SIGCSE 2018, With Atypicality

This week I have been attending my first, and possibly my last, research conference. SIGCSE is the premier computer science education conference in the world, or so I am told. In the elevator of my hotel, I met one presenter who was from New Zealand. My randomly paired roommate teaches in Cali.

There are approximately 1700 people in attendance. Wide-eyed HS students, tired PhD candidates, undergrads like myself, aged and wizened professors who have been teaching for 40 years, and enthusiastic elementary school teachers. It is the coding world, so the gathering is, at times, rather eclectic. A myriad of facial piercings, lightly tie dyed shirts with accompanying flower child beard and pony tail, a colorful hijab, standard business casual, glasses so large that only a nerd could wear them, and the rest.

I do not plan on going into computer science education. It is a mild curiosity to me. Hardly even that — here I am, at a coffee shop instead of listening to paper presentations. The truth is that I am at this conference essentially because I wanted some extra spending money. I joined my research group three and a half semesters ago and have been building the software for our project. My professor pushed my research partner and I to enter a poster competition, and here I am. We presented and did not make the cut to the next level. Although I dragged my feet to start it (as I often do), I am grateful for the experience and the story. But I have not much to do now, so naturally, it is time for me to spout existential reflections.

There were three categories of papers that were submitted to SIGCSE, and the symposium honored the top three best papers for each category. Of the nine that were chosen, two of them happened to be written by the research group headed by Hongxin Hu, a professor that I have taken at Clemson. His group was the only one to get two papers in this group of nine, so it is quite the honor. I chuckle, because he is the least effective computer science educator I have ever had the misery of sitting under.

One of the few talks that I had a genuine interest in attending was a “Birds of a Feather” talk on computing and values. When presenters have some preliminary questions and thoughts, but no experiment or poster, they host a BoF. There were two main questions discussed. What is the difference between ethics and values? What is the role of the technical university in cultivating virtuous citizenship in their students? See, that is the interesting stuff! The talk was lead by two professors who work at Christian institutions.

Don Gotterbarn happened to be there. He is one of the leading writers of the Software Engineering Code of Ethics, which is an important document in the field. Gotterbarn received his PhD in philosophy, and repeated this several times, just to make sure we knew it. He is a big deal, as can be deduced from the fact that he has a Wikipedia page. I chuckle, because he was the only person there who was rather rude to the janitor that was making a bit of noise in the process of serving us by taking out our trash in the back of the room.

At the beginning, we talked a good amount on the separation of ethics and values. And it is a good and necessary separation. Ethics is about a standard of behavior or a rule for making decisions that is agreed upon by everyone in the field. Gotterbarn reassured us that it says nothing about what values we ought to have; it only talks about what the field has decided is the correct code of conduct. As if this is a coherent thought. Any behavior implies certain values, and any code of ethics implies a set of values.

The problem nearly all were anxious to address was how to produce virtuous citizens among a society that has pluralistic values. Interestingly, it was acknowledged that this was only a problem for the public universities. Calvin College did not have this problem, and its authority to propagate its own values was fully respected. But for the others, the question was raised, “Whose virtue?” And this is precisely the purpose of a code of ethics that is so severely separated from any statement of values. It avoids the question, and says, “We don’t know what you should love. But this is how we say you should act.” In my mind was Lewis. If all we can give is ethics, and we cannot give values, then we are impoverished indeed. It is no surprise that a liberal arts education is no longer a goal.

Tim Bell is another big name. He created a set of innovative lesson plans and activities to teach concepts of computer science without using a computer. They have been very successful, especially with elementary age students. A fantastic idea! This is what we need!

At the keynote address this morning, he received a standing ovation. He opened with a question. “What is the big idea about computer science education?” At the end, he answered this question with a lovely Māori proverb.

He aha te mea nui o te ao
He tangata, he tangata, he tangata

What is the most important thing in the world?
It is the people, it is the people, it is the people.

One woman walked up to the question mic, and spoke of how she had teared up during the talk because of how important Bell’s work was to her. She could hardly finish her speech, because her tears were returning.

