Step 59: Build a Faculty Computer Science Community

Since I write the original post about building a student community, it has been on my mind that I should write a similar post about building a faculty community around computer science. I have been thinking about this topic on and off for the last two months, still without a conclusion, but perhaps its time to share some of those thoughts.

The first question that I should answer is why I am concerned about a faculty community, and what such a community would accomplish. I think there are multiple goals here, the first of which is support for faculty who want to include computational methods in their courses. This is the most obvious in the sciences, but may also apply to the digital humanities as well as new media. While faculty may know how to use the computational tools in their field, they may lack the knowledge to teach students how to use those tools. A useful analogy is writing: although I consider myself a decent-enough writer, I am not qualified to teach students how to write as I lack the pedagogical content knowledge. Similarly, faculty may know how to write scripts to do what they need, but may not be able to convey this process or the abstract skills to students. This applies both to students in standard classes as well as students who may be interested in computational research in those fields.

A second goal is more selfish: if encouraging connections to other fields outside of computer science leads to higher retention of women and under-represented minorities, then extending the presence of computing to courses in other disciplines can only help. Faculty having expertise in computing means they can not each other in common tasks – for example, an economics professor recently started using version control to collaborate on papers, an approach that other faculty may adopt. Furthermore, faculty can also support students both technically and socially, distributing the responsibility and normalizing involvement in computer science.

These goals sound great, but I have been stuck on how to build these communities. The obvious mechanism is to lead a Faculty Learning Community on interdisciplinary computing, but there are three issues I am currently thinking through even as I’ve sought out other faculty for advice:

  • The first issue is the skill level of participating faculty. Much like any other computer science group, there will be faculty who are comfortable with some programming, and there will be faculty who only need familiarity with a niched piece of software. Clustering all of these needs into a single group may be a disservice to both, and it’s hard for me to imagine a coherent agenda that would keep everyone invested for five meetings.
  • The second issue is the end goal of these meetings. The discussions I have had suggest two possibilities: for each faculty to develop a computational assignment for a future course, or to create a general implementation framework as a reference for other faculty who want to develop such assignments in the future. These goals are not mutually exclusive, but the agenda would likely be different.
  • The final issue is my role in these meetings. It is tempting to treat this as another teaching opportunity, and some of it will be unavoidable just because I do know more about computation. I don’t want to take on that type of role, however, and I don’t know how to encourage the inter-dependence I described above (without appearing like a jerk and refusing to help, at any rate).

I think a faculty learning community will still work, I just have to come to some conclusion on these issues. My current next step is to talk to faculty and see what their interests are; hopefully that will give me some ideas to begin building a community.

Step 59: Build a Faculty Computer Science Community

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