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Advertising the department

Topics/tags: Academia [1], things I had to write anyway.

A few months ago, our Communications Department asked the academic departments to write new blurbs about themselves for the Web site. Our department, like many, neglected to fulfill our obligations. And so Communications did what was probably appropriate: They wrote one for us. Here’s what they came up with.

Computer science

Practical, theoretical, comprehensive, and rigorous

Whether you want to study programming languages, hardware design, operating systems, or more, the computer science major will teach you the fundamentals and the theory. You’ll learn all aspects of the design and use of computers through engaging, innovative teaching in outstanding facilities. Have a special project in mind? You’ll have plenty of opportunities for independent research guided by our expert faculty. And you’ll be thoroughly prepared for graduate study or a career in network and database administration, systems analysis, computer science, technical roles, and independent contracting.

One of my colleagues did not respond positively, to put it nicely. Why not? Well, we don’t really do hardware, and we don’t talk about the design of computers [3,4]. Our facilities are good, but it’s a stretch to call them outstanding [5]. We shouldn’t advertise a willingness to supervise special projects that students have in mind. We support a lot of student-faculty research, but most of it is either (a) grounded in a faculty member’s primary research area or (b) related to a course [6]. My colleague also objected to network and database administration, since it’s not a career that we target or that many of our students pursue.

Do I blame Communications for these issues? Nope. We didn’t do our job in writing the blurb and we did not communicate our department’s strengths to them. It seems to me that Communications also has not gotten appropriate support from the Dean’s office on the Opportunities for all students to do research initiative [7]. Ideally, we would have a blurb describing those opportunities for each department. After all, departments had to write those descriptions two years ago [8,9].

Communications also did some nice things. I particularly appreciate the four-word summary: Practical, theoretical, comprehensive, and rigorous. I might want to add inclusive. And they do include our innovative teaching practices, which I consider one of the department’s core strengths.

At this point, it’s the department’s responsibility to come up with something better. I cleverly volunteered to draft the first response [10,11]. It ended up on my back burner, but it’s time to get something done. And there’s nothing like musing to help. So, here goes [14].

What does our current blurb say?

Computer science study at Grinnell is innovative — you experience varied pedagogical and problem-solving approaches. It’s comprehensive, involving several programming languages and a balance of theory and application. It’s thorough — guided by national curricular guidelines and taught in dedicated facilities. It offers extensive opportunities for student-faculty research, and can prepare you for further study or careers in network and database administration, systems analysis, computer science, technical roles, and independent contracting. [15]

Yeah, I can see where Communications might want to rewrite it. I also see where they got the four words. And it has the network and database administration part. So, what can I do? I’ll start by reflecting on some strengths.

  • An innovative curriculum, based on three core approaches: active learning in most courses, a multi-paradigm introductory sequence, and research experiences in the upper-level courses [18].
  • A curriculum that is acknowledged as an exemplar in the IEEE/ACM Curricula guidelines [19].
  • A variety of experiences for outside of classroom learning, including not just MAPs, but also student-driven activities like AppDev or the VR club.
  • A commitment to an inclusive curriculum.
  • We also have awesome faculty, but I think most departments would claim that.

The blurbs, current and suggested, also seem to have a focus on post-graduation opportunities. I’ll need to think about a way to address that. And, particularly since one of the themes of the institution is that your major does not define your career, I’ll want to incorporate that. Well, here goes nothing.

Computer science

Practical, theoretical, comprehensive, reflective, inclusive and rigorous

Whether you want to build problem-solving skills, pursue graduate work, or explore a career in one of the wide variety of computing-related fields, Grinnell’s computer science major will ground you in the fundamentals and the underlying theory. The department’s curriculum, identified as just one of four international exemplars by the Association of Computing Machinery (ACM) and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), explores multiple modes of thinking and requires students to reflect not just on the study of CS, but also the implications of computing in the broader world. Through innovative approaches to teaching and a variety of activities designed to support students, the department strives to make computing more inclusive. Whether it’s building software for a local non-profit, exploring a multi-week innovative project in an upper-level course, or conducting novel research with a faculty member, Grinnell provides you with the opportunity to build your learning beyond traditional homework assignments and exams. When you finish, you’ll find that the ways of thinking and problem-solving skills you’ve gained will prepare you for a host of rewarding careers. While many of our graduates pursue careers in computing, from app development to consulting, from management to computer animation, from data science to data management, others are equally comfortable applying those skills to very different careers.

Do I want to list some of those other careers? There are many. I’m just as proud of our graduates who have gone on to be teachers, comedians, fundraisers, mathematicians, stay-at-home parents, and so on and so forth. But I probably shouldn’t add those; the paragraph is too long already.

Given that the paragraph is too long, I should consider editing it. But, well, my Chair did promise that if I drafted something, he would do the rest. So I’ll leave it at that, at least for today.

[1] I was surprised that I didn’t have a department page in the host of indices I’ve created for this site. I settled on academia as the closest. I have too many indices already. And I should probably generate them automatically. But that’s a task for a site redesign, which is getting more and more intimidating the more musings I write [2].

[2] Or is that the more I muse and rant?

[3] It’s questionable whether or not we talk about the use of computers, either.

[4] I suppose we talk about the design of computers in our course in organization and architecture. But it’s not the focus of our curriculum.

[5] We’ve had at least one prospective student write to us and ask something like, Your computers aren’t as old as they look in the photos, are they? And no, they are not. But it looks like we’re sticking with a one-monitor-per-workstation set up for the near future, and we don’t need particularly fancy machines or monitors for our primary teaching.

[6] The range of projects from Weinman’s recent course in Computer Vision is astounding. So, in some sense, students got to pick a passion project of sorts. But it was restricted to something related to computer vision.

[7] That’s right, Sam. Pass the blame.

[8] My preference would be that the general aspects of each department’s research opportunities appear in the College Catalog, as our requirements for honors do.

[9] I believe that one of the Associate Deans plans to work on this issue. Thanks!

[10] Yes, I realize that I’m on leave. But no one else volunteered, and our Chair has way too much on his plate.

[11] Our Chair and I also seem to have a relatively good writing relationship in which I draft something, and he cleans it up. I feel like I often develop that relationship with folks [12].

[12] That was also the relationship that Janet and I had in writing the CSC 151 materials. I do not envy her work in checking my accuracy and reframing my thinking.

[14] That may be one of the longest introductions I’ve written, particularly with regards to ratio of the length of the introduction to the length of the piece of writing. And I have more to write before I write, as it were.

[15] Grinnell College. n.d. Computer Science. Web page available at Visited 22 July 2019. Last modified 22 July 2019 [16,17].

[16] At least that’s what the page info says. I wonder if, under Drupal, the page modification date ends up being the time you view the page.

[17] It seems odd to refer to that page for the text, given that I anticipate that the page will change. I would be tempted to refer to the Wayback Machine URL,, but that version is strangely formatted.

[18] That last bit is not all that innovative, but it’s a valuable part of our curriculum.

[19] I know that this characteristic is one of the reasons we were able to attract one of my favorite students, even though they had initially decided not to attend Grinnell.

Version 1.0 of 2019-07-22.