We Must Dissent
Engineering educators ought to look beyond incremental change and imagine how their students might create a fundamentally different world.
Opinion By Alison Wood
The status quo no longer serves us. In engineering education, we see progress on many fronts: active classrooms, design and systems thinking, more diverse faculties and student bodies, and more equitable environments. Yet too often, change comes just in incremental shifts, designed in direct response to the status quo. We put our lectures on video for students to watch at home, for instance, or we tweak our recruiting and retention strategies to appeal to a broader range of students. But we don’t give ourselves room to rethink what’s happening in our classes and why people choose to be there, or even what “class” or “student” means.
What would change look like if we were to create a constructive vision of the future, one in which engineering and engineering education contributed to the well-being of all humanity and the environment? What if we became untethered from how things have always been and envisioned how they might be?
Dissent need not be negative or destructive. One definition, according to Webster’s, is simply withholding assent or approval. What a powerful, freeing possibility it would be to say out loud, “I reject the status quo.” Dissent lets us envision the world we want without being tethered to the world as it is.
“Dissent is the refusal to accept norms. Higher education is in transition. Doing things the way they’ve always been done is not an option. Please leave your norms at the door.” This is how my colleagues and I began our workshop at the 2018 event Remaking Education—cosponsored by Olin College of Engineering and Emerson College (http://remakinged.olin.edu/)—in which we asked participants to question long-held assumptions about higher education and envision a future in which everything can be different. The workshop drew more than 200 professionals from education and a variety of other fields, bringing perspectives from around the world. Freed of constraints, participants envisioned a world without grades, courses, majors, or boundaries of any kind. Some teams were so liberated by the dissent framing that they bent the rules of the exercise itself to go beyond removing constraints: They envisioned a world with equitable access to high quality education, a world in which education has made us resilient. Dissent opened the gates and released a flood of ideas: constructive, creative, joyful ideas.
Therefore we must dissent. We might differ in our personal lists of “what’s wrong with engineering education,” but few will say the system is perfect as it is. Many will agree that we lack diversity and equity in our school environments and that we saddle our students with unsupportable debt. We send our graduates into the world insufficiently equipped in areas such as critical thinking, and we focus too much on “minimizing harm” and not enough on “increasing good” through engineering’s potential to contribute to justice, equity, and sustainability.
And so we must withhold our approval. We must not allow ourselves to perpetuate a broken system simply because it is the system that we have. Even if implementation is broken down to occur incrementally, we must have a coherent, positive vision of the future toward which our efforts aim. Remaking Education evinced the hunger in our community for dissenting together, creatively and constructively. But we don’t need to wait for workshops with “dissent” in the title; anywhere we come together in communities, anytime we think privately and talk with each other about what the future holds, we can dissent strongly and actively. We must.
As we seek spaces to dissent collectively—to imagine and enact large-scale, systemic change—there are opportunities to put into practice our individual dissent. One example is to radically rewrite a syllabus to restructure the power dynamic within the classroom and position students as respected, responsible co-creators of the learning experience. Rather than framing policies as demands made of students and consequences for failing to meet them, a course agreement could center on the expectations the instructor might have of the students and the students might have of themselves, each other, and the instructor. That way, a mutual relationship can be established rather than a subordination of those we call students to those we call faculty. Rewriting a syllabus can embody significant dissent from the typical classroom dynamic and establish students as partners in their own education.
Lily Tomlin once remarked, “I always wondered why somebody doesn’t do something about that; then I realized I was somebody.” The future of engineering education is up to us. How much can we create together when we withhold our approval of the status quo and allow ourselves to imagine a radically new future? Only by releasing ourselves from what is can we begin to create what might be.
Alison Wood is an assistant professor of environmental engineering at Olin College.