Queering Engineering At Purdue
Having all but ruined humanities education, the Social Justice Warriors now turn to the STEM fields. Purdue University has hired Donna Riley as its new head of its School of Engineering Education. Here’s an excerpt from Prof. Riley’s biography page at Smith College, where she taught for 13 years:
My scholarship currently focuses on applying liberative pedagogies in engineering education, leveraging best practices from women’s studies and ethnic studies to engage students in creating a democratic classroom that encourages all voices. In 2005 I received a CAREER award from the National Science Foundation to support this work, which includes developing, implementing, and assessing curricular and pedagogical innovations based on liberative pedagogies and student input at Smith, and understanding how students at Smith conceptualize their identities as engineers. I seek as an engineering educator to be part of a paradigm shift that these pedagogies demand, repositioning concerns about diversity in science and engineering from superficial measures of equity as headcounts, to addressing justice and the genuine engagement of all students as core educational challenges.
I currently teach traditional courses in the areas of chemical and environmental engineering, as well as elective courses on engineering and global development, science, technology, and ethics (cross-listed with SWG) and technological risk assessment and communication. I seek to revise engineering curricula to be relevant to a fuller range of student experiences and career destinations, integrating concerns related to public policy, professional ethics and social responsibility; de-centering Western civilization; and uncovering contributions of women and other underrepresented groups.
In EGR 330 (Engineering and Global Development), we critically evaluate past and current trends in appropriate and sustainable technology. We examine how technology influences and is influenced by globalization, capitalism and colonialism, and the role technology plays in movements that counter these forces. Gender is a key thread running through the course in examining issues of water supply and quality, food production and energy.
In EGR 205 (Science, Technology and Ethics), we consider questions such as who decides how science and engineering are done, who can participate in the scientific enterprise and what problems are legitimately addressed within these disciplines and professions. We take up racist and colonialist projects in science, as well as the role of technology, culture and economic systems in the drive toward bigger, faster, cheaper and more automated production of goods. A course theme around technology and control provides for exploration of military, information, reproductive and environmental applications. Using readings from philosophy, science and technology studies, and feminist and postcolonial science studies, we explore these topics and encounter new models of science and engineering that are responsive to ethical concerns.
She will come to Purdue from Virginia Tech. This is an excerpt from her faculty page there:
Riley’s research interests include engineering and social justice; engineering ethics; social inequality in engineering education; and the liberal education of engineers. In 2005 she received a National Science Foundation CAREER award on implementing and assessing critical and feminist pedagogies in engineering classrooms. Students in Riley’s research group are pursuing interests including culturally inclusive pedagogies; understanding faculty motivations and approaches to teaching engineering ethics; connections between critical thinking and engineering ethics pedagogies; engineering education policy; and public participation in engineering projects impacting communities.
And there you were, thinking that the hard sciences and engineering were immune to this kind of thing, because they are about numbers.
Anybody object to bringing cultural politics into the engineering classroom? Anybody think there’s something … off about using engineering courses to “de-center” Western civilization? Go ahead, I dare you to object. You and your white male science privilege!
Here’s the kind of thing Purdue engineering students can expect henceforth. It’s from the blog of one of Dr. Riley’s students at Smith, who writes approvingly:
Critical pedagogy is the education movement aimed developing students into socially and politically aware individuals, helping them recognize authoritarian tendencies, empowering them to act against injustice, and employing democratic and inclusive classroom practices. The term “critical pedagogy” has been used by educators to refer to a broad range of pedagogies that employ critical theory, feminist theory, queer theory, anti-racist theory, multicultural education, and inclusive pedagogies. In this post, I will discuss some of the critical pedagogy practices employed by Dr. Donna Riley (currently a professor at Virginia Tech) while teaching a class called “Engineering Thermodynamics” as Smit College, an all women college, during Spring and Fall semesters of 2002. It should be noted that Riley uses liberative pedagogy as an inclusive term for critical pedagogy, feminist pedagogy, and radical pedagogy. Some of the classroom practices employed by Riley included:
Connecting learning to students’ experiences. Students learn the most from examples which they can relate to, based on their social and cultural backgrounds. Hence, Riley used a wide variety of thermodynamic systems in class as examples. Also, the textbook for the class was chosen such that it contained a wide variety of examples of thermodynamic systems.
