Amy E. Slaton
is a Professor of History in the Department of History at Drexel University. For more information on her scholarship and research, see the “About” page or download her CV. For information on her teaching, please visit her official university Web page. She is also co-Editor-in-Chief, with Tiago Saraiva, of the international quarterly journal, History+Technology.
Fast-Track to Virtue: DEI “Award” Programs in Engineering
As I frequently tell anyone who will listen, the American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE), perhaps surprisingly to those who don’t know it, serves as a platform for some of the most transformative thinking underway today on issues of racism, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia and ablism in STEM. Some of its members’ interventions into engineering teaching and learning are as urgent, careful and reflective as it is possible to be; often, its activism is precise and clarifying. It is also, however, a space that supports some of the more conciliatory thinking on these stubborn forms of harm in the United States and globally, and thus helps conserve their institutional and epistemic bases. That both patterns play out in the same organization bears a lot of analysis—we can learn a great deal about the bimodal social values and the limitations of the academic enterprise by looking at this apparent contradiction. But I want to point out one formal activity of the ASEE in 2022 that is especially telling, I think, on that latter function of the organization: one attempt it has recently made to support diversity, inclusion and equity programming in US higher education by offering to schools its well-intentioned but somewhat problematic imprimatur.
The ASEE is home to the Engineering Deans- and the Engineering Technology Deans Councils, which, as the names suggest, represent groups of deans for whom issues of curricular change, workforce development, accreditation, and in the last few years, “diversity, equity and inclusion” (DEI) in engineering education are the focus. Other parts of the ASEE are primarily filled with instructors, students, or staff occupied with research and practice in engineering education, while the deans focus on the role of leadership in the field. Since 2019, the Deans Councils have operated the “ASEE Diversity Recognition Program” (ADRP).
Simply put, this is a certification program whereby a university or college school of engineering can provide evidence of its commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion and receive “Bronze” status from the ADRP: recognition of its intentions and achievements in this area. Some 140 engineering and engineering technology schools currently hold this Bronze status, based on the schools’ enrollment and graduation data and evidence of current work and future planning around DEI; impacts on communities of color, women, and disabled people are all deemed pertinent to the award (the inclusion of LGBTQ communities in the ADRP criteria was considered but not enacted). After a certain amount of time at the Bronze level has passed and sufficient further DEI activity has been documented, “Silver” and ultimately, “Gold” statuses may be awarded to a school, but the program is new, so Silver and Gold standings are just now coming online as potential destinations for aspirant institutions.
With this large and venerable organization–the ASEE– and a sub-group of its most influential actors—the nation’s engineering deans—certifying the awards, there is bound to be increased enthusiasm for DEI action in STEM higher ed, change which almost all agree is badly needed. Eminent schools that attain Bronze status will lend credence to the ADRP initiative (as, say, MIT’s Bronze Status might do), while folks at smaller schools may garner resources for DEI action on the basis of aiming to share a form of certification with such high-ranking institutions (much as other industrial or corporate certification programs unrelated to DEI operate to confirm shared status). But many questions arise when we look at the precise nature of the ADRP. With immense power, James Holly, Jr. and Brooke Coley have just written on the brutal continuities of racism past and present in the sheltered corridors of the engineering academy; they demand accountability in, and quite possibly instead of such diversity recognition initiatives. They offer a vision of Black restitution in the face of history, not White recuperation in the face of regret.
There’s one aspect of the award program that stands out when I think about that demand, that vision, as a historian. I have been trying to understand, broadly, why it is that programming focused on increasing the numbers of BIPOC students and graduates in Engineering so poorly fulfills my sense of needed change, and the workings of the ADRP help fill in the picture. Specifically, I heard the other week at the ASEE annual meeting that engineering schools based at HBCUs and other minority serving institutions (MSIs) may soon be “fast-tracked to Silver Award status” in the ADRP. These are institutions that have graduated disproportionate numbers of the country’s Black and Brown engineers; they have supported immensely impactful programming for many generations, as predominantly white institutions (PWIs) have lagged badly in both interest in and action on “broadening participation.” To the leaders of the ADRP program (in which, not incidentally, the deans also review all applications for award) these outcomes merit commendation. So, why does this strike me as a problem?
