What is Engineering?

October 6, 2011 – 1:06 am

Sometimes when I’m confused, I sit down and write about it until my feet feel like they’re standing on something firm again. Here goes.

I’m a novice in the academic world. Context eludes me. Descriptions of methods are swarming like abstract, unapplied flies around my head. I came here because the open source world hasn’t yet been translated into the world of scholarly learning — these dynamic communities of practice for ridiculous amounts of learning remain unstudied, unrecognized, despite addressing so many of the things that engineering and computing educators have been crying out for for as long as I’ve been hearing them: authentic learning experiences! mentorship, peer teaching! global communication, teamwork, self-efficacy… onwards, onwards. Yes! I thought. New ground to blaze!

And then I got to grad school and spent most of my first month disoriented and fervently wishing for something that someone had done before, please don’t let me be the first one out here, please don’t let me be the only one out here. The irony is thick, I know; isn’t this what I asked for? It is, and it’s uncomfortable, and I will feel quite lost for quite a while (possibly forever), and that’s something that I need to remind myself to be okay with. The trouble with doing something new is that you can’t really hunt for validation for it until after you do it. It’s like a startup. You need to take a risk that you’ll put in all of this effort and then nobody will care. Yes, you can make your work transparent (and I should more) and work within a community (and I am — hello!) but part of the rite of passage is forging your own path, and good lord that’s scary.

I wonder if professors teach in order to stay sane, so they can have some part of their world that they know and lead and control… I wonder if it feels like we’re taking that solidness away from them when we ask them to take a leap into teaching open source, I wonder…

Okay. So where are gaps, and what am I finding?

Gaps are everywhere.

I’m struggling like hell to figure out which projects to prioritize. Some recent ones:

  1. Academic copyright is so very, very broken.
  2. If you survey cyberlearning grants the NSF has given out, you’ll see big holes in authentic learning and building actual online communities (as opposed to “we put up a website, here it is”) — both areas that teaching open source excels in. Opportunity to fill?
  3. Hackerspaces are almost invisible in the academic literature. There’s plenty of nonscholarly information on them — websites, blog posts, everything — but that hasn’t been “validated” by peer-reviewed journal articles. Ditto for the maker movement as a whole. The open source way. All of this.
  4. As Michael Tiemann and Greg DeKoenigsberg and others have pointed out, open source communities are brilliant and readily accessible examples of communities of practice and nobody is checking them out according to that framework. Gah.
  5. I find myself repeatedly explaining the Dreyfuss model to open source hackers and project leaders. Maybe I should write an article on how academics can explain this to the communities they’re trying to work with.
  6. POSSE! POSSE as a program, chronicling POSSE participants (must… find out what people are doing… this year…), the… and my brain falls apart into unfocused incoherence.
  7. How do new participants in open source communities become experienced ones? This happens very, very rapidly in many cases. What determines how successful newbies will be? Can those behaviors be learned?
  8. The quick release cycle for open communities (“release early, release often”) contributing to the long release cycle for students… oftentimes it’s not until many semesters after the class, or possibly even years after graduation, that the effect is really seen. What do we do about that, how can we examine that?
  9. This First Monday article, which still bugs me with its limitations. Yes, you can analyze open source communities that way, but doing so misses lots of information that would be quite relevant to — and likely reverse — the conclusions of the study.
  10. Brain is lapsing into incoherent unfocus. Trying to sit with the tension and the discomfort and the not-knowing, but also to not be paralyzed by it. Difficult balance. What does it feel like for an academic to enter the open source world? What does it feel like for an open source person to enter the academic one?

A few more things I’m pondering:

  1. Is Fedora still a good project for me to base my research within? (I feel like a heretic writing this, but look — blunt questions.) I look at Biella and Martin doing theirs within Debian, and go well, wait, that… makes potentially more sense. No single corporate sponsor. (No single corporate sponsor that also happens to employ me, too.) On the other hand, it might be precisely that model that makes Fedora so interesting.
  2. Should I be grounding myself more in the doing for an open source (software or hardware) project? It’s been months since I made what I consider to be a direct contribution to an upstream. This makes me sad, and my hands are itching to do usefulness again, but they are also very full, and I do try to be a good citizen (bugfiling, etc) and know I can… I’m worried that I’ll fade too much out of this world and lose my base and float away into the world of academia, never to return. I worry about this a lot. Do I need to give myself an assignment every week — edit so many wiki pages, check out so many test plans, look into patching something, whatnot? This feels counter to the spirit of scratching one’s own itch; if I need to make myself do it, I should probably… not do it, right? But maybe it’s good for me…
  3. What should I do this summer? Dive back into direct FOSS contribution? Broader community work more focused on the industry side of things? Set aside the open source world for a few months and plunge into academic research and try to emerge with a firmer grasp on that terrain? Relax? Can I be fifty people at once? Why do I need to sleep? Why is the world so vast? How can I ever contribute anything to such a giant universe when I have such a short time on this planet and am so unskilled, unschooled, unable to do useful things?

