A flurry of frantic e-mails crossed my screen recently, and the topic of the discussion board that started it all was a professor’s lament over what he perceived to be a paucity of up-to-date textbooks for use in structural engineering courses. He argued that texts did not keep pace with changes in design standards. Using outdated texts, he felt, did not adequately prepare students to compete in the global marketplace.
The professor went on to state that in 22 years of teaching, he had never had a textbook “in harmony with current codes.” He compared the announcement of a new design manual to brittle failure—something that happens with little advance warning—and he called for more cooperation between code writers and textbook publishers to ameliorate the situation. But in fact, a new code is typically preceded by plenty of yielding among those involved in developing it and anticipation among those who may have to use it.
This professor’s flame attracted lots of moths. One senior project engineer working in the “real world” shot back that the problem was that the professor was too eager to teach up-to-date codes and standards. What students need, he contended, was grounding in the principles of structural engineering, those eternal verities that are independent of the latest pronouncements. This would better prepare them to work with any manual that applied at the time and place of their future employment.
But even teaching just the fundamentals benefits from a good textbook. One text seemed to be the odds-on favorite among the cognoscenti engaged in the thread, but the uncertainty of the publication date of a revised edition—incorporating and rationalizing industry changes—made those needing a text for the coming semester somewhat hesitant to commit to adopting that one. They were prepared to do what design engineers are used to doing—accept the compromise of a sure thing. A book in the hand can be worth two in press.
In the course of the discussion, it became clear that even in thisage when the resource of first resort seems to be the World Wide Web, there is something in a physical book that provides a sense of grounding. One poster commented that a textbook gives students background and perspective on a code, something that instructors do not have time to do while wrestling with the nitty-gritty of teaching applications in the classroom. Those participating in the thread were talking not about a digital book on the Web but about a good, old-fashioned, hardback textbook that is heavy to lift and easy to put down.
The back-and-forth on the listserv came so fast and furious that some recipients of the barrage of e-mails began to complain about their stuffed mailboxes. Perhaps instructors who did not teach courses involving codes lost patience with those concerned about the climate of evolving standards. The listserv monitor was compelled to advise disaffected subscribers how to unsubscribe—and fast.
Others stayed tuned to see how it would all turn out. But to many silent observers of the volleys over structural codes and textbooks, there was nothing new in this debate. There has long been disagreement over whether teaching the fundamentals is sufficient. To many, the to-and-fro over structural engineering textbooks must have seemed like déjà vu all over again.
Perhaps the matter will never be fully resolved. It is true that the basics do not change, but philosophies about how those fundamentals should be applied do. Questions about safety and risk and good practice do change with time, and teaching should reflect current thinking on the answers, however transient or ephemeral they might be. It is a tall order for textbook writers, publishers and users alike, and it is likely to continue to provide grist for the e-mail mill.
Henry Petroski is the Aleksandar S. Vesic Professor of Civil
Engineering and a professor of history at Duke University. His latest
books are “Pushing the Limits: New Adventures in Engineering”
and “Success Through Failure: The Paradox of Design.”