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Chemistry, Psychology, and my apology to a Georgia Tech grad

December 17, 2011 3 comments

Sometime around the start of the Spring 2011 semester, while dining at the Five Guys Burger and Fries near Georgia Tech, I ran into a Computer Science student who had taken my Multicore and GPU Programming for Video Games class a few years earlier. He was a skilled and insightful programmer, quite bright, and intellectually mature. Conversations with him felt like conversations with a faculty colleague; he was simultaneously easy-going and professional. I still remember my jaw dropping at the quality of his Shaded First Person shooter assignment; he had gone far beyond the requirements of the assignment.

I asked him what he was up to. He told me that he was working with a startup company. It had recently received a good chunk of venture capital, and he was an early hire. The idea behind the company was clever, and not one I had heard before. The company was based in another state some distance from Georgia, so I asked him what he was still doing here. He said he was taking two classes. I was confused; I thought he surely must have graduated by now. He said he had thought that too.

He had planned to graduate in Fall 2010. But due to some combination of his own confusion and the confusion of one or more academic advisors, he belatedly found out he hadn’t fulfilled his graduation requirements.

So what courses was he taking in Spring 2011, his last semester? What classes were preventing him from moving to a new state to work at the company that wanted him? What classes were holding him back? They were General Chemistry and Psychology.

To add insult to the injury, he had taken an additional physics courses beyond that required of CS majors. He had erroneously thought that course would have fulfilled the requirement he wound up having to fulfill with General Chemistry.

I looked at him and said, “I am so, so sorry.”

Couldn’t we (and by “we,” I mean Georgia Tech) have just let him go? What possible purpose would have been served by keeping him around? Our introductory science courses are huge. No one would have missed him. I’ve sometimes seen general education requirements justified in terms of making it easier for people to switch majors. Perhaps that’s true of courses taken early on, but it’s clear at this point that he wasn’t going to be switching his major to Psychology or Chemistry. Would a lack of either or both of those courses seriously hindered his ability to contribute to the company that had just hired him?

I’ve heard general education requirements justified under a fuzzily defined goal of “teaching students to think.” I’d have a hard time looking at this student and saying, “ah, he’s almost there, but he can’t quite think yet. He needs general chemistry! Then he can think!”

Admittedly, if he had taken General Chemistry instead of his additional physics class, and had slipped Psychology into an earlier semester, this wouldn’t have risen to the level of his or my notice. But when those classes are broken out like that, representing an entire additional semester, their uselessness relative to this particular student’s needs sticks out.

One of my earlier posts focused on the financial aspects of required courses. Although the cost of college is frequently in the news – for good reason – it probably wasn’t the best angle for me to start with. The real issue here is time. Beyond having to pay for two additional classes he wasn’t expecting, how can we argue that those classes were a good use of his time? Moving beyond the particular company that hired him, wouldn’t society be better off if he could go ahead and start innovating? If at some point in his career he needed to balance chemical equations, there’s plenty of avenues for gaining that knowledge.

He finished those two classes and moved to be near the company. He and the company are doing well; the company recently received second, larger round of VC funding. They’re expanding. He asked me to send talented students his way.

Certainly, there are large swaths of computer science for which knowledge of psychology is useful. Indeed, at least one of our College of Computing’s Threads requires General Psychology. Cognative Science and Computational Neuroscience are hot areas. So I’m not arguing that a class in psychology is “bs” relative to all of Computer Science.

I remember taking a class in psychology one summer at a local community college to fulfill one of my well-roundedness requirements. The thing I remember the most about it was that the instructor eerily resembled my first long-term girlfriend in high school (where long-term is defined relative to what the term might mean to someone in high school.) The grade was determined solely by multiple choice tests. Two decades later, I couldn’t tell you anything about what might have been on them, although I probably couldn’t have told you any of that two months later either. As long as I made a “C” or above, the credit would transfer to Washington University, but the grade wouldn’t. So the class wasn’t too much of a time sink – I put no effort into studying for it, and took the tests solely based on what I could remember from the classes. I got a “B,” and the credit transferred, so I was happy. I had more fun with it than most courses since I didn’t stress about it at all. It still was probably not the best use of my time or my parent’s money.

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Welcoming a new horseman of the Edupocalypse

December 9, 2011 5 comments

Rich DeMillo suspected — correctly, I must admit — that the main driver that led me to start this blog was reading Roger Schank’s blog. (I’m tickled that Rich used his Loose Cannons tag on his post introducing Edupocalypse Now.)

Forging another link in the network, I’m quite honored to have inspired one of the first posts on Steve Hilber’s new blog, Never Settle For Less: Nonrandom thoughts from a young entrepreneur about living an exceptional life.

