Departmental communications re: Fall 2020

Just over two weeks ago, President Kathleen Murray announced to students, staff, and faculty that “the fall 2020 semester will primarily be via remote learning.”

I spent the rest of that Friday processing the news and finishing other work already in progress. On Saturday, I woke up to an email message and a Slack post from a student proposing a discussion of the news that same day. As department chair, I scrambled to formulate a response. Fortunately, I’d already thought a fair bit already about this possibility. Below, find my email to all CS students that Saturday morning, and the results of a Q&A session during our regularly scheduled Tuesday evening CS Tea.

First, the email:
Beloved students:
By now I am sure you have read President Murray’s announcement of Whitman’s plans for online classes this fall. This will not be my last word on the topic, but there are a few things I want to get out there quickly.
  1. Your CS professors have been thinking and talking for months about how to teach the best online classes we can. The challenges posed by our new reality have made us rethink some of our most fundamental assumptions about teaching. While we will be learning as we go along, and of course we will all miss being physically together, I think that this fall our classes will be better than ever. In short, I’m excited about this fall, and I hope we can get you excited too.
  2. If you are currently at home or elsewhere, please seriously consider whether you should apply to return to campus this fall. Your professors want you to be in the best possible situation for learning. If you’re not sure whether you should apply, I invite you to discuss it with me or another professor you trust. (If you have reasons, we will probably encourage you to go ahead and apply.) If you can remain where you are but have concerns about your equipment for engaging in online classes or doing technical work, please don’t hesitate to bring those concerns to our attention. We should have a survey for you, or possibly a survey for each class, by mid-August.
  3. This summer, the CS faculty and our research assistants have been making extensive use of our departmental Slack to stay connected. We’ve recently created new channels including #acm, #askaprof, #industry, and #research. In the fall, we plan to use Slack for as much asynchronous communication as possible, to build a strong student-faculty community. If you haven’t been on Slack in a while, please reconnect! And if you aren’t yet a member, here’s the link to join.
That’s it for now: Three things are enough. (This isn’t the Spanish Inquisition, after all.) More to come as we learn your questions and as our plans continue to develop.
I know you have a lot to process amongst yourselves and with your families. I want to give you space to do that, but I also want to remind you that your professors are here for you when you are ready.

While I’m an atheist and not a Christian, in this moment I feel I can authentically join John in wishing you

Grace and Peace –

To follow up on these three points in reverse order:
  1. We had several more students join Slack, though things are still pretty quiet there. We still have two more weeks before the semester begins, and August is prime vacation season for those able to take time off.
  2. Last I heard, on-campus housing has been offered to all students who have requested it. Whitman College Technology Services and Student Affairs are coordinating a survey of all students regarding their locations and access to technology. They are making survey results available to faculty for students in their courses, and addressing students’ technology needs.
  3. We continue to make plans for fall, now informed by the results of that survey. One challenge is accommodating students in East Asia and especially China. As the Science Divisions’s representative on the Academic & Instructional Technology Advisory Committee, I’ve started to collect questions on these points. I’m also coordinating discussions of plans within our department. I’ve started to publish my own plans in the form of Frequently Asked Questions.

And here is the result of our Q&A session at CS Tea, which I documented in realtime on Slack.

Janet Davis Jul 27th at 4:45 PM
Change of plans: Tomorrow’s CS Tea will be a time for Q&A with CS faculty about plans for this fall. Bring your questions! We can’t promise we’ll be able to answer every one, but we’ll do our best.
[details omitted]
ETA: Notes from our discussion in this thread.
15 replies


Janet Davis  13 days ago

Will there be textbooks?
  • Yes. You can order them through the Whitman Bookstore or through the bookseller of your choice.
  • There will be electronic editions available for many textbooks.
  • Bookstore textbook ordering page
ETA: A message from the Provost

The Bookstore has received questions about textbooks for Fall 2020. They are fully stocked with your materials. Students will receive an email next week with a link to the Bookstore’s website where they will find a listing of their course materials. The Bookstore is prepared to ship books anywhere. However, I would like to note that, as part of our focus on access and affordability, we are encouraging the use of digital materials. Digital books will be listed next to hard copy editions with the instruction Required Choose 1 Format. The digital format will be offered as an option to hard copy editions whenever available. Digital books tend to be less costly and provide better access to many students, especially international students, due to postage costs and delivery issues.

