This week’s reading had a presentation about CS education within higher education and another blog post by Will Larson. Most of my time was taken up by Spark Summit and rebuilding (again!) this site’s layout.

CS education in higher education

Author: Amy J. Ko, PhD (professor at the University of Washington)

Summary: these are the slides from a talk last week about CS in higher education, and in particular the historical injustices and exclusion that helps students to fail.

Higher education, generally speaking, is in crisis: funding for public universities has been declining, and the pandemic is exacerbating budget shortfalls. “The only parts of academia that are fiscally resilient are CS, business, and more popular science and engineering disciplines.”

CS today is “everything”—its dominance in industry translates to its dominance in academia (where, for example, Northwestern’s introductory course was taken by 25% of the student body). Why, then, are students failing?

  1. Students believe programmers are born, not made (fixed mindset)—guess what kinds of students this favors?
  2. Students don’t see how programming will help them to solve the problems they care about (health, education, justice)
  3. Students face sexism, racism, ableism, elitism
  4. Pedagogy on programming languages is pretty bad (lecture on syntax, give problem sets; no understanding of semantics or addressing misconceptions therein). This is exacerbated by (3), where some students don’t feel safe seeking support from arrogant or posturing peers
  5. Classes move too fast.

The pandemic is amplifying existing inequities. Students who relied on campus housing, computer labs, informal peer learning, or in-person community structures no longer have them. It’s also amplifying poor teaching skills, which CS faculty generally lack. Teaching more students makes feedback harder. And, finally, faculty are realizing that CS is broken in these ways.

Thoughts: this is great, and really hits home. This addresses many of the problems I noticed in six quarters of TAing CS classes at Northwestern. The best professor I had (as both a student and TA) had a strict “no posturing” policy for everyone in her class, which by itself did a lot to make students feel more comfortable asking questions and speaking up. Northwestern also employed a small army of undergrad TAs (like me) to help close the gap between the up-to-400-person lectures and the largely individual problem sets. These helped, but there were deeper, more fundamental problems that these slides do a great job of going into.

Trapped in a Values Oasis

Author: Will Larson

Summary: Larson has a lot of really great posts, and this is another. A “values oasis” is when one team’s values are not aligned with the broader organizations. While this is obviously bad when you have a dysfunctional team, this is still problematic, but more subtly so, when the team’s values are “better” in some way, too.

A few years ago, I heard an apocryphal story about Sheryl Sandberg’s departure from Google to Facebook. In the story she apologizes to her team at Google because she’d sheltered them too much from Google’s politics and hadn’t prepared them to succeed once she stopped running interference. The story ends with her entire team struggling and eventually leaving after her departure. I don’t know if the story is true, but it’s an excellent summary of the Values Oasis trap, where a leader uses their personal capital to create a non-conforming environment within an wider organization.

This is what it is: when a leader creates values for their group that, on the surface, seem better than the rest of the company. Ultimately, this doesn’t prepare the team to work well with the broader org.

Thoughts: I think this is a great summary of what’s happening at my current team and company. I have a longer piece prepared about this, which I’ve gone back and forth about whether or not I’ll share publicly. But at a high level, I feel like while my organization is great, its values don’t match up with what’s the rest of the company’s.

This has been frustrating. This kind of “oasis” (to me, it feels more like an island) makes it seem like our work doesn’t matter to what the company is doing (despite, in principle, being at the heart of it). It makes it feel like our success isn’t directly linked, or measured in the same way, as the success of the broader organization.

Maybe that’s a good thing—for me, working in a research role, it generally has been! I have the freedom to work on research that, while still relevant to the business, might come up with negative results and might take a while to pan out. But that also makes it harder to feel like I fit into the bigger picture.