Because even the slightest glance at history indicates that these “exemplary” efforts at DEI reside at institutions generated by the forces of slavery, segregation, and white supremacy. To equate their activities and those lately undertaken at PWIs around so-named conditions of racial inequity is to mistake the nature of racial power in the United States. As Drs. Holly, Jr. and Coley show, these schools, many founded in the 19th century, have contended with deeply discriminatory funding and racist education-policy structures into the 21st. The HBCUs and many other MSIs are mission focused, and historically an immeasurable source of knowledge, pride and community. These are superb schools with extraordinary histories in STEM, about which I have written. But that they graduate Black and Hispanic engineers at numbers far higher than PWI engineering schools is an artifact of the very conditions under which the PWI’s formed and have long operated: that white dominated spheres of influence in the United States, such as engineering schools and professions, can easily remain so without significant challenge. That the MSI engineering programs are being cast by the ADRP as successful models of demographic intervention strikes me as at best misleading about their operations, and at worst, self-confirming of white understandings of racism in engineering. To imply with the fast-tracking to Silver status that minority-serving engineering schools represent primarily excellence in the pursuit of diversity, equity and inclusion, rather than, for example, pro-Black, joyful and transgressive education that may contravene and even potentially dismantle harmful majority power structures, seems to deny their pasts and blunt their future impact.
For one thing, history certainly suggests a more complicated landscape for both MSI successes and PWI failures to increase Black and Brown participation in STEM than the ADRP apparent goals of modeling upon, or commendation of, the MSIs, would convey. Do the HBCU and other MSI engineering programs often engage in innovative and ambitious forms of STEM pedagogy? Yes, and they always have. Do many of the programs powerfully confront racism and the seemingly willful naivete of certain well-intentioned higher-ed arbiters? Yes. In both particular pedagogical practices and sociabilities around justice, MSIs can suggest ways to alter our still deeply unjust higher-ed sector. But to enlist these schools in a ranked tabulation of DEI efforts and outcomes in a white-dominated cultural sector is to impose a dangerous experiential equivalence for BIPOC and white communities—one that implies a race-blind landscape in 2022 in which histories of white harm and of Black and Brown resistance are both best forgotten.
By contrast, truly critical intervention into PWI higher education requires accepting the racist, anti-Black conformations of U.S. engineering both past and present. It requires acknowledging that historically white institutions have remained that way by choice, even if it is difficult to see them as having done so amid the increasing diversity rhetoric of recent decades. For instance, since the end of segregation, PWIs have often turned from overt racist discourse to limiting the resources that would support BIPOC participation, enacting ongoing exclusion. Many fall back on the ostensible pressure of school ranking systems and arbitrary definitions of engineering merit to “explain” low minority participation. The historical demand for a stratified tech workforce that invariably conscripts many marginalized Americans into lower-paying, less secure, and more dangerous work than more privileged communities encounter—and that in turn makes reasonable stratified STEM education– is virtually never questioned from within STEM or higher-ed overall. Thus, an institutional innocence has been made and remade over the 40 or 50 (!) years since so-named Minority Engineering Programs first came on the scene. If this was an exceptional situation in U.S. engineering schools, numbers of Black and Hispanic engineering graduates would have steadily and significantly increased in the nation’s PWIs. They have not.
If the ADRP program is going to encourage authentic reflection and change, it cannot suggest that a DEI certification held by MIT, Cornell or the University of Mississippi represents forms of education and social intention historically taken up by Howard University, Prairie View A&M or University of Maryland Baltimore County. Systematic study and resourcing of transformative efforts in STEM as such are of course needed. But it is simply not helpful to imply that the PWIs that undertake DEI efforts in 2022 are necessarily functioning in the ways that Black and Hispanic institutions have–pedagogically, politically or experientially–since their inception, or vice versa. The social and ideological characters of these schools can only be equated if the history and lived experience of race in the U.S. are elided, and the paths towards radical systemic change that Black and Brown communities lay out, generation after generation, are obscured.
