On Rigor: Gender and Computer Science

Curriculum changes designed to attract and retain women or other under-represented groups in computer science are sometimes decried, even by supporters of diversity, as a decline in the “rigor” of the program. The implication is that an alteration in the curriculum (to accommodate women) means a “dumbing down” of courses and of a program as a whole. In fact, it is neither necessary nor desirable to dumb down the curriculum. The most important changes we can make in CS curricula will retain a program’s intellectual challenge while removing unnecessary barriers to participation and success.

Computer Science curricula can be “difficult” in different ways. To paraphrase Fred Brooks in his classic essay “No Silver Bullet,” there are two types of “hard” that can be present in a CS curriculum—essential difficulty and accidental difficulty. The essential difficulties of CS are those that cannot be removed—the complexity of systems, the need for clear and logical thinking, and so forth. The accidental difficulties are those that are not intrinsic to work in the field—like bad pedagogy, unnecessary requirements for courses that few practitioners will ever use, isolation and the absence of mentoring, the “chilly climate” of many CS programs, and so on. We should be working to fix the accidental difficulties so that students can creatively and energetically tackle the essential challenges. This is NOT a dumbing down of courses or curricula.

The American Heritage dictionary defines “rigor” as strictness or severity, a harsh or trying circumstance, or a harsh or cruel act. In this context, it is tempting to see any loss of rigor as an improvement.

We should be clear that we are NOT lowering standards. We are removing unnecessary barriers and enhancing the qualities that make work in CS interesting and engaging. In other words, we are aiming to level the playing field.

[Why is this relevant to Thinking With Things? I write this as I sit in a symposium on electronic tangibles in computer science education. The faculty here generally believe that using robotics and other interactive materials is an effective way to engage and teach students, but they also struggle against the perception that these are “toys” and not serious. Yet if these materials remove some of the unnecessary barriers and help focus students’ minds on the essential ideas, it’s all to the good.]

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1 Comment

Filed under computing, gender, learning

One response to “On Rigor: Gender and Computer Science

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