Whoa. Hello, existential crisis. Okay, Mel. Snap out of it. You have a lot to learn, but you can do stuff. Big scary world, confusing, yes, I know. But moving forward.

I’m going to sit down and finish my overdue paper. If I finish that before my reading group meets, I’ll brainstorm on my fellowship application. — I have other brainstorms scattered here and there, I may or may not collect them, I don’t have to. And then we shall see. We shall… see.

Productively lost is profoundly uncomfortable. Knowing that this is where growth takes place doesn’t reduce the discomfort, but it helps you stay there, in that place of learning.
Had to write an engineering philosophy paper for class. Did it as a comic book instead. Discovered that comic books take an order of magnitude longer than the equivalent-length paper while running two pens completely out of ink.

Behold, the cramping of my fingers.

is Engineering

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  1. 12 Responses to “What is Engineering?”

  2. how many levels of awesome? let me count the ways:
    inclusive, academic, open-source text and music citation, geektastic references, artistic with nice use of fonts, Forest-Mimms-esq.
    and the theme of eyeglasses.

    By Kevin Mark on Oct 6, 2011

  3. All I can say is “Wow!”

    By Gary Scarborough on Oct 6, 2011

  4. Yeah, I’m pretty speechless. Whoa.

    By Sumana Harihareswara on Oct 7, 2011

  5. The last piece of information seemed not to apply as I am in the UK and the pound sign is represented as £,the hash symbol # is representational of the super user /Root in Terminal usage.
    The overall visual representation comic book style was interesting being that I am an Engineer and also a developer and tester of some years and have made a contribution in the development of secure bit -torrenting over p2p as the progenitor of the P2P plug-in done by Paul Graham used in Azureus and subsequently about 90% of all p2p applications thereafter,after reading of the Ants p2p application and the call for decentralized torrents by forum members @sourceforge.net with a little reading and study of IRC inter-noding I postulated that although Ants p2p was slow as hell the security of Inter-noding was the most secure way of transport,whereby the idea for the plug in was formed and written,often or not the ideas of the common man can be developed often not by their progenitors, but by those who understand their concepts and can apply them,a prime example being the telephone,which is why the Open source community thrives and expands,also why the giants like Microsoft look to the OSS for innovations to Improve upon their stagnating operating systems.So to the Question as to what is an Engineer I would say it is someone who can utilize what is, to create what isn`t and make it work.Some would call that inventive,to say puzzle solving is only part of the equation though as any of the great engineers of the world would tell you its one thing to build a bridge, but to have it capable of taking load and being able to stand without collapsing takes a bit more work,ever thought about building an amusement ride that pulls 4-5 G without pulling itself apart,a lot more to it than just a drawing of the ride and it is the implementation of the build that is the mark of a true engineer. :)

    By perseus43 on Oct 9, 2011

  6. Incase some people were confused by some of the references in the first post i will add some more info:firstly Kudos to ,secondly in reference to the comment about the telephone, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Invention_of_the_telephone many people made assertions as to whose idea it was but only one man made it work.
    lastly with regard to bridges and rollercoaster rides building new and innovative rides often calls for the real engineer to create new devices to control and manage these to prevent shearing and derailment thereby classing the Engineer an Inventor in the cause of the build,thereby not just a puzzle solver.:)

    By perseus43 on Oct 9, 2011

  7. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Werner_Stengel

    By perseus43 on Oct 9, 2011

  8. http://www.boliven.com/patents/search?q=inventor:%28%22Werner+Stengel%22%29

    By perseus43 on Oct 9, 2011

  9. Not just puzzle solvers =)

    By perseus43 on Oct 9, 2011

  10. Love this. Very thought provoking!

    By K00kykelly on Feb 6, 2012

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