I have a lot of what I consider great ideas for my engineering communication class, but I just don’t have the time to use them all. When I try, the course becomes a crazy quilt (and I mean “crazy”) of activities and assignments. It becomes way to complicated for students to keep track of. If you’re not living it now, remember or imagine the life of a graduate student in engineering at UCLA. You are pulled in many directions, at the beck and call of your advisor, feeling squeezed between a set of challenging expectations, and trying to meet multiple deadlines. And then I show up to teach your required writing course, all “la-di-da, this is going to be so fun,” BUT you have to check the course website every few minutes to keep up with a large set of mostly-not-very-time-consuming but surprisingly many assignments. That’s just too high a cognitive load to add to the ones these students already have. So, on the course front: simplify, simplify, simplify. And here, at Writineering: get all those other ideas off my chest. If you have the time to try some, alone or with others in your labs, you’ll get multiple positive outcomes. And you’ll be saving some stressed graduate students from my inflicting them with these ideas now! So, just to get you started, here’s big, huge suggestion number one: Read Alan Alda’s book If I Understood You, Would I Have this Look on My Face: My Adventures in the Art and Science of Relating and Communicating (2017). And then try out some of his suggestions. While you wait for the book to arrive**, you can start trying to identify the emotions of the people you meet throughout the day. Nothing else, just spend a moment pondering their expressions and behaviors, and then think “grumpy” or “tired” or “cheerful” (or whatever else seems appropriate). Why? For one, you’ll start to notice how often you just barge into a conversation without paying any attention to the other person’s receptivity or mood. Second, you’ll be developing a habit of attention. Third, you’ll probably get better at identifying moods, since your subsequent interaction will give you feedback about how accurate you were. And fourth, you’ll be able to choose your words more appropriately, and have a more productive conversation, with this information at hand. Let me know if you find other benefits, too! ** A note about getting books. I have a lot of ways of accessing books, so I’m going to describe them here. You can probably find similar resources where you live, although the collections might not be as huge. First, I can order it new or used online. This is great: you own the book! But you also have to find shelf space for it, and you have to wait a couple of days. (Of course, you could read it, and then start passing it around to your friends and colleagues—this leads to fun conversations.) Second, I can go to Hoopla and connect to the Los Angeles Public Library, and they usually have the e-book or an audiobook that I can download. I can also go directly to the LAPL website, find the book, and it’s often available by download through Amazon or I can ask them to deliver the physical copy to my local branch library. If they don’t have it, I can check the e-resources of other local library systems (in my wallet are cards for the Beverly Hills Library, the Pasadena/Glendale Library, the Santa Monica Library, and the Culver City Library, but between LA and Beverly Hills, I can pretty much access what I need). You, too, can probably join more than one library system near you. Third, I can use the UCLA Library and even interlibrary loans to get almost any book for free. Sometimes interlibrary loans are a long wait, however.
While I’m trying to get us all to write as clearly as we can, some texts are just difficult to read. Those texts are still worthwhile; they may even be more important.
The difficulty may come out of not having enough experience with the genre or the content. It might be that the author is making a very tight distinction, one that’s hard to pick up. It might be that the content is deeply philosophical, or that the ideas are so surprising that the reader keeps trying to get the words to mean something more familiar.
But the difficulties do not mean that the text should be ignored. Yes, I want writers to be as clear as they can. I want them to be as easy to read as possible. But not all things are easy. And sometimes simplicity involves cutting too much out. Lots of material is complex. You know this in engineering, and you probably also have a pretty good idea that other areas—economics, ethics, cultures, psychology, even just describing a moment in the world the way that it happened—are complex, too.
Sometimes when you say “fine” in response to “how are you?” you mean it. But usually there’s a lot more that could be said. Keeping it simple is not always accurate!
I recommend this article by Tegan Bennet Daylight in The Guardian (12/25/17): “’The difficulty is the point’: teaching spoon-fed students how to really read.” Daylight is a college teacher in Australia, but the description of her experiences seems relevant to the ways that many students approach reading: if it’s not easy, completely “relatable,” then it’s not going to get read.
I’d love for you to go read this whole article, but I’ll still share my favorite paragraph with you. After citing a single first sentence of a novel, she writes,
If you are reading this essay, you’re a reader. You probably know this sentence, and if you don’t, you are comfortable with interpreting it. You can hear a character beginning to form: its romantic, optimistic, nostalgic voice; a voice yearning for simplicity; probably, in its deliberate imitation of a child’s singsong, the voice of a woman, a mother. You know it might take a few pages to learn just who this woman is. You’re skilled in this sort of patience.
