Step 87: Replan a CS Writing Course

This semester I taught Computer Science Junior Seminar, or as I like to think of it, Communicating Computational Concepts. The main reason this course exists is so majors can fulfill Oxy’s disciplinary writing requirement, but since the department gets to choose the topics, I decide to expose students to issues at the intersection of tech and society.

I might talk about the class syllabus in a future post, but here I want to focus on the approach. My overall goal was just to get students writing about computer science. I structured the course around several major papers. In one, students had to explain how technology is impacting society; a different paper required students to explain an algorithm in technical detail; and a third paper asked students to create an interactive document. For the lectures, I spent a week or two talking about writing, a couple weeks analyzing CS research papers and blog posts, then most of the second half of the course on a selection of tech and society topics.

As the first iteration of this course, this plan worked fine. Some discussions were more interesting than others, I had to shift some lectures around, but I got the students to do a bunch of writing.

It turned out that this wasn’t what I wanted from the course at all.

I first discovered this when I was grading the technical expository essay. I had asked students to write something approximating “a blog post by someone in the tech industry”. Some students managed the tonal shift, but many other papers kept the tone of an academic essay, using stilted and constrained sentences to fill out a formulaic structure. There was no personality in those paragraphs, no voice, no joy.

I should say here that I have a biased relationship with writing. I have kept a personal journal since I was a high school freshman in 2002, for more than half my life, and I have maintained various blogs between then and now. Through this habit, outlining and revising became the way I work through complicated ideas and feelings. This very blog post started because I wanted to reflect on the semester, and I threw out a 500-word draft that lost track of what I wanted to say.

What I saw in my students’ essays is that they don’t have this relationship with writing. I had the revelation that to students, writing was this thing they do for class. (I suspect this is true of reading as well.) You only write because you wanted to get a good grade, and “good writing” is professional and academic and full of therefore‘s and regardless‘es. One does not use I or you, one does not include jokes, and one most definitely does not use any contractions.

I had a hint of this earlier in the semester. We spent a lecture discussing audience and tone and, as an exercise, I asked students to come up with alternate introductions to a blog post on the Meltdown vulnerability. The students did adopt a more conversational tone for this activity, but one voice/style was curiously absent: that of a first person, “I just learned about this attack and I thought it’s really clever.” I have heard horror stories of students using personal anecdotes as supporting evidence, but it seems for that technical explanations, students can’t seem to write about themselves.

For me, the strange thing is that so many of the tech blogs and articles I read are in the first person or from immediate experience. This blog post on Minesweeper, a reading for the interactive document section of the course, is written as an exploration. Almost all of Eevee’s blog is in first person and about their opinions and ideas, and they can get pretty technical. Many Hacker News links are simply software engineers writing about whatever problem they solved at work or in a hobby project. I will go so far as to argue that for most students, most of the non-documentation technical writing they will encounter are casual blog posts.

That is what I really want students to get out of this course: for them to be part of the tech “culture” of sharing knowledge and struggles and achievements. I imagine students keeping up with technological developments and keeping a weekly blog. I want students to find voices they enjoy and respond to them. I want students to describe and reflect on their projects, and have others learn from that experience.

The course should have focused on writing as the means to becoming an active member of the computer science community. Instead, by focusing too much on the writing requirement, I created a course where the writing assignments were just writing assignments, perpetuating the idea that writing is only used for college essays.

I welcome ideas for how a future iteration of the course might achieve this goal.

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Step 87: Replan a CS Writing Course