Step 66: Embrace the Liberal Arts

I noticed a curious trend in the classes I’m teaching:

  • For Intro to Cog Sci, we are moving to a model of short response papers for every lecture, mostly graded for completion but with randomized occasional feedback, plus three papers, a midterm, and a final. This is compared to last year’s model where we had required forum posts, then longer homeworks, midterms, and a final.
  • For Intro to Computer Science, I started the semester presenting why students should study computer science, but also presented a list of news articles about societal implications of improperly-thought-out technology (for example, not training your AI on people of color). I am also offering extra credit for an edited paper on increasing diversity in Oxy’s computer science program.
  • The Practicum course that I am teaching had their first visit to the community partner this week. The plan was for them to learn about what their project really entails, but as part of the presentation, they also got a lecture on the media bias towards violence and away from poverty.

The trend I’m seeing is the inclusion and emphasis on liberal arts topics – not just “soft” people skills, but drawing in and including more liberal arts topics in science classes. The strange thing is that I have not thought about these changes as deliberately broadening the scope of these classes. Rather, the intention has generally been to get students to engage more deeply. It’s interesting to me that these two goals have the same outcome at all – I can imagine making computer science more engaging by diving ever deeper into technical topics, and in fact I can think of students who probably will enjoy the journey from loops to recursion to higher-order functions to monads.

I do see the appeal of higher and higher levels of abstraction, but its inappropriateness for introductory courses aside, it just feels like the wrong kind of complexity. This seems related to my against the model CS curriculum, and the concreteness makes it easier to analyse. I don’t think it’s just that these connections are application-oriented, as opposed to theory-oriented; it’s explicitly the reaching across disciplines that excite me. I’m not sure I can justify this bias outside of saying that I like generalists.

This post is neither here nor there, and I thought I would have more to say about where my classes are going. I’ll just stop.

Step 66: Embrace the Liberal Arts

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