In this episode of grumpy undergrad yells at cloud, let’s talk professor allocation.
I’ve been critical of NYU CS of late, but there’s one area in which we’re undeniably strong. We have great professors. We have a Nevanlinna Prize laureate, the founder of an entire field and to cap it off a Turing Award laureate.
However, show of hands here, how many of the above have you had as professors? I’d bet none. Indeed if you scroll through the professors list, there’s a few patterns. They teach a lot of graduate courses and when they teach undergraduate courses, it’s the occasional elective.
This is a shame. A lot of these professors are fantastically talented and would be great resources. Not to mention, the lack of professors directly hurts the course offerings. NYU can only offer Programming Languages, a frankly essential pillar of computer science, as an occasional elective taught by an adjunct1. They’ve had to cancel advanced electives because they needed the professor to teach a core CS requirement. We can’t even get an undergraduate compilers class!
My natural inclination here is to demand that NYU hire more professors. They probably should, but that’s a harder problem than it seems. Plenty of professors are being poached by industry, and besides, NYU has to compete with a lot of schools for professors. As much as I’d like to criticize NYU for this, I’ll admit they have a tricky problem on their hands.
Ditto with having professors teach less graduate courses. The masters courses are a cash cow and Courant needs the money2. PhD courses are of course a very important part of getting a PhD.
Instead I’ll make the claim that NYU is failing at a classic computer science problem: resource allocation. If you have limited resources, e.g. CPU, RAM, professors, what do you do? You optimize!
And it turns out that teaching is nicely optimizable. For one, it’s embarrassingly parallel. CS lectures scale really nicely. It doesn’t matter if 20 or 100 people are watching. The lecture works the same way. Oh sure, some professors have participation and activities, but frankly those could be done in groups or at recitation with a TA. Right now we have small classes for our CS core requirements. My CSO course was 30 students max. That’s great for our rankings but less great for resource allocation.
There’s likely a concern about classroom space. Courant isn’t a building with many large lecture halls. There’s some possible solutions. Even after in-person classes resume, we could still have a system where some students go to a different classroom and watch the lecture projected onto a screen. Other students will likely attend from online because they’re unable or do not wish to attend in person.
Circling back to TAs, they’re quite an underused resource. Professors are great, but they’re often removed from an undergraduate’s experience. They’re leading experts in their fields and may not understand what it’s like to struggle with the material. TAs can bridge that gap. Yet, if you look at the opportunities mailing list, you can see that we also have a TA allocation problem. We don’t have enough people who can be TAs and honestly, of the TAs I’ve had, a few have been duds. Because most of them haven’t attended NYU, they’re not particularly helpful with the curriculum.
Solution? Let undergraduates be TAs! It’s what almost every other school does. Oh sure there’s likely some issues with graduate student unions. I’m sympathetic—graduate students use TA positions to make a living. The answer is rather simple. Let graduate students have the right of first refusal. All gigs are open to graduate students first, and then undergraduates second.
I suppose there’s some concerns about conflict of interest. I understand these concerns, but it’s hard to take them seriously when a whole slew of schools allow undergraduate TAs with little to no issues.
With this new model, we can have one to two sections of each core class. The professor will be aided by a veritable army of TAs, enough to provide a small group for activities. Some of the students may have to attend the lectures over Zoom, but likely some will want this.
This model will help with a few other problems. Currently classes are super inconsistent. Depending on the professor, Operating Systems may be in Java and a relatively shallow course, or it may be a class in C that covers the intricacies of Unix to a respectable depth (I may or may not be biased here). If one professor teaches the class, they will set the tone. Perhaps NYU could even operate in a system where professors agree to teach the same class for 5 years. That way the professor can get the course down and devote minimal time to preparing, while the department gains consistency.
Why care about consistency? Some of the greatest courses in CS history have been ones dictated by a single professor or a small group of professors. Classes such as the original MIT Intro CS course 6.001, Northeastern’s Intro to CS course run by Mattias Felleisen et al, CS50 with David Malan, etc.
We could get into a whole post on why this is effective (auteur theory?), but there’s a few obvious reasons. For one, a consistent course sets students up for success. All of the tutors and TAs will have gone through exactly the same course. They can provide tips and tricks on how to succeed. Currently if you take CSO with Gottlieb, good luck tutoring someone who has Jinyang. I’ve written advice on a course or two, but it’s severely limited by the fact that courses are highly inconsistent. I can’t write an advice post on Operating Systems because I took the course in C with Professor Walfish and I’m not sure my advice will translate to someone who took it with a different professor.
Professors will also get more practice teaching the same subject. Having the same subject year over year lets the professor see what teaching strategies work and which topics are challenging. I’ve had too many classes where the professor was clearly shaky on their lesson topics or exercises.
Consistency also means each course can know to a high degree of certainty what the previous course covered. Professors won’t have to retread ground, which they do far too much right now. The amount to which algorithms and data structures overlap is ridiculous. Ditto with CSO and OS. Having a consistent curriculum will let NYU cover more.
But these are all secondary to the main benefit: We can allocate professors for other courses. This means that some of the standard undergrad professors can teach electives in their specialization. I’d love for Michael Walfish to teach an advanced systems course or for Victor Shoup to run an advanced algorithms course. They can also teach some graduate courses, providing professors like Patrick Cousot the chance to teach an undergraduate elective. These courses will naturally be smaller, so hey, ranking benefit.
What I’ve noticed about NYU CS’ response to requests is that it’s primarily prefaced by “we can’t”. We can’t offer more classes. We can’t make classes more challenging. We can’t offer a compilers course. I understand that these requests are demanding. But the answer isn’t to reject them immediately and immutably. We should solve our problems through innovative ideas and not just treat them as facts of life.
I understand that this proposal is a fairly significant change and there are undoubtedly roadblocks that will need to be resolved. But we can’t fall back onto “we can’t”. We need to push forward and provide a truly amazing education to students.