Dr. Mats Daniels and the TTT Grook

April 13, 2011 at 9:42 am 4 comments

Mats Daniels defended his thesis at Uppsala University this last week (Hooray!).  I received a copy of his thesis document in the mail yesterday.  Mats has been a longtime contributor to CS Education, and has been working on his doctorate for a long time, a period measured in double-digit numbers of years.

Mats maintains a mailing list to whom he mails a weekly Grook, and his grook for this last week was also the one that he ended his thesis with, reflecting his history with this document:

T.T.T.

Put up in a place

where it’s easy to see

the cryptic admonishment

T.T.T.

When you feel how depressingly

slow you climb,

it’s well to remember that

Things Take Time.

That admonishment also reflects our struggles with helping people (lay people, K-12 teachers and administrators, legislators and others who set public policy) understand computer science.  As my AERA experiences suggest, even at CS powerhouses like Stanford, people on the same campus don’t understand computer science.  We try to get computer science into the core curriculum, alongside disciplines that are hundreds (in some cases, over a thousand) years older than our own.  We worry about how people outside of our community understand computer science.  These are all well-founded worries, and I strongly support these efforts. I also recognize the wisdom of Mats’ grook.
It takes time to permeate popular culture the way that other disciplines have.  I have heard that there is an effort to create a television show that features a computer scientist as its hero.  Television is incredibly powerful in popular culture, but I wonder if we should also be thinking about slower, more pervasive ways of influencing popular culture.

The need for pop culture, paperback computer science: When I was a student in high school and undergraduate, many of my classes also required us to read some mass culture paperback that connected to the class.  I remember reading Future Shock for a high school class, and Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle in an undergraduate Engineering class (to lead into a discussion about unexpected effects of technological advances).  My daughter just read Dragons of Eden for her high school science class.

Many (maybe even most? all?) areas of science have books written for the the educated-but-not-specialist reader about topics in that area.  These books aren’t textbooks, and they are not surveys of the whole field. They are a slice, written in approachable (though not necessarily simple) prose.  They can be useful to assign in a class to get students to think about a perspective on the course that might not come up otherwise, and to feed into discussions.

Where are the popular culture, paperback books on computer science?  There are a few.  Danny Hillis’ The Patterns in the Stone meets the definition. James Gleick’s new book The Information (once it becomes “paperback”) may serve that role.  Almost no books like this actually contain code or describe algorithms. Do any of us CS educators actually assign these books in class and then discuss them?

We need books like these–and maybe not just “books” but also bits of software, simulations, videos, electronic books, and active essays.  We need media that are aimed at the educated-but-not-specialist reader with approachable prose (and other modalities), that are not textbooks, that don’t aim to cover the whole field, that describe a particular slice or perspective on computer science, and that could be assigned in a CS class for breadth and to spur discussion.  We need a lot of media like this, as much as has been written like this about mathematics, biology, chemistry, physics, and other disciplines.

If we want to take our place in the popular culture, we have to make the same contributions of ideas to the broad public and provide accessible media.  It’s the slow path into permeating our culture the way that other disciplines do. T.T.T.

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4 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Elizabeth Patitsas  |  April 13, 2011 at 2:52 pm

    “Do any of us CS educators actually assign these books in class and then discuss them?”

    I can’t, since I’m a TA, but nevertheless, I do make a point of telling my students to read Simon Singh’s “The Code Book”. A handful of my students do actually read the book — and they enjoy it, best of all.

    The book also contains descriptions of algorithms, too!

    Reply
  • 2. Michael Goldweber  |  April 14, 2011 at 9:11 am

    I’m just completing my second year attempting this very thing. I assign “popular” books to read along side a given course. Yes, we discuss the book and yes, students are required to write as well. The writing assignments have students probe the connections between the book and the course.

    The difficulty is finding appropriate books:
    Machine Organization: The Soul of a New Machine
    Language and Automata: A Certain Ambiguity
    Discrete Mathematics: The Number Devil
    CS 1: Turing, A Novel.

    Some work better than others. Kidder’s book is a perfect fit. On the other hand, the Turing novel is typically not well received.

    Given my success in this, I intend to continue the practice. Of course, I welcome suggestions for novels to accompany my courses.

    Reply
    • 3. Mark Guzdial  |  April 14, 2011 at 10:04 am

      Thanks, Mike — I think you made the point well. “The difficult is finding appropriate books.” Other fields have books to choose from. We need more.

      Reply
  • [...] finally got a chance to start it, and am really excited about it. It is an excellent example of the popular press CS paperbacks to which I was referring in a previous blog post. It’s filled with strong computer science [...]

    Reply

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