We are the spatula

Humans fear the unknown.

Recently, I invited a colleague, who is also a graduate student, to an informal professional society dinner gathering for women.  She confessed that she was anxious because she did not know what to expect.  My colleague explained that as an introvert, she is uneasy in social situations.  A short time into the event, she realized that the whole thing was not as scary as she had imagined, and she relaxed and had an enjoyable evening.

Communication in formal and informal settings is what propels the work of engineers.  At that same dinner meeting, women engineers discussed their resistance to joining management because they prefer “technical” work.  While an affinity for the “technical” is common to many engineers, “technical” engineering work certainly does not preclude interaction with other humans.  In every step of engineering design and problem solving, communication is a key component.  Nothing is done in isolation.  Increasingly, teams are multidisciplinary from the earliest stage of the project.  Young engineers must learn to talk to people with different backgrounds and interests.

In my first semester at Montgomery College, there was an opportunity for my class to host a distinguished lecture.  I showed the class how to plan a reception, and I explained that their duty as hosts was to “mingle” with guests before the lecture.

“You mean we have to talk to people that we don’t know?”

Uh huh.  Talk to them, offer them a glass of punch, find out about their interests that attracted them to the lecture, and introduce them to someone else.  Be the “spatula” and “scrape the bowl.” *

I have had some anxious moments in my past.  I registered for the fundamentals of engineering exam three times before I finally had the nerve to take the exam, only to find that my fears of being unprepared were unfounded.  Fear is paralyzing when it keeps us from our goals.

With students, fear of the unknown inhibits them from seeking advising.

This semester, I have pushed each of my students in class to make an advising appointment; as a result, I advised a number of students who had never seen a counselor or an advisor.  The majority of novice advisees asked me what happens in an advising session.  They came in wondering what I was going to do to them, and they left surprised that being advised is not painful or even unpleasant.  It’s simply a matter of receiving advice, as well as active assistance (in the form of referrals or overrides) to promote the student’s academic success.  I have seen the results of NOT being advised, and that can sometimes be painful:  taking the wrong class, losing financial aid, missed deadlines.  Advising is certainly a key to student success, but there is more that I can do for students.

The most important work that I do for students is the stuff that I do not get paid for.

It doesn’t matter much what I teach, as long as it includes communication skills, because the exact content of an engineering education is somewhat arbitrary.  What matters is the things that students will remember, that will help them overcome their fears and engage (as in perform acts of student engagement).  Taking them to lunch after the Kindergarten event; taking students to engineering banquets , conferences, and IEEE meetings; stopping to talk to someone when I am on the way out the door at the end of a long day; creating special awards to recognize students publicly for achievement when they do not expect it; taking my class to breakfast; mentoring clubs; leading out of town field trips; movie nights.  These are the things that really make a difference to the students and to me.  They are the things that call me to the professoriate.

*Spatula analogy for networking was a take-away from the VCCS New Horizons Conference in Roanoke, April 2011.  No published references.