I would add that the epistemics of engineering themselves differ in settings identified as MSI and PWI, but the more basic point is perhaps that the ADRP’s “Fast Track to Silver” is just one of the many ways that efforts at representation must be distinguished from reparative or redistributive projects in STEM higher education, a distinction that James Holly Jr. and Lauren Quigley make very clear. In a way, the fast-track to Silver certification feels like it could easily become a co-optation of minority experience in order to signal the value, even the virtue of majority efforts at equity…almost whitewashing the ADRP initiative. Can the ASEE’s metric of Bronze, Silver and Gold-level interventions in injustice be adjusted to amplify and celebrate the HBCUs’ and other MSIs’ engineering programs, instead of appropriating their legacies and consoling concerned majority stakeholders? I hope so, but for me it’s still unclear. My colleague Alan Peterfreund lately reminded me that “solutions” to education inequity are of little value if the process of problem choice is not a reflective one; if processes of analyzing race relations cannot take in matters of power and violence like those Drs. Holly, Jr. and Coley describe. I would say that if meaningful comparisons are to be drawn among the inclusive aims and effects of U.S. engineering institutions, they cannot be drawn ahistorically. Perhaps, too, they cannot be drawn by yet another PWI: the Deans Councils of the ASEE.
Blackness, Whiteness, and (Writing) Histories of US Technology
Racialized narratives of achievement and opportunity, and how we might ask about those.
Due to a combination of distractibility and workload, I’ve been working on my current book –about the conciliatory character of STEM Diversity initiatives in twenty-first-century US education and work, and the limited potential of “opportunity” as a tool of economic justice–for a very long time. It’s moved along, I hope, and developed. But a couple of weeks ago it became a different book.
That week, I participated in, attended, or helped to organize three events centered on Blackness and technology in the United States and together they have dislodged a central premise of my book project: That there is single historical character, a single social implication, to STEM Diversity projects that a truly careful, critical narrative will establish. Absent that premise, the role of the historian changes, and the role of the white historian changes in particularly important ways, I am starting to think. Can questioning this sort of singularity be suggestive for the History of Technology, broadly?
The three events included the week of 5 webinars offered by the Lemelson Center of the Smithsonian Institution, “Black Inventors and Innovators: New Perspectives,” in which I participated in a session with the amazing James Holly, Jr.; a panel discussion on “Anti-Blackness and Technology” at UCSB’s Center for Black Studies Research (CBSR), to which I listened as an audience member; and a conversation among researchers and students at Drexel University that I co-organized with Scott Knowles on “Structures of Racism in Higher Education.” (Please see links for those that have, or will, post recordings.) These events brought together as speakers STEM educators and practitioners, historians, legal scholars, and interdisciplinary culture- and race theorists, along with diversity policy leaders (including several folks fulfilling multiple roles in their institutions); a few folks spoke at more than one of the events during the week. There were speakers and moderators at early-, middle- and late career.
Of the roughly 30 folks who appeared on zoom as speakers, moderators or organizers across all three events, I was one of about half a dozen evidently or self-identifying white people (though I don’t know about any organizers who may not have been on screen). I add that point because the three events were not co-incidentally scheduled in the same season; two came about because predominantly white institutions like the Smithsonian and Drexel have newly dedicated some resources to foregrounding minoritized scholarship and outlooks this year. That’s a commitment we could and should discuss at length. But for now: that UCSB’s CBSR also convened Ruha Benjamin, Safiya Noble, Charleton McIlwain and Andre Brock this week made for tremendous alchemical possibilities. I think I’m right in saying that the writing of the history of technology in the United States, and the history of invention and innovation as EuroAmericans customarily use those two terms, have not previously been subjected to this concentration of critique and inquiry, to the accumulation of such varied and vexing questions raised in so short an order as happened that week.
How did these questions change my approach to writing on the genealogy and present practice of STEM Diversity in the United States? Here I’ll borrow a point made on the last day of the Lemelson’s webinars as organizer Eric Hintz queried Friday’s panelists, André Brock and Charleton McIlwain. Both had spoken about the role of Black people in the development of the internet from the 1980s, challenging the framing of a “digital divide” that has implied only absence and deficit among minoritized communities in the history of digital media in the United States. Dr. Hintz asked: Can both be true at the same time—that we’ve seen perpetual inequities in opportunities and resources in Black communities, and deeply impactful Black participation in the history of digital technologies? Drs. Brock and McIlwain immediately answered, “Yes”…a both/and perspective is needed.
That is: racial discrimination, systemic violence and economic deprivation must be unstintingly accounted for, AND innovation, creativity and joy are to be found in Black experiences with/of technology. For my project this means that the “inclusion” or “representation” of minoritized people in STEM programming, which I have studied historically as constituting a self-consoling project of majority actors and institutions, are indeed that, and must be revealed as such if we hope for a more just world of education and work….But also, I now see, Black presence in STEM settings is not equivalent to the worrisome framework of inclusion. More deeply, that presence is not incompatible with distributed Blackness, in Dr. Brock’s framing, with joyous alterity… and even with refusal, I think.
