What I am Thinking: Reflective Practitioner and Educator Eric Hines

“The two worlds of practice and teaching are hard on each other. To live between them is kind of hard because you get pulled in both directions and don’t get a lot of sympathy from either side. I’ve learned how to be flexible and strong in certain ways by running between the two,” Prof. Hines says. “Going into it, I had more literal expectations: ‘let’s do some research, let’s advance the state of the art, let’s teach the students about our buildings’. But the good stuff is a level down from that: it’s about the people, how we understand things, how we do our work, how we fail and recover, how we succeed, and how we support each other.”

Tufts University Civil & Environmental Engineering Professor of the Practice Eric Hines takes one of his classes on a tour of the building projects his company was working on in Post Office Square. Photo: Tufts University

I first heard of Prof. Eric Hines as a rising sophomore at Princeton working with Prof. Adriaenssens in building on her existing Mechanics of Solids course. At the time, we drew much inspiration from Prof. Hines’s compelling pieces of writing on education and creativity in engineering, such as his series “Principles in Engineering Education” and his essay “Understanding Creativity.”

It is no coincidence that he wrote for and co-edited the Festschrift Billington 2012, a series of essays written in honor of Princeton Civil & Environmental Engineering Department’s Emeritus Professor David Billington; Prof. Hines was a graduate of the Princeton CEE Department himself. It was thus inspirational to meet Prof. Hines last week at Tufts University, where he has taught since 2003. As Professor of Practice in the school’s CEE department, he divides his time between Tufts and the LeMessurier engineering office in Boston.

Being in practice has forced Prof. Hines to think carefully about what he brings to the classroom. He expressed frustration that while the theoretical examples presented in textbooks are useful in helping students grasp concepts, “when you’re working in the real world on design, the real world doesn’t divide itself neatly up into little ideas.” In real problems he encounters in practice, “the ideas are important for understanding, but all these wild things happen: they intersect and pull over on each other, they become complex and even ironic in their intention… In the classroom, I like to have a real example, but the real examples are messy and difficult, and it can be hard to turn them back into theory.”

Prof. Hines’s internal struggle reflects his desire to stay true to the first principle he outlines in his essays: Theory and practice are indivisible. While he strives to clearly teach theory to his students, as a practitioner he also wants to show students how reality can cleverly disguise theory.

Does he still give students these more complex and realistic problems in the classroom? “Luckily, I can usually pull from the examples I’ve crafted over the years, but it in general takes an enormous amount of effort to take a real problem and to distill it into something the students can use,” he answers. “Unfortunately, we don’t really invest enough effort in academia in creating good learning examples– it’s a pretty profound form of intellectual activity, but the American university system hasn’t quite figured out how to reward faculty for this kind of engagement. Our culture in general, and thus also in our universities, is very concerned about what can be measured. If we could step back and have a deeper conversation about the immeasurable things that give our lives and our work their true value, we might develop a stronger capacity to pursue important things that can be hard to measure.”

When you’re teaching, you’re constantly trying to explain yourself to young people– a good audience, but a tough audience in terms of demanding a level of clarity. I bring that into my practice with me.

While his practice has inspired him to rethink teaching, his teaching has also changed the way he approaches engineering practice. “If you’re only ever practicing, you get used to the real world and the compromises you make, you get used to not being able to rationalize and justify everything because some decisions get made for different reasons. But when you’re teaching, you’re constantly trying to explain yourself to young people– a good audience,” he adds, “but a tough audience in terms of demanding a level of clarity. I bring that into my practice with me, and sometimes it feels like a curse because it’s much easier to go about my work without having to think about how I might teach things. Over the years, though, this idea of always needing to clearly explain every step really affected me in terms of how I did my calculations, developed my drawings, and talked to people. And this really allowed me to communicate between the two worlds of teaching and practice.”

EllipseRoof_1 (1)
Prof. Hines shares some of his drawings and calculations of an elliptical roof.

