A starter curriculum

Before the ink was even dry on my contract, Albert already had me working on curriculum. I signed my contract with Whitman on January 13; the very next day I had an email from Albert about proposing a CS minor under the auspices of the newly renamed Department of Mathematics and Computer Science.

Why a minor?

There is precedent: Whitman offers a wide array of minors. Most minors are corollary to majors. A few are interdisciplinary, such as World Literature and Latin American Studies. Computer Science joins Chinese and Japanese as minors in which there are not (yet) enough courses offered to support a major.

I wasn’t ready to propose a major immediately after being hired, and I’m still not ready now. Beyond teaching and building relationships, my main task for the coming year is to hire two tenure-track colleagues. I want my colleagues to contribute to designing the major, to ensure both that the major is something we can all agree to and that the major plays to our collective strengths. The coming year (and beyond) will give me time to learn the academic culture of Whitman, what students are interested in, and what other faculty are interested in.

Moreover, instituting a major does not happen overnight. After my colleagues are hired, we will need to deliberate with the CS Steering Committee on the design of the major. Once we have a proposal, it will need to be approved by the Curriculum Committee and the Faculty as a whole. I have no illusions that this will go without a hitch. At the same time, we will need to build out the courses in the major curriculum, including the prerequisite structure, over multiple years.

By contrast, we were able to get a CS minor on the books very quickly. Albert and I discussed the structure of the minor by email over just two days – January 14 and 15. At Whitman, most minors are loosely structured, requiring only a certain number of credits beyond the introductory level. This is what we proposed:

In the catalog, immediately after the section starting with: The Mathematics minor…

ADD a section:

The Computer Science minor: 15 or more credits [5 courses] in CS courses numbered 200 or above.

At the same time, we proposed rubrics for special topics courses in computer science at the 200 and 400 levels, beyond the existing CS 167 – Introduction to Programming and CS 270 – Data Structures.

Our rationale:

In the absence of any formal program or major in CS, as new courses in CS are developed by the new CS faculty, a minor will provide students incentive to enroll in the new classes.

In other words, the CS minor is a credential which students can pursue in the absence of a major. Even though the minor is very loosely structured, it provides some structure. Indeed, in thinking about the special topics courses to offer in the 2015-6 academic year, I was thinking not just about individual courses, but about providing a well-balanced minor to the students who choose to pursue it. At the same time, this loosely structured minor does not commit the CS faculty to offering particular classes in the future; any courses we offer will support the minor.

After review by the CS Steering Committee, these proposals were forwarded to the Curriculum Committee on January 16. They were approved by Division III (the sciences) at the monthly division meeting on January 21. So, from zero to minor in just one week!

I expect that we will graduate our first CS minors in May 2016. Last year, there were two special topics offerings in computer science: Maker Spaces and Culture, jointly offered by Albert Schueller in Mathematics and Justin Lincoln in Art, and Open Source Software Development, offered by visiting professor Allen Tucker. This year, we aim to offer three special topics courses spanning the field of computer science, including human-computer interaction (fall), computer systems (spring), and discrete mathematics with functional programming (spring). A senior who took CS 270 and a special topics course last year would be well-positioned to take all of this year’s special topics offerings and complete a minor.

For better or for worse, offering a minor incurs no advising workload. Juli Dunn, Associate Dean of Students, told me that minors are not declared until just before students graduate; students do not receive formal advising for minors. Faculty in their first year normally do not advise students, so I will get at least a year’s respite from having official advising responsibilities. Nonetheless, I look forward to plenty of informal advising.

It has been suggested that students might pursue an individually planned major in computer science in the interim until there is a major on the books. I don’t think this will help, for two reasons: (1) Individually planned majors are required to incorporate multiple disciplines, and computer science is a discipline unto itself; (2) I don’t see how a student could plan an individual major including computer science if we aren’t certain of future course offerings. The minor will be much more achievable.

Along the same lines, it’s been suggested that that we develop new courses by first offering them as independent study courses. While that may work at other institutions, I think there is too much pent-up demand at Whitman. We are going to have to jump in with both feet.

What I wrote today points to some questions for the future about staffing and curriculum:

  • There is a waiting list of 40 for this fall’s sections of CS 167. Currently, only one section is planned for spring. How shall we staff additional spring offerings to accommodate that pent-up demand? Should we sacrifice a special topics course for an additional section?
  • Courses and major requirements must be designed together—but they need not be proposed together. Might some course proposals precede the proposal for a major? How will we use the special topics rubric as the major develops?
  • Shall we take a depth-first or a bread-first approach to building out the curriculum? A depth-first approach lets us graduate majors soonest. But with a breadth-first approach, we might focus first on redesigning the CS1 course so that it appeals to diverse students, quickly establishing a diverse pipeline to the major. We also ensure that students who complete only a minor have a range of classes available to them.
  • How will we balance the demand for general education at the introductory level with supporting a major? Is three faculty enough?
  • Will CS offer three-credit courses, four-credit courses, or a mix of both? Whitman offers both three- and four-credit courses as full courses. According to the Registrar’s FAQ for incoming students: “Full-time students must register for at least 12 credits and need to average 15 1/2 credits per semester to graduate in four years.” Either counts as one course for faculty teaching load. Thus far, I am following the precedent in Mathematics of offering three-credit courses, but I’m not at all committed to this approach. I’m amused that the Whitman College Credit Hour Policy (dated 5/14/14) includes the words, “Don’t panic.”

Since the minor was approved, I’ve been asked to develop learning goals to augment the catalog description of computer science, materials for the web, and a computer science profile for prospective students. You can read about Computer Science at Whitman and the Mathematics and Computer Science curricula.

The next post or two will concern hiring. This is a delicate topic, and I will leave out many details in the interest of confidentiality. But it is too important to overlook.

Edited August 4, 2015 to note other benefits of waiting to design a major. Thanks, Joe Oldham!

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