Misdirected anger

Technocratic Tirade

I believe some apologies are in order. In my first column, I characterized my experience with the computer science department as positive “in spite of a faculty struggling unsustainably to accommodate explosive demand.” I stand by my statement — but the blame is misplaced.

Two weeks ago, an email from John DeNero sent me into starstruck hysteria. “Let’s talk,” it read ominously. I was giddy, gleeful, giggling like mad. I pranced about in circles, my head buzzing, my nerves jumping in excitement. I was dimly aware of some reproach, considering the vitriol I had spat in his general direction, but year-old nostalgic memories of his flawless instruction left me without an ounce of apprehension. He could have slapped me as I walked into his office for all I cared; I would have only been grateful. Luckily for me, his greeting, offered through his usual tight-lipped grin, was as amicable as any I’ve ever had the pleasure of experiencing.

The first point of discussion: that week’s article, in which I lamented the lack of an adequate programming course for non-computer science majors. He told me, much to my embarrassment, that such a course already exists. The department had essentially arrived at the same conclusions a semester prior and created the pilot session of CS 94 (soon to be CS 8) for fall 2015. Though limited in its inaugural semester and not yet satisfying programming requirements for other departments, it largely meets my demands, and thus my tirade was a bit unjustified.

The second point of discussion: my first article and all its vitriolic assaults on the quality of instruction. In a surprising turn of events, on large-scale issues such as overcrowding and lack of instructional access, he and I seemed to agree. Rather, contention sprouted around my attempts to diagnose the root cause in my characterizations of the department as elitist and in my insinuations that the faculty were ignorant of or apathetic to the issue.

The teaching staff works hard — harder than it can be reasonably expected to — and as I said before, I appreciate that. TAs teach too many sections, host office hours and review sessions, and otherwise provide all the support they can. CS 61A has implemented new student-led, one-on-one tutoring to the benefit of all parties involved. And DeNero himself hosts multiple unscheduled lectures to maximize his ability to teach. But all of this is damage control for a more fundamental problem — funding.

The computer science department isn’t getting the necessary resources to accommodate explosive student demand, but not for lack of trying. Despite the massive and relentlessly growing class size, because of restrictions on how many new professors can be hired, the size of the faculty hasn’t experienced anything close to a proportional increase. Though the current state of next semester is still in flux, there is or was the possibility that the department will not be able to hire enough undergraduate TAs for the spring. Cory and Soda halls can no longer accommodate classes and office hours, necessitating an expensive new building or some reallocation. And while the department may be pushing for more resources, as DeNero assured me it is, in the short term, its choices are limited to heavily restricted enrollment, leaving demand for computer science courses unmet or making do with what the department has.

Electrical engineering and computer sciences has been the largest undergraduate major at UC Berkeley since at least 2013 by a wide margin, a margin that could only have grown since. Enrollment in the famed CS 61 series of classes has more than tripled in the span of only five years. And necessary skills best taught by the computer science department, such as programming and data analysis, are more important to students’ success than ever. The sphere of responsibility for the computer science department has grown immensely, but the resources crucial to its fulfillment are not being adequately allocated. Throwing 1,400 students in a room with one professor and a handful of TAs and expecting all involved parties to manage is a gross injustice against everyone, the students most of all. Without some change, things can only get worse — class sizes certainly are going up — until access to the major is limited.

Faculty already push for more resources (at least thus far to no avail), but the greatest pressure that the administration can feel comes from the students, the paying customers. And while the department seems to be aware of the problematic state of affairs, many students I’ve spoken to have been all too willing to defend the status quo. Simply because some students can succeed in computer science doesn’t mean the environment is optimal. To make the department the best it can be, we need to collectively swallow our pride in our institution and recognize its faults. We need to take a critical look at what we’re dealing with here: massive and rapidly inflating class sizes, the impossibility of personal attention or individual visibility, difficulty with enrolling in many upper-division courses — and at what reforms can be made. We need to collectively question ourselves: “Is this what I’m paying for?”

Albert Hsiung writes the Monday column on STEM student culture. Contact him at [email protected].