Developing a Socially-Aware Engineering Identity Through Transdisciplinary Learning

colin gray
colin grayAssistant Professor at Purdue University
COLIN M. GRAY & 

TODD M. FERNANDEZ
PURDUE UNIVERSITY
DEVELOPING A
SOCIALLY-AWARE
ENGINEERING
IDENTITY THROUGH
TRANSDISCIPLINARY
LEARNING
(BARRIERS TO)
TEXT
TECHNOCENTRISM
TEXT
TECHNOCENTRISM
SOCIO-CULTURAL COMPLEXITY
TEXT
TECHNOCENTRISM
SOCIO-CULTURAL COMPLEXITY
EMPATHY & CARE
HUMANISTIC ENGINEERING
SOCIO-CULTURAL COMPLEXITY
EMPATHY & CARE
HUMANISTIC ENGINEERING
}
REQUIRES THE
TAKING ON OF
MULTIPLE
(CONFLICTING)
PERSPECTIVES
Meaning Reconstruction as an
Approach to Analyze Critical
Dimensions of HCI Research
Abstract
A critical tradition has taken hold in HCI, yet research
methods needed to meaningfully engage with critical
questions in the qualitative tradition are nascent. In
this paper, we explore one critical qualitative research
approach that allows researchers to probe deeply into
the relationships between communicative acts and
social structures. Meaning reconstruction methods are
described and illustrated using examples from HCI
research, demonstrating how social norms can be
traced as they are claimed and reproduced. We
conclude with implications for strengthening rigorous
critical inquiry in HCI research, including the use of
extant critical research methods to document
transparency and thick description.
Author Keywords
Critical theory; reconstructive analysis; rigor.
ACM Classification Keywords
H.5.m. Information interfaces and presentation (e.g.,
HCI): Miscellaneous.
Introduction
The research landscape of HCI is increasingly shaped
by the ways in which social norms, ethics, and values
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from Permissions@acm.org.
CHI'16 Extended Abstracts, May 07 - 12, 2016, San Jose, CA, USA
Copyright is held by the owner/author(s). Publication rights licensed to ACM.
ACM 978-1-4503-4082-3/16/05…$15.00
DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1145/2851581.2892571
Colin M. Gray
Purdue University
401 N. Grant Street, Room 355
West Lafayette, IN 47907, USA
gray42@purdue.edu
Austin L. Toombs
Indiana University
901 E. 10th Street
Bloomington, IN 47408, USA
altoombs@indiana.edu
Christian McKay
Indiana University
420 N. Walnut Street, Room 114
Bloomington, IN 47404, USA
mckayc@indiana.edu
alt.chi: Critical Theory and Pedagogy #chi4good, CHI 2016, San Jose, CA, USA
328
THEORETICAL COMMITMENTS AND CRITICAL RESEARCH
THEORETICAL COMMITMENTS AND CRITICAL RESEARCH
CRITICAL ETHNOGRAPHY
CRITICAL
ETHNOGRAPHY
(CARSPECKEN, 1996)
THEORY OF 

