Another semester has come to a close, and this one couldn’t come soon enough. I’m not sure why this semester was more grueling than the others before it, but I am sure it’s good to be done.
My major achievement this semester was finishing my first semester teaching CWID. CWID stands for Connecting With Ideas and is the first-semester-experience course at the College of Western Idaho. Two-thirds of the class is your standard college survival inventory — study skills, note-taking skills, test-taking skills, etc. — but this content is presented in the context of a theme, which forms the remaining one-third of the class. In this way, each section of CWID is the same and yet very different.
Of course, my theme involves engineering. I’m so glad I signed up last year to teach CWID, because for now this looks to be the closest I’ll get to teaching an engineering class at CWI. And although I attracted a small handful of hopeful engineers in the two sections I taught this semester, most of my students had no intention of going into engineering. They signed up because the time and location were the most convenient for them.
That’s not to say they didn’t enjoy my class or that my theme was strictly engineering. Each week we examined an engineering failure and then compared it with events (often another failure) in history, literature, business, politics, or popular culture. From that comparison, we extracted a lesson about success that served as the thematic driver for the college survival content for that week.
The Tacoma Narrows Bridge collapse
Here’s an example to illustrate. During Week 8 of the course, we examined the Tacoma Narrows Bridge collapse. Construction on this bridge connecting Tacoma, Washington, with neighboring Kitsap Peninsula began in 1938. Even before it was completed, the local community nicknamed the bridge “Galloping Gertie” due to the oscillations the bridge deck experienced during wind gusts. In fact, the bridge was something of a roller coaster ride for commuters, who could lose sight of cars in front of them and then catch sight of them again as they rode the “wave” of the bridge deck.
While fun for some, the oscillations worried others. After all, bridges aren’t supposed to behave like that. The state toll authority commissioned a University of Washington professor in nearby Seattle named Frederick Farquharson to study the problem and recommend solutions. He did so and presented his root cause analysis on 2 November 1940. The bridge deck was built with lighter materials and with a lower width to length ratio to save on construction costs. But this geometry, combined with the flat sides along the bridge deck blocking wind gusts, allowed the wind to create local pressure differences around the bridge that created the twisting oscillations that gave the bridge its nickname.
Farquharson then provided two possible solutions:
Either way, in short, the bridge needed to be more aerodynamic.
The first solution required the removal of material, which the state disliked because once you remove material in that fashion you can’t put it back. What if that idea didn’t work? You’d have the same problem in a bridge that now had huge holes all along its span. So the city council began the bidding process for contractors to implement the second solution.
and a commission to determine the root cause of the failure was assembled. In the end, the commission reached the same conclusion Farquharson had before the failure event. The bridge needed to be more aerodynamic to eliminate the pressure differences that led to the oscillations in the bridge deck. The commission also recognized that the smaller width of the bridge and the lighter materials also contributed to the failure; a wider bridge deck would be stiffer and more resistant to oscillations as would a bridge deck constructed from heavier materials.
Construction on a new bridge was delayed due to a shortage of materials during WWII but was completed in October 1950. This time engineers incorporated aerodynamic design features into the bridge. Note the gaping holes along the side of the bridge as it appears today (it’s the one on the left). The locals nicknamed this bridge “Study Gertie” because it didn’t behave as the previous bridge had. The photo shows two bridges because over time traffic across the bridge became so congested that traffic would at times be stop-and-go between it and I-5 over 6 miles away. Another bridge needed to be built to alleviate the demand, and it took time for taxpayers to agree to the expense. Today both bridge remain in service, with “Study Gertie” handing westbound traffic and the newer bridge handling eastbound.
The Frost/Nixon interviews
From there, we jumped into the Frost/Nixon interviews. Richard Nixon was the first and so far only US president to resign from office. He did so in the wake of the Watergate scandal.
Nixon had always played dirty when campaigning for office. It was this behavior that got him the name “Tricky Dicky” from the US senatorial candidate he defeated in 1950. So as the 1972 presidential election approached, Nixon’s campaign manager had no scruples about doing whatever it took to gain any advantage that would secure Nixon a second term as president. The campaign staff determined to break into the offices of the Democratic National Committee located in the Watergate complex in Washington, D.C. and tap the phones so they could listen in on phone conversations.
But the four men who broke in were caught in the act and arrested. The incident did not affect the election; Nixon handily won a second term by a wide margin. But one thing led to another, and by February 1973, just one months into Nixon's second term, Congress became involved.
Their involvement would not have amounted to much without the Nixon tapes. Out of a devotion to preserving history, Nixon recorded every conversation in the Oval Office during his presidency, whether that conversation was held over the telephone or face to face. But only a small handful of people knew about the recordings, so most people who spoke with the President had no idea their conversations were being recorded.
