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CS concentrators face unique challenges on campus

Computer science concentrators deal with heavy workloads but have close community bond

By
Senior Staff Writer
Friday, April 19, 2019

The computer science department depends heavily on its teaching assistants, who use their integral role as guides to build a support system for students.

This is the first of two stories examining the workings of the University’s largest concentration— the computer science department — its value and its challenges.

While Kendrick Tan ’21, a former Herald reporter, was taking computer science classes, it consumed his life. If he was not working on an assignment for a class, he was thinking about one, and the projects and labs never seemed to end, keeping him under constant stress.

An Applied Mathematics–Computer Science concentrator, Tan took a break from taking computer science classes this semester to focus on other parts of his life and serve as a teaching assistant for an introductory computer science course. Still, he said he misses the community among computer science concentrators, a bond born of late nights in the Center for Integrative Technologies and struggles with difficult assignments.

Computer science classes are known to be some of the most difficult at the University, and a number of students, administrators and faculty members spoke to their challenges and rewards. While no one student or voice can be representative of the experiences of everyone in the University’s largest department, their stories do illustrate commonly shared experiences and mindsets within the concentration. Among them: passion, self-sacrifice, invaluable undergraduate teaching, overwork and a sense of community.

Difficult but “necessary” workloads

Students and faculty alike said that while there is a heavy workload in classes within the department, that work is necessary to properly learn how to code.

“I feel like if you’re not really passionate about it or committed to the class, then the workload for the class is too much,” said Tan, who took the most common introductory computer science track during his first year. “These intro sequences are designed for concentrators, because to prepare you for the concentration you need a really solid base.”

Other students agreed with Tan, saying that the difficult coursework and heavy hours are not necessarily a problem.

“It’s a lot, but I don’t think it’s too much,” said Donnie Sahyouni ’21, who previously published an op-ed about the CS department in The Herald. “The fact is that it’s a hard discipline. You need a lot of practice.”

Jack Wrenn GS is a PhD candidate in the department whose work focuses on computer science education. Learning how to code requires a new mode of thinking that is different from most other academic disciplines and requires more time to learn, Wrenn said.

“Computer science is a fundamentally difficult field to get into,” Wrenn said. “To some extent, you just have to put many hours into it. My opinion is that if you want to learn CS in four years, there is going to be a large workload.”

The tech industry’s demands also require strict discipline and hard work. Associate Professor of Computer Science Tom Doeppner is the head of undergraduate studies; while he also voiced worries about the workload and stress, he acknowledged that they are parts of the tech world’s larger culture. “It’s an issue, and we’re very concerned about students’ mental health issues … but I think that in many situations, this is preparation for life. This is what a job in CS may entail.”

In recent years, the department has hired health and wellness advocates, who are undergraduates within the department that seek to connect peers with mental health resources. Despite these resources, some students said that the burden was more on the student to ensure that they are not overworked.

Andrew Canino ’21, who intends to concentrate in APMA–CS, has had to drop two computer science classes partway through the semester after realizing the courseload was too heavy. “I don’t like to admit shortcoming, and so I had to really convince myself that this is the right thing for me to do. I don’t blame the class, I more or less blame myself for trying to dive in deep and then getting too far into the deep end.”

Parth Kurani ’21, like Tan, took time away from computer science this semester. He acknowledged that the department has made strides in terms of offering helpful resources to students in the past few years, but still believes there is something inherent to the material that would make it difficult to reduce the level of work needed to succeed in the real world.

“If we were to lighten up on the coursework, I don’t think as many students would be prepared when they want to go out into the professional field,” Kurani said. “I think that’s something the department really takes into consideration when they think about how hard the courses are and how much time they’re going to require.”

Regardless of the reasons for worki ng so hard, students said that the community within the department is strong, driven both by relationships between students who work on difficult assignments together, as well as with teaching assistants.

“We’ve all been through it,” Canino said about the workload. “In a weird way it’s like the army. You have these trials and tribulations.”

TA program drives department, expanding rapidly

TAs are at the heart of the department’s size and success, and the TA program aims to ensure a ratio of around eight to ten students for each TA, Doeppner said.

Undergraduate TAs  help run labs, section and open TA hours for student questions, Head TAs coordinate classes and Meta TAs, as befits their name, coordinate the program throughout the department.

