The leader of Purdue University’s School of Engineering Education recently declared that academic “rigour” reinforces “white male heterosexual privilege.” “One of rigour’s purposes is, to put it bluntly, a thinly veiled assertion of white male (hetero)sexuality,” she writes, explaining that rigour “has a historical lineage of being about hardness, stiffness, and erectness; its sexual connotations — and links to masculinity in particular — are undeniable.”
Hardness and stiffness. And we can’t have any of that beastliness in the minds of people who may one day be working on projects involving cranes and scaffolding. According to Dr Donna Riley, academic rigour and the expectation of competence are “exclusionary” and tools of “privilege,” and are unfair to women and minorities, for whom rigour and competence are presumably impossible. Dr Riley goes on to denounce engineering’s “cultures of whiteness and masculinity,” and informs us that, “scientific knowledge itself is gendered, raced, and colonising.”
To fight this, Riley calls for engineering programmes to “do away with” the notion of academic rigour completely, saying, “This is not about reinventing rigour for everyone, it is about doing away with the concept altogether so we can welcome other ways of knowing. Other ways of being. It is about criticality and reflexivity.”
Yes, the design and construction of fighter jets, oil rigs and 1000-tonne tunnelling machines will one day be informed not by careful calculation, a knowledge of materials and thoroughly tested principles, but by criticality, reflexivity and “other ways of being.”
Dr Riley is the author of the little-read tome Engineering and Social Justice, which she describes as “an attempt to explain the lack of emphasis on social justice in engineering.” The term “social justice” is, we’re told, “difficult to define” and “resists a concise and permanent definition,” a problem illustrated by the author’s own struggle to arrive at a convincing definition, despite deploying the term on every other page. But apparently, engineers need to spend less time doing load-bearing calculations and more time pondering “radical protest” and “Marxist traditions.” Needless to say, Dr Riley opens the book by congratulating herself for having devised “alternative ways of thinking” that are “challenging,” and which, for those less enlightened, may be “difficult to understand.”
Update, via the comments:
Although Dr Riley’s prose is often lumpen and unclear – clarity might prompt mockery, I suppose – there’s much that’s implied. For instance,
Rigour accomplishes dirty deeds, however, serving three primary ends across engineering, engineering education, and engineering education research: disciplining, demarcating boundaries, and demonstrating white male heterosexual privilege.
That last one still feels comically jarring, as if shoehorned in, dutifully.
Understanding how rigour reproduces inequality, we cannot reinvent it but rather must relinquish it, looking to alternative conceptualisations for evaluating knowledge, welcoming diverse ways of knowing, doing, and being, and moving from compliance to engagement, from rigour to vigour.
Cynic that I am, I can’t help wondering whether those undefined “alternative conceptualisations” would entail patronising students based on whichever Designated Victim Group they can be said to belong to, provided you tilt your head and squint, and regardless of whether the individual student wishes it or not, and regardless of any consequent alienation and resentment. So if a student is suitably brown or female or discernibly gay, then their supposedly “diverse ways of knowing” – i.e., lack of rigour - would be indulged to an extent that those dreadful white male heterosexuals could only dream of. As Dr Riley complains that rigour - i.e., a standard of competence - generates both inequality and “white male heterosexual privilege,” presumably she would rather we erased distinctions more broadly, between ability and mediocrity, and between diligence and half-arsedness. Though her own so-called scholarship, and indeed her employment, suggests that these wishes may already be coming true.
Somewhat related: “Social justice theorist” Dr Riyad A Shahjahan tells us that punctuality and competence are racist and oppressive.
Also related: These clowns here, at the University of Washington, Tacoma. The ones who tell students that grammar is “racist” and “an unjust language structure,” and where supposedly professional educators spent over a year writing a single 500-word press release.