It’s about me vs. it’s about others

January 15, 2010 at 1:59 pm 9 comments

In a recent blog post, responding to the complaints of humanists that they are not taken seriously enough by the outside world, Ian Bogost places the blame explicitly on the backs of the complaining scholars.  His argument is (my paraphrase), “If you want to be taken seriously, take the rest of humanity seriously!”

The problem is not the humanities as a discipline (who can blame a discipline?), the problem is its members. We are insufferable. We do not want change. We do not want centrality. We do not want to speak to nor interact with the world. We mistake the tiny pastures of private ideals with the megalopolis of real lives. We spin from our mouths retrograde dreams of the second coming of the nineteenth century whilst simultaneously dismissing out of our sphincters the far more earnest ambitions of the public at large—religion, economy, family, craft, science.

via Ian Bogost – The Turtlenecked Hairshirt.

It’s the first week of the semester at Georgia Tech, and I’m teaching Senior Design for Computational Media majors.  The Senior Design course is meant to be a “capstone,” where students bring to bear all that they have learned in the last four years (or more) of undergraduate studies to solve someone’s problem.  That last part is critical to the course objectives: To solve someone else’s problem.  We insist that there be a customer who wants the problem solved.  We gather problems from across campus (e.g., a problem assigning space in a department across campus) and around town (e.g., several from the Neurosurgery Department at Emory, one from an entrepreneur developing a video game to teach reading).  The reaction to the students to this list of problems makes me think that the problems that Ian is seeing among humanities scholars runs deeper in our culture.  I see it in these students more than I expected.

It’s stunning the effort to which the students have gone through to do what they want to do.  There’s the student who got his buddy who graduated last semester to email us to say that he’d be the customer for his buddy’s pet game development project, whatever that was.  There are the students who found a professor across campus to email me today (the last day that project selections are due) to suggest a project, but the professor got the message wrong and ended up suggesting a project of arranging her book collection.  Not really about computation or digital media.  The one that really set the tone for me was the articulate email from one student early in the week who insisted on building his own game because, he was going to be a game developer and “[I am] more likely to work for a game company, designing and creating within the company, than to freelance and have a customer or client telling you what to do…I’d much rather have this project be relevant to my career than some random inventory whatever that I’m going to put zero soul into. Senior projects are supposed to be showcases of your talent, not assigned, unrelated busywork.”  He really does believe that his career will only involve designing and creating whatever he wants, not what a customer or client wants.

Of course, students want to do something “cool.”  I get that.  What bothers me is the assumption that someone else’s problem is by default less interesting, less important, less powerful as a learning experience than something cooked up for themselves.  I see a lack of willingness to consider the others’ view, to try out their problem, to gain the experience of working for someone else.  I see the problem the same as with Ian’s scholars:  Look around and you see what’s interesting out there!  And unless you do, don’t expect the outside world to take you very seriously.

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9 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Greg Wilson  |  January 15, 2010 at 3:04 pm

    In both UCOSP and my software engineering course, I insist that students make contributions to pre-existing open source projects. It permits the variety they crave (everything from kernel hacking and security to games and sound editors) while constraining them to provide utility in a way that they’re willing to accept. David Humphrey’s innovative open source course at Seneca ( is another good example of this.

  • 2. Raymond Lister  |  January 15, 2010 at 3:48 pm

    What a lovely quote from Ian Bogost! I think it also applies, broadly, in principal, to computer scientists. The disciplie of computer science encourages its students to be fascinated by the machine for it’s own sake, and to take for granted the people who use that machine. For example, I think learning about user interface design — and consequently, learning a little about how people think and communicate — should be as central to a computer science degree as learning about programming. In a time when the young have embraced computers as a social tool, a communication medium – Facebook, Twitter, etc — the disciplie of computer science, as it is taught at this time, is misanthropic.

  • 3. Briana Morrison  |  January 16, 2010 at 12:28 pm

    You are not alone. I am teaching the capstone class this semester and have experienced the same situation. My students have declared, “I will only work on this project, so only put me on that team.” Of course, I have responded with, “Is that what you will tell your supervisor at your job…I will only work on this?” You can explain to your game developer student when he works for a game studio as a low level programmer (s)he will have ZERO choice in what they work on. At some point this generation will have to realize at the end of college the majority of their “choices” have already been made.

    • 4. Erik Engbrecht  |  January 16, 2010 at 5:36 pm

      I think telling students that they will have zero choice regarding what they work on in industry is disingenuous. Even in today’s economy a decent CS student from a good school is going to have choices as to where he works (if you have one that doesn’t, send me their resume). Once there, many employers make efforts to ensure a good fit. A person who is doing something they do not want to do will not perform well no matter how talented they are. Sure, there are temporary times when you have to do something that you don’t want to, and there are times when you have to do things you don’t want to do in order to do the things that you do want to do. But that’s very, very different from having zero choice.

      I would NEVER encourage a young person to study a subject that would be likely to get the trapped in a situation where they have zero choice. If that’s what students think happens when you become a computing professional, then it’s no wonder enrollments are dropping.


  • 5. Kurt L.  |  January 17, 2010 at 2:55 pm

    I wonder how constructionism fits into all this. We know that working on “personally meaningful projects” is a powerful motivation to learn. Can we only leverage that motivation until senior year, when The Real World takes over? Or is the hope that people are already self-motivated by then?

  • 6. Aaron Lanterman  |  January 18, 2010 at 1:51 am

    I will laugh my ass when when Mr. “designing and creating within the company” gets assigned to work on the Playstation 3 port of “Barbie Horse Adventures: Wild Horse Rescue”

  • 7. Frank McCown  |  January 19, 2010 at 3:54 pm

    Unfortunately, self-interest and selfishness are sins that all of us are guilty of. It’s especially difficult to combat when our students are bombarded with media messages that it’s all about them and getting it their way.

    I love it when 22 year-olds tell their seasoned instructors what life is going to be like outside of school… some of them really do believe they’ve got it all figured out and their instructor just needs to get with the program.

  • 8. Ellen Zegura  |  January 23, 2010 at 10:04 pm

    I can’t resist sharing a powerful counterexample. I co-taught a version of our CS Senior Design capstone course this fall subtitled Compute For Good. We spent the first 3 weeks or so bringing in our customers — ranging from researchers at the CDC to the Atlanta Regional Commissioner on Homelessness to the program director for an inner city after-school program to an entrepreneur committed to increasing small food gardening around the world to the campus recycling czar. The students were able to hear the passion these folks have for solving important problems, and how they could work on projects that would truly make a difference.

    The students chose from among the available projects with no complaint whatsoever about the options. The excitement and ownership the students felt for their projects by the end was abundantly evident in a Compute For Good Class Project Review we held in early December, open to the GT community. Several of the students will continue with their projects this spring, either pro-bono or in MS projects. Without exception, those who were graduating reported that their interviews were dominated by discussion of their C4G class experience. Wow.

    You can see a blog from the course and a listing of final projects at:

    If you read the final blog post, you’ll see that I had the pleasant surprise of learning that not only were are students committed to doing social good, they are among our strongest students by the traditional academic measure of GPA.

  • […] not immune to getting caught up in the slice.  I whined last week about the self-centeredness of my senior design students, and Briana Morrison joined me in her comments.  We’re both computing education researchers, […]


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