Although Nixon did not directly authorize the Watergate break-in and in fact had no knowledge of it until after the fact, the Nixon tapes show conclusively that he tried to cover up the incident rather than bring the guilty parties to justice. Once Congress learned from the testimony of key individuals in the Nixon administration not only that these tapes existed but that the content proved a cover-up by the President himself, they demanded that Nixon release the tapes. Nixon refused, citing national security interests and personal property rights. The issue went to the Supreme Court, which ruled that Nixon had to surrender the tapes. Nixon reluctantly complied.
The tapes clearly damned Nixon. At this point, Congress began impeachment proceedings against the President. After the House passed articles of impeachment, Nixon knew the Senate would bring him to a trial that he would not likely survive. After an agonizing ordeal to decide what to do, Nixon determined that he would not allow anyone to remove him from office. He would keep control by stepping away. And so he resigned.
That’s a lot of back story, but you can’t really understand or appreciate the Frost/Nixon interviews without it. After resigning office, Nixon essentially fell off the radar. But he was embroiled in lawsuits over the tapes and other documents that he refused to surrender. These lawsuits were draining his financial resources, and by 1977 he needed a way to earn some cash.
At about the same time, a television interviewer with a reputation for asking softball questions was looking for a big opportunity. David Frost wanted to keep living his playboy lifestyle and needed something big to bring in the money to maintain it. He recognized that opportunity in Richard Nixon. After all, shortly after assuming office, Gerald Ford decided to pardon Nixon for whatever he did or may have done in connection with Watergate. Many questions remained unanswered because a pardon prevented a trial, and Frost saw that answering those questions could provide him with the opportunity he needed.
Nixon was initially skeptical about doing the interviews, but his staff assured him that Frost wouldn’t ask him any hard questions. After all, Frost had interviewed many celebrities and politicians in his native Britain and never put any of them to the fire. Why wouldn’t this foreigner behave the same way for an American politician? Plus it provide some much-needed cash flow in the wake of Nixon’s lawsuits.
Eventually, Nixon agreed, and the two parties negotiated a deal. Part of the deal stipulated that Nixon could not know any specific questions in advance, only the topics to be covered. That didn’t seem bothersome because Frost had a reputation for asking only softball questions. Besides, Nixon would be paid $600,000 plus 20% of any profits for participating in the interviews and have an opportunity to craft the story around the scandal that ended his presidency.
But in the interviews, Frost went after Nixon hard, especially with regard to Watergate. I’ve watched the first and most watched of the interviews, which concerns Watergate (and so can you), and it’s a great intellectual chess game. Nixon kept trying to play lawyer and hedge every move Frost made, but in the end, Frost has done his homework and presented so many facts that Nixon simply could not craft a story to his liking.
Nixon got his money, but that’s the only win he got from the interviews. After the interviews aired (which are still the most viewed political interviews ever broadcast), the public by and large believed he was guilty of obstructing justice. Frost, on the other hand, got a tremendous boost to his career. He gained a popularity status he never before knew and went on to interview many leading world figures of the day.
Drawing a lesson of success
What do we learn about success by comparing these two events? Success favors those who know what they’re getting into. The engineer who designed the Tacoma Narrows Bridge didn’t know about the need to incorporate aerodynamic features in a bridge subjected to frequent wind gusts. President Nixon didn’t know how much David Frost would play hardball in his interview sessions. Had these individuals known what they were getting into, they could have been better prepared and likely avoided failure.
This thematic background then provides context for the course content for that week, which comprises two parts. The first are student presentations from a scavenger hunt activity, and the second is the value of studying diverse disciplines in addition to one’s own major field of study. The scavenger hunt requires students to visit the locations of various services on campus (the Writing Center, Student Life, and Academic Advising, for example). They take photographs that they then show during their presentation as proof of everyone’s participation, and the content of the presentation relates the answers to specific questions about an assigned service.
In this way, everyone visits a different service and informs the rest of the class about it so that all learn together. This activity really helped many students become more aware of the free help available to them on campus, making it more likely that they will use these services when they really need them. It also helped them prepare for the final project at the end of the semester, which involved a group presentation.
The second part focusing on diverse disciplines engages the question of general education. Many students feel the GE requirement is a waste of their time, but in this part we explore the benefits of embracing the concept. To help make the case, I share with them real-world experiences from my engineering career that demonstrate how studying diverse disciplines provided me with the skills I needed to work with other people to deliver consistently good work on time. I also show how these skills helped me overcome obstacles presented by differing political agendas within an organization.
And all of this is within the context of the success lesson we extracted by comparing two events which appear on the surface to be different but underneath are very much alike. Each week we covered a new comparison that offered another lesson on success. At the end of the course, students complete a final project which requires them to compare two events of their choosing and draw their own lesson of success from that comparison. It made a great finish for the course, and I was very impressed with how my students responded to the challenge.
I really had a lot of fun putting this course together and exploring the interconnections of our world. I look forward to improving upon the course and teaching it again next semester and every semester thereafter that I can.
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