Advice for whimsical engineers

A frequently-repeated admonition that I receive every time I complain about higher-order Maslow needs, particularly with regards to my present career is that given my socioeconomic background, and additionally, the relative absence of further support infrastructure that everyone else seems to enjoy (i.e. a family in the present continent), is that reliable income is paramount to my well-being. For someone with a more conventional temperament and long-terms needs, I am sure this notion would be applicable and even appreciated, but as of late, I have been seeing that there are larger costs to me continuing on with my current vocation than to leave it. I don’t know what, if any, the economic costs are for continuing along the same path but for the sake of my mental health and overall wellbeing, it’s probably advisable to make other arrangements in the near future.

Given this debacle, I approached Dr. Debbie Chachra, an associate professor at Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering, an alumnus of U of T engineering on her advice for someone in my position. Dr. Chachra has been long involved in issues related to engineering education, and in particular, issues related to women in STEM fields and I thought she would be among the best to guide me in this regard, given our mutual interest in social justice issues.

The most salient thing she said, that resonated with my experiences within the engineering community is this:

I often joke that it took me more than a decade to deprogram myself from the brainwashing that you get in engineering – that engineers are better, smarter, more rational than other people; that caring about people or wanting to work with them is ‘soft’ and a waste of your time and talents.

Indeed, throughout my undergraduate career, I have been told repeatedly, by peers, faculty and many non-engineers alike, that somehow engineers were better at being proactive problem-solving citizens and we are rewarded more for it. Through experience though, I have found a large number of engineers to lack appreciation of the sociocultural context that they do their work in, and when they do, they are reluctant to take strong oppositional stances against current cycles of injustice. As such, engineering work feels depoliticized to the engineer, when it is in fact not, and is often used to maintain and perpetuate a certain global paradigm of power, especially in the resource-based industries. Even if an engineer happens to be vigilant about social issues, bureaucratic obstacles prevent serious organizational change to occur. Even in academia, there still remain basic obstacles, as Dr. Chachra observes as follows.

One of the best things about Olin is that I’m part of a cohort of six or so faculty who are deeply involved in issues of women and technology. At many engineering schools, faculty who care about gender (who are usually women) can easily feel really isolated. Whereas I feel that we not only support each other, but there’s enough of us (Olin is so small that together we’re almost a fifth of the total faculty!) that we can’t really be institutionally marginalized. And, in fact, we get a lot of support from the College, because our work on gender lines up with our goal to make engineering education better – see what I said about being someplace with shared values?

Shared values is probably the pillar in which careers of people should ideally be built on, even if economic stability is the end goal. However, as it remains, certain career prospects, especially those in the arts, are automatically dismissed as unrealistic by most traditionalists, because of the tangible fears regarding finance. I’d like to make the suggestion that this is not because the arts/humanities/social justice causes pay less because they bring less value into our societies, but because, the current structures of power have decided we should value them less.

This is not a system I feel comfortable supporting any longer. I never have. However, in the meantime, I’ll try to make it less of a waste of time and take some pages from George Monbiot.

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Some final thoughts on Iceland, or the further refinement on a philosophy of travel

I just returned today from my ~2 weeks in Iceland. I had been looking forward to this trip for quite a while, mostly because it would provide a much needed break from both Toronto and work, something I haven’t had since March 2012. The pictures from this trip are available here

While the vacation itself was nice, and probably something the majority of the population would be more than happy with, I found that it fell short in a couple of distinct areas. Either through conditioning or nature, or a combination thereof, I have come to expect some harshness (arguably, a distinct flavour of sketchiness) in the history and sociopolitical climate of places I truly enjoy visiting. The very definition of a break from routine requires this, and in the past it has been fulfilled in places such as Cambodia (Killing Fields, Angkor Archeological Park), Kashmir (current and past political instability, treacherous drives across the state and 2000 + year long complex and esoteric history) and the Andaman Islands (extensive showcasing of prisoner of war camps, colonial ruins etc.). Iceland had gorgeous sprawling landscapes with a harsh terrain, but I just wish it was more punctuated with stories that can thrill, and to an extent, absolutely terrify, because apparently that’s the kind of thing I look forward to while vacationing. 