Democratic classroom practices. Students were assigned teaching roles to teach parts of the course to the entire class. They were not only asked to develop modules to teach the class but also encouraged to relate them to their own lives. Also, the seating arrangement reflected the democratic classroom practices. Instead of sitting in rows facing the instructor, students were asked to sit in circles with each student facing and talking to the entire class instead of just the instructor.
Taking responsibility for one’s own learning. Students were required to take responsibility for their learning in that they were asked to do metacognitive reflections on what was working or not working for them in the class. They were also asked to do assignments in which they reflected on their learning of various aspects of the course.
Ethics discussions. In order for students to be develop as ethically responsible individuals, they need to learn the impact which an engineer’s work has on the society. To develop such an ethical awareness, Riley and her class watched and critiqued videos on “energy in society”, critiqued the textbook used for the class by analyzing the aspects (e.g. alternate energy, environmental applications of thermodynamics, energy system in developing countries) which were missing from the textbook. Also, students were assigned ethics problems to reflect on.
Breaking the Western hegemony. In order to decenter the male hegemony of the Western civilization, Riley discussed examples of thermodynamic inventions done by non-Western and non-male inventors. Also, some of the assignments required students to make interracial and intercultural connections in thermodynamics.
Normalizing mistakes. By normalizing mistakes in the process of learning, Riley fostered a classroom environment in which students were comfortable attempting problems (sometimes even on the black board) in class and learning from their mistakes. Another strategy used by her for normalizing mistakes was acknowledging when she herself did not know something.
Discussion of history and philosophy. Riley discussed the history and philosophy of the development of thermodynamic laws to demonstrate to the students that the process of discovery does not lead one to an absolute truth. Instead, making mistakes is acceptable in the process of discovery. Students were also required to reflect on how the knowledge of history and philosophy of thermodynamics helped their learning.
Assessment techniques. The assessment of students put a greater emphasis on participation. Moreover, a flexible grading system was adopted. Students were asked to work in pairs on some exams. In the second offering of the course, problems were given to the students only as a learning exercise and not as an assessment tool. Moreover, continual course feedback was taken from students to improve their learning experience.
One of the critiques of critical pedagogy is that it does not provide specific classroom practices. It just suggests that teaching and learning should be contextual and aim at raising critical awareness among students. A lot of times educators do not know how to apply critical pedagogy in their classes, especially in hard and applied sciences, due to a lack of knowledge about how to apply it. I hope the practices noted above can be adopted to and adapted for any classroom and any discipline.
Here’s an interview with Dr. Riley as part of a “Queered Science” series. Riley is a lesbian, and uses gender-neutral pronouns. Excerpt:
While overt sexism and homophobia are less common than historically, they still play out in ways that are subtle and, therefore, insidious and hard to combat. How do you see this happening in the sciences, and how do you deal with it?
One of the biggest sources of sexism and homophobia is lodged in the epistemology of science. How we think, and what we think, matter in determining what we know and don’t know, and affects our workplace interactions in very negative ways. We think that we eliminate bias by keeping our “personal lives” – some aspects of ourselves – out of the lab, classroom, or office. But actually this is how we allow implicit bias to seep in and saturate everything we do, because that which is male, straight, white, able-bodied, monied, is not left behind in the practice of science and engineering – it is just so normative that lots of us don’t notice.
I have learned that talking about these issues and building solidarity with like-minded others is the only way we can ever address them. Ultimately scientists and engineers have to be able to think outside the epistemological boxes we’ve been trained into to understand diversity and social justice. Cultural change takes a lot of hard work, it takes talking to people and organizing — skills typically not in our wheelhouses as scientists and engineers.
Congratulations, Purdue. This is going to be interesting. I wonder where the undergraduates who just want to get an engineering education without being harangued by a critical-studies commissar will go to school now?