Another year, another set of engineering students fixing the TTC for free.

Jason Foster and Alan Chong of University of Toronto Engineering Science invited me once more to their students’ annual Praxis II showcase. Invitations to attend went out far and wide, and all the Usual Suspects paid a visit, as we will see shortly. But I’m the only one who did five uninterrupted hours of free crits; everybody else was just browsing.

I do feel deterred from participating in these events, where I willingly and, on the whole, enjoyably impart whatever knowledge I have for long periods at my own effort and expense, because now the program is so growed up it’s got its own haters. Andre the Giant still doesn’t have a posse, but this gang of entitled pishers that never wants their mistakes corrected surely does. When Don Tapscott complains that kids today are going to grow up to regret what they’ve posted online, let me tell you something: I regret what they’ve posted already.


Students wrote their own “RFPs,” six of which were selected by instructors and randomly assigned to teams. One was attainable (redesign the shitty Orion VII bus interiors), one impossible (improve emergency-response times). One was somewhat attainable (improve signage [yes]). One was the stupidest thing I’ve heard all year (reduce heat loss at Museum station). Another couldn’t be done with the assigned constraint: You can’t keep people from falling onto the tracks without a barrier. A last one was simply uninteresting.

(Photos. Last year.)

Let me get the bad news out of the way

Teams had to produce a brochure promoting their work. I always took one home. I’ve got 40 brochures here. At three students per team (some had four), I’ve talked to over 100 students, probably 120. (Occasionally I picked up a brochure without getting a chance to chat.) I’m the constant in this process; students are the variables. This year two of them were more variable than one would expect.

  • I argued with two students.

    1. One insisted that his lousy map wasn’t a map but “a representation of a map.” Nope: Letters are things and not pictures of things, and what you’ve got there is a map. XX; XY. (The triggering incident was the use of <- instead of an arrow even though the rest of the poster used arrows.)

    2. I pointed out when Arial (or Myriad) was used instead of a claimed Helvetica, and pointed out other mistakes of typography, but those weren’t “arguments.” But of course the other contretemps was my excitable little friend Валентин Перетрухин. He and his team ignored the heat-loss RFP and just redecorated Queen’s Park station because they felt like it.

      I asked my usual questions (giving them benefit of the doubt in spades) and then did indeed ask “Why in God’s name did you change the font?” Things went downhill from there. (Incidentally, FuturaGill Sans ≠ aboriginal TTC typeface.)

      However, I didn’t wheel over in my computer chair (I dragged the chair with me), and what I actually said to half the kids was “You know who I am, right?” in a casual way. (The other half knew me on sight.) It was part of my standard spiel: I’m Joe Clark, I’m not a T.A., I’m not marking you, I’m here to give you a hard time. Aaand… pitch! (Too many kids didn’t know what “pitch” meant.) I can do high-and-mighty on command, but I wasn’t doing it there.

      Ten minutes into our argument, with a crowd of 15 watching in bemusement, I told Valentin not to argue with people and especially not to argue with someone twice his age who is twice as argumentative. If you think the teaching assistant who witnessed the whole thing was on the student’s side, you might be surprised.

    Mustn’t pick fights, kids. Your iron ring entitles you to nothing. Besides, the people on your side have an unquenchable bloodlust. Talk about running with the wrong crowd.

    In retrospect, these students’ behaviour, in situ and after the fact, is consistent with the oft-repeated claim that Kids Today expect everything handed to them, completely reject correction of any kind, adamantly insist they’re always right despite just barely being old enough to drive, view education as a tedious impediment to their immediate ascension up the job ladder, and, in an era where the Web and instant messaging have taught them never to hold back, believe in their absolute generational right to get in the faces of any old fart who dares to tell them otherwise.

    That’s a nice attitude they’ve got there. How will it solve the problem of getting a D for your Praxis II course? No amount of Facebooking is gonna expunge that from your record.

  • This year, TTC managed to show up.

    Two students and two old guys in suits chat in front of the students’ poster

    I was seated talking to a set of students when the general manager of the TTC, Gary Webster, and his lieutenant, John Sepulis, swept in like dukes and just took over. Webster said hello to me in a baby-kissing politician’s manner and just barged ahead.

    Quite a long time later, I corrected a mistake the kids made and pointed out to Webster that, if one of their drawings looked familiar, that was because it was based on work the TTC had bought and paid for in 1994.

    Webster shook my hand as he left. “This is the longest conversation you have ever had with me,” I told him. He laughed nervously.

    “And you’ve taken these students more seriously than you’ve ever taken me,” I told him.

    He laughed again and said “I’m not sure that’s correct.”

    I am,” I told him.

    I’ve heard a few theories about why the TTC is so resistant to outside ideas. Being overrun by jumped-up motormen and engineers is one reason. You can point to an executive with a Twitter account and promises of an API all you want, but this is not a fundamentally open organization. With minor exceptions, they’ve ignored and stonewalled me for two years when not actively stabbing me in the back.

    What might be a bit shocking for TTC mandarins is the fact that, in the archives of another expert they shafted, Paul Arthur, is evidence they’ve been in this habit for a good 15 years. I have that evidence. It’ll come in handy during the next human-rights complaint, I expect.

    I observe that the only people taking my side in the Flickr photo comments are from out of town, a pattern I’ve noted of late and have been acting on.

Structural problem

The Praxis course is one of engineering design. A matter/antimatter collision? Previously, yes. An adamantly non-twee form of design is slowly seeping through the tough, rationalist pores of engineering.

But I don’t think the kids (I couldn’t stop calling them kids) knew what they had coming. As I talked to them, many visibly believed they were being criticized. They weren’t. They were undergoing a crit. I don’t think they understood the concept or the process. It’s an expert evaluation, right there on the spot, in which you defend your project.

Your fellow students can give you a crit. So can your profs. But those aren’t really useful. It’s the outside crits that count. That’s what I was giving them. It’s not personal, it’s structural. And the person giving the crit doesn’t have to be a P.Eng. Engineers don’t quite rule the world, and engineering students are greenhorns. I should know; I was one.

I don’t think the students knew or expected any of this. Nor were they aware that they were participating in a storied, if second-tier, method of presenting research findings – a poster session. All this has been done before, but not in the engineering field.

The good news

The system rewards industry

Several students contacted me (that I know of – some may have fallen prey to spam filters) and asked for help. I helped all of them without giving away any answers. One team, working on signage, had the presence of mind to come over and borrow my files. I copied over about a half-gig of electronic documents and lent them a few hundred pages.

Any team could have done that. Only that team did. Such industry and initiative deserve respect, if not an increased grade.

(Also, apparently many students “subscribe” to my blog. If so, I expect they’re reading a lot of unrelated material. You can subscribe just to a category by adding feed/ to the URL of that category.)


I think the kids did a good job with what they had to work with. (In fact, one redesign of the bus interior seems immediately usable.) Work was broadly improved over last year. In fact, a year’s institutional memory seems to have helped. Three times lucky?

The foregoing posting appeared on Joe Clark’s personal Weblog on 2009.04.18 13:43. This presentation was designed for printing and omits components that make sense only onscreen. (If you are seeing this on a screen, then the page stylesheet was not loaded or not loaded properly.) The permanent link is:

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