Thursday, May 14, 2009

Moving Forward

As a sophomore engineer dealing with the onslaught of misogyny at Patriarchal University, I was deeply angry. My high school math and science teachers were all women with advanced degrees in their fields, true scholars and quiet exemplars of what I assumed I could become. So it was a shock when I learned that some of my male peers in college thought women couldn't do science and went to great lengths to make that clear with pranks and jokes and unwelcome attention. My professors were at best distant and uncomfortable with women, and the worst ones used tactics of sexualized humiliation in class.

I wrote a poem in that time. It was about a certain sculpture that stood outside the entrance to the engineering school on my campus. The sculpture really just about said it all. I won't reprint the poem here because it contained strong metaphors of engineering education as sexual violence. It wasn't until much later when I ran across Sally Hacker's work, using a Foucauldian analysis to unpack the engineering experience in relation to bodies, that I was able to process it. My poem reflected the real and then raw gender-based violence in the larger engineering community and in my life on campus.

So it came as a shock but not exactly a surprise when a student of mine recently wrote in an end-of-semester reflection about her sense that engineering was not compatible with her identity as a dyke and as a radical feminist. What really shook me to the core, though, was that she used nearly identical metaphors of sexual violence and humiliation to describe the experience of problem sets and the application of mathematical models to phenomena that she would rather understand using other epistemologies.

Now I am complicit with, and quite possibly the perpetrator of, something that feels violent and violating to my student's sense of self. How did I get here? I wasn't naive enough to think Wimmin's College would be spared all the sexism or all the violence, but wouldn't it be a little better without a blatantly phallic sculpture and the pervasive male engineering culture it represents?

I teach traditional engineering courses with some pedagogical and curricular twists, but the course in question is one I had struggled to transform. I am careful that my problem sets are never physical endurance tests, and I readily grant extensions on work. I had assigned a reading that presented a feminist critique of (among other things) reductionism in mathematical representations of engineering phenomena and used that as a springboard for discussion of how material in the course was presented. But in the end, my student's response begged the question -- had I moved forward enough?

Through the devastation of absorbing what my student had to say to me, I realized that unlike at Patriarchal University, where my rage landed in a poem shared cautiously with only my closest feminist friends, this student had and utilized an opportunity to reflect on the course and tell her professor how it felt. I was able to respond, and provide some resources for her to read to help process her experience. I was able to hear this student and take her concerns seriously, and change my teaching as a result. That's engineering education moving forward. Myabe not enough, but forward nonetheless.

My student said that it's not possible to transform engineering for the better because it will always be tainted with patriarchy, reductionism, and a worship of mathematical forms of rigor. This is why she is choosing not to continue in the field. She said it is not possible to be a dyke and an engineer. This gave me pause, especially as someone who holds both identities myself. I agree that one (or even many) cannot transform engineering so completely as to remove it from all complicities with oppression and injustice. Still, I do think it's worth a try; in fact my sense of justice demands that I try.

I also think it is problematic (and potentially reductionist/essentialist) to see identities of dyke and engineer as mutually exclusive. The further question of what it means to be both is not easily answered. At the same time I fully recognize that the very personal question for my student of "Can *I* be a dyke and an engineer?" has a clear answer of no. That is my student moving forward.

Is being a feminist engineer an oxymoron, a paradox, a sell out? What have I compromised? Whether I'm working for change inside or outside the system may depend on the day, or on one's system definition. I know I feel called to be here in no small part due to moments like these. And that, I hope, is moving forward.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Knitted Plant Hanger - my first design!

Knitted Plant Hanger

By Riled

I did this (my first design, bear with me) after coming up empty on pattern searches for knitted plant hangers. Pots come in all shapes and sizes, with different tapering angles. You will want to customize as needed to fit your pot (I recommend you suspend the pot in your knitting periodically to get good “as-hanging” measurements).

Download PDF here

Yarn: 1 skein of hemp, cotton, or other non-stretchy fiber (yardage varies with pot size but you should have plenty)

Needles: size 15 double pointed needles (DPNs) and size 15 circular needles, 16" … or use longer circulars for magic loop (in which case you don’t need DPNs). Use a smaller or larger size if you want the mesh to be tighter or looser, as you like. Note: If you use the DPNs and shorter circulars, start the base on DPNs and switch to the circulars when feasible. The i-cords are easier on DPNs, but you can use a circular if you like.

