Postmodernism: in engineering (education) praxis

August 19, 2016 – 8:59 am

Again, writing these out of order, see preceding posts.

Postmodernism may be an unfamiliar set of research paradigms and theories within the disciplines of engineering, but part of my goal in the preceding sections was to show that postmodern ideas are not as foreign to engineering and engineering education practice as they may initially seem. In fact, these ideas are alive and well in some aspects of engineering practice, with postmodernism providing a theoretical language to describe some elements of that practice in alternative ways. The playful bricoleur’s restlessnes of the postmodern practitioner is echoed in the cleverness and humor of the hacker/maker culture that has grown up intertwined with its more formal “engineering” cousin, and in areas like design thinking that cut across the two.

If engineering education practice has postmodern elements, but engineering education philosophy and research do not yet widely use postmodern language, it comes as no surprise that articulating those practices might be an issue for the field. Trying to describe postmodern practices with modernist terminology is working at cross purposes. It is like translating Shakespeare into scatterplots; it can be done, but much is lost in translation, and the end representation leaves something to be desired. There is plenty of structured, optimization-focused, modernist practice within engineering education as well, which works well with the current paradigms and theories and languages used to describe them. However, the playful materiality of the field and its charge to (re)make the world has a distinct postmodern thread that would benefit from connections to postmodern language, theory, and praxis.

In a way, postmodernism is what engineering education researchers are doing when they call for curricular change. A call for curricular change implicitly recognizes that the current structure for educating engineers is something that can be questioned and disrupted, that it is a power system to be probed and tinkered-with. The thrust of critical, feminist, queer, and other diversity-focused efforts in engineering education research is in keeping with this focus on disruption with the hope of different types of inclusion, and in keeping with postmodern’s treatment of excluded parties. “By insisting on the multiplicity of social positions, postmodernism has seriously challenged the political closure of modernity with its divisions between the center and the margins and in doing so has made room for those groups generally defined as the excluded others.” (Giroux, 1988, p. 166).

The practice of engineering can be seen as a bricolage; it is a heuristic, not an algorithm. It incorporates many elements of hacking and making and incompleteness. Changing engineering education is a postmodern act.

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  1. 2 Responses to “Postmodernism: in engineering (education) praxis”

  2. I believe saying that engineering education is post-modern is too big of a claim. I can see how maker spaces, and the maker movement, is a post modern approach to engineering education. However, engineering education, for the most part, still recognizes current structures and power domain. They recognize the value of the univeristy, and the diploma. They may be challenging some current len’s, but that is critical theory. The most common feminist approaches in engineering education has been second wave feminism, with a handful of people that are actually challenging the institutions, but not really dismantling it the way that post-modernists claim to.

    Overall through mel, I love it. I think you are going in great directions and keep it up!

    By Julia on Aug 19, 2016

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  2. Aug 20, 2016: Mel Chua » Blog Archive » Postmodernism for engineers: the (draft) collection

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