“These TAs are wonderful,” Serrano said. “I don’t know how I could have gone through any of these courses without them. I think sometimes people see you most clearly when you’re in your most hectic state, and that’s been the TAs for me. They’ve definitely seen me unhinged, when something’s not working and it’s two minutes until the deadline.”

The relationship between TAs and students forms the core of the community within the department, and that relationship is  frequently based off of “empathy” among students working together through grueling assignments, Tan said. It is common for TAs to be younger or less experienced than those they are teaching.

But TA help is so in demand that wait times are often prohibitive, depending on the class. The department has grown rapidly in size over the past couple years and now graduates the largest number of students at the University, as The Herald previously reported. The department has hired more TAs to meet student demand, but it has yet to resolve the problem.

“Certainly among the top concerns in the department are the length of TA lines,” Doeppner said. “One would have thought that if the class doubles in size, you can double the number of TAs and handle it, but that hasn’t seemed to be working.”

In an attempt to address the problem, each student in a class will be given a specific number of “tickets” a week, which gives the student priority access to a TA. This system will be available beginning next semester for all classes.

A sentiment frequently voiced by students, especially on the Dear Blueno anonymous Facebook page, is that TAs are underpaid and overworked, and faculty place most of the course’s burden on undergraduates.

“We would like to see them paid more,” but that there is a lack of funds available to pay TAs due to limited funding from the University, Doeppner said in response to the criticism. “We’re given a fixed amount of money from the University to pay for TAs, and this hasn’t gone up proportionally with our increased enrollments,” Doeppner said. The CS department attempted to endow pay for the TA program four years ago and raised $10 million, but that money is not enough to fund the increase in TA numbers.

“I think the TA program is not necessarily something that scales very well,” said Zach Kirschenbaum ’19, one of three Meta TAs. Rather than dramatically increasing TA staff size, he recommends the department find ways to automate grading.

“The fact that (TAs) go out of their way to host extra hours, often without pay, is crazy to me,” Tan said, adding that he himself had offered free help hours in the past. “But they’re more than willing to do that. … I don’t know why, it doesn’t really make sense, but when you are there you really do want to help the students. This is what the culture is, people helping other people.”

“But you really need the mindset for it,” Canino said. “Maybe a little bit of insanity.”

This article appeared in print with the headline “CS concentrators face unique challenges.”

  • I’m a computer science professor at Brown, and I disagree with some of the sentiments expressed here. There’s a quote to the effect that this is “preparation for life … what a job in CS may entail”.

    This is quite likely true for jobs at a handful of well-known tech companies (such as Google and Facebook). However, there are literally hundreds of thousands of tech jobs out there, a good fraction of which are at ‘tech companies”, and these jobs provide a work-life balance.

    In fact, my anecdotal observation is that more and more tech companies are now competing on their ability to provide a work-life balance. And as tech gets into more and more corporations, which already have sane work cultures, the number of such jobs will only grow.

    The big-name companies like Google and Facebook cast an oversize shadow on our discipline: one sufficiently large that it may blot out the existence of numerous other opportunities. However, they are only one of many “cultures” that are available.

    Echoing this trend, several CS courses have been actively working on finding ways to reduce the work without reducing the learning. Several courses have actively made changes that help with this. It is true that there is some amount of unavoidable frustration due to the unique nature of the discipline — the same source of frustration can also be a source of great joy and delight. Finding a good balance is hard but not something we’re unaware of.

  • Chill Out Nerds

    edit

  • Robert Corey

    Software culture has a horrible tendency of ignoring health, glorifying lack of sleep, and overwork. I think this is probably the result of the innately stimulating feedback loop of working with computers, Venture Capitalists spurring on young people to kill themselves building the startups they fund, and self congratulatory winners of the startup lottery writing biographies about how they didn’t sleep for 3 years (which is why they are justified in their extreme wealth).

    There is this weird mythology that software developers are these unique twisted geniuses that take in stimulants and weave beautiful algorithmic masterpieces. Let’s all take a deep breath and realize we are just people who need to sleep, eat vegetables, and have relationships. You can produce good software by taking care of yourself, and you’ll be happier while doing it.