Students’ Reflections

When students submitted their final exams, some sent me notes saying that they had a productive semester together with me despite bumps and also Covid19!. Following are a few that I exceptionally appreciate

“Your class was one of the more useful ones I’ve taken in my master’s program.”

“Thank you so much prof for all your patience, communication and feedback really made this semester very smoothly.”

These feedback really made my heart smile! Teaching has gradually become more enjoyable to me because I can now motivate students my students to give more to the class, and to their final projects.

Community Gardens in NYC

This week, I attended a presentation about community gardens in New York City. From a sociological point of view, it turns out that community gardens can be considered an extremely interesting social phenomena. For example, community gardens could be points of ethnic and racial conflicts (see research by Sofya Aptekar). During the talk, I figured out that there are two community gardens on my block. This is wild. I have walked by them many times, and have seen people hanging out in them. But I have never walked in the gardens, or started planting any trees. And my digging into the community garden data available on NYC OpenData reveals extremely interesting patterns.
The dataset provides 536 data points for data analysis. This is indeed an incomplete dataset because I learned that there should be about 600 community gardens in New York City.
Then I did a k-means clustering analysis to create different clusters. I simply went on Github  and got some off-the-shelf python code that do spatial clustering.  Then I altered the code such that it works with my computer, and my data. After trying 3, 4,5 and 6 models, I concluded that 6 clusters look like a reasonable model for this dataset. The above figure is the final result of the cluster analysis. One can do more fancy GIS visualizations. I think that this figure is already very telling about spatial clustering of community gardens in New York City.
The common wisdom is that community gardens are located in the low-land value areas.  This figure certainly supports the sentiment, but it also shows a more complicated picture. The dense clustering areas are black dots or those community gardens in the Bronx. Then there is a dense area in between Brooklyn and Queens. The rests are pretty sparse. Looking at the map, one sees that Upper Manhattan is grouped with the Bronx (black dots), some parts of Queens, Brooklyn, and lower Manhattan, and the Upper West Side are grouped together. Then the middle part of Queens is its own cluster. And outer part of Queens is another cluster. Staten Island is another world in and of it self.
I showed this map immediately to a colleague and she confirmed that the map captures what the literature says. The literature says that community gardens are mostly located in low land-value areas, relatively low land values, with ethnic and racial minority populations, and all on city-owned land that the city took control of because the building owner did not pay property taxes for three years.
So that’s my attempt at getting a handle of k-means clustering. I’ll be working more on k-means clustering for other projects. The more I use this technique, the more I think that there are lot of ways that I can use it in different projects. Over the summer, I’ll improve my python skills to write my own k-means clustering code. As of now, I am happy learning and working with other people’s codes.

The Professor’s Daughter

I finally got around to finish the novel, The Professor’s Daughter by Emily Raboteau. I was hooked from the very first page. However, it took me about two months to finish reading it because of the Covid-19 pandemic. The healthcare crisis took away my attention to concentrate on anything other than the virus itself. Now when a new normal has been established, I could go back to my reading-novels routine.

The novel explores black/white identity through the lens  of a mixed race female protagonist. She is a daughter of a famous African American professor at Princeton, and a white Catholic mother. Her brother died early when she was in college, and her father left her mother for an African American graduate student. All the identity questions are examined through complicated, entangled relationships within her family, and to an extent her extended family, then friends, and lovers when she’s grown up.

The writing is extremely approachable. The book started out when Emma, the main character, was a child. It follows her journey into teenage years, and then to early adulthood. It reads like a memoir. Maybe it’s partly a memoir by Emily Raboteau, whose father is indeed a very prominent figure in African American studies at Princeton. Yet, I could also feel that the story is constructed. It’s another world.

