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Hemingway

I teach “Writing and Presentations” for Engineering Management students at Portland State University.  It’s a course within a graduate program (the Engineering and Technology Management Department) aimed at preparing future leaders for their responsibilities as managers of technology organizations and teams.

The program at PSU is internationally renowned, with a reputation as a ground-breaking, forward-looking collection of thought leaders who understand that managing the mysteries and vagaries of the technology industry is different from other kinds of management.  Not all the students in this program have engineering preparation, but many do, and helping them get ready for the particular leadership challenges that are unique to leading tech teams, projects and organizations was originally the idea of Dr. Dundar Kocaoglu, our department chairman.

It was also Dr. K’s idea to include this course, “Writing and Presentations,” in the program because he’s sure (and he’s right) that engineering leaders who can’t handle public speaking and who can’t write proposals, reports, product evaluations or even holiday greetings will struggle, or fail, as leaders.

It was nearly two years ago that Dr. K and I began talking about this class, about the possibility that I might teach it.  One of the things I said in those early conversations was that I’d like to assign the students a novel to read, a good novel, a great work of fiction.  When he looked at me a little quizzically (reading fiction in an engineering class?), I explained that if students want to learn to write well, they should read the works of great writers—not the works of great engineers.

“Who were you thinking you’d assign?” he asked.

“Hemingway.”

He rocked back in his seat a bit, smiled, and then said “Sure, I think our students should read more Hemingway.”

Many of my students are international, for whom English is a second (sometimes third or fourth) language.  From the list of novels they can choose, they often select The Old Man and the Sea, probably in part because it’s short.  The others read Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and The Financier, by Theodore Dreiser.  This quarter, 13 of my 18 students read The Old Man, and all but one said they loved it.

The young man who didn’t really care for The Old Man said he’d never before in his life read a novel, not in English, not in his native language (Arabic).  He didn’t care for it because Hemingway was repetitive, he thought, and he hated what happened to the fish.  But at least now he can say he’s read a novel, read it closely enough to get mad at it.  When I asked him if he’d read another novel in the future, he said “Maybe.”

What surprises me every time about the novel-reading assignment in this engineering class is how much the students enjoy it.  They’re supposed to make note of passages that stand out to them, wording that’s different, attention-getting, phrasing that makes them stop and say “I wish I’d said that.”  They’re supposed to track the narrator’s internal monologue (or the protagonist’s view of the world) and see what they get to know about him along the way, how his actions and thoughts compare to their own, and what they learn about him thanks to the private disclosures in the course of the story-telling.

It’s “lite” analysis, indeed, but this isn’t a literature class.  In some ways, it’s an exercise in  bridge-building, where engineering students discover something about writing. Maybe it will help to unleash some hidden potential, or at least to encourage future business/technical writers to break out of the doldrums and to write in ways that aren’t predictable and drab, as so much business writing is.

If it accomplishes that, I’ll be delighted.

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