Scare tactics and webcasts

CAMPUS ISSUES: A university with a top-tier computer science department should not scare or underserve interested students.

This generation of college students faces a set of challenges that is unique to our time, ranging from cultivating an ideal social media presence to padding our resume with enough unpaid internships.

On one hand, we are told that we need skills such as programming and an intimate knowledge of computers to succeed. On the other, we are told through explicit policies such as a GPA requirement and implicit attitudes such as pervasive gender discrimination that we need to be either uniquely talented or biologically correct in order to acquire these skills. There is little room for failure, and the future does not seem to be brightening anytime soon.

The entire campus was reminded of this depressing reality as word got out this week about the strict guidelines one computer science professor set forth in the syllabus of CS 161, Computer Security.

Explicitly stating that anyone who was late to class, missed a class, had an electronic device (e.g. a watch, an iPhone) go off during class would be immediately dropped from the course, the syllabus went viral near instantaneously. The professor explained that he had planned to teach the course with enough graduate student instructors for seven sections, but due to a lack of GSIs, would have enough for only three. After the backlash to his self-described “draconian” syllabus, he was able to get enough GSIs to expand the number of sections to five, and he subsequently cut out the excessively harsh rules.

Simply put, many UC Berkeley students experience something like this during their time here, whether it’s a biology professor who says the doors will be locked at exactly 2:10 or an economics GSI who threatens to drop anyone who misses a section more than once. For a student body that has seen tuition hikes — that apparently not one UC regent wants but that we always seem to get — and disappearing university resources, instructors scaring students straight in order to winnow their numbers is a tactic that comes with the territory.

This is the heavy, unfortunate and frankly unacceptable price we pay for being students at a prestigious public university at a time when such institutions become less valued by the people supporting them with each passing day. It’s one of the great tests of our generation.

And it is also curious that as the syllabus mess unfolded with CS 161, another computer science course faced distinct yet related problems.

CS 61A, the lower division course aimed at teaching students the basics of coding and programming, was overenrolled, with nearly 1,100 students in total at one point this semester. Wheeler Auditorium holds fewer than 750 students,  but the professor stressed that lectures were webcasted and not mandatory to attend in person.

While this also is a symptom of the problem of underfunded public universities, the self-taught CS 61AS version of the course and the availability of webcasted lectures for the most part compensate for the ridiculousness of the class size. Hardly an ideal fix, but the computer science department and campus administration must make sure these resources are made public and readily available to any student interested in taking the course.

The CS 161 scare tactics and 61A substitutes don’t excuse these initial enrollment failings in the computer science department, perhaps the most scrutinized and visible of all the academic divisions at UC Berkeley. Better budget forecasting and developing an administration more responsive to students’ needs are what is necessary for both an efficient academic unit and what is fair to those enrolled in these courses.

And although these important changes have been overlooked this time, we should look to make sure they’re not forgotten in the future.