Monday, August 25, 2008

Why Write About Plato?

I went to undergrad at Swarthmore College, a small liberal arts school outside of Philadelphia. Swarthmore requires all students to take writing courses in a variety of disciplines. I wrote about contemporary Irish poetry, educational philosophy and practice, and central African history. I also wrote thousands of lines of code and many proofs - writing courses are based on the writing of the discipline.

When I got to grad school I was talking to another new student and discovered that this was not universal. He had taken about 40 computer science classes (some were 1-credit classes) to my 10. He asked me what I had been doing taking anything else - why bother learning about Plato if you know you want to go to computer science grad school? Besides my personal interest, I responded that it helped me learn to write. He shrugged this off saying something about how he would pick that up as he wrote papers.

At the time, my belief in the importance of learning to write - purposefully learning, not just blundering along in hopes of picking it up - was instinctual and ingrained. Now, after reading many poorly written papers and discovering in my own writing how hard it can be to present technical details that you have been living for months in a way that others can understand without having to live the process, my belief is founded in experience. I have read papers where even titles and opening sentences made no sense. The struggle against deadlines does not excuse this, rather it makes my case that we should learn to write before the fact. There's plenty more to learn in grad school.


Anonymous said...

I agree, and am glad I made the choice as an undergraduate of going to a school based on a liberal arts curriculum rather than one that let me specialize from the start. I think it's served me well.

It's easy to excuse bad writing by saying that one's papers are intended for experts who are capable of understanding it anyway, but (if we hope to be making an impact, and not just making tenure) we should be aiming higher than that. One of the things I like about the side efforts I've put into writing for Wikipedia is that it forces me to pay attention to making my writing as accessible as possible. Regardless, I'm not sure I should hold out my writing as a good example, but I think it's an exercise that helps.

Jeffe said...

Yes, yes, yes!

And how can anyone possibly be prepared for computer science grad school if they've never read Plato? Sheesh!

Anonymous said...

Very true. I taught computer courses at the community college level and always asked students to write human descriptions of a complex algorithm, network design proposals, software selection justifications, or computer security plans. Every once in a while, even geeks have to come out of the cubicle and stop chewing their pizza long enough to explain what they're doing to the rest of the world -- in sentences as well-crafted as their code.

JacobM said...

Hear, hear. As I've improved as a developer, it's become clear that my ability to move to higher levels of responsibility depends far more on my ability to communicate than on my technical skills.

By the way, I also went to Swarthmore. When were you there (I was there 1988-1994)?

sorelle said...

jacob - excellent, another swattie. (: i was there 00-04.