Essays for Engineers
January 6, 2007 4:13 PM   Subscribe

What readings would you recommend for a freshman composition class for Engineers?

These readings shouldn't be too long, and should be accessible to any non-engineers who end up in the class (in fact, it's not strictly necessary that course readings concern engineering at all). The class isn't about business communication or technical writing, but is more an introduction to writing the "college essay," with a bit of engineering spin to keep things interesting for the technically inclined.

I'm happy with my syllabus already, yet I can't help but query the hive mind: What are some readings you think would generate interesting discussion and written work? Suggested readings that concern the social dimensions of engineering and design would be especially welcome.
posted by washburn to Education (13 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: My favorite book for engineers is "Player Piano" but Kurt Vonnegut. It's a dystopian sci-fi novel about the future when engineers basically rule society because their inventions put everyone else out of work. It can generate a lot of interesting debate on the role of technology in society and what that means for the people who create it. I'm an engineer, though I'm also a closeted history nerd so I don't mind writing, but I've always found essay-writing to be more enjoyable when it stems from fiction (not so much literary analysis, but going off of ideas that fiction presents). Sci-Fi is particularly good for people with a technical bent, because the "what if?" theme is very important for the people designing the next generation of technology.

This may not meet your criteria -- it's fiction, of course, and it might be a longer piece of work than you were thinking of -- but I think it's very readable. If nothing else, you should read it. ;)
posted by olinerd at 4:24 PM on January 6, 2007 [3 favorites]

Perhaps some Henry Petroski? He's written quite a bit about engineering in a humanistic context and is a pretty good writer. I would also consider John McPhee; while he's only written a few books that touch on engineering (The Control of Nature and The Curve of Binding Energy (sort of)), he's a fantastic writer.
posted by pombe at 4:52 PM on January 6, 2007 [1 favorite]

Petroski should definitely be a part of such a class, and he's written many essay-sized pieces that would be easy to teach (I think any chapter from The Evolution of Useful Things would work well). Also consider Edward Tenner (Why Things Bite Back) and Donald Norman (The Design of Everyday Things).
posted by RogerB at 5:02 PM on January 6, 2007 [1 favorite]

Looking Backward by Edward Bellamy

Fairly slim, easy reading (for 1800s prose). It would be possible to excerpt sections, since the plot is pretty thin and the "look at these wonderous innovations" parts are clumped together.
posted by cowbellemoo at 5:11 PM on January 6, 2007

One of my favorite essays (that's both scientific and compelling) is David Quammen's Planet of Weeds.
posted by glibhamdreck at 5:37 PM on January 6, 2007 [1 favorite]

My favorite book for engineers is "Player Piano" but Kurt Vonnegut.


The representation of ways engineers are indoctrinated into the prevailing power structure is dead on the money. The dystopian vision might appear dated, because of the emphasis on a centrally planned economy, but that is just superficial.

It helped me become the person I am, but it didn't do much good for my career aspirations :P

On the other hand, you asked for readings, not entire novels, oh well.
posted by Chuckles at 6:10 PM on January 6, 2007

George Orwell "Politics and the English Language" (1946) or something similar. In it Orwell goes through a number of examples of writing where either the author doesn't understand what he himself wants to say or somehow or other confuses the reader along the way. Basically it's an esssay on precision in language and communication. Though it's not engineering specific, I'm afraid.
posted by B-squared at 6:45 PM on January 6, 2007

Best answer: As an undergrad engineer, I had a lecture on the subject of industry, engineering and its role in one community. The book the lecture is based on, Dying Hard: Industrial Carnage in St. Lawrence Newfoundland, could provide a chapter or two that could generate interesting discussion and written work.
posted by yqxnflld at 8:52 PM on January 6, 2007 [2 favorites]

Passages from: The Soul of a New Machine, by Tracy Kidder, and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig. Both contain many moving ideas about what engineers think about and do. Both beautifully written.
posted by capcuervo at 9:22 PM on January 6, 2007 [1 favorite]

Paul Graham's essays would be perfect if amateur/online writing is okay.

The Design of Everyday Things, by Donald Norman.

Passages from The Diamond Age, by Neal Stephenson, perhaps.
posted by callmejay at 7:51 AM on January 7, 2007

Best answer: On Writing Well, by William K. Zinsser (the classic guide for non-fiction writers);

The Existential Pleasures of Engineering, by Samuel C. Florman ("clear, erudite, and occasionally eloquent, a useful read for engineers given to self-scrutiny and a stimulating one for the layman interested in the ancient schism between machines and men's souls." -- Time Magazine) or

The Civilized Engineer, also by Florman (". . . a useful aid for focusing one's own (often unexamined) views on what it now means and what it should mean to be an engineer."—Technology and Society; ". . . there is no other engineer author who talks to engineers the way Florman does. Any intelligent engineer who doesn't want to think like a frog in an enclosed pond would do well to read this book."—Engineering Times; the author "writes with beautiful clarity and his wit springs from his material" — New York Times Book Review).
posted by Dave 9 at 9:08 AM on January 7, 2007 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Systemantics. Should be required reading, cover to cover, just as How to Lie with Statistics usually is.

Bruce Sterling's Shaping Things is short, interesting, and will provoke all kinds of discussion.
posted by jet_silver at 12:10 PM on January 7, 2007

Response by poster: Thanks everyone, for all the recommendations. I've had a chance to look over the Vonnegut novel, and it seems really interesting. Many other sugestions here are also new to me, and I look forward to having a look at these at the library sometime soon.
posted by washburn at 5:05 PM on January 7, 2007

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