COMMUNICATIVE ACTION
J. HABERMAS
SPEECH ACT THEORY
J. L. AUSTIN
STRUCTURATION
A. GIDDENS
HABERMAS’ THREE FORMAL WORLDS
ACT
OBJECTIVE
multiple access
“the world”
SUBJECTIVE
limited access
“my world”
NORMATIVE
should/ought to be
“our world”
THEORETICAL COMMITMENTS AND CRITICAL RESEARCH
OBJECTIVE
multiple access
“the world”
SUBJECTIVE
limited access
“my world”
NORMATIVE
should/ought to be
“our world”
IDENTITY
the kind of person I am
“I”
ACT
THEORETICAL COMMITMENTS AND CRITICAL RESEARCH
HABERMAS’ THREE FORMAL WORLDS
THEORETICAL COMMITMENTS AND CRITICAL RESEARCH
CRITICAL ETHNOGRAPHY
CRITICAL
ETHNOGRAPHY
(CARSPECKEN, 1996)
INTERSUBJECTIVITY
Mutual understanding defined
by position-taking
The intersubjective space
forms whenever we act
communicatively, and we
take on multiple subject
positions when
communicating.
adapted from Gray (2014) and Gray, Toombs, & Gross (2016)
COMMUNICATIVE
ACT
MEANING FIELD
VALIDITY HORIZON
OBJECTIVE
FOREGROUND
INTERMEDIATE
BACKGROUND
SUBJECTIVE
—— IDENTITY ——
NORMATIVE
AND
OR/AND
INTERACTIVE
SETTING
BOUNDED SET OF POSSIBLE
MEANINGS FOR A
COMMUNICATIVE ACT
CONTEXTUALIZED AND
VALIDATED THROUGH
EXTENSIVE ENGAGEMENT
MEANING FIELD | VALIDITY HORIZON
adapted from Gray (2014) and
Gray, Toombs, & Gross (2016)
COMMUNICATIVE
ACT
MEANING FIELD
VALIDITY HORIZON
OBJECTIVE
FOREGROUND
INTERMEDIATE
BACKGROUND
SUBJECTIVE
—— IDENTITY ——
NORMATIVE
AND
OR/AND
INTERACTIVE
SETTING
WHAT VALIDITY CLAIMS MUST BE
ASSUMED TO MAKE THE
COMMUNICATIVE ACT 

INTERNALLY RATIONAL?
MEANING FIELD | VALIDITY HORIZON
We describe how students in a transdisciplinary
undergraduate program conceived of barriers
to transdisciplinary thinking and action,
including the role of information and user
research. We identify the identification,
acquisition, and activation of multiple
disciplinary and interpersonal identities which
often conflict. We explore these conflicts
through the lens of epistemological and
ontological assumptions using a critical
qualitative meaning reconstruction approach,
revealing how students developed their own
humanistically-informed engineering identity
and struggled to engage with disciplinary or
designerly ontologies.
TRANSDISCIPLINARY 

UNDERGRADUATE PROGRAM
TECHNICAL FOCUS “HUMANITIES” FOCUS
STUDIO + SEMINAR PEDAGOGIES
RESEARCH CONTEXT
TRANSDISCIPLINARY 

UNDERGRADUATE PROGRAM
TECHNICAL FOCUS “HUMANITIES” FOCUS
STUDIO + SEMINAR PEDAGOGIES
FALL 

2014
SPRING 

2015
FALL 

2015
SPRING 

2016
FALL 

2016
SPRING 

2017
RESEARCH CONTEXT
Developing a Socially-Aware Engineering Identity Through Transdisciplinary Learning
#1 integration of disciplines “not allowed”
#2 empathy bounded by worldview
#3 conflicting worldviews result in paralysis
VIGNETTEVIGNETTE
VIGNETTE
#1 integration of disciplines “not allowed”
#2 empathy bounded by worldview
#3 conflicting worldviews result in paralysis
VIGNETTEVIGNETTE
VIGNETTE


When I start finding [relevant resources] it could go very well, but as soon as I find that one
source that is the contradiction to the entire thing that I'm writing about, or working on
a project about… It doesn’t matter when I find it. For our project if I had found something
that said music people want to recycle or with this statement how [the likelihood of recycling
is] 67% and not 30%....you start getting this idea in your head that your project has no
meaning anymore. There wasn't a problem in the first place.



That's why I was kind of laughing with [Ralph’s] and my project, when we started finding
information about privacy. Where people were already aware of the fact that was completely
a contradiction to ours, and it complete[ly] demolished our project.


I think another thing that also, [is] not necessarily a specific article that confirms or denies, or
something like that. When you get overwhelmed with varying or a wide variety of different
reasons for something. And they all seem super credible […] you have all the information.
You get too many varying perspectives on one thing. It makes you just not want to
approach a problem at all sometimes.