The book is so relatable. It’s the growing up story of a person who is struggling to come to terms with her identity. Being an acute observer, the main character reveals a world of inequality, of cultural clashes, and of minority struggles. I can relate to the main character’s experiences on many levels. On one level, as an introverted child myself, I observed the adult world around me, and could not make sense of it, until one day I decided that I was more of an adult than the adults who were supposed to raise me. On another level, the book revealed the other side of academia, the side of the providers of education. Emma’s story is a story of growing up in the shadow of a famous academic, who is so smart that people around him are afraid of him, or not being able to relate to him at least on the intellectual aspect of life. That’s the struggle of many academics. I can hardly discuss what I do to my parents because neither would they understand nor are they interested. So I stopped my communications with them. My obsession with some small details about the world of online extremism is none of my parents’ interests. Probably they would ask me why I study a phenomenon so endemic to a Western society to start with. Such question is legit, but it also does not explain why I would be so obsessed with figuring out an answer to explain why such a phenomenon happens in a place and time that it happens.

I started this reading project back in February, my female novelists month. The moment I put down the book The Tiger’s Wife, by Téa Obreht I started this current project. Weirdly, how I call reading a novel a reading project? My mind seems to think of everything I do in life now as a project: cooking project, baking project, composting project, writing project, etc. My life is compartmentalized into different projects. They are all running in parallel at the same time. They have different processes, and different end points.

Reading one book after another, I could not help but compare the two writers’ writing styles, narratives, and pacing. Both utilize very fast pacing. Both are very intelligent. Both are very interesting. However, The Tiger’s Wife has a more exotic feeling to it. It transported me from New York City to a far away place in the former Yugoslavia, while The Professor’s Daughter transported me to a familiar place of Princeton. Both books are narrated from female protagonists’ points of view. They are sensitive to women’s experiences. They are full of energy, and I feel like I am apart of the story.

Now getting back to my new normal, I am hoping that I could use this quarantine time to read more books, more novels, and more interesting narratives. Maybe I should also write a few short stories myself being sheltered in place.

Book Review: Minor Feelings by Cathy Park Hong

Since I was racially assaulted in public a few weeks ago, I have been thinking a lot more about the rising anti-Asian sentiment in America during resulting from Covid-19. Being stuck at home with a laptop, I read more about different ways racism against people of Asian descent manifests, and how the victims deal with this new social reality. One author who popped up quite a lot in my search was Cathy Park Hong. I read a few op-ed pieces she wrote, and they all referenced her recent book Minor Feelings, which explores the question of identity as an Asian American, specifically Korean American, born, and raised in America.

Hong defines minor feelings as :

the radicalized range of emotions that are negative, dysphoric, and therefore untelegenic, built from the sediments of everyday racial experience and the irritant of having one’s perception of reality constantly questioned or dismissed. Minor feelings arise, for instance, upon hearing a slight, knowing it’s racial, and being told, Oh, that’s all in your head … [M]inor feelings are “non-cathartic states of emotion” with “a remarkable capacity for duration.”

These feelings are emotions that an individual experiences pertaining to their racial existence. They sometimes make the individual doubt themselves whether their interlocutor was being “racist or racial” toward them. These were experiences that the majority around them do not feel, and the racial minority person does not have the language to describe. Thus these feelings remain “minor,” sometimes inconvenient, sometimes frustrated.

These feelings are so specific to American society that they “occur when American optimism is enforced upon you, which contradicts your own racialized reality, thereby creating a static of cognitive dissonance.” America is a place full of contradictions. On the one hand,  it is a neoliberal land, proud that it offers every one opportunity. On the other hand, it’s an old capitalist society that thrives on the back of people of color since the onset. Depending on what part of America, an individual wants to see, they would see different parts.

Then Hong goes on relating these feelings to her own experience growing up in America as a minority person: “To grow up Asian in America is to witness the humiliation of authority figures like your parents and to learn not to depend on them: they cannot protect you.” Second generation often has to defend their parents. They are forced to grow up, and deal with the cruel society, which takes no excuse when humiliating your parents, and everything you think should be respected. You take their pains, and humiliations as your own because at the end of the day you see yourself in them.