My book remains a narrative primarily of majority conducts, mind you; it is still an accounting of white ideas of fairness and democracy as projects of racial reconciliation rather than reparative justice or redistribution. This pivot, that is, is emphatically not a matter of recounting let alone “representing” previously somehow “missing” Black agency in STEM. The Lemelson and CBSR discussions in particular made it clear that filling in the historical record is no more an automatic confrontation with social structures than are diversification projects in education or hiring. It is a matter of changing the subject of my book from STEM Diversity to something not yet named, something that is the history of both that which is and that which is not STEM Diversity in the early twenty-first-century U.S.
How to get at this “both/and,” at this multiplicity, without losing the deeply consequential aspects of either? I’m confident that the critical historian of capitalism, of race, or of education and labor, can hope to account for such double and contradictory conditions within US history and their political import in different episodes. But the speakers made it clear that the historian of technology, working in a discipline which has for its entire academic life (many generations now) predicated its inquiries on invention and innovation, needs to provincialize those core analytic categories if she wants to add to such an accounting. Novelty, priority, ingenuity and the very notion of contribution (be it economic, social, or civic) almost completely conform the History of Technology in the EuroAmerican academy, with each “attainment” measured against an unquestioned landscape of white-empowering institutions and interests. In the US we are encouraged by the dominant culture to know this landscape by special names such as “progress,” “efficiency,” “prosperity” and I would stress, the seemingly unassailable “opportunity.” It is no surprise that as primarily the purview of the History of Technology, invention and innovation are thus concepts still too often defined by whiteness as the insistence on human difference, by the casting of biology and capacity as one. This defining cannot support an accounting for race in places of technology. It will keep the work of the History of Technology the work of whiteness.
Interested and violent technological episodes perpetrated in the name of progress or advancement find their chroniclers in truly stunning historical scholarship, but some set of questions about how technology happens, about the purpose of the field, is still largely unasked. At Drexel’s event, Stephanie Masta, Walter Lee and Alice Pawley brilliantly fielded and recast my questions about what it meant to be thinking about Engineering Education in the context of historical racism. As we closed, Dr. Lee offered an extremely pointed “next step” in answer to one audience member’s question about what university administrators and educators should do to change what everyone seems to agree is a regrettable situation. He said, “First, be honest about what you are actually willing to change.” Are we willing to change what the History of Technology will be? What history and technology can be?
Thanks for reading…I look forward to asking together.
Does “The Big Life Fix” Need Fixing?: Science, Engineering and Disability on the BBC
Now airing on BBC Two, Series 2 of “The Big Life Fix” in which “The UK’s leading inventors create ingenious new solutions to everyday problems and build life-changing solutions for people in desperate need.”
As a historian of science and engineering interested in equity, I’ve been watching the BBC program, “The Big Life Fix” with a steadily growing number of questions. The program, now in its second series on BBC2, features a team of British scientists and engineers (pictured above) who weekly devise means to facilitate the mobility, safety, employment, or other experiences of disabled people. In each episode, three different disabled people are visited by materials experts or industrial designers who ultimately provide them with innovative means of transport, recreation, physical security, self-expression, or work. The extensive resources of university labs, hospitals, materials suppliers and service organizations support the experts’ efforts and in Series 1 and the first episode of Series 2, at least, the outcomes are universally successful: A disabled snowboarder experiences his sport for the first time since an accident dramatically reduced his muscle control; an aspiring hairstylist whose hand has limited ability to grip conventional combs and scissors receives a collection of custom-designed styling tools; a young photographer who cannot grasp conventional equipment receives a camera well fitted to his precise sort of dexterity; and so on as children and adults with a wide range of physical disabilities encounter the team.
