Severe CS 161 syllabus provokes controversy among students

Arya Aliabadi/Staff

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When students walked into their overenrolled Computer Science 161 class last Thursday, they were shocked to encounter a set of policies that actively pressured them to drop the class.

On the first day of class, course professor Doug Tygar handed out a syllabus that said students would receive failing grades and be removed from the course for a single tardy or absence or for any use of electronics in class. No questions would be allowed during exams, and students would be required to commit to roughly double the workload of a normal four-unit class, among other policies.

The syllabus quickly went viral, creating a firestorm online, where it was debated on UC Berkeley CS-related Facebook groups and appeared on Hacker News, a popular CS-related website, as well as popular user-generated information-sharing website Reddit.

The course was supposed to have enough GSIs to cover seven sections for the course. But when classes began, there were only enough for three. That meant Tygar, who is generally regarded as a good professor by the online community discussing his course, needed to find a way to significantly cut enrollment.

“The whole thing is obviously a little bit of a farce,” Tygar said. “I put together a syllabus that is trying to be as scary as possible.”

Tygar said that there were about 170 students enrolled or on the waitlist. Last year, the same class had fewer than 100 students. The class is typically project-based, but this year, Tygar said that he made it quiz-based because of a lack of instructional support.

Vincent Oe, a campus junior, dropped the class after the first day. He said that he found the syllabus “a bit disheartening.”

“The kicker was that he said there needs to be a 20- to 25-hour commitment to the course outside of class,” Oe said. “That’s basically double for me, so you can imagine that was dreadful. It is disappointing that we are paying for an education that can’t supply us with what we as students want.”

David Culler, chair of the campus department of electrical engineering and computer sciences, said that enrollment in computer science has been experiencing unprecedented growth, and the department has been trying to figure out how to accommodate it for the past several semesters.

“The situation in 161 is really unusual,” Culler said. “(The syllabus was) completely out of control, with a course load way out of line.”

Friday night, however, the class experienced some relief. Another GSI was added, increasing the number of available sections to five.

“I am declaring the ‘emergency’ over,” Tygar said to students in an email. “The draconian conditions on the class are going to be removed.”

Shannon Carroll covers academics and administration. Contact her at [email protected].