon rules to help everyone feel comfortable saying "I don't understand," that we must regularly revisit and revise those rules, and that we should, while teaching new learners, call things by their proper names while also collaborating among people with different perspectives to build a common language -- and a common movement.

I agree with Acey that, while getting rid of unnecessary barriers, we need to watch out for disrespectful oversimplification. Making safe places where people can admit ignorance and teach each other respectfully is key; this implies long-term commitment and relationship-building, I think, and is yet another reason why one-off events are less effective (for example, see the importance of followup in Wikipedia editing workshops and edit-a-thons). Perhaps one way to balance improving the learner's experience and avoiding condescension is for teachers to consciously remember simplifications as placeholders, and commit to exploring the topics' richness with those learners in a later session.

One way to think of essential versus inessential weirdnesses is to think in terms of dependency management. How many packages are you asking your user to install in order to use your project? Are they all really necessary? Won't that take a lot of time and disk space? Can you reduce the amount of time they spend waiting for a progress bar to inch forward, so they can dive in and start getting things done?


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