The word “minor” is aptly used in this book to describe the fact that Asian Americans’ uncomfortable feelings about their existence in America. Their feelings are so “minor,” so minuscule that the mainstream society does not care. No-one would take their silent sufferings seriously:

The indignity of being Asian in this country has been underreported. We have been cowed by the lie that we have it good. We keep our hands down and work hard, believing that our diligence will reward us with our dignity, but our diligence will only make us disappear. By not speaking up, we perpetuate the myth that our shame is caused by our repressive culture and the country we fled, whereas America has given us nothing but opportunity… Racial trauma is not a competitive sport. The problem is not that my childhood was exceptionally traumatic but it was in fact rather typical.

Asian Americans are quiet, keeping their heads down, and their hands work. Asian Americans are so quiet that they become invisible. But being ignored, and being condescended to are daily experiences that they lost any belief in themselves, and their abilities.

Shame is an integral part of the minor feelings. It works insidiously to keep the victims’ heads low, and their mouths shut.

My parents are those who survivor instincts align with this country’s neoliberal ethos, which is to get ahead at the expense of anyone else while burying the shame that binds us. To varying degrees, all Asians who have grown up in the United States know intimately the shame I have described; have felt it oily flame … Shame is an inward, intolerable feeling but it can lead to productive outcomes because of the self-scrutiny shame requires.

Shame is a feeling that binds us. If you fail, your parents feel shameful for you. If you fail, your community feels shameful for you. Shame is both an individual, and a collective experience.

After the racial assault incidence, I felt more solidarity with the Asian community in this country.  Reading Hong’s book made me realize the indignity that has troubled them for decades even centuries. The concept “panethnicity” explains this feeling that I have with other ethnic groups.  I used to embrace the bright, positive, optimistic part of American society, and ignore the dark history of American racism. Covid-19 whips racist residues to the surface.

I find comfort in reading Hong’s book. It’s deeply personal, but also deeply structural. It’s a memoir not of herself, but of many Asian American artists who are trying to come to terms with the racist society that they were born into and raised. The book both liberates and troubles me. It frees me by giving me vocabulary to describe my intimate ontological feelings. It troubles me by revealing the ugly face of American society that I refused to see for a long time.

This book is also very refreshing from the point of view of race/ethnicity studies. It was written as an autobiographical exploration by a poet. Her references are very different from what I would use for my regular scholastic exploration. Normally, whenever I want to understand Asian American experiences in American society, I would go to sociology giants in my field such as  Dina Okamoto or Jennifer Lee. Hong instead cites literary giants that she admires. I see her professional inspiration, and aspiration in the book. By reading the book, I was  introduced to a world of intellectuals who study race/ethnicity issues from a very different perspective from mine. Many a times, I can feel that she is talking about a concept that I might know how to express in sociological terms. However, she talks in a way that is more relatable, more lyrical, and also more humanistic.

Sometimes she speaks for me: “At the time, I couldn’t relate to some of the Asian American fiction and poetry I came across. It seemed, for the lack of a better word, inauthentic, as if it were staged by white actors. I thought maybe English was the problem. It was certainly a problem for me.” I feel unheard many times. When I look inside into the world of books, my experience is also not recorded anywhere. My quest for self understanding both in the real world, and in the fictional world yields no fruit. Maybe I am just waiting for that book to be written. Or maybe someday I will write a book myself.

The book shows me that I am not alone in resisting to write about my own racial experience: “I still clung to a prejudice that writing about my racial identity was minor and non-urgent, a defense that I had to pry open to see what throbbed beneath it. This was harder than I thought, like butterflying my brain out onto a dissection table to tweeze out the nerves that are my inhibitions.” This precise feeling that exploring one’s own racial and ethnic identity is “minor,” as not “important” leads to the fact that there are not many materials for me to use to understand my experience.

Many a times, I feel my story has not been told. I feel my history is incomplete. I used to think that Americans did not understand me. Then I went to graduate school, and started to hang out with historians of Vietnam. I learned that archives of the Vietnam war just opened up. At least more will be told about the Vietnam War, but as of now, the history remains incomplete. But my experience, my people’s experience are not only about the Vietnam War.

