Lindsey Kuper (lindseykuper) wrote,
Lindsey Kuper

The liberal arts research university

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!

Tags: grad school

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