A common complaint you’ll hear among academics is that students view themselves as customers who think “the customer is always right.” Although there is some legitimate basis to that complaint, Steve digs deeper, noting that, yes, whoever’s paying is the customer — but colleges need to be much clearer and open about exactly what they are selling. In his post titled Can I Get A Refund For That Fine Arts Course?, Steve writes:

The fundamental idea driving education is that the customer is wrong; there are concepts and facts and algorithms the university knows that you, the individual student, do not know, and it’s the role of the university to teach these assorted data to you. You – the student – are asked to convince your parents and your banks and your scholarships to pay the university to give you merely the opportunity to spend the immense time and energy it takes to learn these ideas that you do not already know. It’s all up to you to make the most of your time in college; you’re just paying the college more and more money for the privilege of using their time and resources.

…there’s no liability or guarantee that you actually go anywhere with your Prestigious University Degree. Again, it’s entirely your responsibility. Which is incredibly strange when the tried-and-true argument for the liberal arts education America is so well known for is that “we teach you how to think, and that’s an education that will last you a lifetime…”

I am not, contrary to what it may seem, arguing that the college experience is inherently valueless. I am arguing that as far as I can tell, there is almost no accountability built into the system or the business model.

Please drop by Steve’s blog and make comments.

P.S. I’d also like to thank Mark Guzdial, who linked to my inaugural “B.S.-bs” post on his Computer Education blog. As usual, a spirited discussion erupted there. Alan Kay comments on Mark’s posts frequently, which is kind of like having God comment on your blog about theology. I was beyond thrilled to see that Alan left the first comment. It all connects in a roundabout way; Alan participated via video link in the C21U kickoff which featured Roger Schank as a panelist.

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Taking the bulls*** out of a Bachelor’s degree would not automatically reduce it to “vocational training”

December 6, 2011 10 comments

My first couple of posts generated a flurry of discussion. Curiously, more of it seems to be happening on Facebook than here, both on my own Facebook page and on the Facebook pages of people who have reposted links. That’s the way things go nowadays. I’ve seen one particular criticism crop up many times, so instead of copying and pasting my response both in replies to posts here and on various Facebooks pages, I thought it best to summarize some of the discussion in a new post. I am thrilled that so much discussion is happening, whether it is here or elsewhere.

One common worry seems to be that my “B.S.-bs” (Bachelor of Science minus the bullshit; you can similarly contemplate “B.A.-bs” degrees, etc.) proposal would turn the underlying “source” degree into “vocational training.” I see nothing wrong with vocational training and hate the way it is often denigrated. But, let’s assume for the moment that vocational training is the cursed hellspawn of a weekend tryst between Donald Trump and Newt Gingrich, and something we want to avoid in formulating a Bachelor’s degree. (Georgia Tech, for the most part, avoids “vocational training,” despite its origins as a trade school. Most of the faculty now at Tech were hired in the 1970s, when Tech began its transition into a research university, or later, and that is evident in our academic programs.)

Suppose you took a B.S. engineering degree (my canonical example, since it’s the kind of degree I am most familiar with) and trimmed out a few of the “well-roundedness requirements.” That doesn’t necessarily imply any changes to the set of courses that represent the underlying major. I’m including necessary prerequisite material for engineering, like math, physics, and oral and written communication, in that set. To first order, all my “bachelors minus bullshit” proposal does is slighty reduce the time and expense involved in getting the degree and give more flexibility to the student. Trimming a humanities requirement for computer scientists doesn’t automatically mean that all CS courses will be taught using C++, or Java, or whatever the current hot programming language is.

Georgia Tech has strong Computational Media and Digital Media programs (they’re basically the same area, with the former being an undergrad degree and the latter being a grad degree), and those programs, by definition, are humanities/technical hybrids. So if you sign up for those programs, you will get a big dose of Ian Bogost talking about Duchamp, but that’s part of what you’re signing up for. But the computer science student focusing on algorithmic complexity might benefit from spending a few more hours with Donald Knuth than Immanuel Kant. If that student has an interest in philosophy, they can explore it however they want; that might include taking a class on philosophy in college. Maybe they’ll get into the Philosophy of Computation, and maybe that might develop into a field in its own right, and someday you could sign up for a degree in the Philosophy of Computation, just as now you can now sign up for a degree in Computational Media.

To use one of my canonical examples, what impact would the removal of one or two science requirements from my wife’s French degree have had on the classes in her degree program? None. If you speak with most professors, most will have no idea what the various well-roundedness requirements of their degree programs are, unless they’ve recently served on an institute-level curriculum committee. I doubt many of my wife’s French professors could tell you that two science classes were required, let alone list the classes that would fulfill those requirements.

