Autistic Pride Day 2022

Today, June 18, is Autistic Pride Day, when those of us who identify as autistic celebrate our neurodiversity. This plus a recent conversation about ‘labels’ caused me to reflect on several things about autism that I feel like sharing.

First, there are aspects of my autism that I genuinely celebrate and think others should, too. Hyperfocus (except for the extreme versions) can give high productivity but also a kind of “high” similar to being in flow state. Attention to detail (while not especially intense in my case) leads to increased effectiveness in some kinds of activities. Lack of interest in (and limited understanding of) social dominance games means I have no inclination to play office politics. Literal-mindedness can be a source of conscious humour when I am aware of it in the moment, and leads me to default to taking people at their word (often a good thing, sometimes a bad, but on balance something I am content with).

Second, I used the phrase “identify as autistic.” I had the bureaucratic advantage of a diagnosis, which is one piece of the leverage one might need to get workplace accommodations. But the difficulty of gaining access to formal diagnoses (especially as an adult) means that many people know they are autistic but can’t get formal blessing. Self-diagnosis needs to be taken seriously.

Third, there are caveats to that. The psychiatrist who has been helping me navigate my workplace accommodations, among other things, happened to mention that a large fraction of the population now say they are autistic. I’ve heard many people say “autism is a spectrum, and we’re all on it.” For me the issues with that are:

  • It’s not really a spectrum, it’s a collection of different aspects of personality and ability, of neurodiversity.
  • People experience their autism in their own way. If you’ve met one autistic person, you’ve met one autistic person.
  • If you have a few elements of the classic cluster of visible behaviours, it makes sense to say you’re autistic, but there is a vast difference between symptoms society accepts, those it considers quirky, and those it disparages as ‘disorder.’
  • I am certain I have met people who are using ‘autism’ as an excuse for bad social behaviour.

Fourth, I do consider some ‘symptoms,’ but by no means all, as impairments. Inability to speak (which happens to me occasionally) is an impairment. It becomes a disability when society generally won’t accommodate it (I’m a fan of the social model of disability). Plenty of nonverbal autistics can communicate just fine with assistive technologies, and can be as articulate as anyone once they learn to sign or type. Society needs to learn to make accessibility a core human right.

Happy Autisic Pride Day!

Review: Born a Crime (Trevor Noah)

Born a Crime is Trevor Noah’s story about growing up in South Africa under apartheid, when his birth as the son of a black Xhosa mother and white Swiss-German father was a crime. It is the most powerful biographical story I have ever read, a truly mind-expanding experience as he conveys a life and a country enormously different from anything I’ve known. But it’s not just his story; it’s also the tale of Patricia Nombuyiselo Noah, the woman who chose to bear him under extraordinarily difficult circumstances, and how her character and her choices shaped his life. I can’t find it in myself to try to summarize any of the story itself; you should experience it in Noah’s own words, in the way he chose to tell it.

5/5 stars

Evaluating Teaching

Every two years, Queen’s evaluates each tenure-track professsor’s “merit,” defined by evaluations of their teaching, research, and service work. This affects salary increases – more in early years than in later one, because of an “abatement” (what some might call a “clawback”) that reduces merit pay for more experienced professors. When I first arrived in 1984, a senior (“full”) professor explained that tenure-track faculty were generally hired at a lower-than-average salary, and merit pay (funded by the difference in salary between retiring professors and junior ones) made up the difference as time progressed. So one naturally has to ask: how are each of these components evaluated?

It turns out that evaluating teaching is problematic. A very significant element at many institutions is student evaluations, and students have biases like anyone else. There is quite a bit of compelling research that shows that female-presenting instructors score lower on student evaluations than male-presenting ones, even when the only indication that an instructor is female is a video where they introduce themselves. There is also evidence (based on fewer studies at this point) that non-white instructors face a similar bias.

There is also the “Dr. Fox effect,” named after an initial experiment in the 1970’s about student reactions to “engaging / enthusuastic” lecturers versus “informative” ones; they evaluate the first kind higher. Many years later, there have been more studies that show students value informativeness less than what some instructors disparage as “entertainment:” personality, charisma, fluency, non-verbal behaviour, and physical appearance.

The fundamental issue is: what is a fair way to evaluate teaching effectiveness? Some have suggested that having experienced teachers sit in on lectures would be better, but the excessively heavy workloads at universities make it difficult for people to make time to do so; an hour at a time, several times during the term, for all instructors being evaluated, might at first seem like a small commitment, but it is not. You’d need to observe 2-3 lectures in case one just happened to be a bad day. In my School at Queen’s you’d need to do this for each of about 30 professors, depending on how many have teaching reductions or are on sabbatical, which adds up to 90 hours over a term. This is more than two full weeks of work at a pace that is humane (which, generally, academic workloads are not). It sometimes happens when the instructor is up for tenure or promotion, or when they are looking for recommendations for a new job (if, for example, they were denied tenure and haven’t given up on academia yet).