Base (follow pattern until your base matches the base of your pot – then purl the last round):
Cast on 6 stitches, divided on 3 double pointed needles (or halved for magic loop). Join.
Round 1: (K1, YO) (12 sts)
Rounds 2, 3, & 4: Knit (on Round 2 knit into the backs of the yarn overs to close them up a bit).
Round 5: (K1, YO) (24 sts)
Rounds 6, 7, 8, 9: Knit (on Round 6 knit into the backs of the yarn overs to close them up a bit).

Repeat from Round 5 as needed until your base matches the base of your pot.
Last Round: Purl.

Round 1: (YO, K2tog)
Round 2: (K
2tog, YO)
Repeat rounds 1 & 2 until you have your desired length for your pot.

Note: You might need to increase if your pot tapers out a bit. Increase between rounds 1 and 2 by doing the yo and k2tog to complete round 1, but before passing the k2tog to the right needle, knit into it a second time to make the increase. Yarn over. Then proceed to round 2 in pattern with k2tog…

When you’ve almost reached the desired length, knit two rounds, knitting into the backs of the previous row's yarn overs to close them.

Bind off using sewn bind-off (

Suspend your hanger from three evenly spaced points on the base. At each point attach two i-cords twisted together. Therefore, make 6 i-cords of equal length – whatever length you desire, accounting for stretch. (I-cord tutorial: Twist i-cords together and attach to base. Attach all i-cords at the top to a ring of your choosing or tie directly onto hanging device.

Thanks to Measured with Spoons and Katywhumpus for their help in developing this pattern.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Sisterhood is Powerful at the Esteemed Engineering Society

So, my college years were in the early 90s, the age of AIDS awareness for GenXers, when we knew we were vulnerable, we could no longer deny our own susceptibility to the virus, regardless of sexual orientation, gender, race, etc. Condoms were being freely distributed in a lot of places - outside student health services on my campus, and popularly in men's bathrooms. Oh sure, sometimes you had to pay as much as 25 cents in a vending machine (far below retail), but more often than not, they were just there, in a basket, or there was some activist with strings of them wrapped around his body, ammunition on a guerilla soldier in the war against AIDS.

It was in this time that it occurred to me to ask, why is it that women have to pay for tampons or pads in our bathrooms? Why can't they be free, if condoms are free? Not all college students were having sex, but practically all college women were menstruating, from time to time. A friend of mine who had transferred to Womyn's College (that feminist utopia - heh) told us that they were free on her campus. (I don't believe this was ever true, judging from the age of the tampon vending machines at Womyn's, but it was a grand myth for us at Patriarchal University in any case, and perceptions are real in their consequences). How we (ok, maybe it was just me) longed for free pads and tampons - wouldn't that be the true mark of women's arrival?

Fast forward to now. I'm at a meeting at the Esteemed Engineering Society, my second meeting there in as many weeks. At the last meeting, there were flashbacks to the McCarthy era, but that's a story for another time. I had been staring at the wall of past Chairmen (yes, chairMEN), and they were all pale and male. The last, most recent one had his picture taken without a tie, against a bright yellow background to signal his break with tradition, and this did not pass without comment. I thought, well maybe 50 years from now, people will look at this wall and pinpoint that moment as when things started to change.... then I had to pee.

Now I don't know how I missed this two weeks ago, so maybe it's a new thing, there I am at the sink and to my left in a basket, is an array of pads and tampons, free for the taking. Now, sure, they are the kind with the huge cardboard applicator and the kind that's thick as a mattress, in a cardboard box, but they are free. Now, some cynics may think they can afford to do this because of the dearth of women present, but in fact this bathroom gets plenty of use - support staff from administrative to security are there every day, along with a few women in leadership positions and of course the rare female member or visiting academic like myself drops in occasionally.

Maybe the vending machine was broken, perhaps likely since the products offered were that type, and I really don't think it was there two weeks ago - but still, a brief moment of liberation for (menstruating) women in engineering. Free tampons at the Esteemed Engineering Society! Can a framed female on the wall be far behind?

Thursday, August 21, 2008


There is nothing cuter than a bundle of kittens. Is this what compels people to fall down on the job when it comes to spaying cats, contributing to a huge cat overpopulation problem?

Because people seem perfectly capable of feeding stray cats when they come by - in fact, they believe they are doing a good thing. And when the cat then turns up pregnant, people are perfectly capable of caring for kittens and finding homes for them. But for some reason, even where spaying is completely free, people fail to do right by the pets they care for or the strays they feed. I can think of no rational explanation for this, so it must be that the cuteness of kittens causes a total lapse of reason.

And this is why I now have 6 cats in my house. I started with one, not being a crazy cat lady, but now have a stray mama cat and 4 really cute kittens on my upstairs enclosed porch... until the mama cat is spayed, and until the kittens are old enough to find families that can give them their forever homes.

