Wednesday, March 26, 2008

"civic" engineering

On Monday I finished the last session of a Writing Program min-seminar (noted earlier) on civic engagement. The seminar was great. Our assignment was to discuss or develop civic engagement projects that we can or do use in our writing classes. I learned that some of the instructors teaching WRT 105 are extremely creative and committed to developing in their students a knowledge and sense of written communication that extends beyond rote academic prose.

My challenge for the seminar assignment was to develop a way in which I can introduce civic engagement assignments into WRT 407. I poked around and found some engineering programs doing interesting things with robotics and disabilities studies. Then I recalled that the Burton Blatt Institute right here at SU has a center dedicated to research and development in assisstive technology.

The fit seems obvious enough: have the senior engineers work with the Burton Blatt Institute on projects that involve assistive technologies -- from robotics to accessibility software and systems. But the more I thought about it, the more restrictive the connection felt. I realized I was making "the move" -- defining my students against broad generalizations that I bring into the classroom. Why should engineering students be drawn to a disabilities project? Am I assuming that they don't already have a sense of the civic -- that there are no other avenues into civic engagement for electrical and computer engineers?

So maybe the challenge for me is to find opportunities for my students, rather than specific projects. Let them explore those opportunities that they find engaging and productive. I shouldn't privilege the scientific or the technological simply because of the students' programs of study or my particular interests. Which leads me to another thread about unwritten program agendas and organizational ideologies. It's a post for another time, but one that's worth writing. In the meantime, I'm going to start working on next year's WRT 407 course structure to look for appropriate spaces for civic engagement.

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