However, that’s a means of evaluating instruction, based on conduct of lectures, not a criterion, a measure of effectiveness. There are so many more issues, hard to measure, that are equally if not more important. How clearly are the course objectives laid out? How well do assessment tasks measure student mastery of the material? How well to lectures and other resources prepare students for the assessment tasks? And more fundamentally, how much and how well do students learn?

The last, which might seem best for measuring teaching effectiveness, is not as simple as looking at grades. You at least need to measure what students were capable of before they class started, which is very difficult in any field where (a) the course introduces fundamentally new material in which many students would have no background, while (b) a nontrivial number of students have extensive self-taught experience. This turns out to be fairly common in some subsets of Computing, especially those with a significant practical component such as programming or other technology.

Besides, there are at least four different philosophies of what grades are for (which might be the subject of some future essay), only one of which is “how much students improved.” Grades are also strongly affected by student attitudes; engineering students in particular so overworked that they are often forced to compromise how much effort they can put into some courses; all that matters is passing, (“five-O and go”) because becoming an engineer requires getting a degree and getting the “iron ring” at the end. Grades aren’t irrelevant, but they are less important.

Department heads do know about these problems, so, as a result, there’s a tendency for teachers to get 10/10 on teaching merit – aside from award-winners who sometimes (but not always) get 12/10 in the year they get the award, and teachers students complain about vocally, who might get 7/10.

I do not have a solution, nor, I think, do most universities.

Here are the sources I consulted while writing this essay:

  • Dr. Fox effect, Wikipedia article, accessed 2022-04-03. A more complete explanation of the effect, although with fewer citations than Wikipedia editors are happy with.
  • Exploring Bias in Student Evaluations: Gender, Race, and Ethnicity, K. Chavez and K.M.W. Mitchell. Cambridge University Press. A research paper with a small experiment, whose value to me was in the review of previous work in the field.

Review: Write Worlds Your Readers Won’t Forget (Stant Litore)

I found about Write Worlds Your Readers Won’t Forget via the required reading list for two different Writing The Other classes, and wish I’d read them sooner. Stant Litore’s books are fairly short and laser-focused on providing the most value to emerging writers in the fewest words. The two most valuable sections of the book to me were the first, on three specific features that make a fictional world memorable, and the last, on how to convey your worldbuilding to readers (no surprise: it’s not via infodump).

The book opens with a claim that a shortcut to making a world memorable are to define a unique set of physical circumstances (such as the all-desert world of Arrakis in Dune), a unique creature or type of creature (such as the sandworms), and a unique cultural element, typically responding to those things (such as the Fremen focus on preserving moisture and co-existing with the sandworms). He has other examples, but even that one was enough to inspire some creative thinking about my WIP.

Conveying the world is a matter of figuring out the minimum a reader needs to know at each point in the story, and introducing the world-building elements “just in time” for them to understand whatever is going on in the story at that point. I’ve read this advice in several other places. Litore goes beyond this to discuss the “threshold text” that, like the Star Trek captain’s logs, brings the reader into the story.

There are several possible types of in-world guide, characters who invite the reader over that threshold. The Innocent is as unknowing as the reader, who learns about the world at the same time as the character. The Embedded is the opposite: someone who knows a great deal, and conveys much through action, behaviour, and details they take for granted. The Immigrant combines the two, learning about the new world but also trying to set down roots, like Cordelia Naismith in the Vorkosigan Saga. The Disinherited underdog will notice many details a privileged character wouldn’t.

The largest chunk in the middle was about defining interesting cultures, and all the different aspects to consider: homes, religion, transportation, ruins and relics of the past, technology and magic, rites of passage, privilege, law versus justice, and more. Far more than a checklist, it goes into why these details are important, and how they affect characters and plot.

At the moment I consider this the single most enlightening and useful book on worldbuilding I have ever read.

5/5 stars

Review: Steering the Craft (Ursula K. Le Guin)

Steering the Craft: Exercises and Discussions on Story Writing for the Lone Navigator or the Mutinous Crew by Ursula K. Le Guin is a short and fascinating book on the craft of writing. It ranges from the basics of writing (punctuation, grammar, sentence length, adjectives and adverbs, verb tenses) to higher levels of craft such as point of view, author and character voice, narration, use of repetition. One section that surprised me was on how your writing sounds when read aloud; it hadn’t occurred to me that this might be important.

There are ten writing exercises, one per chapter (some with multiple parts) that give you practice in applying the lessons of that chapter. Some of them look quite challenging for me. I haven’t tried them yet, but plan to do so as breaks for my current Work In Progress.

5/5 stars.