Beki Grinter

A Name for Computer Science

In academia, computer science, discipline on March 19, 2010 at 10:24 am

This post continues a series of reflections on the discipline that is sometimes known as Computer Science.

I while ago I wrote about some of the naming conventions that we use in our discipline. One is to name around function: networking, security, operating systems. In this we choose a function of the machine itself, suggesting a separation of parts. I can’t help thinking that this separates theory from practice. Because in theory these are distinct, but in practice all these things must work together. And in practice there are collaborations across the fields. Another naming scheme we use emphasizes the greatness of the machine or its complexity. I think of high-performance computing and many core computing as two examples. Rhetorically we choose abundance over scarcity.

But naming also seems to be part of our disciplinary discussion right now.

One question turns on Computing or Computer Science. It is, for example, the “Computing Community Consortium” that’s an entity designed to promote, well Computing or Computer Science? The College of Computing uses Computing distinctly from Computer Science, but I don’t know whether the CCC or the Computing Research Association sees the two as distinct. If it is a distinction, what is it?

The College has three schools: Computational Science and Engineering, Computer Science, and Interactive Computing. Like other free standing Schools (Colleges at Georgia Tech: Georgia Tech has other naming issues that are beyond the scope of this particular post). We recently became this way, and one reason I have always assumed that we separated into Schools was because the College was getting a little unweildly. I’ve always assumed that this was a solution to our increased size, and also a response to what I call the devolution of Computer Science.

But, to share another example, UC Irvine has a free-standing Computing school: the Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences and it comprises three departments, Computer Science, Informatics, and Statistics. At a point, and this seems to be it, free standing schools/colleges are moving towards a structure that has internal divisions. And of course, other Universities are also working with a division, and working out what’s housed where. The University of Washington strikes me as an example, where you can find people who have a research interest in HCI who have affiliations in Computer Science and Engineering, the Information School and Human Centered Design and Engineering.

What will this be? It is clearly a work in progress, not just here at Georgia Tech, and more broadly. And as for me? I think that we should postpone the discussions about what Computer Science is until that’s decided nationally, and simultaneously we should participate in those discussions since Georgia Tech has such a stake in them.


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