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Current CS initiatives (part of a draft letter to the incoming chair)

In my recent end-of-semester debriefing session, I decided that I should try to have documentation in place for my successor as chair by early June. I write enough that I expect it will take me a dozen or so essays to cover everything. I’ve already written a draft introduction, a list of common chair responsibilities, and a list of CS-specific chair responsibilities. This musing serves as the third non-introductory section of the letter and covers current initiatives within the department. I expect I’ll need to write a follow-up musing at some point when I remember other initiatives.

In addition to the wide variety of normal tasks and regular department-specific tasks, we also have a variety of departmental initiatives and other temporary activities. Here are the ones that currently come to mind.

Decennial review

The schedule of reviews is at

The department’s decennial review is scheduled for 2018-19. We should start preparing for that review this year. You weren’t here for the last review, but both Henry and I have experience as external reviews and can help get documents together. Among other things, we will need to work with OASIR on sending surveys to alumni.

You can find the previous Reviewers’ Notebook at (That should require a login.)

I’m not sure who in the Dean’s office is in charge of these reviews. Given the way things are going at the College, it may be the Center for Teaching, Learning, and Assessment. But I do see that it’s currently Karla Erickson’s responsibility. When we start planning the review, we should check the page about Dean’s office responsibilities, which is currently at

As part of the review process, we should revisit the Department’s learning goals and outcomes, which we haven’t really changed in over a decade.

Web site transition

We have a variety of issues to consider related to the department’s Web site. We have new College-wide accessibility guidelines for Web sites that our site should follow; that should not be a problem. There are some expectations about information that appears on Web pages, such as links to various College policies. The Web Governance committee is likely to be considering other issues. Beyond those issues, we need to replace the server, update the back end, and develop a more modern version of the department pages.

With John Stone stepping down as System Administrator, it may be worth revisiting some aspects of our site. For example, it has been suggested that we put most of the department’s materials on the College Web site and reserve the department Web site for our personal materials (e.g., courses, research, etc.).

As chair, you will need to lead us in these discussions.

Web governance

As you know, over the past five years the College has had some incompletely thought through and sometimes painful Web site transitions. I believe that the College now has a Web governance committee, but it does not have representation from our department. I find that strange, given that we were the first Web site on campus and remain one of the largest sites. Given our past experience, you should make sure that the department is either represented or in appropriate contact with the Web governance committee.

Support for higher enrollments

Our program has grown significantly in the past few years. As chair, you will need to work to make sure that we provide appropriate offerings for our majors and other students while keeping our class sizes reasonable. You will need to apply for positions (tenure-line and term) and running searches for those positions. You may also have to come up with creative solutions when we don’t have enough faculty. We have allowed some courses to over-enroll and added a peer educator to support the larger enrollments.

We need a sabbatical replacement for the next few years (see the department info folder for details).

We need additional staffing to cover course needs. We need to have at least three sections of CSC 151 in the fall (currently two) and we may need to add a section in the spring. CSC 161 (two sections per semester) and CSC 207 (two sections per semester) are currently okay, but you will need to keep an eye on those enrollments. Our plan had one section of MAT/CSC 208 per year. We clearly need two sections. We may need three.

Most of our upper-level courses have two sections per year. With the current and anticipated number of majors, we need an additional section of every required upper-level course each year. That include CSC 211 (1.5 teaching credits), CSC 213 (1.5 teaching credits), CSC 301, CSC 321 (0.5 teaching credits), CSC 322 (0.5 teaching credits), and CSC 341. We also need sufficiently many electives for our students and faculty. I’ll let you do the math.


The growth in enrollments has also made space tighter in the department. Our primary computing classrooms are now completely booked on MWF. In discussing possibilities with the Registrar’s office, we decided that Science 1530 should work for our classes. It’s not ideal, but it seems like the best option. Math/Stats is also willing to work with us on using their open computing laboratory. But students do need a place to work on their materials and some Math/Stats classes need to use the open lab multiple times a semester. We should work with ITS on getting some computers in the common spaces, like the Math/Stats commons and the two big study areas.

As we add faculty (term or tenure-line), we will need office space for those faculty. We also need lab space for our tenure-line and long-term term faculty. Officially, the Dean’s office and the Spaces committee should identify such spaces; they’ve had trouble doing so. That means that we need to identify possible spaces. Here are some suggestions: [elided].

4:1 Program with University of Iowa

As you know, we have started a program with the University of Iowa in which students do four years at Grinnell and one year at UIowa and earn both a BA in CS at Grinnell and an MCS from UIowa. We’ve been calling that the 4:1 program, but the administrators at UIowa prefer to call it the U2G program.

We have the first set of seniors starting in the program in Fall 2017. There are a wide variety of issues that we need to look at over the short term and the long term.

Over the short term, we need to coordinate with UIowa and the Registrar’s office on getting the UIowa courses into the Grinnell system (or at least I think we do). We also need to support the students in their first year and rely on their experiences as we think more broadly about the program. We also need to get an information page set up, but that should wait until the Web site is in order.

Over the longer term, we should work with UIowa on figuring out the right set of courses, on figuring out the right form for the courses, on how to best support the students, on whether students can take the courses without enrolling in the program, and so on and so forth.

I’m sure that other issues will come up along the way.

Support for diversity

Support for students from underrepresented groups has been one of the department’s clear priorities and successes. As we have grown as a department, we have started to incur some problems. As people come from different cultures and backgrounds, they take approaches that others sometimes find problematic. We are working with Jennifer Jacobsen, Lakesia Johnson, Maure Smith-Benati, and Angela Voos on how best to address these issues. I expect that we will need to continue to work on this issue for at least the next year.

As part of our broader diversity work, we have started a This is what a Grinnell Computer Scientist looks like campaign. Each declaring major gets a shirt and should send us a picture of them in the shirt. Those should get put on a Web site and on a board. (I’d suggest the one that currently holds an old picnic photo.) These are good responsibilities for a student.


One of the oft-delayed department tasks is joining NCWIT. If I don’t manage to get that done before I finish my term as chair, it will fall to you. Once it’s finished, the chair will likely need to work to ensure that a member of the department attends the annual NCWIT activities.

Ethics in the curriculum

There have been a variety of discussions in the department about the treatment of ethics in our curriculum. Students generally do not feel that we provide enough coverage (currently in CSC 321/22 with additional coverage in ad-hoc basis in our courses and CS table). I would say that one problem is that we assume an underlying knowledge of ethics, which suggests that we have to provide some training in core ethical philosophies. In any case, we need to revisit how we address ethics within our curriculum.

I’m sure we’ll hear more about that in our discussions of exit interviews.

Outreach activities

The department has started a variety of outreach activities, including an after-school coding club at the library. Students are generally comfortable coordinating those activities.

As part of her role as Noyce Visiting Professor, Ursula Wolz has been working with the high school on identifying appropriate approaches to offering CS without straining the high-school budget. Her proposed model is a One Room CS Schoolhouse which brings together one teacher and some Grinnell College students to support GHS students at a variety of levels. Three curricula will be offered: Some students will do AP CS Principles; some will do AP CS A; and some will work on projects designed and guided by the Grinnell CS students. CLS has some funding for the Grinnell College students. Our ACM Student Chapter has been tasked to work on the projects. A few of our students had similar experiences in high school and are enthusiastic about helping get this up and running. That’s all I really know right now. I am worried about the workload that this puts on the department faculty, but Ursula assures me that it will not require much faculty input, and I will note that our student helping with the CSP curriculum did not need much support this year.

And more

I’ve likely forgotten some other initiatives. I’ll add them as appropriate.

Version 1.0 of 2017-05-26.