The twitterverse has found the series to be “awe-inspiring” and “lip-wobbling.” But despite some maudlin PR language (see the BBC-supplied caption above), the show’s actual portrayal of disabled people’s physicalities doesn’t obviously pivot on pathos in the way of, say, footage used in the old Jerry Lewis Telethons or newer Paralympics promotions. Though one was pitying and the other is routinely venerating, those narratives have objectified disabled bodies by casting them as either needing fixing or fixed (ascriptions to which Eli Clare and other disabilities scholars would lend equivalence, of course). Here by contrast the tech experts remain meticulously attentive to their clients’ voices as they go about their design work. In other words, what requires repair or constitutes an improvement is never determined by the experts alone. But what might disabilities activists and critical scholars say about this project of bringing the bespoke products of tech ingenuity to disabled users? Besides offering viewers an intriguing opportunity to watch designers and engineers solve complex technical problems, demystifying the steps involved in the design process if not (tellingly) the nature of design genius itself, why make and broadcast such a program? Why watch it? What is “The Big Life Fix” fixing, exactly?
I’m wondering about the show’s potential to change perceptions and wider experiences of disability with its uplifting recipe of technical ingenuity and good intentions. Possibly, in bringing mechanical and material innovations to the needs expressed by some disabled people, and with a concertedly dialogic approach to defining those needs, “The Big Life Fix” is doing enough. After all, foregrounding the complex, indeterminate character of bodies for audiences is no small goal for television. The show makes the point clearly that we cannot know a priori what anyone’s experience of disability might be, or what disabled individuals might desire in terms of functionality or comfort that they do not yet have. In this way, the program could disrupt some of the objectification and condescension that often surround disability in English and American media and society.
But the program’s implicit aim to offset ablist sensibilities with near-anthropological story telling—that is, to recast the disabled among us into people who are, if not familiar, then at least worth both meeting and helping–ultimately makes the us-and-them construct of the show feel inescapable. The scientists and engineers seem brilliant and modest; their interactions with their clients track as engaged technical exchanges rather than as charitable service. But the program adds up, through its suspenseful narration, editing and overall arc each week, to just such a story of rescuing the deserving. We watch the inventors overcome baffling design challenges as they struggle with what come across as intractable metals, plastics, and, it must be said, bodies. The narratives of “inventing the impossible” (a BBC tagline for the show), ultimately feel like celebrations of extraordinarily dedicated inventors, not a series of balanced collaborations, and what’s more, like a collection of humanistic triumphs over human deficits. So: Heroic science meets disabled people in “desperate need” of “fixing”…hardly a new or transformative framing of either party despite the demonstrable value of the invented devices to those who will use them.
The sense of science-as-savior that comes through makes the line between abled/expert and disabled/client (patient? subject?) far starker than one imagines the featured experts might with or intend. But if we don’t want that message of otherness and rescue to prevail for viewers, shouldn’t we ask: Where are the disabled engineers and designers in “The Big Life Fix,” or the activists and policy makers, or for that matter, the disabled people for whom the proffered mechanical device might be an appreciative improvement to functionality but no significant answer to political or economic exclusion? No meaningful counter to systemic injustice? I am curious to know how these communities might see this program.
I‘m looking at this program from the vantage point of a historian of science and equity, and I already have some evidence that “The Big Life Fix” is powerfully inspiring to young scientists and engineers who chafe at the idea of state or corporate applications for their developing knowledge. But to see the featured fixes as confronting inequities—whether we are talking about discriminatory cultural dispositions towards disability or the concrete lack of affordable health care, housing, transport and daily support in the UK and US—feels inappropriate. So, I think we could ask more of the BBC. As currently framed in the program, social structures and state policies—notoriously unsupportive of disabled people in austerity-focused England and increasingly cruel in the U.S. under Trump– need no ingenious interventions, no redesign. This is much the same way that tropes of inclusion often work, as I keep harping on about: casting solutions to injustice as a matter of earnest encounters and good feeling. Viewers might want to ask why the show’s more welcome initiatives—its open-ended inquiries into the experiences of disabled people; its garnering of resources for individuals often left without resources; and its staging of respectful conversations between STEM and non-STEM folks—could not be put towards a real transformation in our thinking about disability.
For those interested in critical studies of technology and disability, I recommend Aimi Hamraie’s Building Access: Universal Design and the Politics of Disability; Bess Williamson’s Accessible America: A History of Disability and Design, as well as writings by Liz Jackson, Beth Robertson, and others.