When there's too much information, it's an overload of ideas about why things are
working, you don't feel you can tackle them all, or approach any one of them confident that
it's the best method. That also is a good method of shutting it down.
DANIEL
MIKE
[possible psychological state: frustrated]
 
Quantitative information that conflicts with our framing
of the problem is problematic.
OR/AND Quantitative information is easily
compared.
AND/OR Quantitative information that conflicts
proves our project is worthless
OR/AND Conflicting information results in a
stalemate and inhibits project work from
proceeding.
AND/OR Information trumps ideas.
OR/AND Contradicting information has more
weight than individual ideas.
OR/AND You cannot do anything if you have
conflicting information.
AND/OR Information is true.
OR/AND Information can indicate the lack of a
problem.
AND/OR Conflict about the form of a
problem invalidates the underlying problem.
OR/AND Information can be compared with other
information without any other considerations.
AND/OR Information shares the same
underlying ontological and epistemological
assumptions.
MIKEDANIEL
[possible psychological state: confused]
 
Multiple perspectives that conflict are problematic for
the overall project.
OR/AND Perspectives are difficult to compare
with each other.
OR/AND Too many perspectives result in
designer paralysis.
OR/AND Too many varying perspectives result in a
stalemate and inhibits project work from
proceeding.
AND/OR Only a small number of perspectives
can be taken into account.
OR/AND You cannot do anything if you have
conflicting information.
AND/OR Conflicting perspectives represent
different understandings of the same reality.
AND/OR Multiple perspectives can be
credible and equally “true.”
OR/AND One perspective must be selected as a “best
method” or approach.
AND/OR Other perspectives are excluded
when one perspective is selected.
 
[possible psychological state: frustrated]
 
Quantitative information that conflicts with our framing
of the problem is problematic.
OR/AND Quantitative information is easily
compared.
AND/OR Quantitative information that conflicts
proves our project is worthless
OR/AND Conflicting information results in a
stalemate and inhibits project work from
proceeding.
AND/OR Information trumps ideas.
OR/AND Contradicting information has more
weight than individual ideas.
OR/AND You cannot do anything if you have
conflicting information.
AND/OR Information is true.
OR/AND Information can indicate the lack of a
problem.
AND/OR Conflict about the form of a
problem invalidates the underlying problem.
OR/AND Information can be compared with other
information without any other considerations.
AND/OR Information shares the same
underlying ontological and epistemological
assumptions.
MIKEDANIEL
[possible psychological state: confused]
 
Multiple perspectives that conflict are problematic for
the overall project.
OR/AND Perspectives are difficult to compare
with each other.
OR/AND Too many perspectives result in
designer paralysis.
OR/AND Too many varying perspectives result in a
stalemate and inhibits project work from
proceeding.
AND/OR Only a small number of perspectives
can be taken into account.
OR/AND You cannot do anything if you have
conflicting information.
AND/OR Conflicting perspectives represent
different understandings of the same reality.
AND/OR Multiple perspectives can be
credible and equally “true.”
OR/AND One perspective must be selected as a “best
method” or approach.
AND/OR Other perspectives are excluded
when one perspective is selected.
 
MIKE
PERSPECTIVE
1
PERSPECTIVE
...
PERSPECTIVE
3
PERSPECTIVE
2
DANIEL
PERSPECTIVE
1
PERSPECTIVE
2
DISCUSSION
▸ Students were generally able to live and work comfortably within
what they could frame as their objective world.
▸ However, the students’ version of an objective world often
assumed a fusion of their own subjective world and objective truth.
▸ This assumed fusion created cognitive dissonance when students
attempted to be “transdisciplinary.”
▸ Students’ engagement with the multi-/inter-/trans-disciplinary
nature of wicked problems (e.g., multiple stakeholders, conflicting
user views, varying contexts) resulted in frustration and paralysis.
DISCUSSION
A lack of intersubjective space formed what we term a 

FIXED SUBJECTIVE SPACE
RALPH
INTERVIEWEE
RALPH
assumed
overlap
expand designer’s
horizon
create overlap on
designer’s terms
INTERVIEWEE
EMPATHICBARRIER
NEXT STEPS
▸ Contradictions among disciplinary perspectives must be
explicitly confronted, not left for students to discover and sort
out—the practice of “designerly behaviors” is not sufficient.
▸ More research is needed to clarify how educators might shift
students’ ontological perspectives, particularly at the
intersection of subjective and objective realities.
COLIN M. GRAY

colingray.me

gray42@purdue.edu
TODD M. FERNANDEZ 

toddfernandezinc.com

tfernan@purdue.edu
THANK YOU
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Developing a Socially-Aware Engineering Identity Through Transdisciplinary Learning

