Reflections for the Open Pedagogy Event on Access Beyond the ADA, Thursday, 9/19/19

Jason Ellis' Boy Scouts Merit Badge sash with 40 badges, including Handicap Awareness.
Jason Ellis’ Boy Scouts Merit Badge sash with 40 badges, including Handicap Awareness.

On Thursday, 9/19/19, the OpenLab, which I joined as a Co-Director this academic year, is hosting an Open Pedagogy event on “Beyond the ADA” at City Tech in the Faculty Commons at 4:30pm. We will lead a discussion about issues of access, including those related to disabilities, while looking beyond compliance to dynamic, inclusive, and supportive pedagogies that enrich learning for all students. OpenLab’s theme for this academic year is “Access.”

While reading through the suggested texts informing the background of our discussion, I reflected on my personal, workplace, and classroom experiences relating to access.

My first memory of disabilities relates to my Uncle Pat. After returning from Vietnam, he started a family in Walnut Grove, Alabama and worked for the railroad. While at work cutting an in-service rail, another truck accidentally bumped his truck, which ran over him and left him a quadriplegic. On visits, I saw first hand how he overcame him disability through mobility with a puffer-controlled electric wheelchair, but the constraints of 24-hour nursing care and accessible buildings were also obviously apparent. Nevertheless, he always trounced me at chess–I just had to setup the board and move the pieces.

In my hometown, Emory Dawson was another quadriplegic that I knew through Boy Scouts. His injury originated from the Vietnam War and he had some shoulder mobility, which enabled him to drive his own van with the aid of a suicide knob and special controls for brake, throttle, and shifting. In addition to Scouts, Mr. Dawson was involved in many social groups and charities, and he led an active life to support them. I don’t know if it was *the* factor in its construction, but a fellow Scout took on the building of a concrete wheel chair ramp for a rank-level project at Troop 224’s hut in the back of Lakeside United Methodist Church on 341 Highway and Mr. Dawson visited our meetings on occasion.

It was during that time that I earned my Handicap Awareness merit badge on Feb. 5, 1990, which you can see on the seventh row of the image above of my Boy Scout merit badge sash with the International Symbol of Access surrounded by a green circle. The requirements of the merit badge focused on learning about disabilities and gaining an empathetic awareness of disabilities through simulated impairments of hearing, sight, manual, and mobility. Less visible disabilities were outside the scope of that component of the merit badge’s requirements, but they could be reintroduced through the learning and outreach components (but this was not, as I remember, something that I was cognizant of at that time).

I wondered how the merit badge might have changed since I earned it, and I’m glad to report that it had changed for the better, I think. In 1993, the merit badge was renamed as Disabilities Awareness, and its requirements shifted from personal simulation of physical impairments to learning first hand from others’ lived experience, identifying accessibility issues in the community, and performing advocacy for better accessibility. There was an advocacy element to Handicap Awareness (publicly sharing what you’ve learned with others), but Disabilities Awareness foregrounds this in a more integrated fashion. It would be interesting to read the merit badge series handbooks for the former and latter versions of this merit badge, but I only have access to the requirements while writing this blog post.

When I worked in Technical Support at Mindspring Internet in Atlanta, Georgia, I was tasked with working with the Deaf and Hard of Hearing via a telecommunications device for the deaf (TDD). With a single line of LCD text and a running paper tape, I communicated with deaf customers to solve their technical support issues. Unfortunately, many customers had their TDD in a different room, different floor, different part of the house, than their computer. This introduced a tremendous lag between what I wrote questioning or instructing and their response following a result. Also, I was given this extra task to supplement my lower-than-expected phone support numbers (It’s my understanding that Mike McQuary pushed raw number of support calls over the quality of calls and successful resolution of customer issues–valuing quantitative measures over the qualitative effects of those measures on customers and employees). So, I was on the phone with one customer and on the TDD with another customer. Over time, I got better at switching my attention between customers, but more often than not, the customers on the TDD got the short end of the stick as my phone call numbers were given priority by management (QA Brian: “You’ve got to take more calls or you’ll get fired.”). It was an unfair situation for the deaf and hard of hearing customers.

