Icosian Reflections

…a tendency to systematize and a keen sense

that we live in a broken world.

Academic Machoism [Index]

This is the index to a recurring series of posts on the pernicious (and often unintended) effects of hardcoreism and machoism in academic disciplines, especially computer science. So far: (in forward-chronological order)

Yes, you should hire college-educated computer scientists

When you're producing, say, an app for organizing email attachments, it actually makes a great deal of sense to actively search for people who think differently, who once "weren't computer people", or used email solely to communicate with friends, or only used it very sparingly for a long time.

What you don't want is a team of developers who were always power-users, who can't remember what it's like to only-kinda understand different filetypes, or what reply-all is, or what have you. You want, as much as you can get, developers who are diverse, who can bring different perspectives, and who look like your customer base. You don't get that by only hiring "real" computer scientists.

Scariness and Self-Selection: A Shopping-Week Meditation

In Intro Sanskrit, if you accidentally scare off everyone who maybe doubts that they belong, you won’t have many undergrads looking to branch out and enrich their lives. In Computer Science, if you accidentally scare off everyone who maybe doubts that they belong, you’re likely to scare off a fair number of people from groups traditionally underrepresented in CS.

For now, I am just going to assert that the resulting monoculture is a generally bad thing that we’d like to avoid. Diversity in our classrooms, like diversity in our industry, is generally good for producing new perspectives and ideas, and our field is young enough and open enough that we can use all the new ideas we can get.

"Weedout" Courses Considered Harmful

I claim that a sink-or-swim, do-or-die, killer-hard CS 101 that only lets the toughest, most pointer-grokking students through is a bad test for future programming success. I won't argue Spolsky's point on overall bias -- maybe you can't just lower the bar without letting in students set up for failure. But it can be improved in the other two sources of error:

First: it has an enormous amount of variance. Think about something you now like doing, and are kinda good at. If someone had made you decide, after three weeks of trying it, whether you were good enough to keep doing it seriously, what would you have said? Maybe you would have gotten the answer right, but maybe not. The problem is, judging students based on their first experience with one corner of a huge academic field is only a little better than a shot in the dark.

And secondly: the more high-pressure you make the entrypoint, the more you exacerbate the inter-group bias introduced by impostor syndrome and stereotype threat. These phenomena will always give you higher rates of attrition in groups that are told by society that they don't belong, but the very minimum you can do, when laying out a guiding philosophy for the entry point of an academic field, is not to amplify those effects in a designed-to-be-intense crucible of self-selection and self-judgment.