|By Henry Petroski
ENGINEERS AND HUMANISTS LIVE IN DIFFERENT WORLDS BUT AS EDUCATORS SHARE COMMON GOALS.
I spent a sabbatical year at the National Humanities Center
as a fellow working on a project dealing with engineering
and culture, I was the only engineer among 40 or so humanists,
who included philosophers, literary critics, and historians.
At a series of meetings during the first week, each of us
was expected to make a five-minute presentation of our project
to help us get acquainted intellectually and to encourage
interaction. A sign-up sheet was posted beside our mailboxes,
and I was trying to decide what slot to take when the center's
assistant director came up behind me and encouraged me sign
up for the first session, many of whose slots were still available.
By volunteering for the first session I saved myself a lot
of anxiety, because at it I learned that engineers and humanists
have very different ideas of what constitutes making a presentation,
even to a small group of colleagues.
My expectation was that each of us would talk off the cuff
about what we had been thinking about for at least a year—since
we wrote our application essay—and probably more intensely
about for six months—after we learned that we had been
granted a fellowship to the center. As an engineer used to
presenting papers at technical meetings and proposals before
review panels, I was accustomed to talking extemporaneously,
thinking on my feet, using slides showing equations, apparatus,
and graphs to serve as prompts.
I knew that such slides would not be appropriate for an audience
of humanists, and so I decided to use as my prompt only a
single artifact—a common pencil. After all, it was the
metaphor and vehicle that I had proposed to use as a means
of exploring ideas about engineering and culture.
Speaking early in the first session meant that I heard only
one presentation before mine—hardly enough to discern
a pattern, other than that at least one humanist talked from
a seated position. When my turn came, I remained seated also.
I played with the pencil in my hand, twirling it when I was
not holding it up to make a particular point about its symbolism
or its significance for my subject. The presentation went
well, I thought, since there was plenty of good eye contact
with my audience and were perceptive questions afterwards.
My presentation finished, I sat back to enjoy hearing about
the projects of my fellow fellows. To my surprise, all but
one of the humanists had prepared a written essay, which they
proceeded to read—while seated. To them, "reading
a paper," even a five-minute informal one, was taken
literally. Had I signed up for the second instead of the first
session, I might have panicked and tried to write an essay
overnight. I would likely also have stumbled on my words,
not then being used to reading aloud in public.
Perhaps it should not be surprising that engineers and humanists
follow different conventions when talking and interacting
with their colleagues. After all, they work in different disciplines,
with different traditions, and with different objectives.
Understandably, the types of people that are attracted to
the two distinct cultures have different personalities.
Whether one is born or made an engineer or a humanist is
as arguable a point as whether champions are born or made.
Nevertheless, my experience at the National Humanities Center
led me to believe that though our training inclines us to
express ourselves in our own profession's style, we
all share the common goal of communicating our enthusiasm
for our subject, no matter what it is.
Henry Petroski is the Aleksandar S. Vesic Professor
of Civil Engineering and a professor of history at Duke University.
His latest book, Pushing the Limits: New Adventures in Engineering,
was published in September.