  • 1. COLIN M. GRAY & 
 TODD M. FERNANDEZ PURDUE UNIVERSITY DEVELOPING A SOCIALLY-AWARE ENGINEERING IDENTITY THROUGH TRANSDISCIPLINARY LEARNING (BARRIERS TO)
  • 5. SOCIO-CULTURAL COMPLEXITY EMPATHY & CARE HUMANISTIC ENGINEERING } REQUIRES THE TAKING ON OF MULTIPLE (CONFLICTING) PERSPECTIVES
  • 6. Meaning Reconstruction as an Approach to Analyze Critical Dimensions of HCI Research Abstract A critical tradition has taken hold in HCI, yet research methods needed to meaningfully engage with critical questions in the qualitative tradition are nascent. In this paper, we explore one critical qualitative research approach that allows researchers to probe deeply into the relationships between communicative acts and social structures. Meaning reconstruction methods are described and illustrated using examples from HCI research, demonstrating how social norms can be traced as they are claimed and reproduced. We conclude with implications for strengthening rigorous critical inquiry in HCI research, including the use of extant critical research methods to document transparency and thick description. Author Keywords Critical theory; reconstructive analysis; rigor. ACM Classification Keywords H.5.m. Information interfaces and presentation (e.g., HCI): Miscellaneous. Introduction The research landscape of HCI is increasingly shaped by the ways in which social norms, ethics, and values Permission to make digital or hard copies of all or part of this work for personal or classroom use is granted without fee provided that copies are not made or distributed for profit or commercial advantage and that copies bear this notice and the full citation on the first page. Copyrights for components of this work owned by others than the author(s) must be honored. Abstracting with credit is permitted. To copy otherwise, or republish, to post on servers or to redistribute to lists, requires prior specific permission and/or a fee. Request permissions from Permissions@acm.org. CHI'16 Extended Abstracts, May 07 - 12, 2016, San Jose, CA, USA Copyright is held by the owner/author(s). Publication rights licensed to ACM. ACM 978-1-4503-4082-3/16/05…$15.00 DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1145/2851581.2892571 Colin M. Gray Purdue University 401 N. Grant Street, Room 355 West Lafayette, IN 47907, USA gray42@purdue.edu Austin L. Toombs Indiana University 901 E. 10th Street Bloomington, IN 47408, USA altoombs@indiana.edu Christian McKay Indiana University 420 N. Walnut Street, Room 114 Bloomington, IN 47404, USA mckayc@indiana.edu alt.chi: Critical Theory and Pedagogy #chi4good, CHI 2016, San Jose, CA, USA 328 THEORETICAL COMMITMENTS AND CRITICAL RESEARCH
  • 7. THEORETICAL COMMITMENTS AND CRITICAL RESEARCH CRITICAL ETHNOGRAPHY CRITICAL ETHNOGRAPHY (CARSPECKEN, 1996) THEORY OF 
 COMMUNICATIVE ACTION J. HABERMAS SPEECH ACT THEORY J. L. AUSTIN STRUCTURATION A. GIDDENS
  • 8. HABERMAS’ THREE FORMAL WORLDS ACT OBJECTIVE multiple access “the world” SUBJECTIVE limited access “my world” NORMATIVE should/ought to be “our world” THEORETICAL COMMITMENTS AND CRITICAL RESEARCH