An Engineering Professor Walks into a University…: Why “Tone-Deaf” Isn’t Enough
A white engineering professor jokingly suggests a white alternative to the National Society of Black Engineers. What this can tell us about the comfort and security of being white in the American academy:
If we’re going to face up to the continuing advantages offered by white identity in the American academy, we need to think about how completely naturalized those advantages are. We can start by looking at the places where identity seems least likely to play a role, like Engineering. The quantitative, calibrated nature of engineering disciplines suggests to many of us a sort of machinelike mode of work, a setting firewalled—unlike, say, the arts or humanities–from political or social ideologies. A recent “joke” offered by a white engineering professor at SUNY Binghamton, on his departmental Listserv, gives us a chance to see just how off the mark that image is.
As described by Colleen Flaherty in InsideHigherEd:
Last week, the National Society of Black Engineers chapter at the State University of New York at Binghamton sent out an invitation to a fund-raising dinner on an engineering department Listserv. In response, Victor Skormin, distinguished service professor of electrical and computer engineering, wrote, “Please let me know about a dinner of the National Society for White Engineers.”
Prof. Skormin later told Inside Higher Ed that his comment was “intended strictly as a joke,” one of many “funny and sarcastic statements” he has made over time to help students “’recharge’ their attention mechanisms” and thereby “enhance the learning experience.”
We cannot know much if anything about Prof. Skormin’s considered beliefs about race relations in America from his joke or his brief comments about the joke. But we can ask about his choice of topic FOR a joke, and I think that can tell us about the conditions of being a white academic in the US, a group to which I also belong.
So let’s ask, with as much care and precision as we can muster so as not to ascribe intentions that are not there: What beliefs or attitudes would a white professor have to hold in order to propose, even light-heartedly (especially light-heartedly), a National Society for White Engineers?
- A sense that the rising level of violence against black people in America, Trump’s racist rhetoric, and events like Charlottesville are issues easily minimized by the people hearing his joke
- A sense that the decades of public discourse regarding ongoing racial inequities in America, including in mainstream media, do not refer to serious social matters, that the concerns of such discussions are not for the likes of Prof. Skormin’s audience
- And very possibly a sense that an invocation of white neglect and marginalization will strike some people (that is, let’s be clear, people other than the students in NSBE) as right on the money.
In short, I’m suggesting that we get beyond the clumsy, un-funny nature of Prof. Skormin’s repartee to see what it conveys as an attempt at humor.
Note: I’m not saying there are things that we “shouldn’t joke about.” In my book it is never “too soon.” But jokes have meanings and convey messages. The meanings and messages of Prof. Skormin’s joke contain absolutely no reflection on white privilege, no whiff of take-down of the security and ease with which white academics function compared to others. We cannot know if Prof. Skormin intended his joke to valorize that ease and security, but it does exactly that if only because his “humor” arose from just those circumstances.
Can there be jokes about white grievance? Absolutely. It is a darkly ironic aspect of today’s “democratic” America badly in need of parody. I also believe that deeply cutting humor about ourselves can be very funny indeed. Definitely nothing like it for puncturing self-importance and revealing the mechanisms of power and privilege. But that is definitely not what Prof. Skormin has offered us.
Troubling Virtue: Engineering and Poverty in the Age of the “Down and Out”
December 2017 cover of Prism, the magazine of the American Society for Engineering Education.
The huge wealth disparities and widespread racism, homophobia and ableism that help drive homelessness in America are not mere background conditions against which engineers may decide to take up more and less “caring” design projects. They are injustices to which we can instead be fully accountable. As a close look at one recent magazine cover shows, the familiar formula of Sympathy plus Technology does not necessarily add up to Change…
We can probably agree that we are not doing as much as we can to address poverty in America today. Federal lawmakers and executive orders are gutting health care and education provisions that have previously helped support the less well-off in our nation, and cities struggle with the results of those cuts. The concentration of wealth at the top increases, and the very definition of a “healthy national economy” includes corporate reliance on outsourcing; automation; and temporary, uninsured, low-wage workforces. Women, people of color, LGBTQ individuals and other minorities suffer disproportionately in this economic landscape as do veterans, disabled people and the elderly. We are living in an era of deeply inhumane governance and pronounced discrimination, and it seems important to us to ask about the difference between mere concern regarding this growing economic and social violence, and real accountability.
We are thinking about these questions in the context of engineering because Prism, the magazine of the American Society for Engineering Education, has put the matter of homelessness on their December 2017 cover, shown above. (The cover features a person seen from the neck down, with dirty hands, seated directly on the pavement before a tin can holding a crumpled dollar bill and a small American flag.) This cover implies a relationship between engineering and poverty that we find unsettling, and perhaps reflecting on the image can help us move from concern at least a bit closer to accountability.
