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ECE professor Andrea Goldsmith on storytelling in technical writing

Wrapping up Women’s History Month with Writing, Part 1

<h6>Sydney Peng / The Daily Princetonian</h6>
Sydney Peng / The Daily Princetonian

As Women’s History Month comes to an end, we want to highlight literature curated by some of the University’s incredible female faculty. So many women at the University are not only advancing breakthroughs in their respective fields, but also translating their lived experiences into words that inspire, move, challenge, and encourage others.

Faculty members have been asked to navigate an unforeseen academic year in the midst of a racial reckoning. Despite the challenges that came with shifting online, connecting with students, and confronting societal tensions, female faculty at the University have continued to channel their passion into teaching and creating.

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To bring the celebration of women and their contributions to culture, history, and society to The Daily Princetonian, we spoke to a few of the many inspiring female authors working at Princeton on what it means to be a professor, writer, and mentor during these turbulent times.

While these authors work in fields as diverse as engineering, literature, and social policy, their experiences highlight elements of commonality that have shaped their personal perspectives. These women discussed the balance of work and motherhood, the traditional split between storytelling and academic writing, and their advice to the next generation of female authors.

With words of encouragement and stories of perseverance and compassion, this impressive contingent of professors offered a poignant perspective on the work of female academics.

Electrical and computer engineering professor Andrea Goldsmith

"Be confident in your own abilities. Persevere and be ambitious."

- Professor Andrea Goldsmith


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Andrea Goldsmith is the Dean of Engineering and Applied Science and a professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering. She began her role as dean on Sept. 1, 2020.

Of the authors we interviewed, Goldsmith is the only author who publishes exclusively in the domain of academia and technical non-fiction. However, she discussed her little known background and early connections to creative writing. “My mom was this creative artist writer. I love creative writing, and I thought I might be a writer like her,” she said.

Goldsmith echoed the sentiments of other authors when she described how creative writing and technical writing have far more similarities than are typically recognized. She argued that strong, engaging writing shaped by creative influences is conducive to communicating concepts that many find inaccessible.

“I like to write stories even when I am talking about deeply technical things,” Goldsmith said. “I write stories that captivate people and bring people into what is exciting and impactful, which, in the case of my technological writing, is the story of the technology we are developing.”

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Goldsmith stated that the way in which she writes is motivated by a core theme in her work: “how we can use technology to make the world a better place.” She commented on how this concrete “so what” in her writing lends an accessible sense of impact and relevance to her work, side-stepping the pitfalls of weighty academic work. In her writing, Goldsmith aligns primacy and tangible effect: “the first chapter of my book is all about the impact.”

While her father was a mechanical engineering professor, Goldsmith’s dedication to applicable technology systems was self-motivated. She recounted her experience paying her own way through college so that she would not be influenced by her father’s passions above her own. Even so, she fondly reflected that “[her] dad was still [her] biggest cheerleader.”

Beyond the support and mentorship she gained from her parents, Goldsmith also commented on her relationships with mentors in a field dominated by men.

“My strongest mentors professionally were men,” she said. “There were very few women senior to me... there were no women professors that I remember in electrical engineering. The first woman senior to me that I encountered as an undergraduate was a teaching assistant in my algebra class. She had a lot of influence on me, she may not even realize that, but just seeing a woman who was a Ph.D. student in mathematics was like, ‘Oh, you know what, I can do this.’”

Goldsmith recalled her male mentors with fondness and gratitude. “I had such wonderful mentors... they were huge champions for me,” she said.

She also described how, in the absence of senior female mentorship, she and her colleagues relied on one another, filling the gap themselves. “There was a group of us [at] about the same career stage, and we supported each other. We would mentor each other,” Goldsmith said. “What I realized as I become more senior is that women around me were not getting mentored and not even getting nominated for awards and honors, so at some point I just told all the women in my area of [electrical engineering], ‘If you think you deserve an award, just come talk to me.’”

From recognizing deficits in female recognition to starting discussion on inequity in STEM fields, Goldsmith has become a champion for those underrepresented in traditionally white, male disciplines. In her role chairing the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers diversity and inclusion committee, Goldsmith considers herself to be a “huge advocate for diversity in engineering.” She said she believes diversity is crucial for technical fields to continue advancing.

“The fact that I bring a different perspective and a different set of experiences to the profession of engineering allows me to be creative in different ways. I’ve come to the conclusion that having diverse people in the profession of engineering is essential to have the field reach its full potential. We need more women, we need more people of color, we need people of more diverse backgrounds,” Goldsmith said.

But even in her confidence, Goldsmith acknowledged the difficulties of being a member of the minority, stating “At every career stage, there’s people that are questioning, ‘Do you belong, are you good enough?’” In response to such doubts, she said, “It’s important to put those voices aside and take your confidence from yourself.”

Even when not facing such intense scrutiny, Goldsmith reflects that professional women face a number of challenges, particularly regarding the balance of the personal and professional.

“When I got [my first] book back from my publisher and held it in my hands, I said, ‘You know, it wasn’t worth it. I lost three months of time with my kids.’”

Goldsmith acknowledged that her perspective on her book has since changed, and she was able to make up for lost time with her family. But she reiterated that “having it all” remains a formidable task for women, even in 2021. However, Goldsmith firmly maintained that women’s lives do not have to be and should not be binary.

“I don’t think you have to choose between being a successful professional and being a successful person. In fact, to me, success requires both dimensions,” she said.

The book that seemed to threaten this holistic success is “Wireless Communications,” which details dramatic shifts in recent technology use for remote connection. The book is now used by universities and professionals around the world, and has been translated into three different languages. It has received recognition and notoriety as a work that is both useful and timely.

In a pandemic context, nearly all communication utilizes wireless technology, and major advancements have led up to and come out of this “pandemic pressure.” But even before COVID-19, more recent editions of Goldsmith’s work reflected the rapid change in the field over the past decade. “For students, for practitioners, when I think about how many people it has influenced, it was worth writing,” she said.

Goldsmith also discussed how the nature of working in her field has allowed her to collaborate in her writing with both her colleagues and her students. “There aren’t as many things that I write just on my own anymore,” she said.

Goldsmith described the process of working with graduate students as they begin to develop their skills in academic writing, again blurring the line between creative and technical: “eventually, they also get really good at storytelling.”

Some women Goldsmith gave shout-outs to embody this definition of success as well as the notion of mentorship by example and support: former Dean of the School of Public and International Affairs Cecilia Rouse, politics professor Melissa Lane, and Chair of the Department of Anthropology Carolyn Rouse.

To conclude, Goldsmith said, “All of the women faculty members have reached the level of success that they have because of their writing and their research, which was captured in their writing. I give a shout-out to them. These women that I’ve interacted with have influenced me just in the short time I’ve been at Princeton.”

Note from the writers: These models of female creativity and ability underscore the depth of experience within Princeton’s accomplished community. Though we highlight their words and works now, their achievements continue to engage and inspire even when underrecognized. They remind us that finding your voice, regardless of the form it takes, is crucial as we work towards a world that derives strength from women’s words and actions. Thus, we urge you to carve out spaces for self-expression and recognize the power your words can hold.     

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