When I began teaching, I worked with a student on the autistic spectrum. This was a challenging situation for the student as the reported accommodations couldn’t support their success in the classroom, and I took it on myself to provide additional support to help the student progress in the course. I was advised that there was only so much that I could do to support the student, and I should have, in retrospect, dialed back my professional involvement. Nevertheless, this student did help me recognize another side of student needs and the impediments to access that students on the spectrum encounter. I have adjusted my syllabi to be more accommodating to students–self-reporting or not–through multiple activities and assignment adjustments on a one-by-one basis (as long as course learning outcomes are always met).

Another student had a severe vision impairment and had reported accommodations, including a phone with magnifying app for reading text and a student volunteer note-taker. While the classroom and supporting material could be adjusted to support the student when present, outside life prevented the student from attending some classes. This led to testy encounters between myself and the note taker, who felt their time being wasted, and follow-up conversations between myself and the student to facilitate peace between the student and note taker so that support would be maintained. Of course, life outside of school was creating a different kind of access problem for this student–getting to campus was a hurdle in part due to the student’s vision problem and the issues that can come up in one’s personal life that lead to problems, such as not having someone to help you navigate from home to campus.

I’ve come to realize that there are things that I can do to help as an instructor–those things that I have control over, such as pedagogy, syllabi, assignments, activities, and one-on-one support, and there are many other things outside the classroom that I don’t have control over. Also, the Open Pedagogy event conversation and the work that we can do together to increase access and lower barriers–in the classroom, online, on campus, and in our lived world–for students and faculty with disabilities is something that we must endeavor to accomplish.

In addition to the informative readings OpenLab Digital Pedagogy Fellow Jesse Rice-Evans assembled for the Open Pedagogy event, I found these additional readings useful for my thinking:

Adams, Rachel, Benjamin Reiss, and David Serlin. “Disability.” Keywords for Disability Studies, edited by Rachel Adams, Benjamin Reiss, and David Serlin, NYU Press, 2015, 5-12.

Campbell, Kumari. “Ability.” Keywords for Disability Studies, edited by Rachel Adams, Benjamin Reiss, and David Serlin, NYU Press, 2015, 12-14.

Mullaney, Clare. “Disability Studies: Foundations & Key Concepts.” JSTOR Daily, 13 April 2019, https://daily.jstor.org/reading-list-disability-studies/. Accessed 18 Sept. 2019.

Williamson, Bess. “Access.” Keywords for Disability Studies, edited by Rachel Adams, Benjamin Reiss, and David Serlin, NYU Press, 2015, 14-16.

Talking Science Fiction with Neil deGrasse Tyson on StarTalk Radio

Neil deGrasse Tyson and Jason Ellis in Dr. Tyson’s Office at the AMNH Planetarium.

I had the distinct honor to join the conversation about science fiction and society on Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson’s StarTalk Radio Show on May 30, 2019 (season 10, episode 22). The episode is about Creating Science Fiction, with Gale Anne Hurd, the producer of The Terminator and The Walking Dead. I shared some thoughts on Hugo Gernsback’s formula for “scientifiction,” H.G. Wells and Sir Ernest Swinton’s legal fight over the modern battle tank, the power of SF to engage social issues and debate, and my personal, lifelong relationship to SF. You can listen to the episode here or embedded below:

About the episode from the StarTalk website:

The Terminator, The Walking Dead, Aliens, and a lot more. Those are just some of the producing credits for this week’s main guest on StarTalk Radio. Neil deGrasse Tyson sits down with producer-extraordinaire Gale Anne Hurd to explore what it takes to bring great science fiction to life. Neil is joined by comic co-host Chuck Nice, science fiction expert Jason Ellis, PhD, and volcanologist Janine Krippner, PhD.

