A Question that Everyone should Ask their CS Professors: Why do we have to learn this?
There’s a meme going around my College these days, about the 10 questions you should never ask your professor (linked below). Most of them are spot-on (e.g., “Did we do anything important while I was out?”). I disagreed with the one I quote below.
One of our problems in computer science is that we teach things for reasons that even we don’t know. Why do we teach how hash tables are constructed? Does everybody need to know that? I actually like the idea of teaching everybody about hash functions, but it’s a valid question, and one that we rarely answer to ourselves and definitely need to answer to our students.
Why we’re teaching what we’re teaching is a critical question to answer for broadening participation, because we have to explain to under-represented minorities why it’s worth sticking with CS. Even more important for me is explaining this to non-majors, and in turn, to our colleagues in other departments. Computing is a fundamental 21st Century literacy, and we have to explain why it’s important for everyone to learn. “Stuck in the Shallow End” suggests that making ubiquitously available can help to broaden participation, but we can only get it ubiquitously available by showing that it’s worth it.
I’m back from New Zealand and ICER: today, yesterday, tomorrow — days get confused crossing a dateline. (We landed in both Sydney and Los Angeles at 10:30 am on 13 September.) I spent several hours of the trip reading Mike Hewner’s complete dissertation draft. Mike has been asking the question, “How do CS majors define the field of computer science, and how do their misconceptions lead to unproductive educational decisions?” He did a Grounded Theory analysis with 37 interviews (and when I tell this to people who have done Grounded Theory, their jaws drop — 37 interviews is a gargantuan number of interviews for Grounded Theory) at three different institutions. One of his findings is that even CS majors really have no idea what’s going on in a class before they get there. The students’ ability to predict the content of future courses, even courses that they’d have to take, was appallingly bad. Even our own majors don’t know why they’re taking what they’re taking, or what will be in the class when they go to take it.
We will have to tell them.
“Why do we have to learn this?” In some instances, this is a valid question. If you are studying medical assisting, asking why you have to learn a procedure can be a gateway to a better question about when such a procedure would be necessary. But it should be asked that way–as a specific question, not a general one. In other situations, like my history classes, the answer is more complicated and has to do with the composition of a basic liberal arts body of knowledge. But sometimes, a student asks this because they do not think they should have to take a class and want a specific rationale. In that case, I respond, “Please consult your course catalog and program description. If you don’t already know the answer to that question, you should talk to your advisor about whether or not this is the major for you.”