Sunday, January 31, 2010

Justifying Growth : We Need Better PR...

Background: As part of the "getting a new Dean" process, we're undergoing a "make a 5 year plan" process. The School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) had a mini-retreat just before classes started to discuss it all.

I wandered into lunch the other day and saw some other faculty from SEAS -- but from well outside computer science -- already eating, so I joined them. In our friendly discussions, they asked about our growth plan, and asked me to justify it further to them. One point I brought up was that we did a lot of "service" to the rest of the university. Sure, they said, they knew about the very large intro programming class, but that was just one class. What else?

I listed off several of our other classes that they didn't seem really aware of -- our course for non-majors CS 1 (Great Ideas in Computer Science) and our Gen Ed course Bits, our more advanced programming classes CS 51 and CS 61, our new interdisciplinary visualization course CS 171 and our new course on design of usable interactive systems CS179, and probably a few others. I then mentioned that even our theory courses (introduction to complexity, and introduction to algorithms and data structures) were attracting a lot of non-majors, and pointed out that they each had 80 students last year. (We have about 30-40 or so CS majors a year right now.)

Their jaws literally dropped. One of them asked me, multiple times, how there could be 80 people at Harvard who were interested in taking Algorithms. (While I, of course, always wonder why it's so few.) I still have doubts that they believed me; I think I ought to get something official-looking from the registrar and send it to them.

Now, admittedly, last year's class was big -- my class this year looks to be a more normal about 50 or so. But I was still surprised by their surprise. I check out the class sizes around SEAS to get a feel for what's going on every year (we usually get an e-mail with course counts). Also, I'm pretty sure I mention my class size fairly often to other SEAS faculty when the opportunity arises, but apparently less often than I think. I was left with the feeling that I, and maybe the rest of the CS faculty, needed to engage the other SEAS faculty a bit more and let them know more about what we're doing. In particular, as another faculty member said to me, "When they talk about a really big class, they mean 40 students. When we talk about a really big class, we mean over 100."

I'm not exactly a shy, retiring type. (I mean, c'mon, I blog.) But I'll be upping my efforts to make sure others at Harvard have a better idea of what we're doing, especially in terms of teaching our undergraduates.


VA said...

I also study at an Ivy League University.
Most big classes in CS means like around 70+ students in the class, and normal means around 35-40.
For most other SEAS departments like material science etc.. normal means 15 and big means 30.
Also, my friends in most other non CS, engineering departments are shocked when I tell them we have lots of courses besides programming where we have more than 70+ people in the class (for ex. machine learning, formal languages, algorithms and type systems, distributed systems etc.)

Dave Backus said...

Interesting. If I were a prospective new dean, I'd like to see numbers on class size and teaching by department. I'd also be curious whether other departments feel the same need CS apparently does to tailor their material to a diverse audience of students. Perhaps if the numbers were widely distributed they would trigger some healthy competition.

Matt Welsh said...

An important point that Michael did not mention is that at Harvard SEAS we don't have "departments"; the different "areas" (CS, EE, applied physics, bioengineering, etc.) are all part of the same "mega-department" (which we now call a "School"). What this means is that new faculty hiring is necessarily a school-wide activity, and there is a real desire to avoid having one area dominate the others in terms of size, resources, and overall influence.

At the planning retreat that Michael mentioned, one of the professors in applied math made a very compelling case for the need to grow the number of AM faculty (there are technically only 4 faculty at Harvard who consider themselves applied mathematicians, but it is one of the most popular majors in SEAS). This was done through a brilliant visualization projecting number of students vs. faculty size for different departments, making it quantitatively clear that AM's student-faculty ratio was way off the charts.

Michael - we should get Salil and Hanspeter to put together a brilliant graph showing our numbers :-)

JeffE said...

How can there be ONLY 80 people at Harvard who are interested in taking Algorithms?

Greg Morrisett said...

Jeffe -- there are a lot more that need to take algorithms but don't realize it. In many ways, it would serve them better than additional programming courses. But people outside CS generally want their students to have specific skills (e.g., matlab or C++ or high-performance Fortran or Cuda or ...) instead of lasting knowledge.

I'd love to hear how other places manage to get the word out about the utility of foundational CS courses.

Michael Mitzenmacher said...

As I said, Jeff, I indeed always wonder why it's so few...