On independent study

Some readers have expressed interest in hearing about differences between Whitman and Grinnell. I recently encountered and responded to one such difference.

On Thursday, I met with a student to discuss possible independent study projects for the spring semester. At the end of our discussion, we talked about next steps. I asked, “How does one register for an independent study at Whitman?” The student didn’t know; he hadn’t done one before. Being resourceful people, we checked the college catalog online and discovered there was an independent study course in Mathematics, but not in Computer Science.

An independent study course should have been proposed in January, alongside the special topics courses that form the basis of our starter curriculum. I didn’t notice this oversight because Grinnell handles independent studies quite differently.

At Grinnell, there is one independent study rubric that applies to all departments and programs. This rubric distinguishes between guided reading at the 200-level, independent study at the 300-level, and research at the 200-, 300-, or 400-level.

By contrast, at Whitman independent study courses are specified within academic programs and departments. There is significant diversity in independent study offerings. For example, students of Mathematics can conduct independent study for up to 3 credits per semester at both the 200- and 400-levels:

281, 282 Independent Study
1-3, 1-3 Staff

A reading project in an area of mathematics not covered in regular courses or that is a proper subset of an existing course. The topic, selected by the student in consultation with the staff, is deemed to be introductory in nature with a level of difficulty comparable to other mathematics courses at the 200-level.

481, 482 Independent Study
1-3, 1-3 Staff

A reading or research project in an area of mathematics not covered in regular courses. The topic is to be selected by the student in consultation with the staff. Maximum of six credits. Prerequisite: consent of supervising instructor.

At the other end of the spectrum, Sociology offers only one independent study course, at the 300-level, for 2 credits per spemester and up to 6 credits in total:

381, 382 Independent Study
2, 2 Staff

Reading and/or research in an area of sociology of interest to the student, under the supervision of a faculty member. May be taken up to three times, for a maximum of six credits. Prerequisite: consent of instructor.

Having made this discovery, I consulted with Albert, former chair of the CS steering committee, and with Barry, who also represents Math on the CS steering committee and, conveniently, represents Division III on the curriculum committee. (It is so convenient to have my curriculum committee representative right across the hall!) I was advised to put forward a new course proposal right away, to be discussed at the upcoming division meeting alongside proposals for spring special topics.

I started, as one does, by finding the appropriate form. I looked over the new course form and had no idea how to fill out many of the questions. I doubted I even had the right form. I called the Registrar, Stacey Giusti, and she walked me through it.

The rationale was easy—after all, most departments and programs offer independent study—but the course description was a challenge. There were so many models to choose from. After comparing a number of course descriptions, I decided that History‘s seemed like a good starting place and revised to the following:

Directed study or research in selected areas of computer science. A curriculum or project is designed by the student(s) with the advice and consent of an instructor in the department. Inquiry may emerge from prior course work or explore areas not covered in the curriculum.

I wanted to convey that “study” of all kinds (not necessarily reading!) was permitted along with research projects; that students are expected to take an active role in designing their independent study, under the mentorship of the faculty supervisor; and that independent studies might address areas beyond the existing curriculum or dig deeper into problems already encountered.

This left two decisions remaining: What level? For how many credits?

After some waffling, I decided on the 400-level for parallelism with the 400-level special topics course. CS 270, Data Structures, is an explicit prerequisite, so that independent study opportunities are limited to students who’ve taken advantage of the regular course offerings and have some computational maturity.

I fully expect the CS faculty to revisit this decision as we design a major curriculum. If we have the capacity to mentor them, beginning students can really benefit from individually-mentored study.

My proposal permits independent study for up to 4 credits. I thought about making it 2-4 credits; a 1-credit independent study seems like too little an investment of time to be worthwhile. But I decided to err on the side of flexibility. Eliminating the 1-credit option should be an easy change to make in the future alongside other curricular proposals.

The proposal will be reviewed at the Division III meeting this week and subsequently by the Curriculum Committee.

In other news, this is an eventful week for computer science at Whitman. I’ll briefly consider five fronts: Faculty, alumni, current students, prospective students, and administration.

  • Faculty: The preferred application date for our open positions passed on Sunday. The search committee’s first meeting is on Friday, and we are all reading applications. Out of concern for confidentiality, fairness, and the success of the search, the search will run on radio silence for a while. I will say nothing here about any candidates—except for our new hires, once the ink is dry. I’m sure I will have things to say about the search process, but I will save them for an appropriate time.
  • Alumni: Reunion Weekend is coming. I’ll be giving my first talk on the state of computer science at Whitman at 1:30 on Friday (maybe channeling my mentor Mike Erlinger at HMC…or maybe not). I plan to attend the Whitties Helping Whitties panel on “Marketing, Communications and Technology” at 4:30 on Friday, and hang out during the Mathematics & Computer Science open house on Saturday. I’m also looking forward to meeting John Markoff ’71, whose new book Machines of Loving Grace I’m in the middle of reading.
  • Current students: The CS announcements email list is up and running. That might not sound like a big deal, but it’s something I took for granted at Grinnell. After advertising the email list to currently enrolled students and gaining several subscribers, I posted three opportunities I had saved up: for a volunteer project, a campus job, and a national scholarship competition. I got this together in the nick of time to advertise the Reunion events above; I’m looking forward to advertising candidate talks later on. (I still need to advertise this list to the broader campus.)
  • Prospective students: Tomorrow I’m meeting with campus tour guides over the lunch hour to give them some talking points and show them the labs. I’m leaving plenty of time for Q&A, hoping they can ask the kinds of questions that prospective students and parents will ask.
  • Administration: Forms for next year’s budgets went out to department chairs late last week. CS currently operates under the auspices of the Mathematics department, so it wasn’t clear whether the form would come to me or to Pat Keef, department chair. It turned out the answer was neither: Because CS is new, it hadn’t yet been rolled into the regular budget process. With thanks to Katina Henderson in Olin and Susan Bennett in the Provost’s office, it is all taken care of. Hopefully.

I hope to post more next week on my interactions with tour guides and alumni.

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