[SIGCIS-Members] Importance of history to practitioners

Christine Finn christine.finn at gmail.com
Thu Nov 17 07:48:25 PST 2016


In the context of computer history, and recent events, members might be
interested to read this, which I wrote in 2003 for the science salon, Edge
Annual Question...

https://www.edge.org/response-detail/11804

And I will be talking about computers history and, indeed, archaeology, to
the public in London next week. The audience might well include educators
(and yes, motherlodes also applies!)

https://www.sal.org.uk/events/2016/11/motherboards-and-motherloads-public-lecture/

Best,

Christine



On 17 November 2016 at 10:21, Cary Gray <cggray at mac.com> wrote:

> I'd like to respond to a number of points, from the perspective of a
> computer scientist who has long been dismayed at how the field teaches
> about the past--or fails to do so.
>
> First, regarding historical content in other science fields:
> My experience as an undergraduate (around 1980) was that elements of
> history were naturally incorporated in the majors' introductory sequences
> for both chemistry and physics.  I definitely recall the material from the
> freshman chemistry survey.  It was common for the physics curriculum to
> recapitulate the later developments in the field by spending a year on
> classical methods before upending all of it in a sophomore-level semester
> of "modern physics".  The labs for the modern physics course I took
> included versions of many of the fundamental experiments of that
> revolution.  I think that jolt was significant in shaping the perspective
> of a few generations of physicists.
>
> I can speculate on several factors that might have led to a decline in
> that material.  My sense is that college-level science curricula have
> generally become more applied, partly because the intro courses are
> dominated by students who do not aspire to becoming chemists or physicists
> (pre-meds, engineers).  I suspect that the rise of Advanced Placement has
> reduced the share of majors who take the introductory courses in college,
> and it is easy for me to imagine that the high school environment would
> have less motivation to bother with the historical perspective.
>
> The place of history in math seems to wax and wane; it has at times been
> fashionable, but is currently not.  The math major at the college where I
> most recently taught is currently capped by a historically framed
> survey/review of the field; many of the students respond enthusiastically
> to putting it all together and say they wish they'd heard more of that
> perspective sooner.  (Whether they'd have cared for it sooner is less
> clear.)  But, a few years ago, external reviewers deprecated the capstone
> as out of step with what is going on elsewhere.
>
> Regarding history in computing:
> I should remind the readers of this list that what interests computists is
> not the same as what interests historians:  the guilds have different
> systems of values.  (Recall the lament from Donald Knuth a couple of years
> back, which is what brought me to this list.)  And "computing" is a very
> big tent; one of the problems in curricula (and in professional societies)
> is that there are very different--and sometimes incompatible--ideas of what
> it is we are about.  We often seem to be unsure just who we mean by "we".
> We claim different titles (CS, CE, SE, IT, IS), and even under those
> headings we differ as to whether we are practitioners, researchers, or
> educators.  And our perspectives on education range from highly
> instrumental to strongly liberal.
>
> Much of what I've seen of history in both computing textbooks and trade
> books has been weak to inaccurate.  It is probably fairly long lead time to
> see improvement in books, but in the near term I think that there is a
> place for an effort focused on equipping faculty; I think that will require
> both putting together resources they can use and more outreach to "sell"
> the need.  The workshops hosted by CRA a few years back were valuable, but
> we still need something much broader and sustained.  I'm interested in
> finding other folks who are interested in working on materials for and
> outreach to both teachers and researchers.
>
>         Cary Gray
>         cggray at mac.com
>
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