Section: Opinion

Kenyon can succeed in computer science

With its distribution requirements and interdisciplinary culture, Kenyon aims to enable students with a broad skillset. This goal may seem at odds with precision-based disciplines such as computer science, so seamlessly integrating a computer science minor in the coming year may be difficult. While the current scientific computing concentration is focused on math and statistics, the potential computer science minor and major should require a greater variety of interdisciplinary courses.

The discipline of computer science changes faster than any other at Kenyon, and the school’s department must be built around technological progress. Failing to do so will doom the computer science minor,  which may be introduced as early as 2018. The computer science minor must be a priority, and the school should aim to expand the program. But the minor must also eventually grow into an interdisciplinary major with the potential to bolster academic and financial opportunities at Kenyon. For the administration to give the major a backseat would be shortsighted.

Computer science is a study which branches many disciplines, and, as a major, it would fit perfectly within Kenyon’s current curriculum. Kenyon currently offers “Programming Humanity” as a special topic class in the integrated program in humane studies (IPHS). The course studies the mechanisms behind cutting-edge technologies as well as the current and future ethical and social implications of these innovations. Classes which study the intersection of technology and the liberal arts would work perfectly as parts of a computer science major. For example, there could easily be a cross-listed computer science/natural science class that studies neural nets, machine learning and the mind. An English and computer science course could study natural language processing, and Kenyon could even allow students to fulfill their language requirement with a coding language.

Kenyon needs to treat the hiring process for the computer science program differently than for other departments. A professor in computer science from an Ivy League school could still be under-qualified to teach relevant computer science courses if they lack adequate knowledge of newer programs and programming languages. Arpanet, an early precursor to the internet, was invented by the United States government in 1983, and the internet didn’t take its modern form until the ’90s. Professors from other colleges who have spent the past decades researching rather than innovating likely lack knowledge held by their contemporaries.

Specialties such as neural nets, mobile software development and blockchain technology didn’t exist until the 21st century. The rising prevalence of these technologies is unavoidable, and ignoring them would be depriving students of cutting edge opportunities. The problem with these specialties is that tech companies often attract potential professors specializing in these fields. The Wall Street Journal’s 2016 article “Universities’ AI Talent Poached by Tech Giants” describes how professors can make significantly more money elsewhere, making financial incentive less viable than with generally low-paying academic specialties.

Due to the difficulty of hiring and keeping people working in the relevant fields, Kenyon must develop an innovative major. One of the benefits of computer science is the vast amount of free information and instruction available online. Coding courses are not taught well in a lecture or discussion setting. Coding languages are much more precise than natural languages. In natural languages you can have a sentence that is mostly correct and still functional despite its imperfection, but in programming languages the slightest error will cause an execution error. If learning takes place outside of the classroom and correction happens within it, students would avoid fundamental misunderstandings by first achieving mastery in each skill.

A successful computer science program at Kenyon could  bolster our endowment just decades after its implementation. According to Forbes’ “The College Majors with the Highest Starting Salaries,” computer science students have the highest average starting salaries of any major. In the Kenyon Institutional Research Factbook, the top five most popular majors are English, economics, political science, psychology and history. Of these majors, economics is the only one that falls onto Forbes’ list of the top ten highest-paying majors. The majority of Kenyon students graduate with lower-paying majors, and while college should be driven by students’ academic interests, it is still a business. Clearly, a greater endowment would benefit all students.

Chris Pelletier ’20 is undeclared from Stowe, Vt. You can contact him at pelletier1@kenyon.edu.

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