Friday, April 27, 2007

News flash: we're not innovative.

After anthropology class today I was doing research and read this note from the Futurepaths study.

Research from the neo-institutional perspective suggests that despite the effort to innovate, Smith and Olin are likely to develop programs that are isomorphic with the existing institutions. Despite efforts to hire and retain “non-traditional”professionals, the faculty at Smith and Olin, socialized and educated in the dominant, institutional culture of engineering, are likely to mimic and replicate the values, pedagogies, professional orientations, and taken-for-granted assumptions of conventional engineering through their teaching.

It's... true. At least I think it's true. Everything I've heard, seen, read, and done at Olin, coupled with everything I've read about the history of education and higher education, about pedagogy and classroom techniques, about educational philosophies and engineering philosophies and social theories and descriptions of engineering subcultures... all that has led me to the same conclusion no matter how hard I try to escape it. Finally reading someone else's words saying the same thing I'd been thinking for months - and subtly, years - was like a blow to the gut.

Now, this doesn't mean that being isomorphic is bad, even if it's true (and I'm starting to believe that it is, although I can't yet articulate it with a solid body of non-hearsay, non-biased evidence... that's what research projects are for). It's an opportunity. A tremendous chance to reexamine the foundations of our beliefs and assumptions. What have we taken for granted? What is engineering, and what does it mean to teach engineers? Become more aware of what we're doing, what we're not doing, why... and then, if we feel it is needed, we can change it. If we don't change it, we will still know what we are doing and what effect it has, and that's fantastic as well.

The trouble, in my opinion, is when a school does "magic," which I'll define as having something that functionally works while simultaneously baffling everyone as to why it does. Inertia starts because of "magic." You don't want to spoil this thing that's working; touch it and who knows what will happen and whether you can put it back together again? (Think of the hesitancy some non-techies display when faced with the controls of a complex machine, no matter how robust the device actually is.) If you get to the root of the "magic" and understand the system and the tradeoffs you're making, you gain the power and confidence to change it, and the power and confidence to keep it the same out of conscious knowledge, not fear.

That's an important point I don't think is brought up often enough nowadays in the Age of Innovation-As-Buzzword. "Innovation" doesn't necessarily mean WHOA NEW SHINY THING LOOK AT ME ME ME! Sometimes it means understanding old things in different ways. Quiet, subtle musings are just as important as outrageously bold actions.

After the earthquake there was fire--but the LORD was not in the fire. After the fire there was a tiny whispering sound. When he heard this, Elijah hid his face in his cloak and went and stood at the entrance of the cave. A voice said to him, "Elijah, why are you here?"


L33tminion said...

I disagree, I think Olin is innovative... or at least it's a matter of scale. Olin is one of the most "out there" engineering colleges in existence.

Still, I'd agree that we're not revolutionary. Olin isn't a whole new paradigm, as much as the Olin community (or at least much of it) wants it to be.

I think part of that is that that people also want the college to succeed. They want accreditation and acceptance and so on. Revolutionary changes can bring about spectacular things, but it can also bring about spectacular failures. There's a lot of talk at Olin about learning from failure, but we don't seem to be able to apply it to the college as a whole. And we can't put too much on the line; learning from failure only works if you have the resources (and the will) to try, try again.

Kimble said...

I (and Jon Stolk, and many others) have had the same thoughts as you, Mel, about Olin not actually being innovative. There was actually a president's council meeting that very nearly ended in mutiny over Olin being forced into an ABET accreditation box. There are plenty of professors using the ABET requirements as an excuse for teaching a non-educationally-innovative course.

On the other hand, I do like the point that FuturePaths makes about selection bias. Olin may not be innovative enough, or even innovative, but a good portion of college is the environment, including the other students. By attracting a different type of student, Olin has created a unique environment from more "classic" institutions like MIT. The different environment, in turn, gives us a different educational experience, creating different engineers. Putting aside the debate of whether we were really created at olin to be different or came in different, perhaps Olin is doing enough innovation merely by marketing itself as innovative.