Because science fiction comes in many different forms and through many different avenues, there are many ways to get into it. You’ll learn how Gale’s childhood love of Marvel comic books and science fiction novels translated into a career “making what she likes to see.” She tells us how she served as a science fiction consultant to her local library to make sure their stock was up to date. Jason shares why not being able to see Star Wars in the theater sparked a rebellious love for science fiction.

You’ll hear about the history of science fiction and how it combines the STEM fields and the humanities. We debate if science fiction informs the future of every technological invention. You’ll find out about a lawsuit H.G Wells brought upon military figureheads because he claimed they stole his idea from one of his science fiction stories. Explore using science fiction as social commentary. Discover more about the famous kiss between Captain Kirk and Lt. Uhura, and how William Shatner and Nichelle Nichols purposely flubbed takes to make sure it stayed in the episode.

We take a deep dive into Dante’s Peak as volcanologist Janine Krippner stops by to share her take on the film. She explains why she thinks it’s still the best volcano movie even with its flaws. Gale gives us a behind-the-scenes look on how she fought for even more scientific realism to be in the film but encountered pushback from the studio. Neil also confronts Gale on the famous scientific inaccuracies of Armageddon. Chuck shares his love for The Expanse, we discuss Interstellar, and Neil tells us about his involvement in The Europa Report.

Lastly, you’ll also find out the differences between creating science fiction for television and film. According to Hugo Gernsback, the father of science fiction, sci-fi should be 75% romance and 25% science – is that still the goal? All that, plus, Jason caps it off with a story on how he was criticizing the film Sunshine right in front of director Danny Boyle’s family.

“Creating Science Fiction, with Gale Anne Hurd.” StarTalk Radio, 30 May 2019, https://www.startalkradio.net/show/creating-science-fiction-with-gale-anne-hurd/.

Remembering Aunt Lettie Ann (1942-2019) and Uncle William “Doc” Cook (1941-2015)

Uncle Doc (William Cook) and Aunt Lettie Ann at their home in 2009.

My Aunt Lettie Ann Cook passed away on May 17, 2019. I flew to my hometown to fulfill her request that I speak at her funeral and serve as a pallbearer. Her husband of 54 years, William Cook, who I knew as Uncle Doc, had preceded her in death in 2015.

They were both good people, who I and many others miss. I am reminded of fun-filled childhood pool parties at their house–one being particularly memorable during which I used a snorkel face mask for the first time and I played with my cousin Mark’s bad-ass Boba Fett action figure. That was probably around 1981. Or, learning from Aunt Lettie Ann how she made ceramic sculptures. Or, learning from Uncle Doc how to melt lead for my pinewood derby racer, use a scroll saw and drill press, and work with wood to make storage chests and other things. Or, enjoying cookouts featuring Aunt Lettie Ann’s great home cooking at their house after they moved from Brunswick to Hortense. And above all, reveling in their open door hospitality.

Uncle Doc died suddenly in 2015, and I was regrettably unable to return for his funeral. Before Aunt Lettie Ann died, she asked my dad to help me fly down and speak at her funeral as I had done for my Granny Ellis in 2012. The week before last, I said these words for her:

Remembering Aunt Lettie Ann

My dad tells me that my Aunt Lettie Ann had asked him while she was still lucid that I speak at her funeral. I’m saddened that it’s on this occasion that I am speaking with you today, but I consider it an honor to do this small thing for her.

I wanted to begin by sharing with you a seemingly mundane yet meaningful dream that I had three weeks ago, the night after I learned Aunt Lettie Ann was back in the hospital. To be honest with you, I don’t put much truck in dream visitations or other forms of clairvoyance, but this dream’s timing and content unnerved me.

