Why am I such a hard-ass?

Some students complain that I’m quite harsh with regard to certain “rules.”  Here’s my thoughts about that.

When engineers screw up, people can die.  Ontario engineers who have screwed up are regularly reported in PEO Dimensions, the magazine of the Province’s engineering regulator. Getting an engineering degree makes up roughly half of the requirements to become a licensed Engineer.  The paramount ethical responsibility of an engineer is to the public good.  So, my primary ethical responsibility as an engineering professor is to the public good.  That basically means I cannot ethically allow a student to graduate who I honestly believe will endanger the public.  The way I determine this is through the agreed to assessment methods in my courses – which are all validated not only by Ryerson, but also by the Canadian Engineering Accreditation Board (the entity that verifies the quality of engineering education throughout Canada).

Some may argue that the Engineering code of ethics only applies to engineering work, and that teaching is not engineering work; this argument is used to support the claim that engineering professors don’t need to follow the Engineering code of ethics when teaching.  This argument is, however, complete bollocks.  When you do your homework and your projects, you are in fact doing exactly the same kind of technical work you will do as a professional engineer – just on relative simple problems, your solutions of which will never be implemented.  But it’s still engineering work.  Grading your work is the equivalent of “approving” your engineering work, so I am just as responsible to maintain my engineering ethics when I teach as when I do “real” engineering.

While this would be enough to justify my behaviour, there’s another important reason why I’m such a hard-ass.

Engineers need discipline.  They need to be able to focus completely and exclusively on the job at hand (again, because people die when we screw up).  They need to understand that the tiniest variation from expectations and standards can end up causing catastrophic failures.

This kind of discipline isn’t really taught any more.  A student entering University should already understand that there’s a place and a time for “letting loose” and having fun, and that work and school are not one of those places.  However, this no longer seems to be the case.  Over the four years of undergraduate education at Ryerson, students do learn to understand this – that is, the seniors are generally far more responsible and disciplined than the freshmen.  They are more responsible and disciplined for two reasons: (a) they have matured as persons, and (b) they have been taught that lack of self-discipline is unacceptable.

I impress the importance of responsibility and self-discipline on students by implementing rules that I know students can follow, and penalize them significantly when the rules are not followed.  It would be ludicrously unethical to expect students to learn new material fast and right on their first attempt.  You learn by practice, by trial and error, and by correcting your mistakes when you make them.  There are some things, though – like printing in “engineering block” lettering, providing a properly completed cover page, etc. – that I know you already know how to do.

Many students have been taught – though not explicitly – that such “little things” are not as important as the more significant learning goals.  But this just isn’t so.  In all the professions – engineering, medicine, law, nursing, social work, etc. – it is often the “little things” that will lead to a catastrophic failure.  This makes such mistakes especially pernicious – because they are so easily avoided.  So it’s the “little things” that I will hammer home repeatedly.  You know how to handle them; it’s only a matter of discipline to actually handle them, and a matter of responsibility to accept the consequences when you do not handle them.

I want all my students to graduate, to get their engineering licenses, and to make the lives of everyone else better.  And that’s why I’m such a hard-ass.

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