Aug. 27th, 2011

bobthemole: (Default)
We had a great day in the Engineering Communication class that I TA.

Right at the beginning of the semester we have the students write personal essays in the style of NPR's This I Believe series.

This I Believe is a series that started out in the 1950s when NPR began recording short essays by people about their personal beliefs and values. It was a simple idea, but it exploded - essays were recorded by iconic figures like Helen Keller and Eleanor Roosevelt, as well as by taxi drivers and waiters. The program was revived in 2005, and to date there are over 100,000 written and recorded essays in the collection. It's pretty amazing to browse through and hear people's thoughts in their own words.

We picked two essays to listen to in class: Life Is An Act Of Literary Creation by novelist Luis Alberto Urrea and The Power of Mysteries by astrophysicist (and occasional novelist) Alan Lightman.

The difference between the structures of the essays was striking. Urrea wrote in a rich, sensual style that evoked colors and flavors while being very oblique and suggestive about the point he was trying to make. The essay presented a mood rather than a concrete idea, despite his generous use of concrete details. In contrast, Lightman's essay was highly structured: past-to-future, personal-to-general, with a topic sentence jumping out of every paragraph.

We talked about the kinds of writing that scientists and engineers usually have to produce. Our research papers, proposals, technical reports are all genres that have developed a rigid format that every single writer has to follow. Most of the engineers in the room felt more comfortable reading the Lightman essay because it met our expectations and our need for answers. Lightman had a point and by Jove he made it. Urrea's essay left many of us unsettled (though the Prof, who has a humanities background, confessed to preferring it). We had to read it over and over again to understand what the message was, and even then there was room for debate. It forced us to confront the idea of having no set answers, and being okay with it.

That's what I love about this class. We take a bunch of engineers who have been taught to search the world for answers and try to show them other ways of thinking. We have them look inward and determine their own value systems. We ask them to consider ways of thinking that are alien to them. We try to cram an entire liberal arts education into 10 weeks with room to spare for grammar exercises. I don't know how many take away what they learned, but I hope its more than a few.

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