[SIGCIS-Members] Using history to teach computer science

Bill Aspray bill at ischool.utexas.edu
Sun May 18 16:49:59 PDT 2014

Dear colleagues,

Let me add my voice to this discussion. I make five points.

1. This discussion is not new. When the history of science began to professionalize after the Second World War, at first the scientists (mostly physicists) welcomed them with open arms. But the honeymoon soon ended when they found that the historians were not going to simply be apologists for the scientists but might have their own set of interests and interpretations that did not square with those of the scientists. You might find it interesting to read Stephen Brush’s 1974 article “Should the History of Science Be X-Rated” which you can find online without paywall at http://oregonstate.edu/instruct/hsts414/doel/SB_H_S_rated_X.pdf.

2. Although there is some continuing value in the internal-external distinction, by the early 1980s many historians had real reservations about this dichotomy. For example, Philip Kitcher and I wrote about it in the introduction to our book on the history and philosophy of modern mathematics, Nathan Rosenberg showed how important it was to economic history of technology to get Inside the Black Box, and in more recent years legal scholars such as Lessig, Zittrain, Fischer, Benkler, and others have shown how important it is to have a rich appreciation for technology when you are talking about the regulation of the internet.

3. I don’t think Knuth is reading the same history of mathematics that I am. While there continue to be some mathematicians and some historians writing technical histories of mathematics, the past quarter century of history of mathematics has seen a major movement towards social history of mathematics.

4. I respect and admire Len Shustek. He has been an important figure in the history of computing landscape, giving generously of his time and money, seeing the best in everybody and trying to see the good in what everybody does. But I take real exception to one line in his note that Dag forwarded to the list: "We have not yet gotten to "do history" from the internalist perspective much ourselves.” Len is a principal actor in the Computer Museum. He makes it sound as though external forces made the museum take the course they chose to take. That is not the case. They chose not to do history, either internal or external, as a principal activity - only as a supporting activity to other museum priorities. The Babbage Institute could have decided to only do archives, but they carved out a piece of their budget to do scholarly work. The Smithsonian could have focused on exhibits, archives, and other products, but they carved out a piece of their budget so that a number of the leading historians of science and technology get to do their research in that environment. The Computer History Museum chose to take a different path - consciously.

5. I really don’t understand what the purpose of such a meeting that is being proposed would be. Given that we do not live in an era of amateur scholarship, the most important way to advance the field of computing history is to increase the number of jobs for computer historians, so that they can earn a livelihood while they practice their craft. The likeliest places for these historians to be employed are museums, archives, historical research centers, and various faculty positions - in computer science and engineering, history, history of science and technology, science and technology studies, information schools, engineering humanities, and perhaps in a few other types of departments. The argument in each case is what would make it useful to the workplace of the other discipline to have a historian of computing there. I think this is a different argument for each of these different work environments; a one-size-fits-all conference won’t do any good.  I am not even sure who one would talk to, say, to sway the general historians as a community to change their ways.


On May 18, 2014, at 4:10 PM, Thomas Haigh <thaigh at computer.org> wrote:

> 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.http://www.tomandmaria.com/tom/Writing/HistoryOfComputingIntro.pdf
> 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 students.
> 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,
> Tom
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