First, let’s talk about Prism’s cover headline, “Design for the Down & Out.” That description of homeless persons may induce a jolt of sympathy among readers but it is in fact discriminatory, ascribing to those without homes not simply the experience of being excluded from economic opportunities but also a naturally low status (“down”), marginal community positions (“out”) and above all, personal ineffectuality. Like many charitable projects in American history, this is a sympathy that marginalizes its subjects.
We are not talking about insincere approaches to helping the poor; we are talking about how unreflective sincerity can itself reproduce discrimination. Unlike earlier forms of elite charitable judgment that explicitly blamed the poor for their lack of resources (attributing poverty to individuals’ weak morals, weak genes, or both), Prism’s imagery gives no obvious indication that the homeless deserve their discomforts. That little flag definitely strikes a note of deserved need: The steadfast patriotism of the pictured homeless person demonstrates their good faith in the democratic project that is America. The article inside, by Jennifer Pocock, actually mentions some significant political causes of homelessness. Yet let’s think about what comes across in the public face of Prism, a cover that is meant to incite engineers to open the magazine and think about poverty. There is no way that someone seeing this cover would imagine that homeless persons contribute intellectually, materially and socially to any context. Instead, we are asked to picture the impoverished as passive and ineffectual, literally waiting for the mercy of generous passersby.
Of course, as things stand many homeless people in the U.S. will not be able to obtain food or shelter without donations from the better off, and many are urgently in need of the care of others. Assuredly life on the street is often difficult and dangerous, and deinstitutionalization of the mentally ill famously expanded the ranks of homeless in America by leaving many unwell people with no real medical resources. But it is still inappropriate to characterize homeless people as this cover does as diminished individuals in need of intervention.
So why do so? Perhaps because this characterization of the poor fits the idea that engineering naturally has only a narrow sort of social responsibility. This idea that technologies can unto themselves be caring leaves to other professions the address of structural issues such as depleted public housing, healthcare, and education, or increasing corporate greed; as well as racism, homophobia, and xenophobia, that have helped create this impoverishment. Consider the “staggering” levels of poverty and health inequities found among transgender Americans, including high rates of homelessness among transgender youth forced by their families to leave home. Our point is that these are not merely background conditions in light of which engineering can select its problems, more and less humanely; these are conditions to which engineering must be accountable. The “helping” modality so common in engineering service projects today not only puts the technological fix front and center as generous gesture but erects technological innovation and caring innovators as a screen that can hide an unjust society. Students deserve a fuller and less self-consoling picture of their world.
The cover’s other bit of text notes that engineers can choose to “help or hinder America’s homeless.” And the contents of the article indeed contrast sleep-preventing city benches to engineers’ more positive material interventions in the lives of the poor: ways to “alert” unemployed homeless people to job opportunities (smart phone applications); help them “keep clean” (affordable ultra-hydrophobic menstrual cups); and otherwise assist people to “get out of poverty.” But each of those assisting technologies, while likely to bring physical or psychological relief to users, cast the experience of poverty as somehow based in individual bodies, not in the economic structures and collective decision-making that currently render suffering inevitable in America. While some of the educational programs described in the article grapple with legal or policy deterrents to reform (say, city policies that have prohibited the construction of permanent housing in lieu of temporary “squatter” communities), the overall sense given by the pathos of the cover and the celebration of design-as-caring serves conservative arguments against economic and social reform.
In reality, the most effective actions an engineer can take to end homelessness more likely lie in lending their time and talent to local citizen political action. To address the immediate crisis, engineers and others should advocate that resources be directed to housing first, and not housing alone but also a range of services that support physical and mental health. To address the root causes, engineers should work toward the goals of groups like the Poor People’s Campaign, addressing living wages, health care, immigration reform, and voting rights.
The aim of making engagements with impoverished communities attractive to engineering students and impressive for their future employers is not antithetical to real change, to accountability. We are excited that the ASEE sees value in covering these issues and about the prospect of STEM educational programming critically engaging with social justice issues. But whoever is crafting headlines and designing covers for Prism needs to see how highlighting “the problem posed by America’s half-million homeless” defeats such purposes. The homeless do not pose a problem. Our acceptance of homelessness does.