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Input Overload: Too Many CS Majors, Not Enough Profs

<rleton College Class of 2012 had just 14 Computer Science majors. The Class of 2015 has more than four times that. Now home to the second most popular major at Carleton, the Computer Science Department is struggling with its rapid growth.

“It’s hard,” Computer Science Professor David Liben-Nowell said. “We don’t have enough faculty to teach all the sections that we want to offer, some classes have been larger than we’d like, and we’ve sometimes had to turn away students from a class.”

Hiring additional professors may seem like an obvious solution, but as Mathematics and Computer Science Professor Jeffrey Ondich said, “Balancing college resources when there are spikes of enrollment in various places is really hard.”  

According to David Musicant, Professor of Computer Science, one key way in which the department has attempted to manage the demand is by growing the sizes of classes.

“At the same time,” he said, “We have to continually work to find balance in making sure our students get the Carleton small class experience that they came here to find.”
Large class sizes are currently the department’s biggest problem. “I continue to be concerned that some of our majors are getting through without having a class under 30 students, and that’s not great,” Professor Ondich said.

Danny Hanson ’15, a Computer Science major said, “You would think that a 300-level CS class at a small liberal arts school would have 20 people, but there are 55 people in some of these classes.”

Matt Cotter ’15, a current Computer Science major, currently grades for the department. “Obviously [the larger class sizes] have compromised the quality of the feedback you can get from the grader,” he said, “If I’m grading for 40 people, there’s no way they’re going to get as much feedback as if there were 20.”

Hanson added, “In my Algorithms class, instead of giving us detailed feedback, it’s just a scale of 0-5 because the grader doesn’t have time to grade 45 assignments.”

Additionally, larger Computer Science classes has meant that classes are being moved from computer labs in the Center for Mathematics and Computing to lecture halls. Hanson recalls having taken Computer Science classes in the Weitz Center for Creativity, Laird Hall, and Boliou Hall.

Much of the demand on the department comes from the introductory courses. According to Musicant, over half of all students at Carleton take an introductory Computer Science course at some point.  Though the department embraces their enthsiasm, it soaks up resources needed by advanced students.

Leah Cole ’15, another Computer Science major, said, “It’s becoming harder and harder for people to get into classes. It’s really not good when you’re an upperclassman and need to take a class to graduate, and there’s a chance you won’t get in.”

Unfortunately for Cole and her fellow Class of 2015 Computer Science majors, the struggle for resources is far from over.

“Next year with 57 majors, COMPS is going to be a problem,” said Ondich. “We really love our COMPS system, but that’s a lot of students and only a few of us.” 

Both the department and the administration recognize that the Computer Science Department needs additional professors. The discourse between the two has largely focused on deciding whether to hire tenured-track or temporary professors.

According to Ondich, this decision comes down to whether the dramatic popularity of computer science is a bubble or a plateau. “Tenure track positions are really expensive, and you can’t just add them because they’re a permanent commitment of a significant amount of money every year.”

Because it is impossible to predict future interest in computer science, the administration has primarily tried to manage the increasing demand by adding temporary positions, or visiting professors. But this can be a challenge. “They’re harder to hire for, and harder to control the quality for,” Ondich said. “It’s tough on the temporary people because the college doesn’t really commit to them in quite the same way.”

Musicant added, “The biggest challenge we’ve had regarding visiting professors is finding them.” When the job market for individuals with computer science backgrounds is extremely strong in both industry and academia, hiring for a visiting job is difficult because many permanent openings are available.

Both Musicant and Ondich emphasized, however, that Carleton has been extremely fortunate in finding outstanding educators through these temporary positions. Additionally, the department is currently in the process of filling one tenure-track position.

As the administration waits to see whether the popularity of computer science will be sustained, students express frustration.

According to Cotter, “People thought it was a bubble two years ago, and that would’ve been a safe thought. Maybe even last year you could’ve made an argument for it, but now it’s huge. I don’t see any possible way that it could drop back down to the level that it was at.” He concluded, “There need to be more tenure-track Computer Science professors.”

Still, optimism about the future of the Computer Science Department at Carleton abounds.

“The professors are really good, and the whole department is really enthusiastic,” said Cotter. “All of them both love and hate having so many people. They love that everyone’s interested, but, of course, everyone’s worried about resources. In that regard, the professors are taking it really well, and they’re trying really hard.”
Cole shares this sentiment. “I think it’s cool that the major has grown so much and that it’s so popular. I just think it means that we’ve outgrown our space.”

Unfortunately, until the administration commits to providing the Computer Science department with the resources they desperately need, the liberal arts experience that defines Carleton College will suffer.

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