A Letter from Concerned Computer Science Juniors

We, a subset of Computer Science juniors, hope to bring to the college’s attention the issues we have faced in the major, and how these issues have a unifying cause: the understaffing of the Reed CS department. Our most pertinent concerns are with our upcoming thesis experience, our experience with grading and feedback of courses in the department, the inconsistency of course material and syllabi for required courses in the major, mishaps regarding the critical Junior Qualifying Exam, and how all of these connect back to the understaffing of our unsupported department.

The most direct consequence will be on our upcoming thesis. There are about 30 rising seniors ready to start thesising, with 2 CS professors in the worst case. This means that there will be roughly 15 theses per professor. This is an unprecedented and unreasonable thesis-faculty ratio. The professors simply won’t be able to provide the assistance and support to thesising seniors. We juniors are fearful that our thesis experience will be altered or removed altogether.

The understaffing has already impacted our education. For many of the elective courses we took (CS majors need four to graduate), we received little to no feedback regarding our homework, assignments, and tests. For example, during the Principles of Programming Languages elective, students didn’t get back a single homework assignment throughout the entire semester. This lack of feedback also affected the Cryptography elective. Although a few assignments were graded, almost nothing was returned near the end of the semester and the planned second midterm was made optional. Grades for the course were also not turned in by the college-wide grade submission deadline. We were flying blind through these courses, having little idea how we were doing due to a lack of feedback. This is not sustainable for our intellectual development, and it actively hurts our future experiences with other courses and thesis, which might build upon material and skills learned in these electives. Since there are so few faculty, excessive obligations and an overwhelming workload are pushed on them, leaving them unable to effectively manage their curricula  and their students’ coursework. The professors are forced to speculate on the students’ progress, one commented: “They are probably doing fine in the class” regarding a student’s academic progress.

The current dearth of professors also makes material taught in the fundamental classes of the major inconsistent. The CS 221 course (which is a required and essential course for the major and qual) focuses on the programming languages C and C++, and has historically been taught by 2 professors. This semester, those of us taking the required Computer Systems course (which uses C) were split into two camps: those of us who took 221 with one professor and those of us who took it with the other. One camp was at a severe disadvantage, due to the Computer Systems courses relying on prior knowledge of C that simply wasn’t taught in-depth by one of the professors. As a result, valuable class periods of Systems were diverted to learning the basics of C instead of actual course material. Computer Systems has had its own issues. The contract of the professor that usually teaches it is set to expire. Thus, the class was given to another professor. What wasn’t given to the new professor was any kind of syllabus, course outline, or notes regarding the class. The new professor had to create the syllabus by himself from scratch. In a normally functioning department, this would be unheard of, especially for a major requirement. This lack of curriculum standardization, if left unchecked, will continue to propagate, leaving us (and underclassmen) at a  major disadvantage. This all connects back to the understaffing of the department. Were it better staffed, the department could dedicate professors to teach these fundamental courses and provide a consistent education.

The Junior Qual is a critical stepping stone in the academic life of anyone at Reed. It too is harmed by the present predicament. When taking the Qual last semester, the venue for the exam wasn’t made public until the night before the exam. This was because the faculty were so busy, no one noticed that the venue needed to be changed for COVID until the night before. When we all completed the qual, we received our results after a few days. We thought that was the end of it, but it turns out that the wrong results were sent to us. For the majority of us, it was minor, we had to redo a different question than what was originally stated on our conditional pass requirements. However, it was more serious for an unfortunate few: some thought they failed when they passed, and some thought they passed when they failed. These setbacks were never-before-seen, and we fear they  will become more commonplace if the state of the department deteriorates.

It is important to note that we are not placing any blame on the CS faculty. What we are saying, however, is that things for the CS department are not looking up. We need change. The root cause of our issues is the understaffing of our department. Due to this, a destructive cycle of overwork takes form: the professors have an unreasonable amount of work thrust upon them, which leads to them not being able to effectively juggle all of their responsibilities. Since they can’t juggle those responsibilities, they overwork themselves, which leaves them unable to manage all their obligations, more work is thrust upon them, which leads to even more overwork. If the department stays the way it is, this vicious cycle will loop ad infinitum. The professors’ health is affected negatively, which impairs the ability to do their jobs effectively. This then carries down to us, causing the issues we detailed in this article. If things do not change, this trend will continue, growing more destructive the longer it is left alone. The understaffing of the CS department must be addressed, lest it buries all of us in the department.

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Eva Czabarka
Eva Czabarka
6 months ago

Pay equity may be nice conceptually, however, if the administration truly wants to maintain such equalistic concepts (as opposed to just exploiting their workforce under the false aegis of righteousness), they should also consider work hours. If members of a department is forced to work more hours per week than others, surely their pay should be supplemented appropriately (with much higher hourly rate than the regular hours, as I believe is standard). So where is the extra salary for the CS faculty?