For a person with an incomplete history, sometimes I become incomplete myself. I am confused in American society, because I do not fit the mold of the Vietnamese refugees or their second generation. People’s preconceived notions me fall apart when we talk. That’s the minor feeling that I am experiencing in American society.

Unless we are read as Muslim or trans, Asian Americans are fortunate not to live under hard surveillance, but we live under a softer panopticon, so subtle that it’s internalized, in that we monitor ourselves, which characterizes our conditional existence. Even if we’ve been here for four generations, our status here remains conditional; belonging is always promised and just out of reach so that we behave, whether it’s the insatiable acquisition of material belongings or belonging as a peace of mind where we are absorbed into mainstream society. If the Asian American consciousness must be emancipated, we must free ourselves of or conditional existence.

Even in the writings of Viet Thanh Nguyen, I do not find myself. His writings are sensitive to Vietnameseness, but not femaleness in me. His writings are sensitive to the sufferings of the Vietnamese refugees, but not those who grew up in post-Vietnam War  impoverished North Vietnam like my parents. His writings were about downward social mobility, when a middle-class Vietnamese family in South Vietnam became working class in America without any belonging, and their social networks. How about my family living in the north of Vietnam suffering impoverishment, and Cultural Revolution-style poliies, and pulling their own bootstrap to survive through “Thoi Ky Bao Cap” or The Subsidized Era? These stories are not told, and I could not find myself in the pages. I could sympathize with people’s sufferings, but my Vietnameseness is different from those that I have read in the pages in America, and from the mainstream American’s imagination of what a Vietnamese person should be.

In this sense, my uncomfortability, my frustration, and my invisible existence resemble what Hong calls “minor feelings.” They are inconvenient, but not world-shattering to the majority population, or even in my case my co-ethnics in the United States.

Teaching How to Code Online and in Person

I just finished the carpentries instructor training, which allows a potential instructor to join the Carpentries community. What does the Carpentries community do? one might ask. The Carpentries “teach foundational coding and data science skills to researchers worldwide.” Their data science teaching workshops operate mostly through enthusiastic certified volunteer instructors.

I still need to complete two more steps in the “checkout” requirements, including doing a 5-minute teaching demo, and attending a teachers’ guided discussion online in order to be certified as an instructor.

How did I hear about the Carpentries? A mentor at Hunter College attended the training last summer, and mentioned it in passing last summer. The name piqued my interest. I went online, learned more about the program, and filled an application to attend an instructor’s training. It took about seven months since I applied until I heard back that I could attend an instructor’s training workshop either online or in person.

Because of the lockdown, many of my regular activities have been canceled, or postponed. I found that this is the right time to get the certificate. So I registered for a  two-day online workshop.

My experience? Very positive. I learned a lot about coding, and how to teach people to code both online and offline. I spent two days to learn how to teach coding with more than twenty people from around the country. Participants came from diverse backgrounds. They were professors, librarians, PhD students, post-docs, and educators. I found that I benefited from learning from their diverse experiences. Specifically, during many breakout sessions, I had a chance to learn from a statistics professor, a post-doc in neuroscience, a few computational linguists, a geographer, and a couple of librarians. This group of professionals really made my being at home more interesting.

Learning about Teaching: The workshop made me consciously think about building blocks of teaching another person a set of skills. The workshop provided a mix of education, psychology concepts for instructors to understand how people absorb information, and learn new skills. It was empowering to learn about what makes students learn well, and what prevents them from learning.

Learning about Participatory/ Live Coding: At this point, I am still conflicted about participatory coding pedagogy. What it means is that instructors demonstrate live coding in front of a group of participants. On the one hand, it helps learners participate in the thought process, and engage with the instructor’s programming process. On the other hand, it feels pretty taxing on the part of the instructor. There are many variables that the instructor has to control for. Unlike having a code that is already written in advance, the instructor has to improvise on the fly at times. I find this to be cognitively demanding, unless the instructor is very experienced at talking about technical steps.

