McEver Program Turns a Page with Appointment of Steven Usselman

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Steven Usselman grew up around engineers. His grandfather was one. His uncle was, too.

“Many of the influential figures in my life were engineers,” said Usselman, a professor in the School of History and Sociology at the Georgia Institute of Technology, “so I have a lot of respect for the practical competence of engineers.”

There was, however, something special about those people in his life, something that helped set him on the path he has traveled for more than four decades — that of a historian of technology.

“I thought those engineers in my life were particularly effective because they were literate, and contemplative, and they had been steeped in the liberal arts,” Usselman said.

Perhaps, then, it is no surprise that he has been named the H. Bruce McEver Professor of Engineering and the Liberal Arts, a position dedicated to bringing the disciplines together for the betterment of each.

“I have a lifelong commitment to trying to bridge engineering and the humanities,” said Usselman.

His predecessor in the post, McEver Professor Emeritus Kenneth J. Knoespel, said he is looking forward to the program continuing to thrive under Usselman.

“His work will enable the expansion of our work with the College of Engineering as well as with related programs in the United States and the world,” said Knoespel,who is jointly appointed in the Ivan Allen College Schools of History and Sociology and Literature, Media, and Communication and currently a visiting professor at the Center for Baltic and Eastern European Studies in Stockholm. “I am pleased that I will be able to continue working with him.”

In his new position, Usselman will oversee development of courses to help link engineering and liberal arts and help organize programs to cross-pollinate viewpoints from both disciplines.

This approach to education at the intersection of technology and the humanities drives much of the work of the Ivan Allen College of Liberal Arts and the McEver program.

The program, built around multidisciplinary seminars that bring Ivan Allen College students together with counterparts from the College of Engineering, is designed to allow participants to explore the spaces where technology and society intersect.

In the last two years, for instance, the program has supported workshops and conferences on astrobiology. Prior to that, it has supported work for the Africa Atlanta: Mapping Place exhibition and catalog, the exhibition A Gathering of Continents and numerous other projects.

“Usselman is particularly well situated to perpetuate the goals of the program,” said Bruce McEver, IE 1966. He endowed the McEver Professorship in Engineering and Liberal Arts in 2001 and also serves on the Ivan Allen College of Liberal Arts Advisory Board.

“Steve is the ideal person” to succeed Knoespel, McEver said, noting Usselman’s preeminent position as a historian of technology, deep appreciation for literature, and his strong rapport with Georgia Tech’s engineering programs.

“I’m really for the well-rounded student, the renaissance person,” McEver said. “Steve is a great example and he will carry it forward.”

Eric Schatzberg, chair of the School of History and Sociology — a unit of the Ivan Allen College of Liberal Arts — called Usselman’s appointment “a much-deserved honor.”

“Steve is one of the leading historians of technology in the country, with research ranging from work on early railroads, to IBM’s computers, to the fiction of Flannery O’Connor,” Schatzberg said. “He is the ideal scholar to further Bruce McEver’s vision that engineers need not be isolated from ideas and culture.”

Usselman, who earned a Bachelor’s in Bioengineering at the University of California, San Diego, but found the lure of history too enticing, credited Knoespel for his work as the McEver Professor. Among other things, Usselman pointed to Knoespel’s pioneering courses designed to bring engineers and liberal arts students together to read literature, study philosophy, and to understand “how contemplation and the whole person is essential to life, and to lifelong effectiveness, especially in those technological realms.”

Looking forward, Usselman is assembling an advisory group from Georgia Tech’s engineering programs and working to expand his engineering in history course to be more accessible to many more students. Eventually he wants to develop a minor in engineering and the liberal arts.

McEver will continue to teach in the program, and Usselman is pleased that Knoespel will remain an active participant in the classroom and through public programming.

Usselman is currently spending most of his time in California, where he holds the Bern Dibner Research Fellowship in the History of Science and Technology at the Huntington Library. He is completing a study of how deep-well turbine pumps and their spin-offs spawned the development of hydraulic engineering and spurred the emergence of high-tech California during the first half of the twentieth century.


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