Learning to think outside of the box

It’s rare to find works by Foucault or Nietzsche on the shelves of professors in the Engineering faculty.

But things are changing and Robert Danisch, who has just started an appointment in the faculty’s General Studies Unit is helping to usher in that change.

Robert Danisch Magnifying glass

Robert Danisch

He is adapting his course on critical thinking in the Philosophy Department to the needs of engineering students. The course that he began teaching three years ago is an introduction to practical argumentation and reasoning.

“The first half of the course is the same, then we go in a different direction — looking at technical problem-solving,” Danisch explained.

Danisch has a background in rhetoric, through the disciplines of both philosophy and communication — his Pragmatism, Democracy, and the Necessity of Rhetoric was published this year. He does not think his role in the engineering faculty is incongruous.

“Rhetoric has been a central tool in the invention of new ideas and new arguments,” he said. “That is no longer the case since the rise of the modern university. I don’t think I’m reinventing the wheel, but this is a forgotten art.”

Danisch said that Engineering and Computer Science Dean Nabil Esmail was behind the move to introduce students to critical thinking. “He was concerned that people saw engineers as problem solvers in a box, always addressing problems in the same routinized ways. He thought this could be helpful.”

Engineering students take two mandatory courses through the General Studies Unit, which was established three years ago, with a relatively small team of faculty. The first course addresses technical communication and writing skills, important since the faculty introduced its own writing test.

The second is a course on the impact of technology in society. Danisch said that the 49 students who registered for his section of the class this term were unprepared for the amount of reading involved, but comfortable with the concepts.

“Just the other day, we were debating Kantian ethics vs. utilitarian ethics. The students did not have the vocabulary, but they got it.”

Based on student demand, Danisch is developing a section of this course on information technologies since students who are working on computer systems face different challenges than construction engineers.

“That course will explore issues like surveillance and privacy and digital democracy.” The critical thinking course is intended to supplement these two courses. The first section will be offered during the January term.

Danisch recognizes the challenges of his role as a bridge between humanities-based skills and engineering students. But he’s enthusiastic about the challenge. He would like to develop courses on communication and critical thinking for the faculty’s master’s students.

“It comes down to whether you can teach things like creativity and invention. I think you can.”


Concordia University