I want to know why this is a good pedagogy for teaching beginners to code. In my experience, doing live coding with students often distracts students from the fundamental statistical concepts that I want to convey to them during the class. In my Data Mining class, I used to do live coding. But then I realized that I had to compromise on the materials that I wanted to teach them. The entire time, my focus was on whether my students were able to type correctly a line of code, or whether there was any execution issue in the process. It was not effective in the sense that many of those issues might have nothing to do with the class materials. Thus I decided early on in the class that live coding was not helpful for the purpose of my class. Instead, I provided students with the Rscript in advance, and they could use it to run while I was giving them a lecture on random forests, or support vector machine.

Now reflecting on the instructor training workshop that I just attended, and my own experience in teaching people to code, and use the R programming language, I realized a few things. One, live coding is helpful for beginners. In other words, it would be beneficial if I organized workshops to teach my students concepts at the beginning of the class. Maybe I could use one or two lab sessions to demonstrate how to use various lines of code. Then in the second and third parts of the course, I could provide already written scripts to demonstrate statistical techniques, concepts.

In other words, the instructor training workshop highlighted the different emphases that one would want to teach. The experience was indeed refreshing because I was challenged to ask questions about my own personal practices, and what would be considered as ideal in teaching novice learners how to use programming languages.

The workshop also piqued my interest in conducting a workshop to show people how they could use different programming languages to achieve their research goals. Once I get certified as an instructor, I would love to contribute to the carpentries community by offering my own workshops on text analysis in R or in python.


Cultural Intermediaries in an Infoglut Era

I am constantly looking for new things to read, not so much for things to watch. Every month, there are many new movies and TV series that are added to Netflix and Amazon Prime. I don’t really get excited that new movies are added to the database and are available for my consumption. What gets me really excited is news that some original novels that receive great approval from the reading public.

Most recently, I read The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht. The novel has non-linear narrative, and being told from two different points of view: a grandfather who lived in the past, and a granddaughter who lives in the contemporary world. The idea of having a tiger moving about in a snow-covered area somewhere in the former USSR triggered my deep imagination.  Many elements in the novel work for me: the narrators, the scenery, and the language. It’s fast-pace, mesmerizing, and full of surprises.

I constantly seek recommendations for novels and non-fiction readings from my friends.  Other times, I rely on the crowd wisdom of the internet. Most reliably, go back to the New York Review of Books (NYRB). In many ways, I  trust NYRB more than the other channels. I trust its institutional reputation, and the workforce that powers the content that the institution publishes. NYRB has introduced me to many books that I would never have discovered otherwise. This week, I received an email from new York Review of book about a new comic:


Screen Shot 2020-04-15 at 12.18.19 PM

This is such a refreshing email during this strange time. The email introduced readers to a French comic graphic novelist, Blutch. I never heard this name before, but the illustration is very tempting. There’s not much information in English about him. Wikipedia article about him has only French and German versions. I can barely read French, but German is not a problem.  The author looks like an interesting figure in the contemporary French comic scene. Besides, I had no idea about French comic books. This email introduced me to something that I never knew before, but would love to get some information on.

I went to the internet, and found his comic books in French. My French level is not that high, but the illustrations just look really cool. They re-sparked my interest in French. I feel like by simply skimming these pages, I could acquire some new French vocabulary.

The process of discovery was just so much fun. I got lost in the weeds of information for hours.

This experience reminded me of an important concept in sociology of culture: “cultural intermediaries.” They refer to occupations and workers who engage in the process of production and circulation of symbolic goods and services.

In the specific experience of getting books to read, I rely on three sources: individuals/ personalities I know, reputable institutions, and the internet. By relying on individuals  whom I know, I rely on my social network. The fundamental idea behind this mechanism is homophile. It works as follows: if I am friended with people whose interests are similar to mine, whatever interests them, and whatever they have approved to be good, and interesting, there would be high probability that I would enjoy what they enjoy. Thus I could save time by vetting the books.

Institutional cultural intermediaries are institutions like NYRB. I do not know employees of the institution personally, but I have had prior experiences relying on the institution, and these experiences have proven to be reliable. The institution’s reputation is what I rely on mostly. The idea is that if many people have relied on the institution, and that they had successfully use the information provided by the institution, then I could also rely on the institution. There is a temporal aspect in evaluating an institution’s reputation. The institution has existed long before I was born, and possibly will remain when I die.

