I cannot speak for others, but throughout my development as an engineer (2.5 decades) and now as an instructor (4 semesters), I’ve experienced significant tension between the externally-imposed expectations and goals I’m supposed to work toward, versus the underlying reasons I am an engineer or instructor at all.
I’m lucky to have done plenty of reflection & exploration, on my own, into my “why”s. I’ve an essay from kindergarten explaining that I want to become an “inventor-doctor” and “give people new arms or legs or stomachs”, pieces from my first undergrad about facilitating “the direct transmission of abstractions and experience” in order to “cultivate empathy”, from my second about “engineering as a liberatory endeavor”, and from grad school about “design for community autonomy”. I openly discuss the content I teach, and have accumulated a double-digit waiting list of friends, acquaintances, or friends-of-friends who I want to provide access to my lecture recordings.
But when I engineer, the focus imposed on me prioritizes markets, profit, hunting ‘whales’, intellectual property and preventing others from being able to use the fruits of my labor unless they can pay. These are not and never were *my* goals; I engineer because I want people’s lives to suck less, want to expand our capacity for interaction or self-expression, or to cultivate wonderment and empathy.
When I teach, I am told between the lines that the course is to function as a rigidly pre-prescribed, standardized content delivery vehicle of a specific list of mathematical abstractions and analyses, with an ultimate output of future laborers, labeled neatly like grades of ground beef, for their future employers’ benefit at the salary negotiation table. For engineering-education-as-a-buisness reasons, I am specifically to only teach these individuals who are able to pay (not those on the waiting list), only teach them the content of my course (not others; that’s another 3 credit hours of tuition), only discuss content deemed ‘nonpolitical’ (not the frameworks and practices they need in order for them to feel good about the role they play in the world at the end of the day). In reality, I put myself in a classroom because I want to cultivate a sense of agency and responsibility in my students as agents of change. I want to empower my students with the requisite skills, knowledge, and practices to let them look at the ways the world sucks for those around them and dive in to help. My teaching strives to be a rapturous, awe-filled celebration of the absurd complexity of the world we sentient great apes live in, and hopes to cultivate a similar sense of wonder and curiosity. Where is the SPOT question, GPA scaling factor, or undergrad resume entry for that?
My goals, as an engineer and an instructor, are best served by openness– of designs, processes, concepts, plans, abstractions, and aspirations. I’ve done enough by now that the incentive systems and expectations around me will simply have to adapt. I’ve plenty yet to learn on practices I can adopt which match and richly enact my theoretical inclinations and intent.
Open, Networked Academia
I found the readings this week on open working and networked learning, along with the in-class discussion last week around open-access education, grading, and surreptitious data gathering by for-profit web services in academic contexts all exceedingly resonant. In the class discussion, I even found myself missing established relatively non-obtrusive “that’s a good point” group discussion signals the way snapping or golf clapping are used in certain contexts.
The LSE piece, “Twitter and Blogs Are Not Just Add-Ons to Research” strongly echoes the tension I expressed, which is quite curious to me as it very much speaks from a humanities scholar’s perspective. I can easily see how the work of engineering academics would be rapidly steered by the incentives of military or industry funding sources toward closed, insular, and obfuscated endeavors; and I can see how the role of the engineering instructor would be re-oriented away from content like ethics, human-centered design, and social justice and toward producing easily-categorized replaceable-part engineers for companies. I am still early in my growing understanding that similar processes have been co-opting potentially revolutionary or hegemony-challenging work and terms and de-fanging them; I absolutely had not considered how such incentive systems can be steering education & research within humanities departments.
One particular example of a novel form of public academic via open, networked writing and engagement is Rachel Garner, whose blog “Why Animals Do The Thing” is home to both short-form explanations of animal behavior and caretaking guidelines on social media, and long-form, cited, traditional academic articles such as her recent work on the estimated big cat populations in the wild and captivity, “Fact or Fiction: Big Cat Crisis” . In a similar vein, several ‘public media creators’ routinely do work that, while in the form of a Youtube video and definitely not in the wonderfully-incoherent Formal Academic Voice of an academic publication, engage with the relevant concepts at the depth of their corresponding academic work. For some examples, feel free to look into Veritasium (physics), Smarter Every Day (physics), PBS Spacetime (astronomy and physics), Styropyro (Optics), The Brain Scoop (taxidermy and animal museum preparation), Contrapoints (anarchist and feminist thought), HBomberguy (media criticism), Healthcare Triage (public health and medical practice), Kat Blaque (feminist thought), One Yard Revolution (gardening), or former creators like ViHart (math), and PBS Idea Channel (?cultural anthropology?).
A notable upside to approaches like this is that their funding sources are often wholly divorced from existing institutions, permitting much greater freedom in research & outreach efforts as compared to the extremely limited availability of grants. To me, these individuals are living out a very new form of academic, that takes the roles of researcher and educator out of the sole domain of the university and back into direct engagement with the public.
Reinventing the Open Web
The piece Working Openly: A Manifesto, struck upon a particular struggle I’ve felt in my engineering work more recently: the very software systems and tools in which we conduct our work are structured to facilitate the locking-down of knowledge and content. A CRM platform like Canvas structures everything from their data storage to their web interface around the assumption that for each user, most courses will be inaccessible. I have that double-digit waiting list of people who want to learn my course content exclusively because for me to share the lecture videos and notes, they need access to VT’s Canvas instance, then need access to my course within that. The primary advertising point of Github for Education, for example, is that they offer unlimited private git repositories. My engineering courses were pushed to use Matlab and Mathematica by the companies selling them, who have then successfully set themselves up for market dominance outcompeting literally free, equivalent tools despite ludicrous cost and abhorrent business models. Changing our practices and what tools we use is the first part of escaping that.
Unfortunately, in its pursuit of brevity, Working Openly left undone the task of finding practical specific tools to use instead. I’d like to list a bunch of technologies that I’m aware of and building on for personal control of your data and systems; this particular piece is already PLENTY long, so that can come later.
For now, I’ll simply share that I was extremely pleasantly surprised at Reclaim Hosting’s approachability and their library of existing, integrated applications available, and especially enthused at the unparalleled value for a $2.5/month cost load. For comparison, my vanity domain costs approximately $13/yr on Namecheap on a discount, and a webserver capable of running WordPress (you’re on your own for management/support of it) on DigitalOcean’s cloud server space will run you $10/mo. I even emailed Reclaim Hosting’s support at 2am asking about self-hosting Red5 (a live-streaming service like Twitch.tv), a personal Mastodon.social instance (a twitter-like federated social network), and an IPFS node (a decentralized, content-addressed file storage system),
and I received a detailed, technical reply from the co-founder within an hour:
I very much look forward to continuing this course. I strongly suspect it will finally address the questions I’ve been struggling with around “How do I do, in practice, the sort of open, accessible, agency-cultivating teaching I have been struggling to even conceptualize?”