Choreography, Composition, and Computation

This morning, I made my way over the light and drifted snow to class, taking in the beautiful, snow-blanketed visa of campus.

I was nervous; we have an ambitious undertaking this term, with a DCS102 offering that is deeply connected to courses in choreography taught by Prof. Rachel Boggia and digital music composition by Prof. Bill Matthews. We’ll say more as we go (like the awesome connections to the Bates Dance Festival), but for now, let’s just say that students will be integrating choreography, composition, and computation in a deeply integrative performance by the end of the term. It’s an incredible undertaking, and I can’t help worry about details… but, really, if we’re working hard, learning new things, and trying to do cool stuff… what can go wrong?

As part of DCS 102: Design of Computational Systems, I have been making a point of beginning the term with three questions for the students:

  1. What are you excited about?
  2. What are you concerned about?
  3. What are your dreams for the course?

We take a few minutes on each question, writing down as many (or as few) answers to the question as we can come up with, one per sticky note. I have not yet photographed all of them, but will. For now, I thought I’d share a few to give a flavor for the hopes and concerns that I’ve seen both last term and this term.


In the are of things people are excited about…

Transcription: COMPUTERS

I concur.

Transcription: I am excited to take my first DCS class. I don’t have any experience in the subject, but am excited to learn.

I don’t know what else you can ask for as an educator: students, coming into your classroom, excited to learn. What makes me sad about computing, as a discipline, is that so many students clearly are turned off by their experiences in classrooms around the world. Keeping it local, if students walk into my classroom with this eagerness, then that means that (to a significant degree—if we assume I am an influential agent in the learning that takes place in my classroom), it is through my words and my actions that I can diminish this enthusiasm. From NCWIT, the National Center for Women and Information Technology, we know that (quote) in 2016, 26% of the computing workforce were women, and less than 10% were women of color. (5% were Asian, 3% were African-American, and 2% were Hispanic.)

I don’t know who wrote that sticky, but my class is roughly 50% women. My job is to create a challenging, engaging, transformational classroom experience where that willingness to learn is nourished, not extinguished for all of my students. Given the national numbers, it is clear that women have been experiencing hostile and discriminatory classrooms in computing for a long time. My response to that is “not in my classroom, and not on my watch.” It is my job to banish the biases and discriminatory practices that have permeated the culture of computing for decades from my professional practice as an educator. I’ll happily do that every day, and if I’m successful, over time, then DCS@Bates will help shift those depressing, workforce-level percentages.

As a colleague said to me recently: that shouldn’t be the radical statement that it is.

Transcription: Computers are becoming more and more important in the workplace and at schools, and I believe it is important to know how they function.

This is essentially the premise of DCS at Bates: computing is a liberal art, and thinking algorithmically (or, more broadly, computationally) is deeply integrated in many (every?) disciplines today.

It is also begs the critical question that a new digital/computational program must answer: how do you provide computational experiences for students that honor and integrate their learning across the breadth of the liberal arts? There is no field untouched by computation, and the student who understands how computing relates to their passions and expertise, and can leverage that understanding, will stand apart from those who cannot leverage.

Did I say I was biased? I’m biased. In short, I agree with my student.


The students in DCS102 had concerns as well.

Transcription: I am worried about high expectations for [DCS] and a very large workload.

I’m reminded of Yoda’s comment to Luke in Empire:

Transcription: You should be. You should be.

I have high expectations. They’re communicated through our syllabus, and the assignments ahead of us. But, the TAs and I are there to help you succeed. You’ll have to stretch, though. That’s part of the fun, as far as I’m concerned. (There’s whole fields of research and theoretic literature in this space; start with serious play, and explore from there.)

Transcription: Class is pretty big. One-to-one time would be scarce.

Yes, and no. We’ve brought on a large pool of excellent TAs; we should have roughly a 1:8 ratio of support-to-students when we’re working/exploring/innovating/debugging in the classroom. And, honestly, my time is your time: I’m here to see you succeed. My office hours, as described in the syllabus, are just a vain hope on my part: all I do is put them in to make the administration happy, and to guarantee that none of you are able to meet me during those hours. As a result, I get a lot of work done during office hours.

I have never had students say that I was unapproachable or unavailable. I will make my schedule work to make sure you have the support you need to succeed. However, you must take the first step. I can’t always intuit when you need help. Remind me, in class, to tell you a story about my experience in Electromagnetic Theory with Professor Idoine. Short version: it’s a morality tale about a student who didn’t ask for the help he needed.

The TAs will also run evening support hours. And, further, I live within walking distance of campus; if we have to meet in the evenings to help you in your learning, we will. It’s just that simple. (Worry not about support, say I. Mmm?)

Hopes and Dreams

And then there’s the hopes and dreams.

Transcription: A cumulative project that allows to both analyze a relationship between technology and society, that also involves the coding learned in the course.

Well, shiznit. You just wrote the prompt for the essay that wraps up your final portfolio!

Did I mention the deeply integrative project involving dance, electronic music, and computing? And, the fact that we’re going to be reading, writing, and reflecting on collaboration and inclusion all semester long? I think I did! (Well, I did in class.) Consider your dreams delivered, my friend!

Well, I think so. Perhaps you disagree. Feel free to make an appointment… er, during office hours? Not free at that time? How about lunch? Er, Friday afternoon…

Transcription: I hope this course will be fun.

Amen and huzzah.

To my students: I hear you, I feel you, and I want nothing but success for you. Do something awesome this term by diving in, taking risks, and become the national leaders in integrating choreography, composition, and computing at the undergraduate level. Let the love of learning sustain you, with love and devotion, and while you’re at it… have a blast doing it.

I’ll see you all again come April. Rachel, Bill, and I can’t wait to see where you take us.