Columns, Opinions

Douglas ’20: The CS Department needs to change. Here’s how.

By
Staff Columnist
Monday, January 27, 2020

In recent years, the computer science department has exploded. In 2015, 133 students graduated with a concentration or joint concentration in computer science. By 2019­­ — just four years later — that number had skyrocketed to 259, an increase of almost 95 percent. Course enrollment has also ballooned as students in other disciplines recognize the growing importance of the field. Enrollment in 1000-level courses increased from 874 students across 16 classes in fall 2016 to 1,352 students in fall 2019 across 22 classes.

This change has not gone unnoticed; in December 2018, the department announced that it would hire 15 new faculty members over the next five years, an increase of 50 percent, The Herald previously reported. But so far, only one new tenure-track professor and one new lecturer have joined the department, according to department chair Ugur Cetintemel.

Despite these two hires, the department’s growth has not happened fast enough. The addition of new faculty members has yet to decrease the size of the department’s largest classes, and instead the department has come to depend too heavily on undergraduate teaching assistants, who can never fully match the quality of faculty teaching. The department should speed up its hiring timeline, prioritize breaking up large courses and hire professional course assistants to better serve students.

Classes in the department have only grown bigger, even as new hires have been brought on. I’ve seen this first-hand: As a concentrator in the department, I will graduate having taken no classes in the concentration with fewer than 100 students. In fall 2019, eight computer science courses had more than 100 students. That number is set to stay the same this semester, barring some massive fluctuation in enrollment. In fact, four courses had more than 250 students.

Large classes undermine the computer science education at Brown. They make it difficult for students to ask questions. Many may feel nervous to speak in front of 200 other people in the room. Even if students aren’t nervous, only a small percentage of us can ask anything without holding up the rest of the class. Massive courses also make it nearly impossible to form a personal relationship with the professor. They only hold a limited number of office hours and do not have the time to meet with all students individually.

The department has largely relied on TAs to ensure that these massive classes run smoothly. The TA system has grown so large that it even requires multiple “meta-TAs” to coordinate the program. In fall 2013, the department had 165 teaching assistants. By 2019, that number had more than doubled to 342, according to Eleanor Avril ’20, one of the meta-TAs. Without a doubt, I would have failed every single computer science class I have taken without these TAs. By handling questions individually in hours, answering broader questions on answer forums such as Piazza and grading, the TAs are in many ways the backbone of the entire department.

But broadening the TA system is not the best solution to address ballooning growth. Putting aside issues of occasionally incompetent TAs and hours-long waits, even an ideal TA program does not give students the resources they need to be successful. Teaching assistants typically cannot offer good course advice, oftentimes because they have not taken the upper level courses themselves. They cannot offer proper career advice, because they have not had careers themselves. While they may have mastered the course material, they cannot provide a broader, expert-level view of the field because they have limited knowledge and have not studied graduate-level material yet. Professors are better-suited to handle each of these problems.

More broadly, teaching assistants should not be as critical to the functioning of computer science courses as they are today. In every other department that I have taken a course in, from political science to mathematics to biology, the teaching assistants were helpful but not essential to my success. Only in computer science, where the concepts are often separated from one of the critical skills necessary to pass the class — coding — are TAs so vital to learning the necessary skills. Counting on TAs enables the department to shrug off hiring issues, claiming that needs are being met by the UTA program.

The answer to the majority of the problems outlined here is simple: hire more faculty. Though the department’s two recent hires have been a step in the right direction, hiring has come too late and has moved too slowly. I, and many other students, have had a worse education as a result. The department should shorten its hiring timeline from the originally intended five years to alleviate the department’s persistent problems more quickly and benefit a larger number of students.

Once these professors are hired, the department should focus on breaking up larger classes into smaller sections before offering new ones. This follows in the footsteps of other large University departments, in particular math and economics. Breaking up courses with more than 200 students will give them a more personal experience with the material and professor, and will alleviate grading and office hour burdens for professors. Massive upper level classes such as data science, deep learning and machine learning should be broken up first, giving advanced students the resources they need to tackle the field’s most difficult problems. When new courses are offered, they should be in sub-fields related to those with large enrollment numbers today, ideally attracting students away from the largest classes. This strategy has been employed by other universities that are dealing with similar problems, such as Stanford and University of California at Berkeley.

The department should also consider hiring expert course assistants. Most similar to lecturers in their scope, these course assistants would be experts in their field but would be solely dedicated to teaching rather than research. These individuals would hold more office hours and assist in grading. Their purpose would be to answer questions typically fielded by an undergraduate teaching assistant, but more effectively, more quickly and with a broader scope. They would provide a level of perspective that is impossible to get from an undergraduate. At other universities, this role might be filled by graduate student teaching assistants. Though some graduate students serve as teaching assistants at the University, it does not currently enroll a large enough computer science graduate student population to fulfill this need. These changes will give students a more personalized education and broaden access to top notch experts in computer science. Smaller course sizes and increased attention to individual student problems will bring the department closer to its idyllic goal of “excellence in teaching and mentoring.”

Jonathan Douglas ’20 can be reached at jonathan_douglas@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to
letters@browndailyherald.com and op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.

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