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Douglas Baldwin <[log in to unmask]>
Mon, 14 Mar 2016 12:30:51 -0400
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Greetings, and welcome (if you haven't already been welcomed) to the SIGCSE
committee on computing education in liberal arts colleges. Thanks to
everyone who came to our gathering at SIGCSE. I was pleasantly surprised at
how big that was (35 - 40 people), and at the enthusiasm the folks there
showed for the committee's job. Alyce Brady took some good notes on the
conversation, which are the basis for this message.

Much of the conversation was about what the committee might do, and another
theme that kept popping up was the question of just what we will mean by
the phrase "liberal arts." These are basically the first two things we need
to work on in any case, so the first thing I want to do is set the
following agenda for the next couple of months. Please consider yourselves
charged to use this mailing list to discuss your ideas about the following
2 items:

1. What we mean by "liberal arts." There is temporary definition in the
committee's goals and focus statement (, roughly "liberal
arts college" as a place that emphasizes liberal education -- in the words
of the goals and focus, "a post-secondary institution that emphasizes
education for the breadth of graduates' career, civic, and personal lives,
in contrast to institutions that focus on more narrow preparation (e.g.,
for a specific profession)." But this is only one of many definitions
bouncing around. Another I've seen boils down to a college that emphasizes
disciplines in the arts, humanities, and sciences over disciplines in more
professional areas, and another amounts to colleges that fit an
institutional profile of being small, undergraduate, and (usually) private.
We absolutely do *not* have to use the definition from the goals and focus
statement. There's a lot of overlap between definitions and their
implications, but there are also enough differences that if we don't adopt
some statement of what we will mean by the term, we're likely to find
ourselves talking past each other as we get down to the real work.

2. We also need to identify a set of issues that we will concentrate on.
Again, the goals and focus statement mentions two, but a lot of others came
up in conversation at SIGCSE. If we have a manageable set of these in place
by, say, mid-June (not at all accidentally, a date that most of us in the
US can equate to "about when my semester/quarter ends," whichever kind of
calendar you use, and that I hope any non-US participants can equate to
some similar calendar milestone) we can use the summer to start gathering
whatever data we need to shape answers. The questions from the goals and
focus statement are

- Is there a need for an organization that can be the "voice" of liberal
arts colleges in larger discussions of computing education? If so, how
might such an organization be set up, and what can this committee do to
"pass the torch" to it?

- Is there a need for a network that allows computing faculty at liberal
arts colleges to share struggles, ideas, questions, etc. with each other?

Some things that were mentioned at SIGCSE, include

- Should there be a larger set of "exemplar" courses and curricula for
liberal arts, as with ACM/IEEE CS2013, but perhaps only partially tied to
it? Maybe not as formal as the CS2013 exemplars, simply a table of what
courses/subjects different schools include. Even identifying the titles
used for programs and courses would be helpful.

- Should there be a survey of issues facing liberal arts computing that
departments can use in discussions with administrations? In particular,
what are liberal arts computing programs seeing with enrollments today?

- In connection with such a survey, do we even know who the "liberal arts
computing" people are? Should we try to systematically identify them?

- Should there be a liberal arts analog of ABET to "accredit" liberal arts
computing programs (this was explicitly identified as an out-of-the-box,
thinking-at-the-limits, question by the person who posed it)

- How do we communicate the advantages of teaching computing in the liberal
arts to others? For instance, to graduate students who might be potential
faculty? To potential students for our own programs?

- Are there things that could be done to help liberal arts schools trying
to start computing programs?

And finally, moving on from immediate actions, a few other notes from the
SIGCSE gathering: Most important, this is supposed to be a very inclusive
committee. Regardless of what definition of "liberal arts" we end up with,
anyone who is interested in that kind of computing education is welcome to
participate. As of SIGCSE, we had about 80 people subscribed to the mailing
list, and more have joined since -- my guess is that we're at 90 or 95 now.
We should try to get all of us wearing "ask me about liberal arts
computing" ribbons at the next SIGCSE. Speaking of next SIGCSE, it would be
nice for us to have some preliminary report that can be delivered at a
special session or similar. This would be based on discussions this spring
and data gathered over the summer. A final version can include feedback
from SIGCSE 2017 and might appear as a report in Inroads or similar later
in the year.

Thanks again for joining the committee. Let the conversation begin!


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