Class! It can mask and unmask race effects. (Ohland et al)
Race is correlated with matriculation and degree completion in engineering. In other words, if you’re white, you’re more likely to sign up to be an engineer your freshman year of college… and you’re more likely to graduate as an engineer, too. But Ohland and his coauthors managed to almost get rid of the race effect by sorting students by socioeconomic class. Turns out that when you sort engineering students by Peer Economic Status — not how rich their families were, but how rich their childhood classmates were (as measured by the proportion of free/reduced lunch recipients in their area), race matters a lot less. Quote, p. 173: …once the model included PES, the size and significance of the effect of being Black diminished.
Men and women are also equally effected by Peer Economic status, meaning that being from a poor neighborhood doesn’t “hurt” women any more than men — at least in this dataset of large engineering-focused schools. Fascinating. That’s all from “Viewing Access and Persistence in Engineering through a Socioeconomic Lens” by Ohland et al, from the book Engineering and Social Justice: In the University and Beyond.
Engineers as a middle class: we become part of The System so we can benefit from it. (Zussman)
History lesson: Until the mid 1800′s, civil/mechanical engineers tended to be of upper-class birth and used their social networks to be entrepreneurs. In the late 1800′s, large electrical/chemical companies needed to hire tons of engineers, so they turned to land-grant colleges, which trained lower-class students to be engineers; these hired engineers worked within a bureaucracy instead of being entrepreneurial like their upper-class predecessors. (This section is all from a book chapter called “Engineers and the Middle Levels” by Robert Zussman.)
The massive influx of engineers created the potential for engineers to become a power base for political action: engineering associations started writing codes of ethics, politically-minded papers, and so forth. But this all died out by the mid 1920′s, and we were left with the compromise we have today: engineers are dependent on their employers for social standing and resources, so they sat down and shut up. Sure, they couldn’t easily strike out as “independent professionals” on their own… but they could climb the management ladder. From page 8, a gender-flipped quote: Now thoroughly dependent on the organization for her social standing, the engineer repaid it with her loyalty.
Now I move into my own speculation: this quote is more true nowadays for some engineering professions than others. As a software engineer, I actually own my own means of production — my $2k laptop. So I’m not quite a proletariat. I’ve worked for companies, but I’ve also worked as a free agent and know I could easily do so again, so I’m not particularly scared of poking at The Institution(s) in ways that might upset it. My housemate, on the other hand, is an aerospace engineer, and if NASA doesn’t hire her, she has no job — she can’t build a rocket on her own. She’s more symbiotically bound with bureaucracy than I am, and it’d be harder for her to take a different position than her employer.
Let’s Not Conveniently Ignore This Class Perspective Thing (Pawley)
Pawley’s paper from Library Quarterly, “Hegemony’s Handmaid? The Library and Information Studies Curriculum from a Class Perspective” comes from the perspective of LIS, or Library and Information Studies. However, tons of it can be applied to engineering. Pawley’s basic argument is that LIS researchers have ignored class perspective, and may unconsciously be reinforcing the status quo as a result.
A frequent lens in LIS is that of the “managerial perspective,” which uses scientific language to legitimize itself and has a dominant elite who decides what problems are worthy of solutions via mechanisms such as massive grants to library schools by large corporations. LIS curricula usually doesn’t talk about class divides, and if it does, that sort of thing belongs to fluffy elective classes like philosophy or things aimed towards marginalized populations. “Oh, you want to serve the poor? Ok, I guess we’ll talk about this in your Class About Libraries For Poor People.” It shifts the question of class outside the boundaries of “normal librarianship” and into the realm of Other. Serving Poor People is a great way to become a poor, margnialized librarian. On the other hand, you want to be a high-status librarian, you distance yourself from the hoi-polloi without LIS degrees who do menial tasks like (gasp!) shelving and associate with a Real Profession by studying law librarianship or medical informatics. Quote, p. 132: From a class perspective, this failure of LIS education to confront societal questions is a sign of the power of the dominant class to exercise hegemony.
Even the push towards computer literacy as The Next Big Thing is a class issue. We argue that information skills will help people get better jobs, but it’s not lack of computer knowledge that makes folks poor, it’s that their jobs don’t pay a lot. If everyone knew how to use computers, something else would become the dividing social line: it’s happened before with plain ol’ literacy. When everyone learned to read, the poor were still poor because they didn’t read the “right stuff.” It’s like grading on a curve. If everyone scores 10 points better, the grade distribution doesn’t change.
Pawley’s paper is a critical call for… if not action, then at least conscious thought. Are librarians consciously going to adopt class perspective? Will they risk losing the support of the “haves” as they try to spread the wealth of information to the “have nots”? Will they take a stand for equal access, including engaging in politics if they need to? Some librarians already have. Educated librarians are likely to follow the convictions of their education (for instance, librarians educated about censorship are more likely to resist censorship), so if the profession believes something is important, the LIS schools can do something about it.
Mashing up the Zussman and Pawley pieces means we ask the same questions about engineers and engineering educators. What do we, as a profession, believe in? Are we aware of how our choices and everyday actions as engineers replicate class divides in our society? And if we’re aware of that… are we ok with that, or should we do something to change the way things are?