That’s completely true. Familiarity with the process of reading a novel means that a person has the patience and anticipation to wonder what might be coming next. This works for novels, and it also works for science writing.
For example, I had always enjoyed reading as a kid, but when I moved to another country I did not have much access to books in English. There weren’t any English-language children’s books, so I started reading classics (Robert Louis Stephenson, Arthur Conan Doyle, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, etc.). They were hard. It was frustrating at first. I’d start a book and give up. Gradually, out of desperation, I pushed through a few. And I came to realize that it just took a few chapters to get used to the types of sentences characteristic of each author. I got “skilled in this sort of patience.”
And the same is true for academic writing in science and engineering. If a reader just starts at the beginning, they are likely to be overwhelmed by the jargon in the abstract. But knowing where to find help—which sections might be more elementary, where terms might be defined, etc—gives someone a leg up. And then patience, confidence that this CAN be figured out (but not read linearly, until much later) will lead to success.
Finally, read. Read books. Read the New York Times. Read the New York Review of Books. (And let me know what your reading, so I can read it, too! What DO working engineers read, that they talk about together?) Daylight concludes that she wants her students to “to discover that if they learn to handle language they’ll no longer be helpless, drowning in sugary gratification.” And she wants “them to see that reading breeds thinking, and thinking breeds resistance.” That’s what I want for my students, too. Read and be provoked to think and act. I want you to express yourselves–after taking some time to read and to think what that really means.
I’m always trying to think of ways to improve undergraduate education, and particularly undergraduate engineering education. This desire comes out of my own experiences entering UCLA as an undergraduate electrical engineering major. I took a bunch of random, disconnected classes. (I think my first quarter was the third class in a calculus sequence, introductory chemistry, and a cultural anthropology class.) After a year, I hadn’t learned much about what engineers did, I’d discovered chemistry was surprisingly difficult for me, and I had fallen in love with programming (in Pascal; this was 1984). For some reason, this random set of data encouraged me to switch to the Computer Science and Engineering major. After a bunch more physics and math, and a bit of computer architecture, I still had no idea what engineers did besides think about resistors. I got a part-time job at Hughes Aircraft as an Assistant Engineer, and I discovered that testing hardware was scary but that it was fun to follow engineers around and ask them questions so I could write down what they were doing and why. That experience, however, convinced me that I did not want to be an engineer–largely because I didn’t like working at a big defense corporation. But what if I’d had a different introduction to engineering, one that focused on what I could do with that knowledge, on imagining what I valued and how I could further those values with engineering skills, and one that centered on solving problems, not memorizing formulas for problem sets? I had actually entered engineering school with ambitious ideals for what I would accomplish, but nobody asked me about those, and none of my classes seemed related to them.
So when I read about a curriculum that immediately reveals to students how engineers think, and not only that, but also motivates socially conscious students to work hard in their engineering classes to bring about the changes they envision in the world, I am interested.
The book is A Whole New Engineer: The Coming Revolution in Engineering Education by David E Goldberg and Mark Somerville (with Catherine Whitney, who I assume did much of the writing!). They tell the story of the founding of Olin College of Engineering (started in 2000), the thinking behind the curriculum, and the ways that these ideas have been (and can be) borrowed by and adapted to much larger institutions. It’s a fascinating story in itself, and I’ll probably offer several posts on some of the key ideas. Here I’ll just add its general ideas about how to get students personally, intrinsically motivated:
- “Autonomy: making meaningful choices is a cornerstone of intrinsic motivation” (159). This means letting students make some choices; it means trusting them. “Autonomy-supportive instructors . . . spend more time listening, give fewer directives, ask more questions about what students want, verbalize fewer solutions to problems, make more emphatic statements, and offer greater support for students’ internalization of the learning goals” (159).
- “Purpose/Relatedness: Doing things that matter to your peers and to the world at large, increases intrinsic motivation” (163). This means both that students need to have sense of connection with a community for which they are designing their products, and they also need a sense of responsibility to the very people with whom they are working. Discussing the global influences of engineering, encouraging them to see how engineering has improved people’s lives (and when it has failed to do so), and having them work in teams are ways to accomplish this goal.
- “Mastery: Being effective increases intrinsic motivation”(164). This means that students need to be given opportunities to get better. They need to do something, get feedback, and improve that thing. They need to be encouraged to reflect on their accomplishments, asking “What was done well?” and “What can be improved?” (165)
The book offers many stories, and both general and specific ideas about education, curriculum, and classroom practices. I recommend that every teacher read it. I’d love to know what you think.