Division III Retrospective
Sailing Rough Waters was originally inspired by a website called Derailing For Dummies that I read as a teenager back in 2012. It's essentially a site that catalogs tons of common ways people derail discussions about oppression and privilege. It essentially tries to save you energy by providing pre-written counter-arguments. I loved this, but it never seemed to be enough. Trying to use these counter-arguments always seemed to escalate everything into much more intense arguments than I had the energy for.
What I wanted was strategies for keeping these things from escalating in the first place, and to let me have controlled escalation when I wanted it. My original idea was to study linguistics and social psychology to figure out how people act around conflicts in general, and to use that to create strategies for dealing with interpersonal conflicts. This became the basis for my Division II concentration at Hampshire.
As I started this project, an attempt to put my studies from Division II into practice, I realized that my original goal was unfeasible. First of all, trying to de-escalate all conversations about oppression was just not feasible. So I decided to focus on microaggressions. Then, I realized that there's infinitely many factors that play into each individual situation. There's no way I could prescribe strategies for every situation.
Finally, I realized that ultimately how you decide to respond to microaggressions is really a form of political praxis tooltip available. I definitely don't think I'm any sort of intellectually superior who could be telling other people how to practice their politics. Especially not people who have very different experiences. There's no way I could tell people of color how to respond to racial microaggressions when I have never experienced being the target of racism.
When I thought about why I was focusing on de-escalation, I realized what I really was looking for was stress reduction. I couldn't write a guide to confronting microaggressions, but I could write a guide to coping. Unfortunately, there was a real dearth of research out there about effective coping strategies specifically about microaggressions or minority stress. I searched out zines and pamphlets for some strategies, but it wasn't enough.
As I researched more about microaggression theory from Dr. Derald Wing Sue, Kevin Nadal and others in the field, I realized that the experience of microaggressions every day is a form of trauma. So I turned my search towards general strategies for dealing with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder that I could adapt to working for microaggressions.
Mid-way through the year, I actually personally started in a Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) program for my own issues. Lo and behold, there were my coping skills! The whole program was based around specific skills that were exactly what I was looking for. I realized that if I had started in a DBT program years ago, I probably would have studied something else entirely, since DBT skills were so much exactly what I had been looking for when I started my studies of conflict. I began researching Marsha Linehan's papers on DBT. Marsha Linehan is the woman who essentially invented DBT, and her research was exactly what I needed to make the Cope section work.
While I did wish earlier in the year that I had found DBT earlier, since that would have saved me a lot of research, I do think the timing worked out fine. If I had started too early, I think I probably would have ended up just making an online DBT guide, which to me doesn't actually seem as interesting as the end result I got by initially pursuing this project through the lens of coping with microaggressions.
Right at the end of the project two things were pointed out to me by Prof. Uditi Sen. One, was that my coping skills all focused on 1-on-1 microaggressions. While I do think a lot of them are applicable to microaggressions perpetuated by groups, I did not put enough thought into how things change in those circumstances, nor did I write them in a way that makes it clear that they're applicable. She also pointed out that none of my skills deal with environmental microaggressions, such as simply being the only person in a room of your demographic. To be fair, none of the research out there seems to deal with environmental microaggressions much either, besides describing that they are there. I definitely wish I had the time to do more research into group microaggressions and environmental microaggressions so I could adequately address them in the Cope section. Right now, everything is focused on single encounters, which simply isn't how it always is. She also asked the question "who can walk away?" A lot of the time I suggest that walking away from a microaggression is an option, and that's definitely not always true. Unfortunately I once again did not have the time to do the appropriate research and address this question in version 1.0.
One big thing that bothered me for a while was how inaccessible basic information about oppression and privilege is. I wanted to make my coping skills accessible to people who need them, and that's difficult to do when even the word microaggression is considered more advanced than you'd find on the SATs. In order to study systemic power and privilege, you need at least base-level access to the academy and its language. Oh, the frustrating irony!
Since being able to describe experiences of oppression is itself an effective part of coping, I knew that writing introductory articles on these issues was a must for the project.
A big thing I wish I had done differently is that my advisory committee consisted entirely of faculty from the Cognitive Science department. As great as they are, the fact remains that the first half the project I was working on was very clearly a Social Justice Education project, and having anyone from the Critical Social Inquiry department looking at my work in the Fall semester when I had time to improve on it would have been incredibly useful. I hadn't asked anyone from CSI to be on my advisory committee out of a sheer social anxiety, which in retrospect didn't really seem worth it, haha.
This issue became apparent when in Spring semester I was in a Division III Seminar (workshop) in the Critical Social Inquiry department. The professor leading the seminar, Uditi Sen, as well as the other students in the seminar, had some incredibly important feedback, a lot of it being big issues that are systemic in the whole project.
However, because I was only getting this feedback starting in the second half of the year, when I was spending most of my time on the Cope section, it didn't leave me enough time to adequately address the issues brought up in the seminar.
The biggest issue I wish I could have worked on in Fall semester was that, because I was writing all of the example narratives myself, and because I really should not try to tell stories that are not my own, it meant all of my example narratives were extremely white. I seriously don't want a project that draws primarily on research about racial microaggressions to be only relatable or useful to white people. The solution proposed by the members of the seminar was to find narratives written by people of color about racial microaggressions. However, I got this suggestion with only a couple weeks left to work on it. All of the works I found which had narratives of racial microaggressions were written in the same intensely formal academic tone that made them inaccessible. It seemed to defeat the point if I tried to rewrite them in less formal language, since once again that would be written in my white American dialect.