The dream begins with me standing in the foyer of Aunt Lettie Ann’s fine house on Baker Hill Road. I see her descending the steep stairs slowly and carefully with her hands clutching the railing, but her face is beaming, and she says that she’s so glad to see me. After sharing a big hug, she tells me that I need to eat. Leaving me to sit at the extended dining room table with low sunlight entering the windows, she fusses in the kitchen to quickly prepare something for me. Then, while plying me with her delicious home cooking, she asks, how are you doing, how’s my sweet pea—that’s Yufang, my wife, what are you both up to? Answering her questions, I never got to ask how she was before I was suddenly awake.

That dream lingered in my mind throughout her ordeal. I hoped that it was more like a good memory than a kind of goodbye. I can say that it brought back many happy memories of Aunt Lettie Ann showing her unconditional love and care, such as birthdays and Christmases, visits to see her when I was at home from school or work, and times that she hosted me when Uncle Doc, who you might have known as Bill or Wilbur or grandpa or dad—helped me on Scouting projects. And, it reminded me how she demonstrated her love and care in other ways, such as wanting to know how you are and what you’re up to—listening equally about your triumphs and failures, your good health and bad, and even your daily trifles—before sharing her own, in which she emphasized the positive over the negative and made light of her own troubles; needing to take care of you and make sure that you’re comfortable and well fed; giving deeply personal gifts—in fact, thinking to get Christmas presents for our cats Miao Miao and Mose who she didn’t even have a chance to meet; and above all else striving to make you feel loved and special. However, Yufang told me that it is more than that—the feeling of being loved by Aunt Lettie Ann remains with you even after you say goodbye and you carry her love with you wherever you might go next. I think she’s absolutely right.

I share with you all a tremendous sadness that Aunt Lettie Ann is no longer here to love and care for us. I know we will all miss her great big hugs, her delicious cooking and get-togethers, and her looking out for us. However, I am deeply heartened to know that her love is still all around us, because we each carry it in our hearts and memories. I encourage you to cherish Aunt Lettie Ann’s love as a celebration of her life, an enduring remembrance of who she was, and a reminder of the kind of person who we should all strive to be.

Reprint of My Article, “Decoding the Origins of H. G. Wells’s ‘The Land Ironclads’ and Sir Ernest Dunlop Swinton’s Tank” Now Available in Short Story Criticism, Vol. 264

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British Mark I Tank. This is photograph Q 2486 from the collections of the Imperial War Museums (collection no. 1900-09).

My article on the public debate between H. G. Wells and Sir Ernest Dunlop Swinton about who originated the idea of a motorized, armored weapons platform or tank, which first appeared in The Wellsian: The Journal of the H. G. Wells Society (no. 33, 2010, pp. 42-57) is now available as a reprint in Short Story Criticism, Volume 264 (edited by Catherine C. DiMercurio, Prod. Layman Poupard. Gale, Cengage, 2018, pp. 256-265).

N.B.: Gale’s Short Story Criticism series is an excellent resource for scholars and students to easily and quickly learn the discourse on a particular author’s short story oeuvre. These volumes collate scholarship from a wide variety of academic journals on the works of a particular author. For example, Short Story Criticism, Volume 264 includes three sections of collected articles for these writers: Mary Caponegro, Mahasweta Devi, and H. G. Wells. I believe that the series is a good addition to libraries serving the needs of English departments and literature programs, because it provides a wide array of research on its selected authors for convenient access to scholarship.

LEGO Skateboarding Vert Ramp and Street Skating MOC, and Exploring Connections Between Skateboarding and Making

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My Skateboarding Vert Ramp and Street Skating Model

I began this new LEGO MOC (my own creation) project while reading Michael Brooke’s The Concrete Wave: The History of Skateboarding (1999) and after assembling my Mike McGill re-issued skateboard.

