[SIGCIS-Members] Using history to teach computer science

Thomas Haigh thaigh at computer.org
Sun May 18 14:10:08 PDT 2014

Hello everyone,


Recent emails on the Knuth thread have broached the potential of a possible
meeting or initiative to try to raise the position of history within
computer science, particularly the use of history in regular CS courses.


Back in 2001-2 Bill Aspray raised some NSF money to explore this through the
CRA, of which he was then executive director. I was a participant in both
workshops, and developed the first version of what evolved into the SIGCIS
history of computing resource guide (now in need of a new update). This was
a valuable exercise, and has helped to inform what I write in my CACM
columns in trying to explain historical thinking and scholarship to a
computing audience. I hope that the other participants also found it useful.


The proceedings, Using History to Teach Computer Science and Related
Disciplines edited by Akera and Aspray, are at
http://archive.cra.org/reports/using.history.pdf. Bill sent me some spare
copies when moving office a few years ago, so if anyone would like one
mailed to them just ask. My own chapter "The History of Computing: An
Introduction for the Computer Scientist" is now a little out of date, but
tried to explain to computer scientists what historical scholarship is and
how it is different from computing research.


However, I must confess that the meetings also made me appreciate the scale
of the challenge involved, even when dealing with computing educators who
care enough about history to want to incorporate it into their  teaching. I
think the biggest issue is that people with graduate degrees in history and
computer scientists with avocational interests in history tend to have a
different sense of what the purpose of teaching history is. Historians focus
on transferrable skills such as historical styles of thinking, reading of
evidence, construction of a well-documented argument, working around
contradictory or patchy sources, etc. These can be developed to a large
extent independently of the particular topics or readings chosen for a
course. In contrast, computer scientists are more likely to think of history
in terms of factual material that should be assimilated. In a way that is
the unsurprising inverse of the complaint from expert CS educators that most
computing education, particularly for children and non-majors, is focused on
specific technologies rather than the broader development of computational
or algorithmic thinking. It is hard for someone who does not themselves have
advanced training and deep immersion in a field to convey its core values to


Any future effort would do well to start with the Aspray & Akera volume as a
starting point, and also to have realistic aspirations. A sequel might
foreground the question of the history of computing, and information history
more broadly, in information schools as well as in computer science
departments since a number of us find ourselves in iSchools. The prospects
for grant support for such a project should be relatively good, at least
compared with trying to get a grant to do actual historical research.


Best wishes,





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