  • 9. OBJECTIVE multiple access “the world” SUBJECTIVE limited access “my world” NORMATIVE should/ought to be “our world” IDENTITY the kind of person I am “I” ACT THEORETICAL COMMITMENTS AND CRITICAL RESEARCH HABERMAS’ THREE FORMAL WORLDS
  • 10. THEORETICAL COMMITMENTS AND CRITICAL RESEARCH CRITICAL ETHNOGRAPHY CRITICAL ETHNOGRAPHY (CARSPECKEN, 1996) INTERSUBJECTIVITY Mutual understanding defined by position-taking The intersubjective space forms whenever we act communicatively, and we take on multiple subject positions when communicating.
  • 11. adapted from Gray (2014) and Gray, Toombs, & Gross (2016) COMMUNICATIVE ACT MEANING FIELD VALIDITY HORIZON OBJECTIVE FOREGROUND INTERMEDIATE BACKGROUND SUBJECTIVE —— IDENTITY —— NORMATIVE AND OR/AND INTERACTIVE SETTING BOUNDED SET OF POSSIBLE MEANINGS FOR A COMMUNICATIVE ACT CONTEXTUALIZED AND VALIDATED THROUGH EXTENSIVE ENGAGEMENT MEANING FIELD | VALIDITY HORIZON
  • 12. adapted from Gray (2014) and Gray, Toombs, & Gross (2016) COMMUNICATIVE ACT MEANING FIELD VALIDITY HORIZON OBJECTIVE FOREGROUND INTERMEDIATE BACKGROUND SUBJECTIVE —— IDENTITY —— NORMATIVE AND OR/AND INTERACTIVE SETTING WHAT VALIDITY CLAIMS MUST BE ASSUMED TO MAKE THE COMMUNICATIVE ACT 
 INTERNALLY RATIONAL? MEANING FIELD | VALIDITY HORIZON
  • 13. We describe how students in a transdisciplinary undergraduate program conceived of barriers to transdisciplinary thinking and action, including the role of information and user research. We identify the identification, acquisition, and activation of multiple disciplinary and interpersonal identities which often conflict. We explore these conflicts through the lens of epistemological and ontological assumptions using a critical qualitative meaning reconstruction approach, revealing how students developed their own humanistically-informed engineering identity and struggled to engage with disciplinary or designerly ontologies.
  • 14. TRANSDISCIPLINARY 
 UNDERGRADUATE PROGRAM TECHNICAL FOCUS “HUMANITIES” FOCUS STUDIO + SEMINAR PEDAGOGIES RESEARCH CONTEXT
  • 15. TRANSDISCIPLINARY 
 UNDERGRADUATE PROGRAM TECHNICAL FOCUS “HUMANITIES” FOCUS STUDIO + SEMINAR PEDAGOGIES FALL 
 2014 SPRING 
 2015 FALL 
 2015 SPRING 
 2016 FALL 
 2016 SPRING 
 2017 RESEARCH CONTEXT
  • 17. #1 integration of disciplines “not allowed” #2 empathy bounded by worldview #3 conflicting worldviews result in paralysis VIGNETTEVIGNETTE VIGNETTE
  • 18. #1 integration of disciplines “not allowed” #2 empathy bounded by worldview #3 conflicting worldviews result in paralysis VIGNETTEVIGNETTE VIGNETTE
  • 19. 
 When I start finding [relevant resources] it could go very well, but as soon as I find that one source that is the contradiction to the entire thing that I'm writing about, or working on a project about… It doesn’t matter when I find it. For our project if I had found something that said music people want to recycle or with this statement how [the likelihood of recycling is] 67% and not 30%....you start getting this idea in your head that your project has no meaning anymore. There wasn't a problem in the first place.
 
