Monday, November 17, 2014

A Fly on the wall for a Harvard Faculty meeting: Not interesting for Gossip but interesting for a more important reason

I was recently in Boston for Mikefest (which Lance talked about  here)  and found time to talk to  my adviser Harry Lewis at Harvard (adviser? Gee, I already finished my PhD. Former-Advisor? that doesn't quite sound right. I'll stick with Adviser, kind of like when they refer to Romney as Governor Romney, or Palin as half-governor Palin). He also invited me to goto a Harvard Faculty meeting.

NO, I didn't see anything worth gossiping about. NO I am not going to quote Kissinger ``Academic battles are so fierce because the stakes were so low'' NO I am not going to say that under the veneer or cordiality
you could tell there were deep seated tensions. It was all very civilized. Plus there was a free lunch.

The topic was (roughly) which courses count in which categories incomputer science for which requirements.  Why is this interesting? (hmmm- IS it interesting? You'd prob rather hear that Harry Lewis stabbed Les Valiant with a fork in a dispute about whether there should be an ugrad learning theory course). Because ALL Comp sci depts face these problems.  At Mikefest and other conferences I've heard the following issues brought up:

Should CS become a service department?  Math did that with Calculus many years ago. PRO: They get to tell the dean `we need to hire more tenure track faculty to teach calculus', CON: They have to have their tenure track faculty teach calculus. (I know its more complicated than that.)

What should a non-majors course have in it?

What should CS1,CS2,CS3 have in it (often misconstrued by the question ``what is a good first language'' which misses the point of what you are trying to accomplish). For that matter, should it be a 3-long intro sequence (it is at UMCP).

Can our majors take the non-majors courses?  (At UMCP our non majors course on web design has material in it that is NOT in any majors course.)

When new courses come about (comp-bio, programming hand-held devices, Computational flavor-of-the-month) what categories to they fit into? (For an argument in favor of Machine Learning see Daume's post. ) What should the categories be anyway? And what about the functors?

Which courses were at one point important but aren't any more? UMCP no longer requires a Hardware course-- is that bad?  (Yes- when I tell my students that PARITY can't be solved by a constant depth poly sized circuit, they don't know what a circuit is!)

I don't have strong opinions to any of these questions (except that, despite my best efforts, we do not require all students to learn Ramsey Theory), but I note that all depts face these questions (or need to- I wonder if some depts are still teaching FORTRAN and COBOL- and even that's not quite a bad thing since there is so much legacy code out there.)

I have this notion (perhaps `grass is always greener on the other side') that MATH (and most other majors) don't have these problems.  AT UMCP there have only been TWO new math courses introduced on the ugrad level since 1985 :Crypto (which is cross-listed with CS), and Chaos Theory. CS has new courses, new emphasis, new requirements every few years. Oddly enough when I tell this to Math Profs they ENVY that we CAN change our courses so much. What is better chaos or stability?

When I saw Back to the future 2   in 1989 I noticed that their depiction of academic computer science in 2015 was that  Comp Sci Depts across the country agreed on what was important and be similar (as I imagine math is). Instead the opposite has happened- these things are still in flux. (If you can't trust a Science Fiction movie staring Michael J Fox what can you trust?) As a sign of that, the advanced GRE in CS never really worked and has now been discontinued.

So- will CS settle down by 2015? We still have a year to go, but I doubt it.  2025? Before P vs NP is solved?

and is it OKAY if it doesn't?


  1. Should CS become a service department?

    Long term, yes, absolutely. We won't be the hottest research area forever and when that time comes, we should be able to support a nice size department through service. Math has done remarkably well under that model.

  2. I must have missed that part of the movie. When did they say CS depts had all agreed on what was important?

    1. Don't you remember the scene where Marty visits all CS depts on his hoverboard and overhears faculty meetings?

      I was kidding- BTTF 2 had no comment on the state of CS academia in the year 2015. Too bad- it would have been a better movie if it did.

  3. "So- will CS settle down by 2015? We still have a year to go, but I doubt it. 2025? Before P vs NP is solved?"

    If we have to wait until P vs NP is solved, the field may never settle down!

  4. did you just compare your advisor to Palin? lol. presumably he never competed in a beauty contest. etc! :p

  5. In 10 years there won't be any service courses likely because of MOOCs, probably. Service courses will become something like books.