CMU students and professors react to controversial tweet
Just after winter break, several Carnegie Mellon students and professors engaged in a Twitter discussion about the best practices for teaching coding. The thread was brought to awareness after former adjunct professor in the School of Computer Science, Robert Seacord, tweeted, “As a Carnegie Mellon professor, I didn’t spend a lot of time catering to struggling students. I think this diverts resources from those who are going to succeed and make a difference.”
The tweet has since been deleted but not before students could see and interact with it.
Tanvi Bajpai, a junior in the School of Computer Science and teaching assistant (TA) for 15-151/21-128, a class teaching the mathematical foundations for computer science, replied to Seacord’s tweet with a thread about the importance of helping struggling students.
Another student took screenshots of Seacord’s tweet as well as Bajpai’s replies and posted them to the Facebook page “Overheard at Carnegie Mellon.” This post has received over a thousand reactions and comments.
Most of the Carnegie Mellon students and faculty members who responded to Seacord’s tweet, both online and offline, strongly disagreed with the opinion presented in the tweet and felt that it was not representative of the school overall.
In an interview with The Tartan, Carnegie Mellon School of Computer Science Professor David Kosbie said in response to the tweet, “No matter what one person may say, if they hold an opinion that [Carnegie Mellon] professors are [not devoted] to their students, they hold a wrong opinion. Not just a minority opinion: a wrong opinion. In my experience, [Carnegie Mellon] professors are truly devoted to their students. They may express this in many different ways, but that truth lies at the core.”
Kosbie, who has many times taught the popular introductory computer science course 15-112, has ample experience handling coding beginners and struggling students. Kosbie stresses that figuring out how best to help struggling students can be complicated, as introductory coding students can be quite a diverse bunch in terms of their experience and what they need to learn best.
“There are many ways to help struggling students,” Kosbie says. “Office hours, tutoring, advising, being sure they are aware of and using their resources well, perhaps helping them seek counseling, helping them live healthily and keep a balanced perspective. The list goes on and on. And none of these is a panacea. No one approach will work all the time. So faculty need to be creative as well as observant, to reflect on a student’s very individual situation, and find the best approach for that one struggling student.”
With some struggling students, it can be unclear what a professor should do. Kosbie raises the example of a student who is not putting in enough effort for whatever reason, be it a lack of belief in their ability, a lack of sleep, or a lack of motivation. “Sometimes, heroic intervention can help such a student pass a course. Sometimes not. In the latter case, however, maybe in some cases failing the course can be the best learning outcome for them — if they self-reflect, consider why they failed, and consequently modify their behaviors to be more successful thereafter. Isn’t that then a success? What should the professor do in such a case? I am not saying they should simply let the student fail, but neither am I saying that that is obviously uncaring or inappropriate.”
As for Seacord’s tweet, Kosbie believes that a professor cannot determine which students will end up succeeding a making a difference on the basis of one homework assignment or one course at one time. He says, “I defy a faculty member to determine with any confidence all their students who will be the most successful over time. I have seen students struggle, and struggle, and struggle, and struggle. And finally, finally, get it, and then shine brightly! And I have hired such students to TA. And I have seen them go on to brilliant careers. In fact, in many, though certainly not all, such cases, their struggles were somehow essential for their future successes.”
Iliano Cervesato is another School of Computer Science professor who often teaches the introductory course, 15-122. Cervesato agrees with Kosbie that the needs of students in such courses are widely varied. “15-122 introduces computer science to a large swath of the student population on campus — 800-900 altogether in the current academic year, a number equal to about half this year’s freshmen class. With size comes diversity: some students have years of programming experience, while others have had exposure to no more than the basics; some are committed to pursuing computer science as a career, others don’t know much about it and just want to check it out,” Cervasato said in an interview with The Tartan.
Regardless, he believes that it is a Carnegie Mellon professor’s job to help all struggling students: “Struggling students are students who need a lot of help, and I think we do a good job making opportunities to seek help available to them. In fact, I see this as an obligation on our part, within the bounds of the resources available to us.”
One such bound is the time availability of TAs. Cervesato explains, “We are blessed in that the university provides us with lots of resources in the form of a large number of wonderful, knowledgeable, caring and truly dedicated TAs... Now, we need to remember that TAs are students too, with their own coursework, deadlines and other obligations. Because of this, I encourage my TAs to set boundaries.”
Although many Carnegie Mellon computer science professors intend to provide the resources for success for all students regardless of struggle, many of the comments on the Facebook post were from people saying they had experienced the brunt of Seacord’s philosophy, that they needed to be “weeded out” of a Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) field in order to make room for brighter students.
For some, this mentality started in the very first week of college: “When I was an incoming [Computer Science] freshman, our advisor told us that our first two years will be like a ‘boot camp,’ and I remember how freaked out I was about that, initially,” Bajpai told The Tartan.“We know that we’re supposed to work hard, and so we turn that into a competition: who stayed up the latest? Who got the least amount of sleep? Who has gone the longest without a shower?”
What Bajpai is describing is a stress culture, a system in which it is expected, required, and normalized that people be stressed out to the detriment of their happiness, relationships, and well-being. It has long been documented that Carnegie Mellon has a stress culture, and it is especially prevalent in the STEM majors.
According to Bajpai, stress culture is enabled by the idea that constant competition in STEM is beneficial to those fields. “What I’ve noticed about this whole ‘weeding out kids in STEM’ mentality is that most people that think like this believe that that’s why classes in STEM are hard, like, we make STEM hard because we only want the best of the best doing it,” Bajpai explained. “That’s just absurd. Classes in STEM are hard because the subject is difficult.”
Bajpai believes that in order to combat the stress culture at Carnegie Mellon, the focus should be shifted from grades and assignments to learning. “Taking the time to learn the material is more important then spending all the time in the world to desperately try to finish one assignment in a class. I think professors here already try to encourage that kind of mentality,” she contends. “But most students have associated some kind of glory with staying up super late or not eating or showering... I think we need to not perpetuate and advertise that ‘glory’ to incoming classes.” Bajpai explains that this is why she wrote in her tweets about being lucky to have people stay up late with her and make sure she understood a subject rather than finished an assignment.
For anyone looking to teach, Professor Kosbie advises to “not judge the struggling student. Help them as best you can, and shower them with love and support. And if they fail, as some surely shall, still be there for them to help turn that into the best failure possible for them, that they may grow and be stronger for it.”
Seacord refused to comment when The Tartan reached out in order to get his response to the reaction to his tweets by the Carnegie Mellon University community.