Finally the internet is a melting pot of both good and bad recommendations. Sometimes I could rely on Amazon’s reviews. Other times, they prove completely a waste of time. Many databases, and websites use recommender systems to recommend books to users. However, other than Netflix, I find these different recommender systems to be not yet useful, or that they are not yet tailored to my interests. There is a social dimension in taste, and cultural transmission that algorithms seem to not have figured out. In other words, algorithmic or probabilistic models are not sufficient in capturing nuanced human cultural consumption and changing tastes. Thus, I leave algorithmic cultural intermediaries outside of my analysis for now.

It’s worth noticing the differences between the first two mechanisms.

First in terms of similarities. Trust is the big factor in both scenarios. In the first scenario, it’s the intimate trust. And the second scenario, it is public and social trust in institutions.

The first mechanism relies on my dyadic relationship between me and my friends in my social networks. There’s a high level of intimacy. But it’s also small in scale.  I could quickly evaluate whether I should trust a friend or not, and by extension their tastes in certain things. This mechanism cannot be scaled up. It relies solely on my small social network, and whom I know.

In the second mechanism, I have less power to control what the institution does, and whether it suits my interest. The institution is often a multi-purpose institution, and it sometimes or most of the times do things that I have no interest in. For example NYRB does not always recommend things that I would enjoy. But in general, I respect what the institution recommends. I think that the books and the reviews that they publish are of high quality. They might not suit my interest, but if they do, they are very spectacular. I have to take a leap of faith that the institution does what it is supposed to do based on its social reputation. Over the course of almost four years, I have benefited from NYRB’s main core business: creating content about books.

To this end,  I think a few lessons learned here is that cultural consumption still relies mostly on cultural intermediaries through social network, and social institutions. In the Web 2.0 age, and the rise of new cultural intermediaries such as recommender systems, and mass reviews on Amazon, and other websites, I would want to know which channel influences consumers’ consumption behaviors the most. Furthermore, is there any new cultural intermediaries occupations that  were born out of the Web 2.0 era, or that algorithmic recommender systems would also automate all of these occupations through probabilistic modeling, or that new occupations would be created because of the new spaces that algorithms create.




Laundry, Modern Life and Hand Work

I have definitely become more OCD with the lockdown.

As capitalism has come to a halt, my once regular daily activities such as going to work, performing research tasks, and reporting to my advisor, boss, research partners stopped. Now being stuck in a tiny apartment in New York City, I am trying to fill in the time with activities that make my mind and my physical body active.

I have always thought that I would never become a housewife, a title I detested. Now, I am stuck at home. What I have been driven to is no longer my library with hundreds of books in many different languages. What I actually find comforting is cleaning the house, washing clothes by hand, and keeping my kitchen spotless. Now I enjoy reproductive activities such as sewing DIY face masks, taking care of house plants, and most interestingly spending fifteen minutes a day to hand-wash clothes.

This new-found enjoyment challenged my prior assumption that reproductive activities were not as enjoyable as productive activities. Reproductive activities could be very therapeutic.

More importantly, it is the question of hand-work vs. intellectual work. My life before Coronavirus (BC) was very intense in terms of cognitive work. When coronavirus pandemic hit, I was reaching the point of cognitive overload. During the first few weeks of Covid-19, I expected that the situation would soon be over. So I had no change in my behaviors toward intellectual work. Now the American and the world economies seem to be both going toward recession. Productive activities are slowing down. I feel that I can take my time, and not focusing too much on my productive activities. This is when hand-work comes in. I am cleaning, and disinfecting my apartment at least 3 times per day. I wash piles of dishes twice a day. Then, I wash clothes by hands also twice a day. These were activities that I did only intermittently before coronavirus pandemic. At least one thing I see as silver lining during this period of time is that I have become more OCD, and paying more attention to cleanliness of my living environment.