I can’t resist the cliche of picking on philosophy degrees a bit. Would reducing math or science requirements make a philosophy degree more practical? (Or, if I wanted to nitpick a little more, any less impractical?) For that matter, is there anything that you could do to a philosophy degree that could turn it into “vocational training?” (Yes, I know philosophy majors often have to take classes in set theory and first-order logic, and I know that the Philosophy of Math and the Philosophy of Science are deep areas.)

Within a particular field, professors and practitioners (sometimes the former are also the latter, but not often enough in my view) will argue endlessly about what specific degree programs should look like. If you have a department with 15 professors you will have at least 20 opinions over how that program should be designed. We’ll argue endlessly about what should be in the “core” of our discipline. But that’s all fodder for another post. Here, I am just tweaking the margins, and remember those margins are discipline-specific; one discipline’s margin may be another discipline’s essence.

Georgia Tech’s EE and CompE degrees are dense; many institute-level requirements that are written of the form of “student must take two from a set of classes including A, B, C, and D,” and ECE often specifies that students have to take “A” and “C.” So a “B.S.-bs” in EE or CompE from Georgia Tech wouldn’t involve removing very many requirements. But given how few of our students manage to finish in four years, and how many of those students wind up with only one or two classes needed in their last semester, chipping away at the margins is a reasonable place to start. (I had originally put the words “A Modest Proposal” in front of my inaugural “B.S.-bs” post, since I think what I am suggesting is fairly modest, but I didn’t want people mislead into thinking I meant it in a Swiftian satirical sense.)


*Yes, I know I said I’d try to keep politics out of this blog. I’m human.

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The spherical student: sacrifices on the altar of “well roundedness”

December 2, 2011 8 comments

When I describe my idea of a “B.S.-bs” degree to my colleagues, they tend to get defensive, assuming they get past the point of staring at me like I’ve grown a third arm and a second head. Without fail, they talk about the importance of college students being “well rounded.” I gently suggest that no amount of sitting in a classroom will make someone well rounded.

My wife loves costuming. When we go to Dragoncon or other sci-fi cons, she often packs two or three costumes per day. She spent four months working on an Elizabethan gown that weights 12 pounds. Recently, she’s become interested in putting electronics into her costumes. I taught her to solder, and she put together an R2-D2 hat which, in addition to making appropriate R2-D2 bleeps and bloops, has a blue light which actives whenever she speaks or whenever there’s a bleep or bloop. We both used to sing in the DeKalb Choral Guild. She has performed in two shows at the Center for Puppetry Arts. She used to participate heavily in the Society for Creative Anachronism, in which she fenced, played recorder in a renaissance ensemble, and taught classes on renaissance dance based on original source research. She’s currently into swing dancing and is a graduate student in Applied Linguistics at Georgia State. (Incidentally, she’s enjoying school much more now, largely because she can focus on the topic she is interested in.)

It would be hard to argue that my wife isn’t “well rounded.” But, more to the point, she didn’t become well rounded because of the class on dinosaurs she was required to take in college as part of getting a degree in French.

So, what if my wife, at some point in her life, needed to use knowledge gained from her class about dinosaurs? Well, as she points out, she can read. She can read books about dinosaurs. She can go to natural history museums. She can watch videos about dinosaurs, many of them easily accessed with just a few keystrokes into the youtube search field. She could organize a meetup with other dinosaur enthusiasts in the Atlanta area. She could seek out web forums, ask questions, and read replies. And if all that failed to meet her unanticipated thirst for paleontological knowledge, perhaps she could enroll in a university class about dinosaurs, but not for any particular degree. I could make the same observations about the class I took in ancient and modern Japanese culture, which I took to fulfill one of those well-roundedness requirements. Why should we be force-fitting someone’s complete education into the four (or, at schools like Georgia Tech, often five or six) years that they’re at college? When my colleagues-to-be in the Georgia Tech faculty were evaluating my application for a tenure-track position, I doubt any of them said, “Look! He took a class on Japanese culture! We have to hire this guy.”

Could any class on Japanese culture possibly measure up to the experience of spending a good chunk of time in Japan?

