Feedback to my department (Computer Science/Bogazici University)

PS: This blog post is in the oven for last 8 months, because I waited for some time to make sure it is not something I wrote because of my feelings. I don’t really think it is unique to Bogazici University, but I see some value in sharing it on Devlicio.us, too.

If you can read this, it means that I have almost finished my undergradimageuate education.

Being a good student, I believe I have a few words to say on my school and its people.

I have transferred there from another great university, namely ITU. There were several reasons behind my transfer, one of which was better instructor-student communication and better relationship with schools aboard. After 4 years, I believe it was overall a good decision but unfortunately nothing perfect, and actually I am not expecting it to be perfect, everything comes with its flaws.

What I see in Bogazici, in general, is that everything was designed to decrease bureaucracy. Compared to my former school, you can see the difference. When a class is overquota, you send a message to the instructor of that course and expect him/her to allow you into the class. In the former school, you have to write a petition to the faculty, they gather those petitions and inform the student affairs and then student affairs increase the “overall” quota. This takes several days and in the end, you may not be able to register for this course at all.

Another thing is that you are informed about every little thing that has to do something with students. We get scholarship announcements, information about campus events and so. In the older school this doesn’t hold, you have to follow everything by yourself.

Having said the above, now it comes to my department: Computer Engineering and its faculty. We have, no doubt, greatest minds of Turkey in various areas. I am going to share the points that I am not comfortable with, and I hope this is a constructive critic.

Your students you give reference are your face abroad! And it is your “duty” to give referenceimage

Every student, for some reasons like for a job or for a grad school application, needs references from the instructors/professors s/he took from. It is a very natural process especially during fall terms of sophomore year to ask for it. Professors should be aware of these very tough times, and should be constructive at those times. I have taken references from 3 professors (which is the bare minimum for universities) from whom I took a class from or worked with, I am very thankful to every single one of them. Some were very constructive, but probably more than half was not very helpful at all. I didn’t have any problem with taking reference, and I was even surprised because I was able to take reference from a professor whom I worked when I was a sophomore 2.5 years ago. He was very friendly since we met and even though I asked way too many letters of recommendations (app. 18), he sent every single recommendation letter I requested.

Anyway, going back to people from my school (with some exceptions, of course), I didn’t hear good things, I had to say. I learnt that one of them said he can’t write one because he didn’t work with this student, then he changed his mind and said he could only send online recommendations (probably for the fear of student opening a letter and read the recommendation, ie. for the sake of privacy). This student wasn’t an ordinary student, he was an exceptional one, very smart and he had really good GPA. One of them didn’t even care and “ignored” another friend of mine when he asked for letter of recommendation. That’s our experience.

We had chance to discuss about ways to improve our department. Their answer to our complaints was worse than what we thought it would. First they said every good student will get very good references from any instructor they asked. When we had told our experience about this process, they then changed their mouths and said “we cannot enforce to make them give you one”. This is really not the case; they can do something, even if it is just a discussion between profs. One other said he gave more than hundred letters of recommendation, and if we asked one, we could get one.

It’s true that they may not give a LOR if they haven’t worked with this student, but think of it for a second. Our curriculum is fixed until we are senior student! They don’t leave much chance to take elective courses until we are senior student. The pool of professors we can take LOR from is fixed, and I can say there aren’t many who will give LOR without any problem. With all due respect, we don’t really deserve this. Time is valuable for you, so are ours to us. There is a method that I have seen in both US professors I worked with. They ask you to write a draft as if the Prof is writing to him. This is very beneficial in many ways: It informs the prof about what the student did and achieved during his undergraduate life, it significantly decreases the time to write a LOR, the LOR will be unique (it won’t be a generic one like “he took my class got an A, he is smart and handsome”) which admission offices say to be very important. It also gives an idea about how he think he is in the eye of the professor.

Moreover, comparing my department with some others, I can say my profs are not very doing good at this. I’ve heard that Profs from electronics department, for example are very helpful, they look for what professor to choose, whom to ask for funding etc. They even try to establish some kind of meeting with professors abroad. I haven’t seen and heard such behavior from my department. This will hurt our education a lot.

It is, in my opinion, the responsibility of an instructor to raise interest

image After my internship at MIT, one of the instructors, namely Ayse Basar Bener, asked me if I am interested in taking CMPE 491 (the complementary project course). I was surprised and I have to say I like the way she approached me. She suggested me to talk with Cem Ersoy and Levent Akin for that because she believed I would be interested in their areas of research based on my internship. This was what I had been thinking for a while, to get involved in some academic research in my current school but I was sort of busy with other things(as Baris Gokce says, if you are not enforced to do things, you are most likely not going to do it). Sometimes you need a good motivator, and a suggestion may be the one you’re looking for.

When I talked with Cem Ersoy and Levent Akin, all was kind enough to spend half an hour on discussion. They told what they do, and I told them what I was interested in. Cem Ersoy, while we were talking, mentioned that they always appreciate newcomers but they don’t have enough energy and time to draw people’s attention. This is what I don’t get at all (don’t get me wrong, he is one of the most amazing instructors over there).

