Log in

No account? Create an account
Lindsey Kuper [entries|archive|friends|userinfo]
Lindsey Kuper

[ website | composition.al ]
[ userinfo | livejournal userinfo ]
[ archive | journal archive ]

The liberal arts research university [Apr. 10th, 2011|04:47 pm]
Lindsey Kuper

Last night, I spent two hours writing an email, selling IU to a prospective Ph.D. student with everything I have. I've never even met him, but he's a Grinnell senior, and he's been writing on Plans about his grad school decision, which is coming down to the wire between IU and another school. I had to do something.

IU is not a top CS program. It doesn't occur to most prospective CS grad students to apply here. We don't get so many applicants that we can just accept the ones who've published research or have NSF fellowships -- a metric which would have eliminated me had it been in use when I applied to IU. We get a few outstanding students by accident, but for the most part, we have to fight for every good Ph.D. student we get -- fight to get them to apply, then fight to get them to accept. Why do I fight? Why do I care?

Part of it's selfish: I want to surround myself with good people because that's good for me. But I also want what's best for the group. I believe that the more good students we have, the happier and productive we'll all be. And we can't work on our publicity problem if we don't, ourselves, believe that we deserve to be better known. We can't go out into the world and work to make the world aware that we're cool if we don't believe that we're cool, and so we have to be cool.

There's another, bigger reason why I'm fighting for Grinnell students in particular to come to IU. It's that I think I'm good at what I do despite the fact that I hadn't done research before coming to grad school, and I don't think I'm the only one. I think there's a huge untapped market of smart potential CS researchers who come from liberal arts backgrounds, have never done research, and may not even know what research is. I don't want to overgeneralize -- a lot of students do find ways to do research while at liberal arts schools like Grinnell, including, quite likely, this particular individual I'm working on recruiting -- but it's not the primary focus of those institutions.

At Grinnell, barriers between departments are low. Any student is welcome to take courses in any department, so long as they've taken the prerequisites (if any). At the time I took my first computer science course, I was a second-year music major. It would be another three semesters before I formally declared my CS major, but in the meantime, as I signed up for one computer science course after another, no one objected that I wasn't a CS major. If they had objected and shunted me into a course for non-majors, it's unlikely that I would be a computer scientist today.

Having done research during undergrad lets you hit the ground running when you get to grad school, it's true. But, dammit, the ability to do research is a learnable skill, just like programming is. I posit that only admitting grad students who are already experienced researchers is as diversity-destroying an idea as only letting in undergrads who are already experienced programmers. I posit that what we really need to do is attract students who are good at learning.

There have got to be thousands of people like me. Assuming IU might want to attract more people like me, one thing that we might be able to do towards that end is to try to distinguish ourselves as a liberal arts research university of sorts. This idea is in line with our current "we're interdisciplinary!" message, and it's not at odds with our venerable "pfft, we're not an engineering school; that's those other people down the road" message. But it's better than either of those messages. The slogan of such a recruiting and publicity effort might be something like "learners wanted".

Anyway, the prospective student wrote back to say he's choosing IU. Ah. Good. Battle hard and live, so you can continue battling!


[User Picture]From: mindstalk
2011-04-11 12:14 am (UTC)
> interdisciplinary... learners wanted

Unless you want to take non-CS courses outside your minor as a grad student...
(Reply) (Thread)
[User Picture]From: lindseykuper
2011-04-11 12:57 am (UTC)
Oh, I'm not saying that Ph.D. school should be just like undergrad with respect to the kinds of courses people take. In Ph.D. school, the focus shouldn't be on taking courses at all.
(Reply) (Parent) (Thread)
[User Picture]From: jamey1138
2011-04-11 03:05 am (UTC)
To some degree this is a Big Ten (or, maybe, CIC) thing, though it may be an even broader Land Grant thing (and, yes, I know that not all of the B10, let alone all of CIC-- which is basically Big Ten + UChicago + some satellite land-grant campuses that aren't actually B10, like U Illinois @ Chicago): Interdisciplinary studies, liberal arts, and low barriers to universal entry are pretty normal, in my experience, in B10/CIC schools it works like you're describing at Grinell. My friend Brad, for example, was a theater major at NU, and took an advanced astrophysics class, just for kicks...