Finding good homes for these kittens is a priority, and proving harder than I thought. Sure, people are interested, but I need to know they will get these offspring neutered or spayed. Maybe I watched too much Bob Barker as a kid, but I really thought this was a no-brainer, until I started talking with some people about this.

I heard a vet try to persuade a dog owner to neuter her bulldog, but she said she couldn't "take away his manhood". I lightly tried to point out that dogs aren't men, and well... anyway. I don't think she got her dog neutered. Even some people I know well and know to be very responsible in other aspects of life don't seem to understand why this is so important. They make excuses like, well, if it's an indoor only cat... etc.

So, here are some compelling tidbits I discovered, for anyone out there having this conversation (and I think more people need to get proactive about having it with friends who have pets):

1) In the US there are 45 kittens born for every human birth. There is no way that all of these cats can possibly find good homes. Every kitten born is a stress on this system, whether it is feral, stray, or purebred, whether it is born homeless or into a good home.

2) Millions of animals are killed in shelters in the US every year because of this overpopulation problem. For every kitten that finds a home, there are kittens crowding shelters that could have taken its place.

3) Cats are extremely prolific, and female cats bear a heavy physical burden with rapid cycles of fertility, pregnancy, nursing (sometimes while already pregnant with the next litter) and so on. With 4-6 kittens per litter and multiple litters per year, it's easy to see how numbers can get out of hand.

4) The stress of heat cycles on unspayed cats causes them to be physically uncomfortable and often frustrated, leading to behavioral problems as they seek to mate.

5) Unspayed cats face many avoidable health risks, including increased risk for contracting FIV in fights, dramatically increased risk of ovarian and uterine cancers, bacterial infections of the uterus, complications related to pregnancy, mammary gland tumors, etc.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

I didn't sign up for this

When I joined facebook a few years ago, it was only open to college community members - mostly students, but the occasional faculty member or staff person with a university email account would join. It was a way for me to keep in touch with campus culture, to better understand and relate to my students. I logged in only on those rare occasions when students sent me a friend request. Most didn't friend me - especially the ones with the drunk photos, I suspect.

Now, I still use facebook as a way to keep in touch with students past and present, but the rest of my life is creeping in. Earlier I wrote about how it felt like a life integrator, bringing together queer Presbyterians and engineers for social justice and everything else I care about. Lately it's been feeling more like a nostalgia trip.

I've been friended by a number of high school classmates lately. I've even done some of the friending. But this nostalgic facebook-friending requires much more time and emotional energy than I bargained for, whether these are old friends I'm thrilled to be back in touch with, or people who, truth be told, never were my friends and were pretty darn mean to me throughout middle and high school. Hearing about loved ones lost, dreams shattered, major life accomplishments, and new hopes and dreams is all very intense, not to mention reliving old memories. Fitting who I am getting to know now with who I knew then is not always easy after 20 years. As my research student put it so succinctly a few weeks ago, people are complicated.

Sure, we all know a few straight evangelicals who come out of the closet as time passes... but what if that evangelical reveals he was an out gay atheist before becoming the straight (not ex-gay mind you, straight) evangelical you knew? Yep, people are complicated. Goth slackers become financial analysts, and the Mrs. Degree chasers become activist lawyers. Lies our parents told us are being revealed. Big lies. Dead people aren't really dead. Who our real parents are. That kind of thing.

My friend told me that you have to be in a good place to open those doors - to go to reunions, to return the phone calls from distant exes. That's certainly true, but being in a good place is not all you need - one has to be ready for the emotional swirl about to hit - and can one really ever be ready? I wasn't going to go to my reunion, but thanks to Facebook it's coming to me, ready or not.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

conspicuous consumption

I was raised by parents who very logically and frugally dressed me in hand-me-down clothes. Not just from my older sister, but also from babysitters and neighbors' kids -- all of whom were many years older. These clothes were long out of style. We're talking big 70s collars when Izods were de rigeur, olive green suede addidas when I should have had topsiders or docksiders (I still don't know the difference, but it sure mattered to the kids at school). I was the object of ridicule, publicly humiliated in class and out. Boys threatened to beat me up after school, in a running joke that was probably funny precisely because I didn't know they weren't serious. None of the adults I confided in did anything to stop the bullying. I can't remember a day I didn't cry, either in school or after. Attempting to bring an end to this misery, one day I donned a new pair of penny loafers. I learned the hard way that my penny loafers were Buster Brown, not Bass or Sebago, apparently the only acceptable labels. Did I mention this was the fourth grade? (And yes, I know I went to elementary school with a bunch of spoiled kids with parents steeped in trendiness and social climbing.)