In retrospect, this seems like an issue that should have been obvious to me. I really wish I could have been thinking about it when I was writing the Define articles from the ground up. Another thing I realized only at the end, is that because I am not, for instance, specifically writing a website for other trans people, there is no specific marginalized experience I can assume the reader has. Because of this, I end up coming off as writing to a "universally privileged" reader. Once again, this issue was so systemic, there was no way I could have addressed it in the time I had left.
This is not to make an excuse, that I "only" ran out of time. Rather, I think it was my responsibility to have been trying to get this feedback earlier in the year, and instead I waited until the last minute to show my work to people besides my (white) advisers.
It was my Division II adviser, Joanna Morris, who suggested I make my project a website. A website would better allow for non-linear access to the information, and for it to be less intimidating for busy readers than a whole book. Since I had recently fallen in love with web development, incorporating it into my Division III project seemed like a no-brainer once she suggested it.
As soon as I said I wanted the information on the site to be accessible, I knew that I wanted the website itself to have accessibility, in the disability sense, as the center of the design.
Researching web accessibility was sometimes frustrating, because of the lack of detailed resources out there, but was also immensely satisfying whenever I learned something new or made an improvement. While I was definitely learning new stuff in my research for Cope and Define, I found the web development skills I was learning to be the most satisfying.
Every accessibility issue became a puzzle. How can I get this to be designed in a way that's flexible and delivers the same experience, and the best experience, to all users? Doing things like not including any images was easy. Anyone who could not view the images who accessed the site would be made to feel second-class each time an image appeared. Besides, incorporating images would have been difficult anyway. I'm not a graphic design student, and any images I included would seem forced.
Meanwhile, the dang tooltips and popovers were the bane of my existence and I felt incredibly stupid when the very last thing I did for the project was simply update my Bootstrap version, which fixed the issues I'd been trying to come up with solutions for for a month or more. I also was regretting including them at all because they had bee such a pain.
The main reason for this, and my biggest regret, was that I did not make this website DRY from the beginning. That is, I did not adequately stick to the principle of "Don't Repeat Yourself." I had opted to make every tooltip and popover a repetition of the same code rather than trying to figure out a way to insert a variable I could change in only one place each time. This meant every time I needed to tweak the code, I had to go through every single page and fix every single tooltip or popover.
Because of this, as the project went on, I found myself avoiding using tooltips and popovers just to avoid making it take longer if I had to update the code. When I finally figured out and implemented Jekyll Includes, which made the tooltips and popovers DRY, I regretted having not focused on trying to implement them this way from the beginning. I feel like 25% of my time on this project was spent going through every single page making the same tedious edit for one reason or another, usually to do with tooltips or popovers. If I had made everything DRY from the start, I would have saved so much time and would have had more time to work on other issues.
I also wish I had done more bug-testing with screen readers earlier on in the project rather than waiting until I was putting together version 0.9.5. Because I was following all of the base rules for what should result in everything working correctly, I just assumed it was. It wasn't until someone I know who uses a screen-reader in daily life approached me about a bug that I realized how very very buggy the site was from screen readers. Most of my effort towards the end of the project went into fixing screen reader bugs that popped up from stuff I had done earlier in the year. If I had been testing as I developed the site, it would have been easier to address the bugs. Once again, I think I was afraid to tackle the issue earlier in the year simply because I knew that, without DRY code, it would be incredibly tedious to work on.
Also, I do wish I had implemented some form of Version Control. Simply because it can be hard to keep track of all the changes I had made here and there, and I would have been more organized if I had been using something like a Git repository to track everything.
Still, I'm quite proud of the end result. This is definitely the best website I've ever built, and I'm so glad I was able to put so much time into making it the best it could be.
Overall, I am so satisfied with this project. I feel like I have learned so much working on it about web development, social justice, and coping skills, and I'm so happy I was able to work on a project which incorporated them all, even the tiny bit of linguistics I still managed to kinda include through the Framing and Meta-Conversation articles.
I think that the set of coping skills I present are clear and useful. I think that the Define articles are certainly adequate at least. The web design is clean, functional, and very accessible. While the journey was rockier than it needed to be, the end result is something I'm very proud of.
Since this is version 1.0, that of course implies that someday I might return for a 1.1, or 2.0. If I were to do a 2.0 in the future, which I won't be ruling out, here is what I would do:
- Implement a Version Control System, such as Git
- Clean up some of the implementations of code on the back-end.
- Focus on finding collaborators to work on the Define articles with, at least when it comes to writing example narratives.
- Significant effort towards researching and developing new parts of the site devoted to Environmental Microaggressions.
- Research and effort towards "only X person in the room" situations.
- More research into other external resources that could be linked to.
- Expansion of Define section into more specifics, such as microaggressions that commonly target specific groups. There is already extensive research on the typology of microaggressions which I could work off of.
Of course, I just spent a year of my life on this, so I will be taking a break and focusing on finding a job and the such for a while before I return to this.
When working on similar projects in the future, which I definitely hope to do, this is stuff I would do differently:
- Implement version control
- Prioritize making code DRY from the get-go, such as by using Includes.
- Bug-test alongside development.
- Push through anxieties and get feedback earlier from more people.
- Work with collaborators when the subject matter exceeds my expertise.
- Notice when I'm spending tons of time on the same task and take a step back to figure out solutions to the problem, rather than solving it again and again.
- Check to make sure my software is up to date before I assume it's just improperly designed or broken!!
And now I am off to take a very long nap.