In any case, yes, good on you for recruiting. I personally strongly believe in the concept of the University (which is to say, a thing where UNIVERSAL truths are advanced and pursued...) This whole idea of narrow focus is, IMO, kind of a crock...
(Reply) (Thread)
[User Picture]From: lindseykuper
2011-04-13 02:06 am (UTC)
To be clear, I'm not trying to say that people shouldn't have a narrow focus in Ph.D. school. I agree with Matt Might when he says that Ph.D. school is about laser-like focus on a tiny contribution to human knowledge.

I'm also not trying to say that IU is necessarily more liberal-artsy than other schools. The point I'm trying to make is not about who we are, but about what kinds of students I think we should be trying to attract.

I think that students who are particularly good at broad thinking might also turn out to be the ones who are particularly good at laser-focused thinking, but the current system of grad school admissions tends to undervalue those applicants. A school that started going out of its way to recruit them could win big. Also, I think that students with a broad background coming in are going to be the ones who are better at seeing the big picture when they're done, and grad schools should care about that, too.
(Reply) (Parent) (Thread)
[User Picture]From: lyceum_arabica
2011-04-12 04:37 pm (UTC)
:-) Purdue's actually more multi-disciplinary than IU is, at least as far as their arts & sciences CS department is concerned (they have two other CS departments, one in engineering, and one that's more IT-tech focused). They have partnerships all across the school, working with researchers in psychology, math, biology, chemistry, physics, etc... they've got myriad well-financed and well-organized structures in place to promote communication and useful research for a wide variety of organizations.

What IU has that purdue lacks is IU offers a comfy blank slate. Purdue has enough structure so that each student's course through the university is pretty well scripted. You just need to work hard and follow the next step that's put in front of you; your advisor will pick the steps that suit your personality and interests and lay them out in front of you, leading you to become a competent researcher (and btw the faculty is **incredible**, don't get me wrong, this really works a lot better than you'd expect).

But you don't need to learn how to make everything yourself from scratch... and given that funding is far from guaranteed for those that fall behind, you don't really have the freedom to experiment and fuck up too much. At IU, there's very little structure, but no one's going to get in your way either, and they never seem to take away funding. Want to learn how to become a good teacher? Try being an AI for a prof that dumps everything in your lap and never looks over what you do with it. You'll figure out to handle it. Want to get good at leadership and politics? Join CSGSA and help run the department; try to make sure the grads get their AI assignments before the second week of class. Want to get good at finding problems on your own, doing lit reviews, or teaching yourself new material? Try doing research for a professor who stopped reading in your problem domain ten years ago. The first time you realize the problem he's suggested is either (a) easily provably undoable, or (b) was done 5 years ago and is now common knowledge.... you'll learn a lot about navigating the research domain.

And, while I sound as cynical as you'd expect... I mean, in reality, I value those experiences. When people at Purdue are impressed with me, mainly what they're impressed with is the things I learned how to do at IU. Purdue kids get walked through great research experiences and then handed off to well-paying jobs like girls going through finishing school and getting married off to good positions; while a lot of IU kids struggle for any sort of meaning in their research, and every publication is an epic achievement. But if you picked one of those struggling IU kids and set them down next to a Purdue kid and handed them both a well-defined, pertinent problem... I bet you the IU kid would work faster, more robustly and more ambitiously. I am ridiculously grateful for the resources I have at Purdue, but I definitely prefer the company of IU folk :-)

The skills you have both the need and the freedom to develop at IU are precious, and it's hard to imagine an easier place to develop them. I only wish that I could take every lost third year IU student and get them a reading list and set of likely problems from a purdue faculty member.

(not that all IU third-year students are lost, but PL is definitely better organized than some other areas.)
(Reply) (Thread)
[User Picture]From: lindseykuper
2011-04-16 07:57 pm (UTC)
This is a great comment; thanks for writing it. Having been both at Purdue and at IU, you have a perspective that few people have.

I think the "lost third-year student" problem may be getting better because of the new quals process that forces people to get a committee together sooner. I also think that the new director of the Ph.D. program is doing a good job. I still wish that IU gave students more guidance on this, though. At some other schools, Ph.D. students have an advisor almost from the moment they walk in the door; at IU that's only the case for a few, and it's never been entirely clear to me why some people get to have an advisor right off the bat and others don't. The advisor/advisee question needs to be decoupled from the question of who has money to hire research assistants. Also, a lot of IU professors seem to eschew the need for a well-defined advisor/advisee relationship for first-year students as meaningless administrivia, and I think they're wrong.

If nothing else, I can work to give first-year students a research group identity in the PL group, even if nobody is giving them a "my advisor is _____" identity.
(Reply) (Parent) (Thread)