What is computer science education to foster such an emotional response? Why such import? The theme of the conference is CSforAll, inclusivity — decidedly, a value. It is my opinion that the most important thing in the world is not people, but God. CS is pretty cool, it is growing very rapidly, it is an exciting time for the field, but at the end of the day, it is just a technology. Alone, it does nothing for people. Without good utilization, CS education does not help us worship God. And if it does not help us worship God, what good is it? We have been very happy without it, and we have been very miserable without it. We have been very happy with it, and we have been very miserable with it.

I have been asked several times how I was enjoying the conference. I responded with the typical response, that it is a great experience and so on. And it is. But here I feel like I am doing far more good by leaving it and sitting in an artsy coffee shop with delicious pour-over brews. Maybe Christianity’s mocking of idolatry has finally started to seep into me. Maybe I am not appreciating the great opportunities open to me. Maybe I’m just in an angsty mood. Maybe I am having a small mind. It certainly feels like it at times. At other times, it certainly feels like everyone else is having a small mind.

My father recently visited the Holy Land and came back with this story. He was eating dinner with some recent converts and discussed the switching of religions in Israel. Apparently, it is not uncommon for some Jews to become Christian, some Christians to become Muslim, some Muslims to become Jews, and so on. But almost nobody moves to secularism. Only the despairing ones in war-torn nations like Egypt make that shift. “Nobody wants a Western society. We all understand that that is where true death and emptiness lies.” And I found myself agreeing wholeheartedly, though I also feel the deep inroads of Western nihilism in my soul.

How can I join with others in the training of young minds, when we disagree so fundamentally about these things that guide us and these things we assume? I can learn from them; they can learn from me. But how can we join in actually governing? How can education be divorced from training in the worship of God in some way, not to mention the Christian God? How can comp sci be treated as anything more important than play? — which is certainly important and good, but not if it ceases being play and instead becomes something assumed to be essential to life. Here is a fact: the closing keynote speaker’s title is “Chief Evangelist” for CSforAll. What if I have become unsatisfied with the answer, “It is the people, it is the people, it is the people?” If we disagree on the big idea of CS education, what else is there to discuss? Different pedagogical methods and techniques will be useful for us all, precisely because they are not about the big idea. But these things are of no worth if they are used for a worthless goal. And this weighs upon me, in an atypical manner (I think).

Maybe this conference is an experiment in futility. Yet, I sense that the mature mind would be able to appreciate the value in the conference while acknowledging the ultimate futility of its purpose. Only in re-purposing the discussions can they become valuable. I suppose that is what we are to do. But probably not me, because I am not going into this field. Oh well.

Never before have I felt such a longing for an entirely Christian society. My faith in the liberalism I have loved, the doctrine of the freedom of thought and the freedom of religious conviction, wavers. Yet how can we avoid holding fast to this doctrine? Surely the violence of Pakistan and India is not the answer. Surely the violence of Irish Catholics and Protestants is not the answer. Surely John Locke’s assertion of the necessity of religious tolerance contains the answer. But what are we to do with the fact of religious pluralism? What is the path to peace, especially considering the Reformed necessity for God’s movement in the soul, and our complete inability to convert others? Is the only path to peace the suspension of all discussion of what is most important? But this is no solution at all, and I am hard-pressed not to prefer war and bloodshed, like all civilizations previous. I have been taught that this position is horrendous, and I have always agreed, but now the issues become muddled.

My heart, you are not touching upon something false, but something legitimate. These are difficult times, and difficult questions. Yet, do not grow weary. There is hope in the morning, and God is with you. Do not take this conference so seriously. Be of light and stout heart, for there is much joy to explore around you. Appreciate the place to which you have been brought, and learn the lessons given to you to learn. There is much to learn that you are missing in the people around you. God has provided them for you to love, and for you to teach, and for you to treat as images of Him. My heart, lift up your downcast head. My heart, sing praises to Him for his great works. He has done wondrous things, and one day you will live in a thoroughly Christian society, and your dreams will be surpassed. One day your sanctification will be complete, and you will embrace this Heaven with laughter and open arms. My heart, be of good spirits, for God is good, and God is in control, and God is wiser than you are.

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