It’s a mac and cheese kind of day

I was talking to my mom about grad school and all the work I had left to do today. And she said: “Sometimes it’s a cordon bleu kind of day, and sometimes it’s a mac and cheese kind of day.” In other words, sometimes you can accomplish amazing things, and sometimes you just have to do small things. Today is a mac and cheese kind of day. But who knows, maybe tomorrow there will be cordon bleu.

I switched fields two years ago for a number of reasons. I have always been drawn towards teaching and mentoring. I think everyone should have access to good education. I don’t think education should be limited to those who can afford to pay for it, and I really don’t like the phrase: Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach.

So I found myself switching from engineering to engineering education. And I love it. I learned about several learning theories, reflected on my own educational experience, and tried out new ideas in my classroom. I don’t need to change the world. I am happy if I can make things better for a few people, if I can inspire a few people.

What I would love to do is help change the culture of engineering education and the culture of higher education more broadly.

But I am just one person from a small town in Colorado. As I read Parker Palmer’s  A New Professional: The Aims of Education Revisited, I found myself thinking “well what could that one person have done?” Palmer described a case study from the medical field where a patient dies unexpectedly after an uneventful liver transplant. An overworked resident with very little experience as a resident was on staff at the time. My thought process as I read this case study was: What could the resident do? They were being forced to work long hours (that is what residents have to do, after all). And so on.

But then Palmer when on to say the resident in this case study could help change the institution instead of merely operating within the institution. At this point, my mind started to go off in a million different directions. Palmer then says:

The hidden curriculum of our culture portrays institutions as powers other than us, over which we have marginal control at best—powers that will harm us if we cross them. But while we may find ourselves marginalized or dismissed for calling institutions to account, they are neither other than us nor alien to us: institutions are us.

Institutions are us. Institutions are social constructions (I even talked about this in my constructivism class but it hadn’t really sunk in yet I guess). Institutions can change. But they first need to be questioned.

A lot of engineering and engineering education is about questioning and changing things and making things better. As I mentioned earlier, I am perfectly content making small changes and small improvements. But what if small improvements could lead to big changes? What if I (and other educators) could help change the culture of engineering?

Who’s with me! Cordon bleu anyone?