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As a part of this series, I decided to take a look at what is going on with Liberal Arts education and technology, and interview Nancy Ide from Vassar College.

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Nancy was my computer science teacher back in 1982. At the time, she was doing computer-assisted analysis of semantic patterning in William Blake’s The Four Zoas, which involves identifying semantic / text patterns and considers the way in which these patterns contribute the structure and the meaning of the work.

If this sounds a bit “nerdy,” then it might be important to point out that this was a precursor to text analysis, which data analysts love to do these days. Since Nancy has been in the Computer Science field since the 1970s, I consider her a real pioneer.

Nancy is part of a lineage of great female computer science teachers at Vassar. She eventually replaced Winifed Asprey , who had replaced, Grace Hooper, who many consider the mother of all computing. Grace was one of the first programmers of the Harvard Mark I computer, and developed the first compiler for a computer programming language.

When asked about the changes that have taken place in Computer Science in the last 30 years, Nancy said that even though the core parts of computer science are the same, there have been some significant shifts in computer languages and operating systems in terms of the Future of Computer Science and how it is taught. Nancy stated that while the fundamentals will always be the same, but there’s now a big shift towards parallelism; distributed computing; and, of course; cloud computing. This influences how schools teach computer science, especially in the areas of application-oriented courses.

One of the interesting areas we discussed was remote teaching, which is something Stanford and MIT seem to be pushing more and more. Nancy felt liberal arts schools recognize that this trend could impact their ability to attract students, but right now academic institutions are in a ‘wait and see mode.’ At Liberal Arts schools, the computer science classes are more oriented towards the hands-on-research.

Other shifts have been that there are more women majors in computer science at Vassar these days and that they don’t feel like they are some sort of “geeky weirdo” that’s outside the broad circle of normal people.

I get the feeling though that these women don’t actually have a role model at this time, and as a result, there is no “regular female” model that works for them. Everything is either Barbie, or Butch–not much in between.” (Note: I first asked about the term ‘Butch-Femme,” which I discovered in the book, Beyond Barbie and Mortal Kombat: New Perspectives on Gender and Gaming).

We also discussed some of the differences between the two sexes when it comes to computer programming. Nancy stated that “men are like Windows PCs and soon to be Androids and women are like Apple’s devices”. Maybe my next book should be called ‘Men are Androids and Women are i-Devices;” Men tend to be more ‘hackers,’ working from the bottom up verses women who tend to first design what the structure of a programming language should be.

In terms of Future of Work, Nancy implied that students need to be better prepared for the different career options. Even though companies send their recruiters to campus, there’s an opportunity for the universities to get more alumni to share their work experiences, and for the companies to bring others besides the recruiters to campus.

As Human 1.0 learned from other research, students want to meet employees who do similar jobs to the ones they will be doing after graduation. We found that some companies are hesitant to do this because of the time commitment. Let’s just say this is another area for them to treat even prospective students as key assets.

Final note: One of the themes of this series is the importance of looking back and learning from one’s past to chart out their future. As such, I will be reaching out to people from my past that have provided me with some valuable guidance and learning. Who would have thought in 1979 when I was learning PL1, I would be so heavily involved in the Internet today.

More on Nancy Ide’s career and work

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Scott Wilder

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