Being the department with highest ranked students, all the students we have in department are extremely smart and talented. Some are less focused but they can do very well if they pay attention. I believe that it is the responsibility of an instructor to draw attention to their field. They don’t have to do much; it suffices to tell about what they really do and how students could contribute into their research. Freshman orientation is definitely not the best time for such things. Some people don’t even know what network really means, for example. It should be done sometime in 3rd year. They can even ask students to come by and ask their questions. Some of the instructors I know did this very well, but some didn’t even care. This is also directly related with interaction, and it is really important.

Feedback/Interaction is an essential part of education

Everybody would agree that feedback is an important process in everything in life, and it is even more important in the context of education. By feedback, I don’t mean the course evaluation forms we fill at the end of each semester. Those are actually what I care the least. Every term, the results of previous survey is being announced but I don’t know if people care for them (except for the ABET. I try to be optimistic in that forms)

What I mean by feedback is the feedback mechanism imageright in the classroom. It is the ability to be flexible in the course schedule (definitely not a drastic change in syllabus). Depending on what students do understand and don’t understand, it is the ability to spend more attention on some topics and less on others. It is the ability to give the students the feeling that they are important and their thoughts are important.

From what I saw and heard about several instructors, I can say that some are really openminded and open to what I said above. However, some of them just write on the board what is exactly on the book. No matter how well you do in your field of area, and no matter how famous you are, you’re definitely not doing good in teaching. Teaching is an interactive process that consists of students. Students are the main part of the process and instructors are responsible from making them understand. One can do that in many ways, the simplest one is asking questions. Please, dear instructor, don’t hesitate to ask questions in the class, and please talk on interesting topics, not just write everything on the board and leave the room after the class is over.

Our time is valuable, please think about us.

I have been to two different undergraduate colleges, and I know their systems more or less. I imageam a big fan of “self-improvement”. I believe that people learn best what they do when they are not enforced to. Giving assignments just to keep students busy does not make any sense. Quite often, I hear TA’s giving homework (usually the first one) tell that this is just a warm up. What I talk is for the majority of courses that has homeworks, but to give a special example one would be the embedded system assignment. The instructor is a very good one, and I really learnt a lot (I don’t say this much for courses). In that assignment we are asked to implement spline interpolations in a limited amount of memory. Code took only 1-2 hours to finalize, while its report took forever to finish. In the report, we had to take the output of the spline for 100 points (in which we have to use copy & paste and do some processing to get the data, there wasn’t an easy way really. If we are talking about an embedded system, give something that really makes sense, and do not expect us to write report that is of little value. Part of that report really made sense, like optimizations, like constraints etc but those parts took only a couple of hours to write.

Another thing that I would like to mention is the overhead we have been given in our lab experiments (hardware labs, to name one, embedded systems and digital design). In those experiments and assignments, we are asked to make “good looking circuits”. By good looking, I mean straight cables, cables not crossing each other etc. The reason they want us to do such thing, they say, is that circle-like wire might act as a coil and induce magnetic field. This is completely senseless. It might be true that it can cause magnetic field, but it is negligible for “our purposes”. Cutting those wires in appropriate length takes a lot of valuable time. Sometimes you cut it short, sometimes you cut it long. The time we spent on just cutting wires is basically at least 3/5 of the lab time. This time could be spend for more valuable things, like learning new stuff, or combining many components for new circuits.

I am not complaining, in fact, I was probably one of few people who had completed his all assignments with high grades; this is because I care about them a lot. However, this also comes at a cost: You have to sacrifice from other things. This sort of stuff usually steals from the time that I spend with my family, girlfriend or self-improvement. For the first couple of weeks of the first term, I was extremely busy with just doing homeworks. Spending less time for sleep, less time for self-improvement (I have no commits to any OSS during that period), less time for my beloved one.

Another point I criticize about embedded system course is that so-called lab hours. In theory, this is a 3 credit course. We also have 2 hour demonstration for the assignment we did that time. We spend 5 hours just to satisfy course requirements. All is okay up to now. The problem is the assignment itself. This assignment takes at least 1.5 full day of cutting wires, connecting cables and debugging. Those assignments are weekly, meaning that the same busy days every week. Result? Sleepless nights. Should it be like this? I don’t know. Will I do such thing if I ever become an instructor? Surely NOT.

I will quote one of the professionals that I respect, Karl Seguin : “You learn so much more from your own project, because you aren't constrained by technology or risk, or time lines. You implement BDD, NoSQL, Python, memcached, NHibernate, etc.. on your own projects first, then use them at work. Maybe that's why the 15% rule at Google, 3M and Atlassian works so well...its the ultimate training opportunity “ (can be found on his public profile). I put my name under it. This is what it has to be like. I completely agree with giving assignments but I also support to keep the overhead at a minimum level.

I may add some other things as the time goes by, but this is what I can remember for now. I hope someday people will read this material and benefit from it. This is my feedback to my school.


Posted 05-31-2010 9:40 AM by Tuna Toksoz

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