There is the possibility that being forced to take a class on dinosaurs might have awoken her latent love for paleontology or geology, inspiring her to drop her French major. But you could make the same statement about any class, or for that matter, many human activities that have nothing to do with paying tuition to anyone. “The might find out they like it; I was forced to take a class in XYZ, and found out I liked it” is not a valid argument for requiring a class. So you found out you loved topic XYZ, and it changed your life? Good for you! What about the student who winds up discovering that they despise topic XYZ and want nothing to do with it ever again? Is it wise to trap them in their personal hell for an entire semester, just because you unexpectedly found it to be your personal heaven? “Wait,” you say. “I didn’t like the class in XYZ at the time, but I came to appreciate it later.” That’s not a valid argument either. My wife’s appreciation for her class on dinosaurs did not increase at any point in the years after she graduated, and she notes that being forced to pay for a class that was irrelevant to her major made her resentful and more resistant to the topic. Maybe she would have discovered a love of dinosaurs on her own if she hadn’t been forced to take that class; maybe the class is what prevented her from eventually switching to paleontology. These “what-if” games can go on endlessly, and they lead nowhere. It is not helpful to try to build a college curriculum based on them. If you truly want to insist that students should be forced to take various classes to see if “they might like them,” semester-long classes are an awfully blunt instrument for that. Quarter classes are more tolerable, but something like month-long teaser class would be better.

The arbitrariness of many curricular requirements should give us pause. Two classes from category X, three classes from category Y. Why not three classes from category X, and two classes from category Y? Is it because that’s what ABET dictates? Is it because that’s what Stanford was doing in the 1950s? Is it because the departments that fulfill category X were able to wield more power than those that fulfill category Y the last time the curriculum was revised? Why don’t we put more freedom for these decisions into the hands of students? The species known as “tenured university professor” is the most over-specialized life form on the planet; society would be wise to be skeptical anytime a flock* of university professors claims it has drawn up a “well rounded” curriculum.

Does your department have classes that aren’t taken by your own majors or by students in majors of related fields, and which exist solely for students in unrelated majors to fulfill some sort of generic “well-roundedness” requirement? If so, think carefully about whether those classes should be in the catalog. Are they the best use of faculty time? Are they the best use of student time? Are they the best use of money, whether it comes from students, their parents, or the taxpayers?


*The term “flock” implies a level of organization that is typically absent. I’m open for suggestions for a better word for a group of professors.

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A proposal for a new kind of degree: The “B.S.-bs”

December 1, 2011 25 comments

Imagine that you needed to go to the hospital for some necessary surgery, and that the hospital staff told you that, as a matter of policy, they were also going to remove your appendix. You’d complain that your appendix was fine, and that removing it wasn’t what you were coming to the hospital for. The staff would dutifully note that you weren’t doing much with your appendix anyway, and that it could become infected later in life, at which point you’d need a much-messier emergency appendectomy, so you might as well take it out now. Plus, they’d give you a discount; since you’re coming in for other major surgery, they wouldn’t charge as much for the appendectomy as if you were coming in solely for an appendectomy. Sure, there’d be an additional scar and some additional pain during the recovery, but you’d barely notice. Ooops! Sorry! Even with the discount, you’ll still can’t afford this additional surgery any more than you could afford the surgery you actually needed, so you’ll have to take out loans to pay for all of it.

Colleges across the country are, in essence, making students pay to take out their appendix. In fact, we’ve built quite an industry around unnecessary appendectomies. I am blowing the whistle. I am turning state’s evidence. I am testifying on behalf of any student who has been subject to educational malpractice by the kinds of institutions I have been intertwined with for almost 20 years.

Georgia Tech primarily grants degrees called “Bachelor of Science,” also known as the “B.S.” I propose a new kind of degree, the “B.S.-bs,” which stands for “Bachelor of Science minus the bullshit.” We could extend the idea to other degree variants, such as “B.A.-bs.” What’s considered “bs” changes depending on the particular degree. One degree’s “bs” may be another degree’s core material.

My wife finished a B.A. in French at Rutgers in 1995. Her family did not have a lot of money, and she didn’t have much in the way of scholarships and such, so she paid her own way through college, via various jobs and student loans. She didn’t pay off her student loans until 2004. Every time she cut a check to make another student loan payment, she complained about having to take a class about dinosaurs, and another class along the lines of “history of the universe from the Big Bang to sometime about a million years ago.” When you consider the interest on her student loans, she had to pay for these classes not just once, but once-plus-some. Neither of these classes were in French. They were the sorts of outside-your-major classes that exist solely so that students can, allegedly, become “well rounded.” (I’ll have more to say about so-called “well roundedness” in another post.)

My wife’s periodic complaint about having to pay for her dinosaurs class made me recall my own time at Washington University. One summer, I took a class in ancient and modern Japanese culture. Out of the list of courses that would satisfy that particular well-roundedness requirement, I’m not sure why I picked that class in particular. My father won a computer art contest in the early 1980s, and the prize was a family trip to Japan. I have fond memories of that trip; that might have contributed to my decision, but I’m not sure. I recall writing a term paper for the class, but I can’t recall what I wrote about. The professor told some interesting stories about this adventures in Japan, although I can’t remember any of them now. Relatively speaking, I suppose I enjoyed the class. The material was somewhat interesting, and at the time I probably would have defended having to take it as contributing to my “well roundedness.”

