Hey Olin, Why So Busy?

Something about Olin as it is today has been bugging me for the last few months. Olin has changed and is yet still changing. But this change has not gone unnoticed– many of the faculty, staff, and administration have also noticed a difference in the Oliners they see and interact with as well. Some of the underclassmen can’t even tell me what the Honor Code is or what it says anymore, or why they signed it in the first place. So what are our values as a community? I think they’ve changed. Change is healthy, but if we don’t know why we’re changing, or are shying away from our founding values, we need to be actively aware of those things. Current students need to be aware of what they’re allowed to help change and not change. Olin might be a bubble, but it is a very unique community that extends beyond just the current active community that’s on campus.

It has been argued that by making Oliners pay for their tuition, we’ve created an environment where it feels as though being selected at Olin was a business transaction (I get a degree if I hand you $), rather than a gift or an opportunity. We’ve created an environment where students feel they have to get their money’s worth. Where folks expect Olin to be what admissions told us when we were recruited and then complain when reality sets in. Where folks are constantly running around and it’s notorious that an Oliner won’t be able to do anything outside of classwork after the second half of the semester. What was once a busy-ness that stemmed from seeking to satisfy curiosity in learning is now a busy-ness that seems to stem from overloaded course schedules on top of frantic social obligations on top of club commitments on top of research on top of…you get the point. Why are we so busy? What happens when you’re too busy to be creative, curious, or weird?

What happens when we focus on a culture of busy-ness:

1. Mission Lackluster. We do not “continually discover” effective learning approaches and environments in many of our classes. Olin students are not being prepared to be “exemplary engineering innovators” but come to Olin with prior experiences in leadership, entrepreneurship, and/or engineering and build upon those skills. Arguably the environment on campus is no longer conducive to innovation or entrepreneurship as a small fraction of Oliners start companies before they graduate or even upon graduation. Over the course of 4+ years, few Oliners are exposed to more than one broad-impact project or funded experiment. Largely, the Collaboratory (a group created to spread Olin’s unique culture and education initiatives) communicates what Olin is and leaves other schools to decide what to do with that information. Since transforming engineering education is fairly hard to measure, and takes time to see any impact, it does not seem like we’ve had tremendous success. Unless you’re a software engineer, it’s a lot tougher to find a job that doesn’t pigeonhole you by your degree. Which makes me wonder, as a student I was always told industry and academia wanted more Oliners, but when going through the interview process, myself and many Oliners balk in self-doubt and don’t believe they’re technically competent engineers, and interviewers become frustrated at our lack of knowledge of the “fundamentals.” We have graduated 10+ classes of students. How long does it take to change an engineering perspective?
2. Walking Dead Phenomenon. Students are burnt out and it’s October. Students were burnt out when it was September. What is causing this exhaustion? Why does it feel less exciting after first semester?
3. Conflict Aversion. Olin is static because stakeholders (eg. students, faculty, staff, administrators, alumni) refuse to effectively confront one another to initiate improvements.
4. Stagnation of the Olin Classroom. Hallmarks of the Olin classroom environment were close collaboration with faculty members and students nurturing their intellectual curiosity. Teams that would communicate effectively and work together to become better. Projects that people cared about. Willingness to “seize the day.” A drive towards intrinsic motivation as opposed to extrinsic motivation. (Although these qualities may not have been present in every class at Olin, they were definitely part of the vision for an Olin classroom.)
5. Massive Distrust. People don’t believe that teams will be good. People don’t expect huge turnout at student events. People are asserting personal property more. R2s, PAs, OSL, and the Honor Board are all seen as ineffective, nefarious, or both. People believe that “the administration” and “the students” are categorically opposed.
6. Dearth of Honor. Although the system has undergone continual improvements since Olin’s founding, the overall knowledge of the Honor Board/Honor Code system is poor. If people don’t get trained or take the initiative to become informed, there is really nothing about the culture now which really upholds the “honor code.” Why do students sign the Honor Code, but other members of the community (eg. faculty) not?
7. Mis-remembering the Founding Precepts.The founding precepts say things like “even a new institution can, with the passage of time, become resistant to change. If this were to happen at the College it would be a tragic loss” and “The Foundation does not seek to establish a generic undergraduate engineering college.” It’s clear to me that even though we claim to follow each of these precepts, the strength with which they were written has been lost. Sure, we’re still a “student-centered” institution, but ask yourself, does a culture of busy-ness show a care for the students that we were intended to have?

Let’s ask ourselves as a community why we’re so busy. Why are we burning the wick at both ends, or burning ourselves out? To what end? I’ve seen a lot of people unwilling to engage with the community at large, resulting in folks leaving the community, being less creative, less productive, and less happy at large. A less engaged community is inherently against Olin’s nature. A less engaged community means that Olin is interested in incremental improvement and has stopped challenging the status quo and showing the world just how engineering can be different. Although Olin is no longer in risk of ceasing to exist, it is at risk of danger in losing some of the creativity and passion and intensity personality it is so known for. Students have said this is because they don’t know who to go talk to if they do have a concern they want to address.We’re morphing into a corporation of sorts, and downsizing our R&D department, and fundamentally, the student who enjoys production is very different from the one that enjoys innovation and experimentation.

Over the years there have been several pushes to bring the community together, solicit feedback, and refine community values and interests. One example is Build Day, where we brought the Olin community together on three separate occasions to focus on 1-day initiatives to connect at the end of a semester. Build Day started out with a strong committee headed by 2013ers, and then fizzled out to being run by 1 person in 2015. Some other activities include lunches with staff, office hours with CORe/Honor Board/R2s/PAs/OSL, interesting conversations, and co-curriculars and passionate pursuits. There are still continuing ongoing experiments such as alumni seminars, breaking the bubble (B2– an effort to help Oliners transition out of the bubble), alumni as design reviewers, and new classes, like Quantitative Engineering Analysis (QEA) which were made to reflect the desire of many Oliners to be better at the “hard engineering” side in addition to the “soft skills” many are known for. Some of you attend 4N Fridays, where Oliners open their rooms up to folks to provide a venue to hang out in without the context of a party or a team meeting. These are all efforts that do show folks care about the community and about the school. But these efforts won’t go anywhere without active participation by those on and off campus.

I challenge you all to become engaged in the Olin community. Give feedback, whether it’s positive or negative, because folks won’t know if things are going well or not without it. Drop in and introduce yourself to a staff member, seek out administrators, befriend faculty. Don’t just talk about tasks or problems– and if you see issues, approach it with the “can do” attitude Oliners are known for. Talk about Olin (the good and the bad), the meta things about life, and talk to more than just other Oliners. Talk to the folks who make up the community (aka. the bubble). Do something to make Olin better than when you left it, and know that sometimes that takes a lot of time and commitment, but it will be worth it, because what is the alternative?

And special thanks to: Victoria Preston, Mitch Cieminski, James Nee, and Isaac Vandor for helping me edit and express my thoughts in a coherent manner. Also special thanks to many other alumni who I’m lucky enough to call my friends (and have helped to edit previous opinions), like Abe Feldman, Alex Kessler, Victoria Coleman and many others. Glad to know that I’m not the only one who’s seeing what I’m seeing.

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