Through the Looking Glass: Identifying Causes of the Alice-Syndrome in Undergraduate Engineering Writers


The title of our presentation this evening is "Through the Looking Glass: Identifying Causes of the Alice-Syndrome in Undergraduate Engineering Writers". This study grew out of a question asked by an engineering professor at the University of Windsor, Peter Frise, who observed while reading design proposals from his fourth year students: "Many of these kids actually write like engineers! What accounts for the difference between those who do and those who don't?" Peter had just moved from teaching Engineering at Carleton where he specialized in introducing first-year students to their engineering studies. In Windsor, his responsibilities had shifted to primarily fourth-year and graduate students. He remembered only too well how ineffective and un-engineering like the writing of his first year students was. We picked up Peter's question and began to collect data.

We developed 46 case studies from questionnaire responses, personal interviews, examples of academic and workplace writing collected from graduating students in these two universities.

Questionnaires and interviews were designed to elicit information about students evolving perceptions of the value and role of written communications in engineering. We explored the relationship between students perceptions and the factors that were identifyed by Peter and through literature as potential sources of students' perceptions. These factors were language background, gender, career expectations, confidence, age, engineering task preference (e.g., management, engineering communications, problem solving or design work, academic study and research) and exposure to engineering workplace settings. Of particular interest to us was the specific nature of students' expectations of the workplace and their perception of themselves as engineering communicators.

Now, returning to the title of this presentation, through the application of an extended metaphor of Alice in Wonderland, we intend to explore the causes of what we have called the "Alice-syndrome". We use this term to describe what happens to some engineering students when they move from academia to the workplace and find that "nothing is as it should be". Alice moved from a regulated, rule-governed, familiar space with well defined roles and clear expectations into a fuzzy, unfamiliar and often unsafe world on the other side of the looking glass. So what does Lewis Carroll say about the Alice-syndrome?

Chapter five. Advice from a Caterpillar.


The Caterpillar and Alice looked at each other for some time in silence; at last the Caterpillar took the hookah out of its mouth, and addressed her in a languid, sleepy voice.

Who are you?' said the Caterpillar.

This was not an encouraging opening for a conversation. Alice replied, rather shyly, I I hardly know, Sir, just at present at least I know who I was when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then.'

What do you mean by that?' said the Caterpillar, sternly. Explain yourself!'

I ca'n't explain myself, I'm afraid, Sir,' said Alice, because I'm not myself, you see.'

I don't see,' said the Caterpillar.

I'm afraid I ca'n't put it more clearly,' Alice replied, very politely, for I ca'n't understand it myself, to begin with; and being so many different sizes a day is very confusing.'

It isn't,' said the Caterpillar.

Well, perhaps you haven't found it so yet,' said Alice; but when you have to turn into a chrysalis you will some day, you know and then after that into a butterfly, I should think you'll feel a little ... [strange], wo'n't you?'

Not a bit,' said the Caterpillar.

Well, perhaps your feelings may be different,' said Alice: all I know is, it would feel very ... [strange] to me.'

You!' said the Caterpillar contemptuously. Who are you?' (p. 50)

In the same way that Alice could not explain who she was because of all the changes taking place in and around her, so too students writers in engineering may wonder who they are and what has happened to them once they leave the university. Some writers are ready to play the language game. They pick up on all of the right cultural cues they receive in the workplace just as they have in academia. Others like Alice are bewildered, frustrated, inept and confused as they muddle through the unfamiliar world on the other side of the glass.

So, what did we find when we followed Alice in her adventures?

We designed our questionnaires and interviews to elicit information about the relationship between the seven factors (language backgound, gender, age, etc.) and students' perceptions of the value and role of communications in engineering. Only one of these factors proved to be a significant indicator of differences in students' perceptions. This factor was exposure to engineering workplace. Through the analyses of questionnaires, interviews and samples of written work, we identified three sub-groups of undergraduate engineering students based on the integration and duration of engineering workplace experience within the academic program.

In the academic training model (with no formal work placements), students completed their academic program with limited understanding of the role communication played in the workplace and were generally unrealistic regarding the priorities of the engineering workplace.

Their perceptions were based on conjecture about, without grounding in, actual experience (i.e., when describing the engineering workplace they tended to use phrases such as "I think", "I believe", "It seems", etc.).

Much like Alice did when asked by the Caterpillar "Who are you?", they were confused about their roles as engineering communicators.

They placed heavy reliance on professors as the ultimate authority and had vague career plans and no contacts in industry.

They generally expressed the belief that technical skills alone would ensure a successful engineering career and

they often had limited skill in engineering writing, with only 30% able to demonstrate adequate skill.