Some ideas from skateboarding culture inspired this project. First, there’s the tension between Thrasher’s “Skate and Destroy” and Transworld Skateboarding’s “Skate and Create.” The former appearing in the December 1982 issue and the latter appearing in response in its first issue in May/June 1983. When I first skated, I didn’t know about this difference of ethos, but I can say that I was drawn to reading Transworld Skateboarding more so than ThrasherTransworld’s ethos of making something from the act of skateboarding fits well with my own attitude of doing good in the world through teaching and making (as opposed to wrapping the act of destruction into an aggressive skating attitude–understanding, of course, there is a certain amount of hyperbole in this motto and more back story worth investigating–see the interview by Adam Creagan with Craig Stecyk in Thrasher March 2010, pp. 80-81, and Konstatin Butz’s Grinding California, pp. 73).

Second, many skaters talk about riding as an act of self-expression, creativity, and doing. While the act of skating is ephemeral, skaters build analogies between the sport and other creative endeavors such as writing, playing, painting, expression, and language. For example: Rodney Mullen writes, “[Skateboarding] has been the arena where I could stake my claim, the play where I would contribute my verse, and even the pen with which I write” (qtd. in Brookle 11).  Chris Long writes, “‘How glad I am that I skateboard’ . . . finding my own lines and creating my own ways of playing” (qtd. in Brooke 173). Darrel Delgado writes, “Skateboarding in a pool is like being a painter, and every new pool is a blank canvas and you are the artist. Every artist has a different approach and every pool is different, which keeps the intrigue alive. You can go wherever your mind and the transitions will let you go” (qtd. in Brooke 135). Mike Valleley writes about finding skateboarding, “I got an identity and something productive. It was creative, physical activity and I used my entire being to do it” (qtd. in Brooke 137). Tony Alva writes, “Just do something that’s in tune with an individual type of expression. I think that’s what’s so important about skateboarding” (qtd. in Brooke 175). Dave Hackett writes, “Pure and simple, [skateboarding is] a healthy, radical art form. . . . Skateboarding utilizes the every-expanding environment of steel, concrete, plaster, or wood as its canvas. . . . The skater becomes one with his board, while the board in turn translates the language of the terrain” (qtd. in Brooke 176). On these points, I think skateboarding and LEGO building overlap–in both cases, skateboarding and making, the fulfilling goal is creative and imaginative expression through a given medium–the former being the assemblage of body, skateboard, and terrain, and the latter being the assemblage of builder and brick.

I wanted to combine different aspects of skateboarding into a single model. I grew up with street skating, because there weren’t any local skate parks (though, I have discovered in my research that there was a skate park in Brunswick in the late-1970s called Nova Skate Park–more on that in a future post). But, I always wanted to skate vert and pipes, so I thought about combining what I knew with what I wanted to learn.

I got the idea for the ramp’s vert and transition design from LEGO 60200 Capital City set, which has one component that is a combined skateboard ramp/wall climb/basketball court. It uses dark grey inverted arches for the transition, which I agreed was the best choice of brick–albeit in tan color to emulate the color of wood–for the ramp that I had in mind.

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Brainstorming and calculating dimensions in studs. 

The next consideration was how large a model to make. I knew that I would have to purchase the inverted arch bricks for the ramp, so I looked for a seller with a good price and selection of elements that would help me realize the idea crystalizing in my mind. Alphabrix, a seller with great feedback had 20 tan, inverted arch bricks, which would let me build a 10-stud wide ramp. I figured that its length should be at least double its width, if not more. Ultimately, I settled on a 10-stud wide ramp with a 28 stud length including both tables. This allowed two studs on either side of the ramp for stairs if I went with an overall length of 32 studs for the model. Since I opted for a 32 stud length, I figured that a 16 stud width for the overall model would be enough to add a street skating scene in the model’s foreground.

After receiving the Bricklink parts and sorting out some necessary elements from my collection, I built the vert ramp first. Even though this would occupy the rear part of the model, it would dominate the model and be its focus. I wanted to get it right. I thought about how I would build a real one. I wanted a steel foundation that would be elevated off the ground. The ramp and tables would be made out of wood. As a new ramp, I wanted to give it a little bit of style with alternating color–light and dark tan tiles emulating different sheets of plywood. On the right side, I wanted a sloping launch that divided two drops on the front and back–this was a ramp design that I saw many years ago that gave the skaters a divided coping for new trick opportunities.

