Tag Archives: computer science

disciplinarity and undergraduate education

I have a quick comment on a recent blog post I read: “The Politics of Disciplinarity at the Undergraduate Level” (Natalia Cecire) This is adapted and expanded from a lengthy comment I left at said blog.

I have an admission to make: I was a naive, stereotypical computer science major. How so? I looked down, so very much, on the humanities – on what I perceived to be the humanities. Soft, vague, insular, self-interested, and ultimately irrelevant to my (or anyone else’s) life. “Learning for learning’s sake” was my hobby, but somehow it seemed ridiculous as a university course. How would humanities majors get jobs? Perhaps it’s partly my humble background, but majoring in something that didn’t have a definable endpoint in a career that would make up for the investment in a college education just seemed worse than pointless. It seemed irresponsible and naive.

Yet I was the one who was naive, along with my fellow CS majors who mocked MBAs and even the information science students. They were the ones who couldn’t hack it, right? If you’re not in a hard science or engineering (and we counted ourselves among them), you’re just playing around; you can’t make it to our league.

Who was I kidding? Myself.

I am now, as you know, in a humanities PhD program. I’m in an area studies department but study the history of the book, and came to it via literature (and before that, via a very social-science oriented history department, which is also partly the explanation for my attitude toward things like cultural studies and other vague humanities, including history departments with this bent).

It’s been a hard road, admittedly, for me to come to terms with this. I’ve never felt fully at home in the humanities and it’s because of the carryover of this attitude. And yet at the same time I’ve been doing a dual degree in information science, the very discipline I used to mock along with my CS buddies as for the kids who couldn’t hack our program, who couldn’t move from pseudocode to real programming, to real work.

And as you may guess, I’ve changed my mind in that I’ve become less naive (I would hope) and much more broad-minded about what can mean. Of course it’s more difficult to get a job that translates directly from a humanities degree to something concrete – but that doesn’t mean that one’s degree isn’t widely applicable and doesn’t prepare one for a variety of life paths. I know that’s often considered a platitude uttered by career counselors at universities everywhere (not to mention tenured professors who don’t understand undergrads’ lack of appreciation for “learning for learning’s sake”) but it’s true.

One of the things that was lacking from my CS education was a strong dose of critical thinking. It wasn’t until a few years into my humanities PhD program that I could think critically about the science discipline that I had come from, about  the inability to be truly objective but rather the ability to recognize and be aware of one’s own biases, and about how the questions we are able to ask, the problems we are able to pose, are not self-evident. Thinking critically about code, about programming, about application design from the very concept of applications to the endpoint of execution, was not in my DNA until I had already left the field and joined the legions of critical thinkers that inhabited another.*

The blog post referenced above speaks to the implications of politics at the “academic” level about disciplinarity having perhaps unintended consequences for attitudes at the undergraduate level, and so I’m sharing my undergraduate attitude, and gradual attitude change, above. Below, I’d like to address another consequence that the author brings up: the possibility of differential undergraduate tuition that could reflect perceived value of various “hard” versus “soft” majors. This is what I had to say in my comment on her blog:

One school, at least, has already implemented the policy of differential undergrad tuition: University of Michigan (where I am currently a student). The tuition varies by college, with Engineering being the best example, but since Computer Science is in the college of Arts & Sciences but veers toward the money-making assumption about engineering, it also gets differential (higher) tuition at the upperclassmen level.

I was a computer science major as an undergrad, and this kind of system would have strongly discouraged me from pursuing the degree. As a woman who was often the only woman, or one of perhaps two or three, in a class of 40-60 students, this has serious implications for the demographics of the major, which are already an issue. I also have to say that as a computer science undergrad with a double major in history, I held that unfortunate attitude: CS is “real work” whereas history is something fun I did on the side, something not really relevant to anything but history and academia itself.

I’m now a PhD candidate in the history of the book (within an area studies department – humanities, in other words), and I see now the patronizing and narrow-minded attitude I have. But it is so prevalent that even I – and I naively considered myself broad-minded – held it for a long time, and actively mocked those outside the “hard” sciences because of it.

It’s so pervasive, and I’m glad that you addressed the fact that what is often written off as academic squabbles and pissing matches impact undergrads profoundly as well.

 

* That’s not to say that everyone who majors in the humanities ends up being able to think critically. I meet many who get by completely unable to do so. But here I speak from my own experience and say that it is what allowed me to do so.