Students with multiple integrated short-term industrial co-op placements had a strong sense of workplace culture including the notion of "reading the boss" and understanding the dynamics of the work scene.

They had a renewed appreciation of their academic experience and had less difficulty with the gap between theory and practice, as they applied and saw the value of the application of academic/theoretical knowledge in the workplace.

Their internalized notions of the academic versus the workplace audience were more realistic.

This group also recognized defining the problem as a first step in the engineering process and the necessity of dealing with issues of time, priority and cost.

They mentioned increased opportunities for getting jobs through established contacts within industry.

These graduating students demonstrated at least adequate skills in engineering communications.

Students who had long-term industrial internship (16 months) placements had considerable engineering knowledge and a longer term of employment than co-op students and, therefore, they were eligible for tasks which involved greater degrees of responsibility.

Key factors that influenced changes in their perceptions of the role of communications in engineering were:

increased effort by managers and supervisors to mentor and prepare the students for engineering work, more substantial engagement in engineering tasks, greater responsibility and more involvement in long-term projects.

There was considerable variation in students' perception of workplace culture and the understanding of the role it plays in impeding or facilitating their own work.

An important outcome of this type of work placement was

a redefinition of specific career directions based on the experience,

a broadened understanding of the personal, social, ethical and business aspects of acting as a professional engineer,

increased recognition of the relevance of the academic program,

realization that oral presentations and writing are an integral part of engineering practice and

a realization that it is impossible to do engineering work without ample and effective documentation and skill in writing.

In this group, 100% of the students demonstrated adequate skill in writing.

So, how does the story end?



Recent research by Winsor (1996) and Dias, Freedman, Medway and Paré (1999) suggests that relevant engineering workplace experience integrated as part of the academic program is one of the most important factors influencing the early career trajectories of successful professionals. For the students writers participating in the co-op and industrial internship models of engineering education, genres common in their workplace settings provide an initial site of professionalization. As Jamie McKinnon (1993) found in his study of writers at the Bank of Canada, "writers... became more effective as they increasingly understood the very real social, cultural, and political dimensions of their work, embodied in typified discourse practices".

The present research shows that actual workplace experience is the key factor in the evolution of students' perceptions of the importance of engineering writing and communications and their role in engineering design. It is especially important to note that none of the other factors considered in this research (e.g., age, gender, language background, confidence, engineering task preference, etc.) proved to be significant indicators of students' evolving views of writing and communications in the engineering profession. Without workplace experience, students' perceptions are limited to the dynamics of academia and as a result, their career expectations lack realism: they expect either too much or too little. They often overestimate the importance of technical skill and underestimate the complexity of the roles they will play as engineering professionals. The advantage the long-term industrial internship model provides for students is a better understanding of engineering workplace issues within one professional setting, while the co-op model provides a broader base of engineering experiences on which students can draw. Integrating workplace experience as part of the academic program not only improves students academic performance but also provides essential background for successful early career trajectories and enhances students ability to do more effective work especially in fundamental areas such as design, where communications are so critical to successful practice. Industry also benefits from educational models which integrate workplace experience since newly graduated engineers, who already understand the nature of workplace expectations, are more likely to be able to meet them.

As Winsor (1996) notes, "Classroom instruction alone can never completely prepare a student to write at work. Any such training has to be supplemented by situated practice" (20).

In this presentation, however, we would like to give Lewis Carroll the last word:

Thus grew the tale of Wonderland:
Thus slowly, one by one,
Its quaint events were hammered out __
And now the tale is done,
And home we steer, a merry crew,
Beneath the setting sun.


Carroll, L. "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland", London: Magpie Books Ld, [1865] 1993.

Dias, P., Freedman, A., Medway, P. and Paré, A., "Worlds Apart: Acting and writing in academic and workplace contexts, " Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1999.

Duin, A. and Hansen, C., "Non-academic Writing: Social Theory and Technology", Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1996.

Freedman, A. and Adam, C., "Learning to Write Professionally: "Situated Learning" and The Transition from University to Professional Discourse," Journal of Business and Technical Communication, v. 10, 1996, pp. 395-427.

MacKinnon, J. "Becoming a Rhetor: Developing Writing Ability in a Mature, Writing-Intensive Organization." In R. Spilka (Ed.). Writing in the Workplace: New Research Perspectives. Corbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1993, pp. 41-55.

Strauss, A. and Corbin, J., "Basics of Qualitative Research: Grounded Theory Procedures and Techniques, " Newbury Park, CA: Sage, 1990.

Winsor, D., "Writing Like an Engineer: A Rhetorical Education, " Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum, 1996.