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C'est la Z

SIGCSE 2023 Writing in CS Classes

On to Friday's "Computing and Liberal Arts" session.

A couple to write about here. One will bring us back to Harvard's CS50 - I'll save that for tomorrow. Today I'll share what Lisa Zhang and her team at the University of Toronto at Mississauga are doing to bring writing into their CS classes.

Most people I speak to agree that in America we don't do a good job teaching writing. It looks like Canada might not be doing much better. Communication is so fundamental that it's great to see a full CS program embracing the importance of writing and doing it without compromising their own content.

Unfortunately, and I say this tongue in cheek, they seem to be doing it the right way so those of us who would have to run stealth can't really steal their program and process.

To start they have a bunch of instructors bought in and they're integrating writing in five core classes:

  1. CS 2
  2. Data Structures
  3. Computer Architecture
  4. Theory
  5. Systems

Right off the bat I love this - 5 classes over two, maybe three years with different instructors all in agreement that their students have to be better at writing and communicating.

Next, they made the writing topical to each class. They might write a man page, that is program documentation in a course where they write an application. A proof in the theory course, an email to a potential interviewer, etc.. Not only does this ensure that the assignments flow naturally in the class but it also develops the kinds of writing skills they'll need in the future.

Now, how do they do this without overloading the current teaching staff and what makes a bunch of CS professors and TAs qualified to assess and improve writing? That's always been a big question with writing across the curriculum efforts.

They're doing it by hiring a writing specialist who's in charge of the writing aspects of the classes. They also hired specific writing TAs who would support the writing aspect to go along with the traditional CS subject TAs who would continue to support the regularly scheduled class content.

How did they assess the writing TAs? They gave them a writing sample to critique. Not perfect but I guess no worse than a TA in any writing heavy class.

Overall, I love this approach. At Hunter, we have a writing center but if the writing isn't Incorporated into the class and the supports aren't right there, you're not going to get the same benefit.

One other aspect of their writing program that I love is that it's pragmatic and focused on the bottom line - communication. They decided not to focus on grammar and grammar errors so long as the issue didn't impair understanding and communication. This is great overall and particularly is important if your classes have English language learners.

So no teacher analysis or alternate views today. Just wanted to share some really cool stuff being done at UofT Mississauga.

You can find the paper here.

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