PRISM - American Society for Engineering Education - Logo - JANUARY 2005 - VOLUME 14, NUMBER 5
refractions
Being Different
By Henry Petroski

ENGINEERS AND HUMANISTS LIVE IN DIFFERENT WORLDS BUT AS EDUCATORS SHARE COMMON GOALS.

Henry Petroski  -  Photo By Leonora HamillWhen 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.

 

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REFRACTIONS: Being Different - By Henry Petroski
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