Friday, February 09, 2007

Immersion in the anthro world

I attended my first graduate school class today. It's a qualitative field research methods course in the anthropology department at MIT that I'm auditing (doing all the work and such, but technically being enrolled in an independent study at Olin so I can get those last 4 AHS credits). Big culture shock (the school, the discipline, and being a baby-faced 20-year-old in a room filled with grad students and postdocs) and I am totally going to get my butt kicked by the workload, but I'm loving it. This afternoon was three straight hours of my brain going "whoa! whoa! paradigm shift!"

As an engineer, I'm used to being a monkey with a hammer trying to affect my universe instead of a fly on the wall trying to understand it. I am trying to kick myself into thinking like a scientist (preferably of the social type), thinking about observing the world and trying to figure out why things happen, rather than being of the "Find Tools Fix Problem" ENGR mindset. I keep on going "where is my toolbelt and how can I fix this?" but I'm doing my best to not scratch that itch and instead immerse myself in this new field without shoehorning it into my usual one (...anthropologizing anthropology, sort of - ironically, I'm also simultaneously trying to engineer engineering in my other projects, or at least to engineer engineering education. Mm, meta.)

It's also interesting to hear the (mixed) views of the social science students on engineers (especially since it's an MIT class and a bunch of them were formally engineers and some of the other students are doing some sort of technical work as well). Do we really look down on the humanities that much? Do we really have that much arrogance in thinking we can fix the world by objectifying it and treating components numerically? Do we really, at our worst, ignore the world around us that we're supposed to be learning to serve with our technical skills?

I've been soaked in a "rah rah engineering is awesome" environment so much at Olin that the notion that it could be otherwise (to educated, rational, smart people with valid points looking at decent data) came as a surprise. I am not quite sure what to do about this yet.

It's going to be quite a ride.

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