All of this is to say that I am no stranger to conspicuous consumption. Soon I will be attending yet another wedding, those hellish signifiers of class status. While it's hard to rid weddings entirely of conspicuous consumption (I know many who have tried), there are some I would regard as over the top, either all around or in certain respects. Ones that were outsized in terms of the number of events, the number of guests, the prices or types of items on the registry, the seven-course sit-down meal, the pricey designer bridesmaid gown I had to buy and never wear again, the big-name gourmet restaurant venue, hosts of attendants, renting out entire hotels, you get the idea. (And yes, a lot of these were the weddings of the aforementioned spoiled rich kids and their ilk, but a surprisingly large number were not.)

Gary Dauphin of the Village Voice once wrote "Straight white male privilege is like bad breath. No one notices they have it, but if you point it out, you're an asshole." Class privilege is no different in this regard. Saying anything about conspicuous consumption in relation to weddings elicits some problematic responses:

1) What did you expect? Of course one silver fork costs more than my refrigerator.
If they were saying all weddings are displays of wretched excess, I would tend to agree - where do you draw the line between "regular" and "over the top" conspicuous consumption? But these aren't folks with a radical critique, if their own weddings are any measure of their perspective. Rather, I think they are trying to imply that this is how they roll. They project themselves for a moment into this imaginary world they aspire to, in which they would do these things, if they had the money. And apparently my expectations are supposed to align with their values.

2) Just have fun - at least you know there will be an open bar.
Do they really think for a second I won't enjoy myself? It's hard NOT to let the pomp, or the alcohol, or the people-watching, or whatever else lull and distract one into oblivion - it might even help me forget the fourth grade. Is that really what worries them, or are they worried I will seem ungrateful, and that would be rude to the hosts. "Just have fun" means I should shut up and enjoy it (and stop pointing this all out, lest I indict their wedding in the process). Whether I have fun or not is beside the point; I am a witness and a participant - and my complicity in such nauseating acts of conspicuous consumption continues to disturb me.

3) Just be happy for them. Why do you hate America?
Sure, underneath it somewhere there's a couple of people who love each other and have a serious legal commitment to make, and the community is committing to support them, and they do. But to get to that part you have to dig through layers of weird family bullshit, hidden under layers of makeup and cake frosting, hidden under layers of impressive stone edifices and tall steeples, under layers of patriarchy-reinforcing tradition, under layers of hallmark saccharin, under layers of faux-virginal whiteness. Not to mention that big hard glittering rock, bought with two month's salary and the blood and lost limbs of enslaved children.

Oh, no, I wasn't talking about your wedding. That was t o t a l l y different.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Queer Presbyterians

So, I've been meaning to blog about this for a month now -- that is, since I started the blog, I guess, but it's hard to know where to start. A big thing happened about a month ago, when the Presbyterian Church voted to immediately overturn previous rules barring "self-affirming, practicing homosexuals" from serving in ordained positions in the church, and proposed an amendment to the constitution that would remove language requiring ordained persons to adhere to "fidelity in the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman or chastity in singleness," thinly veiled anti-lgbt code that is selectively enforced. That second part, the amendment, has to be ratified by local governing bodies before it can take effect, and will be hard-fought. This was I am sure an historic moment in the history of the Presbyterian Church. Removing the bizarre and offensive "self-affirming, practicing" language is itself an enormous victory. More later on the importance of all this, to me, and to the wider world.

Today I want to talk about the hardest part of this for me, which has been watching it from a distance rather than being there with the folks I still consider in many ways to be my faith community. I became a member of the UCC a few years ago, not in any protest against the anti-queer policies of the PCUSA, but simply because there were no local Presbyterian congregations within a 45 minute drive who would genuinely welcome me. Initially I did not think going UCC would be a big deal - the UCC comes out of the Reformed tradition, and the differences would be minimal - if anything, the UCC's socially progressive record seemed a better fit. But seeking to become UCC - and I did this wholeheartedly, becoming an active member, serving on Church Council and as Vice-moderator of my congregation - only reinforced my sense of Presbyterian identity. Some of it was about polity, some of it about local traditions in my congregation and their departure from Reformed ideas, but most of it was about my sense of connectedness to other Presbyterians. I missed my community.

There is a potential route back for me to the PCUSA since my friend Heather is providing some much-needed nudging toward a long-discussed but as-yet-unrealized dream of a new church development in my area that would be Presbyterian and welcoming in nature. How great would it be to form this new community even as the larger Presbyterian Church mulls over what to do (again) about its queer members, who still haven't seemed to go away despite three decades and more of abuse and neglect through second-class citizenship and worse.