Stereotypes and student cultures May 8, 2012Posted by Scott Campbell in : STV100 , trackback
C.P. Snow warned us over fifty years ago to look for common ground between students of the liberal or literary arts and those of science and engineering. A recent survey done by Higher Education Strategy Associates offers some revealing similarities and differences, particular among humanities and engineering undergrads. To summarize:
- When asked if they Agree that “Being Challenged in School is Important to Me” and if they Agree that “I Prefer to Take Courses where the Instructor is an Easy Marker”, the results were very similar. That is, more than other groups, both want to be challenged and neither find “bird” courses attractive.
- When asked if they Agree that Classes that Require Application of New Concepts and Techniques are Enjoyable or if they Agree that Courses that Require Long Hours of Work are Enjoyable, the results were quite different. Engineers were much more likely to look to apply new concepts and techniques, and much more likely to enjoy long hours of work.
Clearly, the survey is hitting on a few stereotypes, such as engineers work hard and maybe even that they love getting new gadgets. The common perception is that change seems to drive technology, and technology seems to drive engineers, so I suppose these students don’t see much choice but to knuckle down and be prepared for long hours, adapting to a continuous stream of change. Yet, outside of research and development, engineering can be a very conservative field, for good reason! Nobody is going to build a bridge with new materials or techniques until absolutely certain it will not fall down. I’ve heard of “traditional” subdisciplines of engineering such as civil, electrical, or mechanical that haven’t changed their teaching curriculum for decades. Indeed, as David Edgerton points out in The Shock of the Old, “maintenance and repair are the most widespread forms of technical expertise” (p.80), not invention or research. Most of us (including working engineers) spend more time keeping technologies going than making wholly new ones.
On the humanities side there’s another possible discrepancy, of students who want to be challenged yet don’t want to apply new concepts. I wonder if the roadblock is of “new concepts” or “application”. One stereotype at work here might be the long intellectual history many philosophy, history or literature students face, which could leave the impression that there isn’t much room for anything new or even a preference for the past. Many humanities arguments do seem to have an endless quality. Or maybe it’s the problem of “application”, and a view that humanities is simply not about the application of anything beyond an understanding of the human condition. To borrow from Stanley Fish, the only honest appraisal of the humanities is that they are of no use whatsoever, and any attempt to justify or apply them is to not recognize their intrinsic value: “The humanities are their own good“.
What I’d like to take from the survey is that “artsies” and engineers really aren’t all that different, a view I do try to encourage in my students (who amount to about two-thirds engineers), and to remember that we’ve all got a lot more in common than our biases, assumptions and stereotypes might have us believe. Once we recognize that, we’re better able to bridge the gap between the two cultures.