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

Natasha Artemeva and Janna Fox

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 unengineering-like the writing of his first year students had been. We picked up Peter's question and began to collect data.

Focussing on students graduating from engineering programs in Carleton University and the University of Windsor, we developed 46 case studies from questionnaire responses, personal interviews, and examples of academic and workplace writing. The questionnaires and interviews were designed to elicit information about students' evolving perceptions of the value and role of written communications in engineering. Using a grounded theory approach (Strauss & Corbin 1990), we explored the relationship between students' perceptions and the factors that were identified by Peter and supported by the 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 the students' expectations of the workplace and their perceptions of themselves as engineering communicators.

Through applying 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. Below is Lewis Carroll's introduction to the Alice-syndrome:

Chapter five. Advice from a Caterpillar.

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 student 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 background, 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 the 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.

Students who had completed the academic program with no formal work placements showed limited understanding of the role communication played in the workplace and were generally unrealistic regarding the priorities of the engineering workplace.

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.

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:

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

Important outcomes of this type of work placement were

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 & 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 student 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" (p.54).

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 of the long-term industrial internship model is that students are provided with 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 engineering practice where communications are so critical to success. 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" (p. 20).


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.

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.

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