The Engineer and the Activist

This piece was originally published in The Cannon newspaper.

A GPA in endless jeopardy and slogging through yet another eight-hour lab may encompass the bulk of engineering students’ primary grievances, but there is a great deal more to the undergraduate experience than what’s comprised in late night study sessions and past-due problem sets. Ultimately, the most poignant existential crises you’ll face will not stem from failed midterms, but the eternal and primal things writers and poets obsess about: fear, love, death, hope, desire and – of course – sex; in short, the pillars of your identity and experience.

For many, arriving at university represents the first true exposure to a broad and challenging set of values, beliefs and backgrounds different from their own. This can be like a rumspringa of sorts – albeit, an extensive one spanning four or more years. It is an expedition nonetheless that calls for the sort of company and entertainment that can lift one’s spirits during the many tempestuous, possibly compass-less nights on the high seas of student life, and thus, finding a tribe whose values corresponded to one’s own is fundamental to surviving the experience.

While I may have been subconsciously aware of how gender roles and behaviors are codified through systems specific to societies, before coming to university I had never formally encountered the term ‘heteronormative’. The idea became tangible to me in particular a few weeks after F!rosh week when my best friend told me to tone down my enthusiasm for the riot grrrls movement because it made me “seem gay”. I will be honest; I had not expected this level of behavior policing amongst my peers at the university level. It wasn’t long after this that I began to think that maybe those far-off, crazy, man-hating feminists may be on to something while at the same time trying not to get too intimidated by their arsenal of Judith Butler quotes.

In my last year at U of T, I founded LGBTQase (formerly LGBTQAE) with mechanical engineering student Marc Pilon. This stemmed not only from a desire to create a much needed social space, but as well to challenge the established social status quo in an engineering community that seemingly thrived on archaic gender roles and expectations, with often ridiculous and obtuse standards of what constituted masculinity or femininity and ‘gay’ or ‘straight’ behaviors. Personally, I was interested in making engineering a more egalitarian space for people with a variety of gender identities and sexualities, in particular through the involvement of allies.

As an ally myself, I found it necessary to be constantly vigilant about educating myself and challenging a lot of my own fundamental social programming on gender, sex, and relationships. This edification did not stop once I left university and the sphere of queer clubs on campus, but it did a great deal to prepare me for a lifetime of battling the established norms and preconceived notions about sexual minorities, especially in the relatively conservative world of engineering.

The idea of calling oneself any sort of an “activist” is still something to be contended with, if simply because the hegemonic image of a traditional activist looks or acts so little like me and because of my erroneous belief, that as a relatively junior individual cog in the corporate machinery, my personal ideas and beliefs about how the world should be, within and after my lifetime, have little impact on the reality. I am a relatively reserved person; I’ve partaken in few protests, and I don a stiff and stodgy suit every day for work. Yet since entering the workforce full time, I have found myself frequently in conversations about LGBTQ issues with my colleagues and peers. The educational opportunities that arise from these conversations are abundant. I’ve come to realize that it’s not necessary to put my beliefs about how fellow human beings are perceived and treated on the backburner while I work on brownfield mine expansions.

Every time at work or in our communities when we are faced with sexism and homophobia- sometimes subtle, sometimes egregious – we are presented with the opportunity to become effective agents in creating new narratives and deconstructing and ridding ourselves and others of old and outmoded ones. Who else but we engineers are better equipped to tear down the obsolescent systems passed down to us by our progenitors and replace them with newer, more efficient and user-friendly ones?

An engineers, our lives may be replete with formulas and calculations, textbooks and lectures, but there are a myriad number of lessons we learn every day that can’t be found in the standard course syllabus. It would be a shame for these not to travel with us into our professional lives and beyond.

Part of the responsibility of professional engineers is to safeguard the public welfare. As students in engineering, you may find yourself feeling passionate about a number of issues, but not knowing how that relates to your career as an engineer. Finding intersectionality in your experiences is what will create tangible manifestations of your activist spirit, and in effect make your activism part of your set of values as an engineer and beyond.