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Tuesday, April 17, 20071176840600

Leftism, Feminism, and Cash, Reloaded

Dean, C. 2007. Computer science takes steps to bring women to the fold. New York Times. April 17, 2007. Available online: http://www.nytimes.com/2007/04/17/science/17comp.html?8dpc (from Slashdot).

Standards too high? Just lower them:

Moving emphasis away from programming proficiency was a key to the success of programs Dr. Blum and her colleagues at Carnegie Mellon instituted to draw more women into computer science. At one time, she said, admission to the program depended on high overall achievement and programming experience. The criteria now, she said, are high overall achievement and broad interests, diverse perspectives and whether applicants seem to have potential to be future leaders.


See also: "Leftism, Feminism, and Cash," about the aborted political corrected of the GRE.

Comments

" The Advanced Placement high school course in computer science may be part of the problem, according to Dr. Cuny. “The AP computer course is a disaster,” she said. “It teaches Java programming, which is very appealing to a lot of people, but not to others. It doesn’t teach what you can do with computers.” "

Seems to me that everything hinges on this statement. What does she mean by "It doesn't teach what you can do with computers."? What does the generation that grew up with PCs not already know about them? Is it a particular activity Computer scientists do that isn't programming?

If she is trying to turn AP CS into a glorified computer literacy course, then yeah, she is dumbing things down. But if not, then maybe she deserves a closer listen.

Posted by: Michael | Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Really? Interesting, as she seemed to say that both times, high overall achievement were important.

I guess for a lot of women who have been in the field in some way, it is pretty evident what she's getting at. It's not about dropping standards. It's about priorities, or as she puts it -- diverse perspectives.

Many women are not into gadgets for example, for their own sake, while there are other alpha geeks who are, and also happen to be female. My husband is doing a Linux installation right now for its own sake, and I think that's great, but as much as it sounds intrinsically interesting, I would rather spend my time learning CMS, usability or something that I would directly use for other goals. If I had more time, though...

I was involved in computer culture throughout my teenage years. Routinely, whether it was a programming class in high school, or discussions on the local BBSes, I was the only woman there. I was always being asked to get my friends and other girls to join the classes, and later got involved with groups like Webgrrls, supporting women in creative tech and new media. Ironically, at least one HS friend I never convinced to join a programming class is now a web developer. Computer science needed to be presented to her as something fitting in with her skill set, as a tool she could use. She was a photographer and filmmaker; java and Dreamweaver offered her opportunities that C never had.

So I feel pretty confident in making this assertion: a wider number of women become interested by computer science IF it's presented as a useful tool, and IF it's presented in all its dimensions. Some women are going to be turned on by the traditional, competitive aspects of computer culture; others hate it and find it intimidating.

But, all sorts of people utilize computers and technology. It doesn't make sense for only one type of student to be scouted, one who has a certain attitude towards programming and development, and towards life. One thing that seemed to come up again and again in women's tech groups -- why so much stupid software targeted at women? For example, software for deciding your hair and makeup. Who came up with that crap?

And yes, while plenty of geeks are awesome people who don't care about gender, there are still those who are threatened by women. Including a disproportionate number in the university programs. At least, there were when I was attending college between 1994 and 1998. I could give you some examples from my own experience, including a professor who quite frankly suggested I didn't have the chops for one of his classes... only to learn that most of the guys (in a class of 30, it was all guys) did not have the background I did.

Or, the guy in another class who shouted down and interrupted one woman's presentation, leaving her in tears, and when I presented a talk on computer security, gleefully attempted to hack my account while I was speaking. This same guy received special lab privileges from the sexist professor I mentioned above, who treated the department as his personal fiefdom. An AI student and department golden boy demeaned the projects I and another woman worked on, saying we shouldn't have after-hours lab access, because it was "new media web crap", and today, of course, ten years later, the school has an entire lab devoted to this "new media" crap. Which seems just as popular with the ladies, as with the guys.

PS - Check out Sherry Turkle's papers on how women utilize computers.

Posted by: Sib | Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Makes sense. And it's not just women who aren't always interested in the latest gadgets-- at risk of getting my geek license revoked, I've NEVER been interested in the latest Ipod/Crackberry/whatever for the sake of having it.

Posted by: Michael | Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Makes sense. And it's not just women who aren't always interested in the latest gadgets-- at risk of getting my geek license revoked, I've NEVER been interested in the latest Ipod/Crackberry/whatever for the sake of having it.

If you're right, initiatives like this may get more men into CS as well as more women.

Posted by: Michael | Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Michael,

Lowering the bar will increase enrollment, or at least keep it stable, which is what the CompSci programs in question seem to want. (CompSci is rather too hard to be fun, and sister-fields like Computational Science are still rather though.) Being embarrased by low diversity in high-g fields makes as much sense as being embarrased by low diversity in infant-care programs.

Sib,

"a wider number of women become interested by computer science IF it's presented as a useful tool, and IF it's presented in all its dimensions."

I agree, but the point is generally applicable so I would replace "women" with "people." My master's thesis in computer science applied it as a tool to look at the intersection at politics and psychology. Likewise I've used technology as a tool since then, as well.

"An AI student and department golden boy demeaned the projects I and another woman worked on, saying we shouldn't have after-hours lab access, because it was "new media web crap", and today, of course, ten years later, the school has an entire lab devoted to this "new media" crap."

In my experience, web media work is more interesting in AI work. However, AI meets the classic definition of computer science (Data Structures + Algorithms) much better than the web. Redefining "computer science" as "multimedia information systems" will get you more applicants and more graduates, but it does violence to a once great field.

Posted by: Dan tdaxp | Monday, April 23, 2007

It's starting to sound like the debate is less "Who should be recruited?" than "What is Computer Science?". To the extent that it's the former, I still agree with her; to the extent that it's the latter. . . *shrug* who decides what "Computer Science" is or is not?

And who's to say the two debates are separate, anyway? If you can get people into CS with an exposure to the uses, then hook them with the opportunity to do research into new uses, or new tools for existing uses, then both causes are being helped.

Posted by: Michael | Wednesday, April 25, 2007

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