But almost two decades later, I realize it was a waste of everyone’s money and time.

It was a waste of my parent’s money. It was a waste of my time. And having spent the last decade as a professor, I now realize it was a waste of the professor’s time.

I’m not insisting that students shouldn’t be required to take any classes outside of their major department. I’m suggesting that for a “B.S.-bs,” the classes taken outside of the major should have some clear, direct relevance to the degree. For instance, engineers do require a certain amount of background in the sciences, particularly physics, and it’s also hard to do any kind of modern engineering without the aid of computer simulation, so some training in computation is essential. Looking in the other direction, I can find few legitimate arguments for requiring all students majoring in computer science to take chemistry, or even calculus, although I know I will be branded a heretic for saying so. One of the best Lecturers in our College of Computing almost didn’t make it through his undergraduate CS degree because of the calculus requirement. I sat in one of his classes, and can attest that he is an amazing teacher. It is easy to imagine an alternate universe in which he was unable to jump through the calculus hoop, and computer science students in that universe would never know his skill and passion for teaching.

My colleagues on curriculum committees – particularly those involved with ABET, the mother of all engineering curriculum committees – should remember that every class requirement represents a tremendous expense in time and money (and not just the time spent by the student). You need to have a rock-solid argument for each requirement. Your argument must be less wishy-washy than “it will help make them well rounded” and less cliche than “it will help teach them to think logically.” It must be less vain than “it’s a class I teach” or “it’s a topic I do research in.” It must be more forward-looking than “well, I was forced to take it when I was in school.” It must be more precise than “well, I took it when I was in school, and I remembered something from it that I threw into a grant proposal three years ago.” It has to be less pretentious than “aaaah! if we stop requiring this class, we’re lowering our standards!” You must to be able to argue that the class you are requiring is so vital, so essential, so irreplaceable, that a student should go deeper into debt – a particularly toxic kind of debt that is non-bankruptable – in order to take that class. Student loan debt is nearing a trillion dollars. I beg my fellow academics to think carefully about whether we are contributing to that unnecessarily.

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Welcome to the university at the end of the universe

December 1, 2011 1 comment

I’ve been toying the idea of starting this blog for years. My first foray into blogging was with LiveJournal, on Sept. 14, 2006. I took the name “abovenyquist,” after concepts from signal & system theory, which is a subject I often use and teach. That name has followed me onto Twitter and other places. I’ve noticed that I don’t post to LiveJournal very often anymore; LJ is not quite the hot thing it used to be, and most chatter seems to happen on Facebook nowadays. I haven’t looked at my friends list on LJ in ages. My LJ and Facebook posts, and my Tweets, have been a mix of personal happenings and thoughts on technology and education, along with a (probably unhealthy) dose of political rants.

I thought about spinning off a second LiveJournal specifically for thoughts on education and technology, so I could point colleagues to it without having the discourse cluttered up with my laments about Sarah Palin or Herman Cain. But, LiveJournal has a reputation of being more of a personal space. The majority of “professional” blogs seem to be hosted WordPress and Blogspot. So, although I will miss LJ’s user icons, I decided to try WordPress since three of my colleagues, Mark Guzdial (computinged), Amy Bruckman (nextbison), and Rich DeMillo (innovate-edu), use it for their blogs. I consider their blogs to be must-reads. (I liked the look of Amy’s blog, so I decided to try the same Theme.)

The final kick-in-my-butt to start this arose from (a) attending the launch event for the Center for 21st Century Universities, and (b) pouring over Roger Schank’s blog, Education Outrage. Point (b) is related to (a) since I first heard Roger Schank speak at (a).

My LiveJournal will stay up, since there’s years of experiences recorded there. I might return to it someday as an outlet for musings not appropriate for the Edupocalypse Now blog that are also too long for Facebook.

The title for the blog came from a lengthy and painful search; I will write more about it another time. The subtitle, “Education and Innovation in the End Times,” comes from a couple of talks I gave in Spring 2011, one to our ECE8010 Graduate Research Seminar, and one sponsored by the Georgia Tech student branch of the IEEE. I don’t use the term “End Times” to refer to any particular eschatology promoted by any particular religion. I use it in the secular sense of Slavoj Zizek. As Glenn Reynolds noted, “a process that cannot go on forever, won’t.”

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