If I’m in Walla Walla, how do I print articles to read on paper?
How will CS 310 assignments work?
  • Prof Bares wasn’t able to join us to say for sure. It seems likely you’ll use ssh to open a remote terminal on a lab workstation. If you want to try it now, see these instructions in the CS Lab Manual.
If seniors take a leave of absence, will they have to wait a whole year to take the CS Capstone?
  • There may be the possibility of an off-cycle Capstone team for students who choose to take a leave of absence this fall.
  • We would correspondingly offer senior exams off-cycle.
  • Please talk to Prof Stratton promptly if this is a serious consideration.
Will courses be recorded or synchronous?
  • Prof Bares wasn’t able to attend, but we think CS 270 and 310 will probably have synchronous class meetings.
  • CS 220, 320, and 267 will have synchronous meetings with homework groups / project teams.
Will CS 310 have group or individual work?
  • In the past, most work has been done with a partner.
What about other courses?
  • We like collaboration. We think it’s good for learning, and we also think social contact is good for well-being.
  • We are looking hard at tools for online collaboration, from pair programming tools to portable whiteboards.
  • We are learning a lot from summer research experiences, talking to CS colleagues, and from a summer course Prof Bares taught for the College of Charleston.
Should I return to campus?
  • If you aren’t safe or can’t work at home, or can’t return home, YES, please return to your off-campus housing or apply to return to campus.
  • “Can’t work” may include lack of high-bandwidth Internet access or a quiet space to work in.
  • It seems unlikely that you will be permitted to work in academic spaces, unless you have special needs.
  • Being in the Pacific time zone would be helpful.
  • Being with supportive friends or family will be very important.
  • If you are at high risk and in a place with a good hospital system, you probably should not return to Walla Walla.
What will exams be like?
  • Profs Davis and Stratton are strongly considering a new overall approach, Grading for Equity. We will emphasize continual assessment, including retakes/redos.
  • This may include quizzes, individual problem writeups, oral exams, projects, and/or reflections.
  • This is very different from our past approaches to grading, and we are excited to try something that is new and hopefully much better.
What about students who don’t have access to a computer or to wifi? Obviously CS students have greater needs.
  • In our experience, Zoom is the most demanding thing for computing/network requirements, and that’s not specific to CS.
  • If you want to set up a software development environment on your own computer, that might be somewhat demanding. But we are planning for minimal personal computing requirements.
  • If you really don’t have what you need, you should apply to return to campus and respond to surveys about your technology needs.
What about installing Linux on my own computer?
  • Many tools we use our classes don’t strictly require Linux. For example, Python and LaTeX work fine on all platforms or in the cloud.
  • CS 270 uses C++ and CS 310 uses C. Those courses might be supported with remote access to lab workstations via ssh, with a virtual machine you can install on your own computer,  by installing tools directly on your Mac, or by using WSL on Windows. @William Bares and @Dustin Palmer will have more definitive answers in the near future.
How will the department create community within and outside of classes?
  • We will make sure students introduce themselves, e.g., through short videos or the #introduce_yourself channel.
  • Study groups and project teams will make sure students know someone in their classes.
  • It was suggested we should have a departmental D&D, pub quiz, or other games like ScribbleIO. We could have a departmental online game library.
  • Weekly “pint night” or other casual study breaks. This could be organized by the student ACM chapter instead of faculty. Faculty would be happy to be invited.
  • We will continue weekly CS Tea. We’ll poll you about the best meeting time and possibly interest in topics.
  • We will be trying hard to get all students on Slack, e.g., by expecting most asynchronous Q&A to go through Slack rather than email. Note that any Slack member can create a private channel and invite exactly who they want to.
  • Students who take a leave of absence will still be welcome at social events.
What else can we do to cultivate students getting to know each other across class years?
  • We should have a virtual senior board! What should sophomores and juniors ask you about? We need to find a good medium.
  • Seniors might make an effort to reach out to sophomores and juniors.
  • Come to CS Tea and other social events!
  • We’ll make sure to include some student panels in the CS Tea series. (@William Bares will be organizing.)
  • Post something on #cscommons, #random, or another channel. Respond to other people’s posts!
Janet Davis  13 days ago
Closing thought: We are planning very intentionally for the best fall semester we can make. It won’t be the same as being in person, but it will be good.
William Bares  12 days ago
Sorry not being able to attend the CS Tea.  My family and I are moving from the east coast.  CS 270 and 310 students can check your e-mail from  a few days ago for teaching plans.  For CS 310, an SSH connection into the LINUX lab will be the simplest solution.  I am planning to work with the command-line editors and development tools so those working on a wide-range of computers can work in an equitable fashion.  If you have a personal computer, you can install Ubuntu LINUX 20.04 (latest) or 18.04 (version installed in the labs).  I will check with Dustin to see how to submit completed programs using the command-line via SSH.  For my classes, I will be creating materials in different forms including plain text to 6-minute video clips.  Since I am starting new preparations, I will incorporate suggestions noted above including Equitable Grading and smaller chunks of work.  I will use smaller, offline activities to prepare for new topics presented synchronously in Slack +  Zoom.  We will use drawing materials – like a portable whiteboard to draft out test cases (given an input, what is the expected output), and share algorithm designs, before writing code.  For the capstone projects, I have been posting updates to dedicated slack channels 2020capstone-arts and 2020capstone-WCTS.  Each capstone team also has a shared Google Drive.  Feel free to message me directly on Slack as I can access it via my mobile phone on the road.  I am looking forward to the semester!

1 thought on “Departmental communications re: Fall 2020

  1. Amy Csizmar Dalal

    Oh, the time zones will be interesting! In my Networks course, which meets 10am CT MWF, I have at least one student in Korea and at least one on the west coast. I predict a lot of sleepy students this term. 🙂

    I really like how quickly you got information out to your students, and that you held basically a town hall just for them. I wish we’d thought to do that before summer registration/advising!


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