 That's why I was kind of laughing with [Ralph’s] and my project, when we started finding information about privacy. Where people were already aware of the fact that was completely a contradiction to ours, and it complete[ly] demolished our project. 
 I think another thing that also, [is] not necessarily a specific article that confirms or denies, or something like that. When you get overwhelmed with varying or a wide variety of different reasons for something. And they all seem super credible […] you have all the information. You get too many varying perspectives on one thing. It makes you just not want to approach a problem at all sometimes.
 
 When there's too much information, it's an overload of ideas about why things are working, you don't feel you can tackle them all, or approach any one of them confident that it's the best method. That also is a good method of shutting it down. DANIEL MIKE
  • 20. [possible psychological state: frustrated]   Quantitative information that conflicts with our framing of the problem is problematic. OR/AND Quantitative information is easily compared. AND/OR Quantitative information that conflicts proves our project is worthless OR/AND Conflicting information results in a stalemate and inhibits project work from proceeding. AND/OR Information trumps ideas. OR/AND Contradicting information has more weight than individual ideas. OR/AND You cannot do anything if you have conflicting information. AND/OR Information is true. OR/AND Information can indicate the lack of a problem. AND/OR Conflict about the form of a problem invalidates the underlying problem. OR/AND Information can be compared with other information without any other considerations. AND/OR Information shares the same underlying ontological and epistemological assumptions. MIKEDANIEL [possible psychological state: confused]   Multiple perspectives that conflict are problematic for the overall project. OR/AND Perspectives are difficult to compare with each other. OR/AND Too many perspectives result in designer paralysis. OR/AND Too many varying perspectives result in a stalemate and inhibits project work from proceeding. AND/OR Only a small number of perspectives can be taken into account. OR/AND You cannot do anything if you have conflicting information. AND/OR Conflicting perspectives represent different understandings of the same reality. AND/OR Multiple perspectives can be credible and equally “true.” OR/AND One perspective must be selected as a “best method” or approach. AND/OR Other perspectives are excluded when one perspective is selected.  
  • 21. [possible psychological state: frustrated]   Quantitative information that conflicts with our framing of the problem is problematic. OR/AND Quantitative information is easily compared. AND/OR Quantitative information that conflicts proves our project is worthless OR/AND Conflicting information results in a stalemate and inhibits project work from proceeding. AND/OR Information trumps ideas. OR/AND Contradicting information has more weight than individual ideas. OR/AND You cannot do anything if you have conflicting information. AND/OR Information is true. OR/AND Information can indicate the lack of a problem. AND/OR Conflict about the form of a problem invalidates the underlying problem. OR/AND Information can be compared with other information without any other considerations. AND/OR Information shares the same underlying ontological and epistemological assumptions. MIKEDANIEL [possible psychological state: confused]   Multiple perspectives that conflict are problematic for the overall project. OR/AND Perspectives are difficult to compare with each other. OR/AND Too many perspectives result in designer paralysis. OR/AND Too many varying perspectives result in a stalemate and inhibits project work from proceeding. AND/OR Only a small number of perspectives can be taken into account. OR/AND You cannot do anything if you have conflicting information. AND/OR Conflicting perspectives represent different understandings of the same reality. AND/OR Multiple perspectives can be credible and equally “true.” OR/AND One perspective must be selected as a “best method” or approach. AND/OR Other perspectives are excluded when one perspective is selected.   MIKE PERSPECTIVE 1 PERSPECTIVE ... PERSPECTIVE 3 PERSPECTIVE 2 DANIEL PERSPECTIVE 1 PERSPECTIVE 2
  • 22. DISCUSSION ▸ Students were generally able to live and work comfortably within what they could frame as their objective world. ▸ However, the students’ version of an objective world often assumed a fusion of their own subjective world and objective truth. ▸ This assumed fusion created cognitive dissonance when students attempted to be “transdisciplinary.” ▸ Students’ engagement with the multi-/inter-/trans-disciplinary nature of wicked problems (e.g., multiple stakeholders, conflicting user views, varying contexts) resulted in frustration and paralysis.
  • 23. DISCUSSION A lack of intersubjective space formed what we term a 
 FIXED SUBJECTIVE SPACE RALPH INTERVIEWEE RALPH assumed overlap expand designer’s horizon create overlap on designer’s terms INTERVIEWEE EMPATHICBARRIER
  • 24. NEXT STEPS ▸ Contradictions among disciplinary perspectives must be explicitly confronted, not left for students to discover and sort out—the practice of “designerly behaviors” is not sufficient. ▸ More research is needed to clarify how educators might shift students’ ontological perspectives, particularly at the intersection of subjective and objective realities.
  • 25. COLIN M. GRAY
 colingray.me
 gray42@purdue.edu TODD M. FERNANDEZ 
 toddfernandezinc.com
 tfernan@purdue.edu THANK YOU