“story of self”

This exercise is an adaptation of the work on public narrative and the Story of Self of Harvard University sociologist and senior lecturer in public policy Marshall Ganz, PhD.

The version of the “Story of Self” we developed for “Engineering Ethics and the Public” is based on the premise that best practices in engineering and science require practitioners to remain deserving of the public’s trust by staying attuned to their primary and most fundamental obligation: the protection of the health, safety, and welfare of the public. As an increasing number of real-world controversies has shown, upholding high ethical standards for a client that is too often “unseen” and “unheard” can become a challenge even for the most well-meaning engineers and scientists when they lose touch with the ideals that brought them to their fields in the first place. Additionally, a majority of engineers and scientists go through years of educational training without ever articulating these ideals (let alone reflecting on them or refining them).

We use the “Story of Self” as a vehicle through which students can begin to develop self-awareness about who they are and what types of professionals they aspire to become. Addressing community organizers and movement leaders, Ganz explains that such self-awareness can comprise a powerful resource for gaining both moral clarity and the courage to act when one’s surroundings foster confusion and inaction: 

Stories are how we learn to make choices. Stories are how we learn to access the moral and intellectual resources we need to engage with the uncertain, the unknown, and the unpredicted. Because stories speak the language of emotion, the language of the heart, they teach us not only how we “ought to” act, but can in fact inspire us with the “courage to” act. And because the sources of emotion on which they draw are in our values, our stories can help us translate our values into action.

Our students are asked to write their “Story of Self” at the beginning and end of the course. The purpose of the two iterations is twofold: they allow for personal reflection on changes one may have undergone during the course of a semester, as well as for appreciation of the value of revisiting and revising one’s narrative, as one’s personal and professional circumstances evolve.

We have observed that the second iteration of students’ stories often includes:

  • characterizations of one’s earlier perceptions of engineering/science as “idealized” and articulations of moral challenges or weaknesses in one’s profession;
  • feelings of humility, uncertainty, vulnerability, or greater clarity about who one is or how one will conduct oneself in the face of work-related challenges in the future;
  • assessments of conventional educational cultures/curricula, and their effect on one’s personal identity as well as on one’s thinking, perceiving the world, and assessing the value of diverse knowledges and perspectives;
  • articulation of personal/professional aspirations coupled with clear visions about who one does and does not want to become as a person/professional;
  • affirmation of one’s commitment to one’s field and articulation of aspects of one’s field that make one’s aspirations realizable.

The assignment is below:


Examples of students’ “Story of Self” follow:

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