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Technical Ex-Communication: How a Former Professional Engineer Becomes a Former English Professor
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Technical Ex-Communication:
How a Former Professional Engineer Becomes a Former English Professor


Imagine: Once upon a time, I left the corporate world to join the academic world, thinking the lofty latter would tower above the corruption of corporate complicity.

Yup. I really thought that. Imagine.

Picture this: you’re seated at a table with nine other faculty, all strangers. Five such clusters of ten fill the carpeted room—off-white walls, acoustical ceiling tiles, fluorescent lighting—and everyone boasts a terminal degree in science, engineering, architecture, law, psychology, or design. Everyone except you, that is—you hold a doctorate in English.

Before you, on the table, glares a ream of white, 20 lb., 8.5” x 11” paper. A beaming but otherwise nondescript man looming at the front of the room announces, “You have one half-hour in which to devise a high-quality paper airplane. The team whose airplane hangs aloft for the longest stretch of time will be judged a true success—a leader in quality.” Everyone in the room chuckles. “Let’s see who the winner will be,” the nondescript man teases. And with that he props a large digital timer on the table before him, and slaps the start button.

All but five of the fifty strangers in the room are men. Most are white, eight speak an inflected English that indicates an Asian upbringing. Most of the men are middle-aged, some are older, nearing retirement. Most of the middle-aged men wear trousers, oxfords, ties, rolled shirtsleeves. Most of the older men relax in three-piece suits. Most of the men sport beards. Four of the five women in the room are all business—navy or black suits, skirts just above the knee, heels, lipstick, eye liner, nail polish. The four younger men and one younger woman are, like others of your generation, dressed casually—new jeans, polo shirts, sweaters.

As the timer begins its countdown, most people begin chatting, noisily, to others in their group. About their families, about the weather. One of the engineers seated at your table immediately takes command. He urges that the team proceed, first, by taking note of specific aerodynamic principles—lift, for example. He lectures the team on such principles. A few of the engineers in the group get antsy, grab a few sheets of paper from the ream, experiment by folding their sheets this way and that. The self-elected leader seems annoyed, barks a few orders. A few people in the group, intent on making progress, are willing to cooperate.

But you, you’re someplace else, because you’ve been here before.


You may have heard recently of Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT) in Chicago. The school has been splashed across the news in the past year. IIT’s College of Architecture has a worldwide reputation for housing the program that Ludwig Mies van der Rohe directed during his post-Bauhaus years. IIT: the campus Mies built, the campus that boasts Crown Hall, the campus whose buildings announce in bold the Miesian orthogonal imprint, the less-is-more flatland structures of steel and glass and high HVAC bills.

And thanks to one of the largest (matching) gifts ever made to a postsecondary educational institution—120 million dollars, courtesy of two wealthy members of IIT’s Board of Trustees—a new student center is being built on campus, with leftover dollars funding much-needed building and equipment upgrades, and endowing engineering-only full-tuition scholarships (IIT’s tuition is currently $17,000 a year). The international design competition for the student center attracted all sorts of media attention, with the commission awarded finally to renowned Dutch architect and architectural theorist Rem Koolhaas. Completion of the actual structure is scheduled for sometime next year, a convenient cornerstone in IIT’s ongoing effort to reset its collegial clock.

I won’t be around to see the center open. I’m happy for the students, though it remains unclear to me whether the surrounding community will reap any actual material benefits from the hoopla. IIT sits on the northernmost edge of the largest public housing project in the US—the Robert Taylor Homes-Stateway...