Thursday, May 14, 2009

Moving Forward

As a sophomore engineer dealing with the onslaught of misogyny at Patriarchal University, I was deeply angry. My high school math and science teachers were all women with advanced degrees in their fields, true scholars and quiet exemplars of what I assumed I could become. So it was a shock when I learned that some of my male peers in college thought women couldn't do science and went to great lengths to make that clear with pranks and jokes and unwelcome attention. My professors were at best distant and uncomfortable with women, and the worst ones used tactics of sexualized humiliation in class.

I wrote a poem in that time. It was about a certain sculpture that stood outside the entrance to the engineering school on my campus. The sculpture really just about said it all. I won't reprint the poem here because it contained strong metaphors of engineering education as sexual violence. It wasn't until much later when I ran across Sally Hacker's work, using a Foucauldian analysis to unpack the engineering experience in relation to bodies, that I was able to process it. My poem reflected the real and then raw gender-based violence in the larger engineering community and in my life on campus.

So it came as a shock but not exactly a surprise when a student of mine recently wrote in an end-of-semester reflection about her sense that engineering was not compatible with her identity as a dyke and as a radical feminist. What really shook me to the core, though, was that she used nearly identical metaphors of sexual violence and humiliation to describe the experience of problem sets and the application of mathematical models to phenomena that she would rather understand using other epistemologies.

Now I am complicit with, and quite possibly the perpetrator of, something that feels violent and violating to my student's sense of self. How did I get here? I wasn't naive enough to think Wimmin's College would be spared all the sexism or all the violence, but wouldn't it be a little better without a blatantly phallic sculpture and the pervasive male engineering culture it represents?

I teach traditional engineering courses with some pedagogical and curricular twists, but the course in question is one I had struggled to transform. I am careful that my problem sets are never physical endurance tests, and I readily grant extensions on work. I had assigned a reading that presented a feminist critique of (among other things) reductionism in mathematical representations of engineering phenomena and used that as a springboard for discussion of how material in the course was presented. But in the end, my student's response begged the question -- had I moved forward enough?

Through the devastation of absorbing what my student had to say to me, I realized that unlike at Patriarchal University, where my rage landed in a poem shared cautiously with only my closest feminist friends, this student had and utilized an opportunity to reflect on the course and tell her professor how it felt. I was able to respond, and provide some resources for her to read to help process her experience. I was able to hear this student and take her concerns seriously, and change my teaching as a result. That's engineering education moving forward. Myabe not enough, but forward nonetheless.

My student said that it's not possible to transform engineering for the better because it will always be tainted with patriarchy, reductionism, and a worship of mathematical forms of rigor. This is why she is choosing not to continue in the field. She said it is not possible to be a dyke and an engineer. This gave me pause, especially as someone who holds both identities myself. I agree that one (or even many) cannot transform engineering so completely as to remove it from all complicities with oppression and injustice. Still, I do think it's worth a try; in fact my sense of justice demands that I try.

I also think it is problematic (and potentially reductionist/essentialist) to see identities of dyke and engineer as mutually exclusive. The further question of what it means to be both is not easily answered. At the same time I fully recognize that the very personal question for my student of "Can *I* be a dyke and an engineer?" has a clear answer of no. That is my student moving forward.

Is being a feminist engineer an oxymoron, a paradox, a sell out? What have I compromised? Whether I'm working for change inside or outside the system may depend on the day, or on one's system definition. I know I feel called to be here in no small part due to moments like these. And that, I hope, is moving forward.