Dear Engineering Educators: Prioritize Blackness
Teaching must actively center Black viewpoints and contributions.
Opinion by James Holly, Jr.
Engineering focuses on problem-solving, and one of the biggest problems in engineering education is the lack of validation that Black minds matter—even while many proclaim “Black Lives Matter.” This is unaddressed malpractice in teaching. Engineering educators must take responsibility to address the problem of exclusion by fixing our pedagogy rather than aiming to “fix” the people who have been excluded.
Engineering educators shape minds as they establish value systems regarding what is important to understand and engage in engineering. Yet, faculty members’ tolerance of overt anti-Black racism is far too common. They harm souls when, for instance, they allow non-Black students to make disrespectful comments framed as jokes, which can drive Black students to lose confidence or leave the discipline.
It is urgent that teaching affirms Black students as intellectual contributors. This necessitates a liberatory approach to amplify and enrich participation of Black people. Talk of liberation may sound bizarre in a field like engineering, but as author and activist bell hooks suggests, education “as the practice of freedom is a way of teaching that anyone can learn.”
In her 2003 ASEE conference paper on using pedagogies of liberation in an engineering course, Purdue School of Engineering Education head Donna Riley explains what it means to pursue liberation: “making a commitment to work to end oppression based on race, class, and gender, and to seek justice.” This requires more than acknowledging the cultural differences in classrooms. Faculty should teach with awareness of societal abuses experienced by Black people that tie into their classroom topics, such as the inequitable responses to engineering failures following Hurricane Katrina.
It is also imperative to center the innovation, social responsibility, and frugality many Black engineers have been forced to demonstrate—under the constraints of racism—within the classroom. For example, by incorporating the stories of people like Elijah McCoy, whose parents escaped slavery and who is known for inventing an automatic lubricating device. Consider a lesson on friction or viscosity that highlights McCoy’s creation. His ingenuity can be put in context by discussing the circumstances that prompted him to go to Scotland to study mechanical engineering only to return home to the United States and take a job as a fireman for a railroad company—which led to his innovation. This interdisciplinary example disproves myths of Black intellectual deficiency and disinterest in engineering and helps develop critical social awareness in engineering students.
The liberatory approach to teaching must take place within core engineering courses, not just the design or X99 course offering, and requires three steps.
Read outside your discipline. Seek to understand the principles, not just extract quotes, from the works of Black sociologists and educators. Concepts such as double consciousness (W.E.B. Du Bois) and spirit murdering (Patricia Williams) have much to offer engineering education.
Listen to Black engineers and students. Anti-Black violence in the United States took center stage during 2020 and prompted opportunities for Black people within the engineering community to share their trauma. (Watch “Do You See Me? Hypervisible Invisibility #EngineeringWhileBlack” at https://bit.ly/3iBOWJ0.) Such discussions are abundant in media and literature and predate 2020, so there is no need to ask a Black person directly. As you listen to Black people share painful stories, reflect on what themes arise, how we are explicitly or implicitly being told that we are thought to be inferior and do not belong, and the limitations and possibilities of addressing identified issues within the classroom.
Adopt a philosophical perspective that changes your teaching strategies, going beyond exposing privileged students to multiple perspectives to disrupting inequitable approaches, such as grading on a curve, which breeds competition and limits how many students can excel. Move from shallow tolerance to prioritizing the needs of Black learners—for instance, promoting Black faculty into tenured positions benefits both Black students and the institution overall, research shows.
Describing Black underrepresentation as simply a numbers issue preserves the people and policies that exclude us. The agony many Black Americans experience either in pursuit of inclusion within the engineering community or in consequence of flawed engineering solutions is a grand dilemma for the profession. We as engineering faculty have more power than we may realize to stop the pain and start the healing.
James Holly Jr. is an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Michigan. His research critically examines systemic racism’s reproduction of inequity in educational outcomes for Black engineering students.