With the vert ramp complete, I turned my attention to the base and its foregrounded street skating area comprising 6 studs by 32 studs. The bottom of the base are dark grey plates supporting a circumference of Technic bricks and filled in with 2 x 4 bricks. I covered the surface mostly with tan 4 x 6 plates. I built up a curb with 1 x 4 and 1 x 6 bright yellow plates covered with the same colored tiles. Within that area, I filled in with a single layer of light grey tiles–some with single studs and the rest without to allow placement of obstacles like barrels and trash cans, which can be skated around or ollied over. Finally, I put concrete cones down to support the ramp behind the street skate area.

Finally, I combined the vert ramp with the base and its street skate area. I used yellow, dark blue, and orange tiles to skirt the Technic bricks around the base. The vert ramp’s coping permits posing of skaters doing hand plants. In the foreground, I added a stereo (probably playing an eclectic mix of They Might Be Giants, The Beastie Boys, and Technotronic) and snacks including pizza and cookies (shredding fuel).

Usually, it takes me several days to weeks to complete a build like this, which I have chronicled on other blog posts. However, I built this model in a single evening. I think my mind had been working on the project while I waited for the needed bricks to arrive in the mail. Even though I wasn’t haptically manipulating the bricks in my hands, I was daydreaming and imagining how to put the model together at odd times between placing the brick order and receiving them in the mail.

While imagining myself shredding on my completed LEGO skateboarding model and thinking about picking up my McGill deck to hit the streets with, I’m reminded of the Kevin J. Thatcher’s first editorial in the January 1981 issue of Thrasher: “The average individual was never properly exposed to the unlimited possibilities of a platform with four wheels under it–a simple basic mechanical device which serves as an energy-efficient mode of transportation, a basis for a valid sporting activity, and as a vehicle for aggressive expression. . . . Thrashing is finding something and taking it to the ultimate limit–not dwelling on it, but using it to the fullest and moving on. Skateboarding has not yet reached its maximum potential, and who can say what the limits are? To find out–Grab that board!” (6). Grab that board, grab that LEGO brick, grab that camera, grab whatever it is that you can express yourself with, because that is the thing with which you can leave your mark on the world.

Works Cited

Brooke, Michael. The Concrete Wave: The History of Skateboarding. Warrick Publishing, 1999.

Butz, Konstatin. Grinding California: Culture and Corporeality in American Skate Punk. Transcript Verlag, 2012.

Creagan, Adam. “Skate and Destroy: The Stecyk Scrawl Lives On.” Thrasher, March 2010, pp. 80-81.

Lowboy. “Skate and Destroy, or Multiple Choices (Something to Offend Everyone).” Thrasher, December 1982, pp. 24-29.

Thatcher, Kevin J. “Talking Ed.” Thrasher, January 1981, pp. 6.

Tracker Peggy (Peggy Cozens). “Skate and Create.” Transworld Skateboarding, May/June 1983, pp. 13-15.

Miao Miao (2005-2018)

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Miao Miao taking a nap in 2012.

Our little cat Miao Miao passed away on December 26, 2018 after a battle with cancer. She was 13 years and 8 months old. Y rescued Miao after her mother had abandoned her when she was only a few weeks old in 2005. She was sick and small, but Y nursed her back to health and adopted her as part of her family.  I came to know Miao beginning in 2008, after I met Y at Kent State. Soon, I became a part of the family, too. Miao was strong willed but also very loving. When we had guests over, she was an enthusiastic host. She brightened our days, which now seem diminished without her around. Even though Miao never really took to our younger cat Mose, we can tell that he grieves in his own way for her, too. She will be dearly missed.