Incoming graduate chair Peter Marbach has been leading a series of “town hall” meetings to build support for a Department of Computer Science conference, organized by graduate students. The stated goals are a) to improve the quality of the graduate experience by promoting interaction between areas and b) to build the Department’s reputation in industry and academic circles by effectively communicating our successes.
I’m happy that Peter cares enough to try something big, and doubly happy that he is trying to listen to us and involve us in his work. But, while the goals are lofty, I don’t agree with the conference approach. I think that there are lightweight projects that would contribute more to interaction between areas, and I feel that hosting a conference is not an effective way to build a reputation for our work. I would also criticize the proposal for lacking specificity (especially budget, organizing team, schedule) and accountability (no simple success or failure metrics).
I hate to criticize an ambitious and well-meaning proposal without suggesting a replacement. Accordingly, I’ll list some specific proposals below, without taking credit for any of the ideas. Before I do, I’ll list a few of the community projects that already exist.
CSGSBS “big” events
The CSGSBS hosts large, general-interest events a few times a year, including an upcoming BBQ.
CSGSBS “little” events
The CSGSBS coordinates weekly events including cookie breaks, movie nights and pub nights. There are attended by a small percentage (~10%) of the grad student population, and most weeks attract the same crowd again and again.
Annual conference hosted on campus with posters and demos from graduate students. A few industry and political guests attend. Typically heavily-weighted on demo-friendly DGP work.
Most areas have weekly talks. Outsiders are welcome in theory, though an interested outsider would have to find the right mailing list and often the material is too advanced.
11 Proposals for a better DCS
1. Lightweight talks
1.a Area intro talk series
Each week, a different area gives the talk. At a casual, accessible level, the talk covers why the area is interesting, the most important fundamental closed and open problems in the area, key results, and how each student’s work in the area fits into the big picture. The speaker recommends a survey paper or introductory book for students interested in more. No posters, textual or mathematical slides or chalkboards allowed. Each proposed speaker is vetted by the organizer in advance to ensure a minimum public speaking ability.
1.b Monthly Mini-TED
Monthly casual 1.5 hour meeting in a lounge with coffee. Three speakers give TED-format talks on any beginner-accessible topic of intellectual interest not related to research. Given the variety of DCS member interests, we might hear talks on sailing, design, typography, photography, quantum physics or hooping.
2. DCS Portfolio
2.a Technical reports database
For communication of early or small research, revive the technical reports database or provide a DCS-only externally-accessible site with ArXiv.org-like functionality.
2.b Publication portfolio
Provide an RSS feed with links to PDFs of all research published by members of the department.
2.c Entrepreneurial portfolio
Directory of links to companies founded by members of the DCS.
2.d Graduate success portfolio
Track the alumni network (undergrad and grad) and list the institutions they join after graduation.
Directory and firehose of blogs written by DCS members. Michael Famelis has done good work in this area for software engineering. Extend it to the whole department. For bonus marks, provide a global WordPress installation on cs.toronto.edu for DCS member blogs.
2.f Software Portfolio
Directory of software written by members of the DCS. This can include side projects, not just research-related work. Subsection for links to software to which DCS members have contributed. For bonus marks, provide distributed version control hosting and virtual private servers for hosting web applications.
3.a Pick-up sports
Weekly pick-up soccer or ultimate games in the summer and fall.
4. Structural Changes
This is the controversial stuff.
4.a Common-space whiteboards
Move whiteboards out of private, locked areas into public spaces where they can foster discussion.
4.b Cooperative Education
This is the biggest proposal, with highest cost and greatest potential payoff.
For the undergraduate program, provide institutional support for four-month co-op terms after first and second years, and break the PEY into four consecutive four-month terms. For MSc students provide institutional support for corporate research internships between completion of class and start of full-time research. A common infrastructure would support both missions.
Work terms create a feedback loop with in-class education. Real work motivates study and supports good study habits. Programming skills honed in the workplace support theoretical learning in the classroom or lab. Problems discovered in the workplace can motivate research directions.
Work terms create a feedback loop with companies. With more work terms, more companies see more students. Companies are eager to hire students who have worked for them before. Companies are willing to contribute resources to universities that are an important part of their HR pipeline.
Weakness of the PEY
I claim the following weaknesses in the PEY program:
- Students make long-term commitments on their first-ever round of interviews. They often have no professional experience, and thus are not yet qualified for advanced work. This restricts their placement to beginner work, but this commitment to beginner work lasts sixteen months instead of four.
- Some students just don’t fit with some companies. In other cases, companies abuse long-term students for menial tasks such as manual testing. Four-month terms salvage these cases, without restricting a student from returning to a particularly good employer.
- Students see only one corporate culture, team culture and set of engineering practices before graduation.
- Students only get one round of interview practice.
Each of these is addressed in the proposed model.
Addressing Common Objections to Co-op for the DCS
I have heard two common objections.
- Prohibitive cost: This program would be expensive to administer. Answer: Everyone wants something for nothing, but a program like this is an investment. Other universities successfully mitigate the costs of similar programs. We can do it too.
- Competition with Waterloo (and other schools): The implementation of such a program would position us as an alternative to Waterloo’s well-oiled machine, and would contradict our years of PEY marketing. Answer: We should neither hesitate to adopt a good idea just because someone else uses it, nor should we allow a desire for self-consistency to trump innovation.
A frank an open discussion of ideas might lead us to improvements in our graduate experience, provided we restrict ourselves to specific proposals with measurable outcomes.
Here’s where you come in
- Leave a comment in your real name, and rank the ideas you care about. “++” for “would actively support, defend and work for”, “+” is “support passively”, “-” is “oppose passively” and “–” is “would actively oppose, attack and work against.” So if you hate co-op, dislike pick-up sports, but would fight to see whiteboards moved to hallways, write this: [3.a-, 4.a++, 4.b--].
- Go find someone else in the department, force them to read this through and make them think through their opinions on these issues.
Let’s send a message about how to make our department better.