Not Safe for CS Education Conferences

Should I want to get into a big argument at CIGCSE this year and cement my reputation as a frothing nerd code freak, I need only reference this blogpost which makes the provocative claim that Computer Science is about programming. I’m pretty sure most of the BuffaloBlog audience is inclined to agree with him – and myself too insofar as I think attempts to say “CS is not about programming” are essentially counterproductive (as the weeks go by, students are eventually going to notice they are writing an awful lot of C). But I want to just toss 2 counter-arguments out there for you to chew in the spirit of multiple perspectives:

  1. As someone who works in a giant HCI building, I’m more familiar with HCI than maybe this guy is. Some HCI is definitely more coding-oriented than he’s thinking: building gloves that allow recognition/translation of sign language for example. And some is completely not: finding out how religious organizations conceive of and use technology. One important factor in HCI’s presence in CS departments he’s likely not considering – if HCI is under design, designers don’t usually talk to computer scientists very much.

    Anyways, just a few slightly pragmatic thoughts that suggest that maybe it isn’t unreasonable for there to be some parts of computer science that do not immediately involve programming. Is P/NP programming? Circuit design? As much as I really do like programming, I don’t see that it somehow needs to be the gold standard for what’s in Computer Science as a field.

  2. Being a nerd is actually pretty cool in this century.

    Confession time: I am a big nerd. I know you’re all shocked. And I will freely admit than when I came to Georgia Tech, it wasn’t without some thought that maybe CS ought to return to its “roots” of being a haven for nerds like me and my friends. Nobody wants to code ’cause its nerdy? Who cares – we’ll just teach nerds and anyways nerds write better software. Nerds have their own little field. Society has awesome programs. Everybody is happy.

    What turned me around was maybe the only definitively good book on multicultural CS education. This book talked about CMU CS education back before they started to try and be more gender balanced – it was *really* nerdy back then.

    The conclusion I came to after reading this book is that in a lot of key ways, “nerd culture” is referring to a set of shared experiences that non-nerds really cannot go back and access. Yes, you can go watch The Princess Bride and Hackers. But you can’t watch it when you were 12. And you can’t retroactively be dateless at promtime or ostracized for you coding skills or install OS/2 on your 486 with 16 megs of RAM. And if we make being a computer programmer about these things, we’re basically talking about playing golf at the country club to a black student in 1960. We’re referencing a shared experience that some people won’t ever be able to be part of no matter how hard they work. And that seemed very inappropriate to me, so I’ve been a little down on the “CS is for nerds” angle ever since.

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