English Professor Teaches Unlikely Course
Sept. 30, 2020—In 2015, Patrick McGinty was doing work outside his home in Pittsburgh, Penn., when he saw a driverless vehicle making the treacherous route down his pothole-filled back alley. McGinty, an English professor by trade, says Pittsburghers are notoriously nosey, or “nebby” if you’re from the area, and he is no exception. When he saw the autonomous vehicle traipsing in his own backyard, he says he started doing research, “and never really stopped.”
The Slippery Rock University professor says he is by no means a car person.
“I am not even a technophile,” he says while conducting an interview on his cracked and outdated iPhone. While all of this may be true, he went on to pitch, and eventually teach, three seminar courses on autonomous vehicles just last fall.
McGinty’s course dove into the historical context of American innovation, the rise of technology in everyday life, and the eventual takeoff of technology, sans humans.
Creating the Course
When Slippery Rock University, located just south of Pittsburgh, announced the creation of its seminar program, McGinty was excited as he’d had experience with such programs at his alma mater. When SRU announced that it was modeling their program after Portland State University, McGinty’s alma mater, he said it was kismet.
The launch of SRU’s seminar program perfectly coincided with McGinty’s growing fascination with autonomous vehicles. He knew he wanted to learn more about autonomous technology and pass it on to his students.
“I started writing a memo in my phone at the Children’s Museum when I was there with my 1-year-old son,” he said of his initial classroom pitch.
Filling Out the Roster
After admittedly minimal convincing, Professor McGinty’s classroom was up and running in the fall of 2019. With roughly 25 students in each section, McGinty says he was well aware that the topic was not in his usual wheelhouse.
“I have taught a ton of stuff last minute,” he says. “I’ve even taught college-level Latin when I probably didn’t know enough to be teaching college-level Latin,” he laughs.
But the driverless car course went off without a hitch. McGinty says he had students from across the University’s majors show not only an interest, but a passion for the information in his course.
“I had some really outstanding dance students who wrote about movement and choreography in ways that I had never thought about before, comparing traffic and intersections to choreography,” he said. “I was driving home from campus, stopped at an intersection and the light went on in my head—and my students are the ones who turned it on for me.”
McGinty says students from special education and healthcare majors were among the most surprising, advocating for marginalized groups while still in their teens.
“Most people start thinking about themselves, ‘How will this affect my own life?’ But some of these students from the get-go were thinking about how it will affect the lives of those they are trying to help,” McGinty says. “It was hugely inspiring for me.”
McGinty says the seminars were hugely successful. According to University evaluations, he says his course ranked above the 75th percent mark.
While he attributes some of that to his teaching, he says most of the credit goes to his students and their understanding of interdisciplinary topics.
“What I lack in expertise, I make up for in a generalistic approach,” says the professor. “I understand how to learn alongside my students and let my own curiosity spark their curiosities.”