His students have also taught him valuable lessons on the nature of creativity, communication, and risk-taking. “With my students I learned a lot about how people– not just students– can be self-conscious about what they know and what they don’t know. Over the years I’ve become more comfortable with this kind of discomfort. Anytime you’re in a truly creative process, you don’t necessarily know what’s coming next, and that can be frightening. I think I’ve learned a lot about how to be in that process.

“There was a point when I realized that engineering is all about language. The thing about language is that we never get it right the first time around; language is this medium in which we put all this stuff on the table and think about developing the ideas so that the words and the drawings are the same. Language is this place where you can make mistakes. After that realization, I began to consider my calculations as a way to record the thoughts I was having in that space and in that moment, and I stopped worrying about the mistakes and trying to be right all the time.”

Engineering is all about language. The thing about language is that we never get it right the first time around… Language is this place where you can make mistakes.

This encounter with Prof. Hines is not the first time we have spoken about practitioner-professors of structural engineering on this blog: we touched on this idea while speaking with Mr. Helbig of Knippers Helbig and most particularly in our reflections on a recent symposium on Japanese structural engineering. I took the opportunity to ask Prof. Hines on the question that had been on my mind: why is it so common for engineering practitioners to be in academia in countries like Germany and Japan, but not in the US?

“That’s a very good question and worth writing a senior thesis on! I don’t know what you’re writing your thesis on–” (funny, neither do I)– “but you could write your thesis on the history of how the American academic system evolved to be the way it is. I could start to talk about the whole history, but we’d be sitting here for a very long time.” The divergence in cultural conventions originates as far back as the Industrial Revolution, he says, citing moment diagram conventions as one example of the divide: “The American academic approach is to put the diagram on the compression side of the member. The European approach, which is an approach that more designers that I know of have taken, put it on the tension side of the member; this allows the moment diagram to resemble the deformed shape. It’s really interesting how conventions and history and all these things can shape everything we believe in and what we think.

“A lot of how we think about science and math goes back a very long way, to the point that we have developed certain prejudices about how things happen. What I mean by ‘prejudice’ is that we learn certain concepts as dogmas; we think it’s ‘this way’ to the exclusion of thinking any other way.”

EllipseRoof_2 (1).jpg
One of Prof. Hines’s principles of engineering is that “drawing is the language of the engineer.” Pictured here is another set of drawings and calculations from the elliptical roof.

Prof. Hines touches on one of his other principles as a final illustration of some engineering aspects that are not so embedded in American culture: Drawing is the language of the engineer. “Every professor I know who writes papers in engineering, we all do the same thing: we start with the figures and write the paper around the figures. We begin with the visual language. But somehow in the US we treat drawing with this strange duality– drawing is either a technical skill, or it’s this artistic and abnormal gift. There was never a place where drawing was just part of the culture.

“Engineering in many ways is a discipline that needs the visual to be right in the middle of the culture and to be normal.” He compares visual language to the language of words: “Sometimes I write a nice essay, sometimes I write a formal document, and sometimes I write a love letter. Sometimes I say something cool, and sometimes I say something stupid, but it’s not like I can only say things that are polished and flawless.” It’s the same with drawings in engineering, he explains. “Sometimes the drawings look nice and beautiful, and sometimes they’re really quick sketches. You can imagine how frustrating it would be to expect every stage in the creative process to be this profound work of art.”

So he doesn’t. Drawing is the language of the engineer, but only after the engineer learns to embrace the visual language as a sometimes imperfect mode of communication.

After graduating from Princeton University with a BSE in Civil Engineering and Architecture in 1995, Prof. Eric Hines went on to do a Fulbright in Stuttgart, working at Schlaich Bergermann & Partner and studying the history of Jörg Schlaich’s structures. He admired Prof. Schlaich’s career which intertwined practice and academia; he is now Professor of Practice at Tufts University and Principal of LeMessurier Consultants in Boston, MA.

Author: Demi Fang ’17

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