Computing Profession

The Long Road to a Seat at the Table

Mark Guzdial
Georgia Institute of Technology professor Mark Guzdial

I recently gave a talk at the American Educational Research Association annual meeting, my first time at that venue in over 10 years.  I spoke for my student, Lijun Ni, on her work studying how US high school teachers come to see themselves as computer science teachers (which is different than other STEM fields since few states have CS teacher certification).  In response to one of the observations about these teachers, one of the other speakers (an Education post-doc at a top US university) said, "Maybe that’s because they’re computer science teachers. Computer science, as a discipline, is not interested in research and is only interested in immediate answers."  That’s what scholars in other disciplines think about computer scientists?

Computer science is working hard to be considered an equal player among the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) disciplines. We try to get computer science into the core curriculum, alongside disciplines that are hundreds (in some cases, over a thousand) years older than our own.  We worry about how people outside of our community understand computer science.  These are all well-founded worries, and I strongly support these efforts. But I think really deep cultural understanding of who we are will take awhile.

It takes time to permeate popular culture the way that other disciplines have. Sure, people’s understanding of disciplines like Engineering isn’t always accurate, but it’s a lot closer than our’s. Many layperson’s definition of "computer scientists" is that we are expert at using applications like PhotoShop and Excel (unfortunately, Lijun found that definition even among some of those high school teachers who claim to be teaching "computer science.") I have heard that there is an effort to create a television show that features a computer scientist as its hero.  Television is incredibly powerful in popular culture, and such a television show would only help to explain who we are and what we do. I wonder if we should also be thinking about slower, more pervasive ways of influencing popular culture.

We also need the equivalent of pop culture, paperback computer science. When I was a student in high school and undergraduate, many of my classes also required us to read some mass culture paperback that connected to the class.  I remember reading Future Shock for a high school class, and Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle in an undergraduate Engineering class (to lead into a discussion about unexpected effects of technological advances).  My daughter just read Dragons of Eden for her high school science class.

Many (maybe even mostall?) areas of science have books written for the the educated-but-not-specialist reader about topics in that area.  These books aren’t textbooks, and they are not surveys of the whole field. They are a slice, written in approachable (though not necessarily simple) prose.  They can be useful to assign in a class to get students to think about a perspective on the course that might not come up otherwise, and to feed into discussions.

Where are the popular culture, paperback books on computer science?  There are a few.  Danny Hillis’ The Patterns in the Stone meets the definition. James Gleick’s new book The Information (once it becomes “paperback”) may serve that role.  Few books like these actually contain code or describe algorithms, the stuff that computer scientists talk and think about. How many of us CS educators actually assign these books in class and then discuss them?

We need books like these–and maybe not just “books” but also bits of software, simulations, videos, electronic books, and active essays.  We need media that are aimed at the educated-but-not-specialist reader with approachable prose (maybe with other modalities), that are not textbooks, that don’t aim to cover the whole field, that describe a particular slice or perspective on computer science, and that could be assigned in a CS class for breadth and to spur discussion.  We need a lot of media like this, as much as has been written like this about mathematics, biology, chemistry, physics, and other disciplines.

If we want to take our place in the popular culture, we have to make the same contributions of ideas to the broad public and provide accessible media.  It’s the long, slow road into permeating our culture the way that other disciplines do.

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