Large Classes, No Seminars—Do CS Students Get a Small Liberal Arts Education?

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Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

When Wistan Chou ‘19 came to Swarthmore College, he hoped to receive the quintessential liberal arts college education, complete with seminars and professor interaction that bring out the best ideas from students. However, as a Computer Science (CS) major, Chou’s hopes only remain a distant dream. Instead, he hopes to spend one year abroad at Oxford University, ironically to receive the personalized attention that he thought a small liberal arts college like Swarthmore would offer.

Swarthmore’s CS department has seen its enrollments quadruple in the past few years, with students declaring CS as a major or minor skyrocketing to 84 out of 409 students for the Class of 2018. Without a proportionate increase in the amount of faculty, the CS department has been unable to offer any seminars or small classes. According to Professor Andrew Danner, while 75% of classes at Swarthmore have below 20 students, no such class exists for CS. Instead, 80% of CS classes now have over 30 students, compared to only 10% of classes at Swarthmore as a whole.

Chou, who is pursuing a career in academia, lamented the lack of seminars and small classes.

“Smaller classes could potentially mean more meaningful projects and more individualized attention and perhaps doing more extensions that could lead to interesting ideas for research,” he said.

Studying abroad in Oxford University would allow Chou to have weekly tutorials with professors that are one-on-one or one-on-two.

“At Swat, because we have eight tenure or tenure-track professors right now, it is very difficult for each professor to give each student a lot of individual attention,” he said.“And although the professors here are very accessible during office hours, the class size is, in my opinion, way too large for a liberal arts college. I came to Swat hoping there would be more small seminar-style classes in computer science.”

Compounding the problem of large class sizes has been the ubiquity of lotteries. In the 2016-17 academic year, over 100 students were lotteried out of a class, according to Professor Andrew Danner. A recent email by CS Department Chair Tia Newhall revealed that 74 students were lotteried out of a class for Fall 2017, including juniors and seniors for upper-level courses.

Provost Tom Stephenson acknowledges that the CS department “really consider themselves to be in ‘crisis’ because their curriculum is so incredibly stressed.”

According to Stephenson, the Council of Education Policy (CEP) has responded by hiring four more tenure-track professors along with four visiting professors.

However, the CS department still faces numerous struggles. In its curriculum, the CS department has had to change its Senior Conference to a poster session. The Senior Conference was envisioned to be seminar-style but became untenable when major enrollment shot up to the 40s.

The pre-requisites after the entry-level CS21, CS31, and CS35, are now taught in large lecture settings with smaller section components, while before they were solely taught in lab classrooms that enabled students to have hands-on exercises.

This shortage of professors has also dampened efforts to move into a “2-2” system of having each professor teach four courses per year, down from the “3-2” system of a five-course load.

While most departments may use a “3-2” system currently, the CS and other sciences use a “six things” model where courses and labs are considered “things”. Professors could be teaching three courses and three labs a year, for example, to fulfill this requirement.

While all departments are required to come up with individual plans to transition to the “2-2” system, the CS department finds it exceedingly difficult with its current capacity.

“We’re barely operating under the five-course load. Every time we try to think about what happens under the four-course load, the department kind of falls apart without more faculty,” Danner said.

Suggestions to cope, such as offering upper-level courses in alternate years or reducing the number of seminars, have already been implemented.

One thing that may hinder smaller class sizes is the CS department’s mission to remain inclusive. Professor Danner noted that during the 1980s, when CS enrollments also spiked nationwide, the response of departments was to simply make it harder to major in CS. At Berkeley, admissions to the Electrical Engineering and Computer Science major required a 4.0 GPA in the mid-1980s.

However, such a response had an unintended consequence: the proportion of women majoring in CS collapsed after rising along with women in medicine, law, and the physical sciences. Currently, less than 20% of CS majors are women, while more than 40% of those in physical sciences are women.

Citing the gender disparity, Professor Danner said that making CS exclusive like in the 1980s should not be a solution to today’s crisis. Rather, he notes that Swarthmore is consciously attempting to make the CS program more diverse.

“I think the way that we’ve designed CS21 and the way that we’ve managed our ninja program has actually shown statistically significant results in attracting and retaining women and underrepresented minorities,” Danner said.

Chou, while disappointed by the large class sizes, realized that the CS department has the conflicting goal of being inclusive to all prior backgrounds.

The department here is definitely more inclusive many other schools. From visiting other schools and listening to their lectures, I can tell that the professors here make much more of an effort to reach out to engage students and to understand where each student is at in each course despite the large size of many CS classes,” Chou said.

Why can’t the college simply hire more professors to fill the demand? A variety of reasons come into play.

Tanner Lai ‘17, who is on the student-faculty search committee, notes the difficulty in finding faculty in the first place. Since the rise in CS enrollments is nationwide, so has demand for academic positions. The burgeoning Silicon Valley provides another alternative for newly minted CS PhDs to work in.

“If you’re a CS person with a PhD, you have a lot of options right now because the phenomena is not restricted to Swarthmore,” Lai said.

However, the college itself is slow to issue out new tenure lines. According to Provost Stephenson, tenure spots open up due to resignations, retirements or tenure denials, with only a few more spots to actually grow the overall faculty populations. This year, the college has only eight positions to allocate compared to 20 requests for a tenure-track line.

The CEP has a range of criteria when it comes to allocating tenure lines to departments. According to Stephenson, enrollment patterns, curricular needs, the stability of departments, and their contribution to interdisciplinary programs are all factors in the CEP’s decision-making process.

While Stephenson recognizes the ongoing crisis in the CS department, he is wary of putting too much attention on one department.

“We also have to meet the needs of programs like biology and economics and political science also, while also maintaining the size of the humanities departments, because we don’t feel like it’s appropriate to rob those other departments in order to grow the size of the CS department,” said Stephenson.

There are no plans to boost professor numbers to resolve the crisis. Instead, Stephenson hopes that more students will appreciate Swarthmore’s humanities programs and enroll in them.

“I guess we wished that … our student numbers were more balanced in terms of curricular interests, I would say,” said Stephenson.

Isaac Lee

Isaac is an economics and political science major. He is a Singaporean who grew up in Hong Kong. In America he discovered the wonders of Netflix and Uber. Other than devoting his time to The Daily Gazette, he is probably reading The Atlantic and the Wall Street Journal, or skim-reading the hundreds of pages assigned to typical Swatties.


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