Two insights on teaching computer programming

Kirby Urner kirby.urner at
Thu Jan 5 15:06:08 EST 2006

Yes, I assumed Matthias was speaking rhetorically, as if his institution had
the power to dispense such "magic ticket" degrees that assured well-paying
yet not-too-demanding jobs in exchange for nothing but money it would
obviously do so (economics pretty much dictates there'd be a supply to meet
this demand).  

So what keeps universities of repute from simply printing degrees?  Private
industry provides a check.  Your job interview will go badly if your
knowledge of pharmacy is clearly superficial, or if you demonstrate
incompetence during your first probationary weeks on the job.

So pharmacy remains a rigorous program in its own right, quite demanding
(like the job itself).  Note:  I had a pharmacist come to my front door
once, when he realized some hours before that he'd dispensed the wrong
thing.  I admired his integrity.

Pharmacist trainees could use some computer savvy, and so might take a CS0
to learn some job-relevant concepts and skills.  They'll be disappointed if
this CS0 is just some prereq to CS1, CS2... i.e. is mostly relevant only to
majors (a Catch-22).  That'd be like a CS major taking BIOMED0 and not
getting any real overview of the field.  

BIOMED, like CS, is looking to recruit talented people, and so would be
stupid to disappoint its valued guests in this way.

I liked the answer of having two CS0s, one for majors and one for
not-majors.  The problem here is freshmen often sample intro courses to
*decide* where to specialize.  Which CS0 is for them?

I think a single showcase CS0 is probably simplest, but should be taught by
faculty who do not express haughty attitudes towards majors in other fields.
Analogy:  any prof who teaches Physics for Poets should have the highest
respect for poetry, perhaps regarding it as what physics ultimately boils
down to.

Some departments make the mistake of putting a turn-off teacher in a key
recruiting position (e.g. CS0).  Instead of making the subject user-friendly
and accessible, while providing a lot of overview, she or he exudes an air
of aloof superiority that makes everyone squirm.  

These specimens are best reserved for higher level courses, where majors
need to study how to ape those at the apex of their chosen field -- a good
way to get accepted by your peers.  Strut and puff in just the right way and
you'll be invited to all the right conferences.

I'm pleased to report that my CS0 prof at Princeton was highly effective as
a recruiter.  He tended to anthropomorphize the computer somewhat (it would
always "go home mad" when the programmer did something stupid), but we all
understood this was in a spirit of good fun and user-friendliness.  He was
also obviously very expert in his chosen field.



At 12:10 PM 1/4/2006, Matthias Felleisen wrote:
>>>The average student at an average college just wants a degree so that
>>>she can find a well-paying job that doesn't demand too much. Why dont
>>>we just hand out those degrees and focus on the few that matter and
>>>our research?
>>Your response reveals something that really disturbs me about many
>>university faculty. If you can't answer your own question, I'll let
>>others answer it rather than showing the anger I feel.
>I assume you realize the question was rhetorical. -- Matthias

It didn't sound rhetorical, especially as I don't know you and can
only read what you write rather than the unexpressed personal
thought/motivation behind it.

Sorry for reacting as I did if, in fact, you meant it rhetorically.

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