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Hi all – I’m excited about this conversation that we’re starting here!
I entirely agree that part of what makes something a liberal arts institution is the effect it has on one’s approach to teaching a topic, and the focus on interdisciplinary connections does seem important to me. In the most idealistic view, if I am teaching in a liberal arts setting, as an instructor I should walk into the classroom with a mindset that I am not just teaching my topic but I am also helping illuminate to my students how what they are learning relates to the rest of their education. So it isn’t just that the students will be expected to take courses from a breadth of disciplines, but I should also teach my courses in a way that help students discover the value of their broad educational experience.
This connects to another angle on what it means to be a liberal arts institution that I’ve been thinking about, which is the relationship that a program has to the institution as a whole. A few people have mentioned that majors will be of limited size to allow students to take a range of course, pursue a double major, etc. I think at many liberal arts institutions similar obligations are placed on programs to think about how they fit into the education of the student body as a whole, not just how they educate their majors/minors.
I suspect this can take a number of forms. At my own institution, when we review changes to major requirements for a program, we ask departments to confirm that they’ll continue to be able to contribute to the other educational obligations they have – to our first year seminar, to offering sufficient general education seats, etc. For smaller departments, this often means that, practically speaking, the curriculum has to be structured so that introductory offerings work for potential majors but also support the institution’s general education curriculum in order to make efficient use of faculty resources. In my particular case, our departmental mission explicitly states that we will contribute to the interdisciplinary uses of computing across the W&J curriculum, so we have to find ways to offer courses or take part in projects that meet those goals. Overall, this means that program curricula have to be balanced with the demands of our college-wide curriculum and made to work together. We can’t simply say that the ACM says our curriculum has to be a certain way; we have to take those recommendations and find a way to make them work with the various obligations the overarching liberal arts curriculum puts on us.
This last point is something that I think might be labeled as an “issue” from outside the liberal arts community, but I believe that it is actually an advantage. I think it helps us reach a wider range of students than we would otherwise and to provide a richer educational experience.
Dr. Amanda M. Holland-Minkley
Associate Professor, Computing and Information Studies
Washington & Jefferson College
Jessen, I very much agree that CS itself can be taught in a liberal arts fashion. I agree that a liberal arts approach to CS emphasizes foundational concepts and interdisciplinary connections. I would add that it also can mean study of multiple perspectives within the discipline, e.g., through learning multiple programming paradigms, so that students can solve problems from multiple points of view.
Jessen T. Havill wrote:
This is an exciting initiative. Thanks to the organizers!
Beyond encouraging students to pursue a well-rounded education,
liberal arts colleges also have an opportunity to demonstrate how CS
itself can be taught in a more "well-rounded" way. I am continually
surprised to see universities that still just teach coding in their CS
1 courses. I think these first impressions matter, and tend to shape
how students view the discipline and their roles in it. Many of us on
this list have found ways to introduce broader concepts and exciting
connections to other disciplines into our early courses. Perhaps
these kinds of "exemplar" courses could be especially highlighted by
Jessen T. Havill, Ph.D.
Benjamin Barney Chair of Mathematics
Professor of Computer Science
Department of Mathematics and Computer Science
Granville, OH 43023
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