Teaching Engineering as a Discipline with Graphic Novels

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This blog was originally posted on March 6th, 2015.

A few months ago Nick Carbone pointed out one of the most interesting and sophisticated examples of student work that I’ve ever seen in a graphic novel format, “What is Engineering?”  by Mallory “Mel” Chua, who blogs at http://blog.melchua.com/.

In a Skype interview, Chua provided some of the context that inspired her to create this dazzling graphic essay. “Visual rhetoric is something I can’t stop doing. I’ve been a visual thinker for a long time. I wanted to be an art major in high school, but my parents wanted me to study engineering instead. Fortunately, I liked it… and now I draw comics about engineering, so that worked out.” Chua has no formal art training, but has been informally experimenting with graphical communication for many years; a scan of her high school physics class notes shows a similar comic-book sketch style:

During her years in industry, Chua used her visual skills to insert herself into team conversations. “I would be the first to go to the whiteboard and start sketchnoting what we were doing, and people would start telling me things and explaining things because they wanted me to draw them. It was a strategy to keep myself in the loop, to get people to teach me what was going on, even if I was the most junior engineer in the building.” A good deal of her work involved international collaboration, and the visuals translated well across language boundaries. “It’s just the way I think,” she observed, “even though I am usually supposed to translate myself into words afterwards.” She described her typical approach to a writing prompt as being “doodle doodle doodle, then reluctantly think about writing the real paper. It never occurred to me that the sketches could become the real paper. What if you didn’t have to translate things into words to have them count?”

“What is Engineering?” was written during Chua’s first semester of graduate study at Purdue’s School of Engineering Education in a course on the History and Philosophy of Engineering Education, which she described as her “first delving into social sciences” in which they were asked to write papers defining “engineering,” “education,” and “engineering education.”  Rhetoricians, familiar with the concept of an “argument of definition” will recognize the assignment as an ancient one, of course.

As Chua explained, “I sketched and sketched as I thought, but could not find a way to translate my thoughts into writing. Before I knew it, the paper was due the next day, but the visual format was too important to my thoughts. I sat down and inked out the written pieces in my sketchbook so I would at least have something to turn in. I thought for sure I would fail the assignment, that my professors would say it wasn’t written properly.” Instead, she was surprised at the positive reaction to the piece, which has since been downloaded thousands of times from around the world. “My advisor went to South Africa and mentioned the names of her students, and another professor reached into their bag and pulled out my comic. We were stunned.”

Despite the spontaneous character of the work’s initial composition, she acknowledged the need to reflect and consider many of the aspects of doing nonfiction work in a graphic format. “How to I cite things? What tools do I use? I didn’t know anyone else did this, so I thought I had to invent all the visual rhetoric devices on my own. And validity. I worried so much that the approach wouldn’t be seen as serious or valid, so I came up with defensive arguments for everything.

In response to a question about how eyeglasses were an important visual motif that ran through “What is Engineering?” and “other frames, lenses, and viewfinders” that she might have been conscious of deploying, Chua laughed about how she had initially overlooked the importance of the trope as an assistive technology. The use of the eyeglasses metaphor was not a “rhetorical or political decision,” according to Chua, although she also says that “the personal is political.” “We use the word ‘lenses’ to describe our theories all the time, so I just drew them –remember, it was 2am the day the paper was due, so I wasn’t thinking too hard about it. The visual metaphor worked, so I kept using it as I continued to draw the piece. There can be many kinds of engineering eyeglasses, and they can coexist with other disciplines. I might wear my engineering eyeglasses, my anthropology hat, my journalism coat, and my social activist boots all at the same time.”

Chua admitted that drawing diversity – age, race, gender, and disability – into the engineers portrayed in “What is Engineering?” was important for broadening the perspective of engineering students. She added that there are many other kinds of diversity that aren’t as easy to draw. In thinking about “disability as a site for engineering education work,” Chua wonders in hindsight if she could have chosen a different sort of visual rhetoric, especially since many engineers have disabilities that are hidden or invisible. “The wheelchair has become the handicapped poster symbol. I might think about it differently if I redrew the piece, try to mix it up a little.”

Using engineering graph paper as a choice of medium was completely accidental. “The assignment was due in 10 hours, and that was the paper I had on hand, but it was a nice effect for this particular piece. I have worked in other mediums since then, but they’re all pretty primitive – it’s usually an ordinary writing pen on printer paper or in my notebook, or sketching on my phone.” When asked for her ideas about how to best design a graphic assignment for engineers, she emphasize the importance of formative assessment. “Drawing is an unfamiliar and intimidating language for lots of people. It has to be okay to get out these awful, incomplete, sketchy things to think with. We work with prototypes of machines and drafts of papers all the time, but there’s not a lot of examples out there of draft sketches outside of art class – of what visual thinking in other disciplines looks like before it becomes the polished, final piece.” Fortunately, this format also has “a different sort of hermeneutics built in… it’s more generative, more expansive, and supportive of more divergent ideas, once people are accustomed to doing dialogue with pictures rather than words.”

About the Author
Elizabeth Losh is a Director of Academic Programs at Sixth College of the University of California, San Diego. Elizabeth is collaborating with Jonathan Alexander, Professor of English and the Campus Writing Coordinator at the University of California, Irvine, are collaborating with artists Zander Cannon and Kevin Cannon of Big Time Attic on Understanding Rhetoric: A Graphic Guide to Writing, a forthcoming comic-style text for first-year composition students.