Why go to college? Liberal Arts vs. Computing

August 3, 2010 at 9:51 am 6 comments

My son is going to Georgia Tech in the Fall, in the Computational Media degree program.  Because the CM program is joint between GT’s Colleges of Liberal Arts and Computing, we went to both College’s presentations during Freshman Orientation last week.  I found the contrast between the two of them fascinating.

The Ivan Allen College of Liberal Arts starts their orientation with a brief documentary about Ivan Allen, the former mayor of Atlanta for whom the College is named. John Tone, Associate Dean of the College, explains that the College shares Allen’s values and encourages students to model themselves on Allen.  The presentation goes on with the theme, “Find Your On Switch.” Explicitly, the point is made that the goal of a liberal arts education at Georgia Tech is for each student to figure out what they are most passionate about, what they want to sink time into in order to develop expertise.  International experiences, like study abroad and internships, were explained in terms of the opportunities they provided for seeing more options, other ways to find your “On Switch.”  (About 40% of Georgia Tech’s undergraduates have some international experience, with a goal of getting that to 50%.)  Overall, this presentation was highly successful with the students, and the parents were excited, too.  I saw a mother in front of me write a note to her daughter saying, “This Is So Cool!!”

The College of Computing talked about jobs.  Parents were told about the bright prospects for a computing career.  The curriculum was explained in terms of how it prepared students for the workforce.  International experience (exactly the same programs!) was introduced as a way to prepare students for a globally competitive marketplace, and about how the top companies valued students with an international perspective.  Many of the parents seemed engaged by this perspective, and asked pointed questions, such as whether the robotics approach in CS1 was really the right one to prepare students for more general computing tasks and whether the Computational Media degree really prepared students for the jobs that were available today.

I found the contrast fascinating, especially when the two College’s were talking about the exact same thing. I don’t think that either presentation is wrong or even contradictory, though each can be critiqued as being too narrow.  The Computing perspective lends itself to seeing GT as a vocational school, and anything not related to tomorrow’s job ad is clearly irrelevant.  The Liberal Arts perspective can be read as encouraging students to ignore everything that he or she finds boring or hard — if it doesn’t “Find Your On Switch,” then it’s clearly not important, is it?

As a Computing faculty member, I personally found the Liberal Arts presentation novel and refreshing.  I frequently have to defend what I teach to my students on the grounds that, “Yeah, real companies really do this.”  (For example, we brought in real developers last year to our Senior Design class, to convince them that Scrum was worth learning.)  I love the idea of being able to argue, instead, “Try it, because it’s fascinating and will allow you to think about problem solutions in an entirely new way, maybe in a way that you will find intriguing and engaging!” Hmm, I wonder if that argument actually flies with Liberal Arts majors.  I am pretty sure that it wouldn’t with CS majors.

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Computer Science Education Act introduced in Congress Employers are only hiring narrowly

6 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Katrin Becker  |  August 3, 2010 at 11:11 am

    I think the two approaches to orientation highlight why so many CS departments are having trouble attracting and keeping students. One orientation sounds really cool, and the other is a stripped down, no nonsense, let’s prepare you to work in a windowless cubicle for the rest of your natural life lecture. One inspires and the other doesn’t.

    Neither are being dishonest, but we do know that a key work motivator for most people is the chance to work on something interesting that can make a positive difference in the world. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u6XAPnuFjJc)

    In a freshman orientation: Do we want to highlight the best or the prepare them for the worst?

    • 2. Katrin Becker  |  August 3, 2010 at 11:59 am

      I don’t see the Liberal Arts approach as encouraging people to be selfish – and my experience with most students (including arts students) is that most are not looking for an easy path to a degree. They are, however looking for a way to a meaningful career. They’re OK with doing things that are hard or not immediately interesting so long as they can see a point to it.

      I used to go out of my way to show my first year CS students some of the really cool things you could do with the knowledge they were going to gain. The feedback i got from my students convinced me that the “Try it, it’s cool.” approach DOES work with CS majors.

  • 3. Eugene Wallingford  |  August 3, 2010 at 12:48 pm

    At UNI, CS is in the College of Natural Sciences. The university announced last spring that it is merging my college with the College of Humanities and Fine Arts. I’ve noticed some of the same contrast as we begin to commingle the department heads’ groups and begin to share ideas on recruitment, promotion, and other day-to-day activities. Our science departments are more enlightened than most and have been using a resource-intensive personal touch to engage the world, yet even still I see differences.

    I think it was Owen Astrachan who told me a couple of years ago that he had stopped pitching jobs as the first line of engaging prospective students and their parents. Since I became department head and found myself doing recruiting and the like more often, I have had good luck sharing with people how much fun CS is and how many opportunities it offers. I also encourage students to minor or double-major outside of CS, because that creates even more opportunities for unexpected connections.

  • 4. owen astrachan  |  August 3, 2010 at 9:15 pm

    It’s what resonates with you. I went to a liberal arts school, that’s what resonates with me. From my perspective college is not about preparing for a job. How many jobs will most people have? College is about getting ready to move to the next stage of your life. Hopefully that starts with a job. If it doesn’t your options are limited. But people change careers, not withstanding whether they change jobs.

    Even our engineers, in a different school than computer science, look for an “on switch”. Of course they do, they’re engineers! We try to get students to engage, not just in their courses, but with society, with travel abroad, with research, and so on. Most of the CS majors who want software jobs do internships. But I hope their studies aren’t oriented toward jobs. We’ll never catch up if they are.

  • 5. thiago silva  |  August 13, 2010 at 5:36 pm

    This post reminded me of a book called “Awakening to Zen” written by Philip Kapleau, where he writes about his experience in engaging the Zen training in a monastery in Japan.

    In the first month, he was invited to stay in the monastery but without much rules upon him (wake and sleep whenever he feels like, walk around the gardens, try meditate, …), without any duties, and only a few orientations such as respecting the lunch time.

    While in the monastery, he was encouraged to read some zen literature he would find interesting. Besides, often he, together with the abbot, would walk around engaging in conversations, visit friends, art expositions related to zen, music concerts, etc.

    Kapleau then confesses that if it wasn’t for this unique introduction to the atmosphere and style of japanese zen… if instead, he was accepted as a regular novice to begin his training with other monks in the monastery (which is a pretty hard and rigorous training), he wouldn’t have been able to endure.

  • 6. Cindy Fairchild  |  August 14, 2010 at 9:48 am

    I find it interesting how colleges took to different approaches. As if think back to when my children went to college the one who is more artistic would havedone better if she had of attended a college to who supported to “find her own switch”.


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