Beki Grinter

Computer Science: Why I care

In academia, computer science, discipline, HCI, research on October 14, 2009 at 6:23 am

As I’ve said before, I’m very interested in disciplinary evolution. There are many reasons, but one of them is that I’ve been discussed as an example of someone who is not a Computer Scientist. At least three things bother me about this discussion. First, these criticisms are largely said about me and not to me. Second, it assumes that the discipline of Computer Science can be defined, and I don’t think evidence supports that. While I don’t completely agree with Eden’s arguments (as an example of writing about multi-paradigmatic behaviour in CS), I do concur that we’re proceeding in multiple distinct paradigms that come with different, possibly irreconcilable methodological, ontological, and epistemological assumptions, which makes me wonder whether we do collectively know what the discipline of Computer Science is all about. Third, the criticism also dismisses the commitments I’ve made to my profession as well as the assessments I have had by others regarding the role of my research in the field of Computer Science (an obvious example, I publish in conferences that are mostly sponsored by the ACM, the professional association for Computer Science researchers, and others cite my work in other Computer Science conferences).

I have three degrees, all in Computer Science. While degrees do not make a Computer Scientist, I would suggest that they give me many years of training for understanding what is included in Computer Science. But degrees can not define a Computer Scientist. After all some of most significant innovations come from people who don’t have degrees in Computer Science. No-one is what their degrees say they are, it’s what they choose to do and why.

So, my commitment to Computer Science was cemented in graduate school. I went to graduate school at UC Irvine. The other day I found a paper that discussed the program I was in in graduate school (the Computers, ORganizations, Policy and Society (CORPS) group). It was not HCI, although it was similar, it was focused on Computing as an empirical science, combining a priori theories that can explain technologies in use-context, with a posteriori empirical analysis of what happened when technologies were deployed in particular contexts. I was hooked, this made the Computer Science of numerical analysis, formal methods, graphics, make sense to me.

Three and a half years later I graduated with an MS and PhD. My thesis work explained how dependencies in code reflected dependencies in the division of labor, and showed how these labor relationships were not being accounted for in the processes used to develop software. Because of this, I received an offer of employment at Bell Labs, and I joined the Computer Science research division of Bell Labs. My job description, continue to do Computer Science research on the human-centered problems that continue to plague software development (in 1960’s it was a crisis, in the 1990’s it became a chronic crisis, and apparently hell). I’ve written about how amazing this time was, how much I learnt. Bell Labs demanded excellence in science, it was a world-class research laboratory, and so it held us all to the highest standards of research in our discipline: Computer Science. So, each year I continued to do research in this space and had the honour (it was terrifying at times) to have my performance assessed by the type of people whose contributions to Computer Science are central to the discipline. But, of course this was simultaneously the privilege of working at Bell Labs, to have your own standards set by people who made Computer Science.

Four years later it was clear that Bell Labs was going to go through what many nationally acclaimed scientific laboratories go through: downsizing. I joined the Computer Science Laboratory at Xerox PARC, as a member of the Distributed Systems area (why this comes as a surprise to people I do not know). CSL was very similar to Bell Labs, but PARC is physically smaller than Bell Labs was. So, that made it more intense, the evidence of PARCs contributions to Computer Science were everywhere, you could physically see them (like the Ethernet). Again, what I was responsible for doing was to advance Computer Science, that’s how I was judged.

So, my entire career through Bell Labs and Xerox PARC was as a practitioner of the research of Computer Science. That’s who mentored me, set the standards, and evaluated my contributions, with the help of external communities of researchers who accepted my papers into journals and conferences in the discipline of Computer Science.

From there I joined Georgia Tech, and one day I discovered  that I was in the School of Interactive Computing. And I like it very much. But, I think there’s some confusion about whether Interactive Computing is Computer Science. To me the answer is obvious, it’s the third paradigm of Computer Science. Its an empirical experimental discipline, drawing on a priori theory to inform computer program design, some of which are programs designed to push new computational space (such as robotics), others of which are designed to probe phenomena (like learning and how people do so). We use empirical scientific investigation to determine whether we have been successful, and if we have not what has failed. It is the science of computing that is the raison d’etre for Interactive Computing.

To those who have told someone, but not me, that I don’t do Computer Science this is my response. Computer Science is complicated to define, and we’d all be better served understanding it more deeply. And I am lucky to have had a career where the standards of engagement and assessment were set by people whose contributions to Computer Science are clear: who have collectively done the important work of defining the field. And I will also note here that I never heard any of those people discussing who was not Computer Science, they were far to busy trying to actually develop the field. Finally, I want to close with the comment that I am categorized as a minority in Computer Science because I am a woman. I struggle with that categorization, but I believe that some of the choices I made professionally have come with higher costs for me than they would if I had been a man. So, one reason I am very committed to Computer Science is that I’ve given a lot to it, but it came with costs—things I reluctantly gave up to pursue a career in Computer Science.

  1. 3.5 years for MS and PhD? You can’t be a Computer Scientist… 🙂 OK, I said it. But, I’m kidding. You are clearly a computer scientist. Why worry so much about what everyone else says? Just keep doing!

    • That’s the question I get asked. I guess I think the “who is, who isn’t” is premature and just the wrong discussion, but one that takes up time.

  2. Bozos who say you are not a ‘computer scientist’ most certainly are people who are in a club you would not want to join.

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