Derrida and Haynes manuals: why engineers should write properly

Famously, according to Derrida, `il n’y a pas de hors-texte‘, `there is nothing outside the text’. It’s time for engineers to get po-mo.


Before anyone accuses me of doing a reverse-Sokal and revokes my rationality permit, let me explain. The thought was provoked by this piece where Rebecca Schuman rails against the (US) college essay:

Students of the world: You think it wastes 45 minutes of your sexting time to pluck out three quotes from The Sun Also Rises, summarize the same four plot points 50 times until you hit Page 5, and then crap out a two-sentence conclusion? It wastes 15 hours of my time to mark up my students’ flaccid theses and non sequitur textual “evidence,” not to mention abuse of the comma that should be punishable by some sort of law—all so that you can take a cursory glance at the grade and then chuck the paper forever.

Unsurprisingly, this offended people who deserved to be offended. Rebecca Schuman responds to the criticism and points out that she objects to coddling students. Quite right too.

The original article talks about writing standards in the humanities. I teach engineering, and find the same problems. `So what’, sez you, `sure they’re not going to be writing novels anyway. Why do they need to write well?’

Engineers need to write competently, because, as M. Derrida says, whether or not he meant it in relation to Haynes manuals, there is literally nothing but the text: there is no meaning but what is written down (yes, I know he may well have meant the opposite, what are you going to do about it?)

This idea applies to all writing by engineers, whether for other engineers, or for amateur end-users. The prototypical engineering document is the standard. There is a standard for making black tea, recently reviewed. Why should there be such a thing? So that when we compare the flavour of different teas, or when we test the ability of a washing powder to remove tea stains, or when we test for tannin content, we know what we are testing. That can only work if the instructions are unambiguous, comprehensible, and complete. In other words, is the document written by someone with a proper command of their language? As one aeronautical engineer put it, `Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent’: if we cannot speak (write) of what we have done (or made), we must say (write) nothing. If we must write nothing, our new knowledge cannot be passed on; our thing is a thing merely, and not a technology.

The result of poor drafting of a standard, of slipshod writing of a manual, or of poor reporting of data can be frustration, or death. Engineering students must understand that there are only the words, and no meaning beyond them. A technician reading a service manual is under pressure to finish the job in time to have the aircraft flying on schedule: they will take the meaning that presents itself, not the meaning the engineer believes they presented.

A student a few years ago complained that I was marking the `style’ of their work, and not the `content’. They had not realized that the distinction is spurious. The `style’ (language, writing) is the content, because the reader(s) will have nothing but the writing to guide them. The `style’ is clarity and a lack of ambiguity, a style no less `literary’ than the `allusive’ or `poetic’, as the influences of the industrial chemist and author (in that order) Primo Levi demonstrate: a combination of Dante in Milanese, Swift, and the ASTM standard for `test method for susceptibility of dry adhesive films to attack by roaches’.

Should an engineering, or science, academic feel the need to cheer down, they might try this experiment with a class: ask them what was the last book they read which they were not required to read. A small number will have read something recently; a few more will mention Harry Potter; many will not have read a full-length book in their own living memory. (For the full misery experience, ask when they last read a poem.)

This matters. Though numbers and pictures are the fundamental working methods of engineers, words are the tools used to pass accreted experience to those who will use it in the future. The large aircraft and car manufacturers, and the companies which supply them, have lineages of more than a century. The design methods, and data, used to fix the shape of a Boeing or Airbus wing can be traced back through a series of technical reports to documents written in the 1930s. Those documents are still useful because they are correct (for engineering values of `correct’) and because they are readable: the meaning which presents itself on the page corresponds to physical reality. Sloppy writing presents a meaning which does not correspond to reality.

Engineering is a social activity, in that things are only technology when they are used. Their use is a function of the information which accompanies them. The language of the engineer not only reflects reality, but shapes it: an engineer without language is not the maker of a world, but its tool.

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