Indian Computer Science (CS) & Information Technology (IT) Academic Reform Activism Consolidated Blog Document

A Defense of The CS/IT PhD Teacher

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A Defense of The CS/IT PhD Teacher

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This is an edited mail exchange with a friend in response to the post: Is a PhD in CS/IT Necessarily a Good Teacher?

Friend wrote: First, let me be upfront with the fact that I may be in defensive mode - only because I have seen somethings very different here (West) and back in India, in some cases.

For pedantic, completeness reasons, I would like to add d) Non-PhD + Not a good teacher... We have both seen examples of this type, I am sure. They may not be immediately pertinent to the discussion at hand, but sometimes tend to negatively influence some policies.

Eklavya Sai wrote: Very valid point. I had missed it. Thanks. Added it to post.

Eklavya Sai had written in the post: And then there is the communication skills issue. Research typically needs solitude and an individualistic approach.

Friend wrote: I must disagree. While lots of R is individualistic, presentation skills are extremely important. Infact, every Graduate student is expected to go thru' comm. skills training, just like in the Industry.

Eklavya Sai wrote: Well, I think it is clearly recognised by researchers that presentation skills are important. I am not disputing that at all. But picking up presentation skills and good communication skills (spoken & written) is not easy for many. And so, quite a few PhD qualified CS/IT persons in India are not good communicators though they very much desire to be good communicators.

Friend wrote: Sadly, this is not the case in India, but in general, comm. skills are an absolute must.

Eklavya Sai wrote: I am really focusing on the Indian CS/IT academic system space. US is really different. My impression is that there it is a market driven system. I mean, tuition fees are so expensive that if a PhD qualified teacher is not a good communicator, students would crib and crib loudly - they would not care about whether he is a PhD or not. So a poor communicator PhD qualified teacher would not be able to last long as a teacher and may move to research-only positions.

Eklavya Sai had written in the post: So only a few should understand, for your research work to be considered noteworthy :-).

Friend wrote: Why is this the case? Because, only a few are capable of understanding this. Hence, it is all the more important to be able to effectively communicate to that elite few capable of understanding you. Consider the converse: if many could understand, you will probably gloss over most of the details and hope that those who can, will understand: this is definitely not effective communication, IMO.

Eklavya Sai wrote: The comment was made part-jokingly, part-seriously by a UK academician. I think many of the greats in sciences have the ability to convey their research ideas very effectively. I have been very impressed with how certain Western scientists present complex stuff. They can really communicate.

And I certainly recognise that very complex research stuff will be understood only by persons of the field. I mean I will not understand much about your research work, to be honest, as I am a technologist and not a researcher :).

But I have noticed a common flaw in some persons of both the researcher and technologist communities. When they are not sure of their stuff they take refuge in jargon. And this jargon stuff well used can give an impression to not-so-knowledgeable people that the guy is knowledgeable!! If the guy gets grilled by a really knowledgeable guy who is not willing to get fobbed off by jargon & assumed-punditry, then his ignorance gets exposed.

That is why tech. reviews are so important in the software technology space. And I guess that must be the role that reviewers of scientific journals are supposed to play. The elite journals would surely be having quality reviewers but I think there are a lot of non-elite journals where high-sounding-but-low-real-content stuff passes through.

I think it is this aspect of the researcher that the UK academician part-jokingly referred to. I mean, the guy had a PhD under his belt and years of academic teaching experience in the West. It is not a non-PhD, non-researcher guy like me talking.

Eklavya Sai had written in the post: And all non PhD software industry professionals are NOT good teachers - but some certainly are.

Friend wrote: Isn't the converse also true? And therefore, only a few people are in general, really capable of teaching - not just restricted to the PhD circle.

Eklavya Sai wrote:

I agree, all can't teach. Whether it is PhD circle or non-PhD circle. I presume this is what you mean.

Friend wrote: Why is this pertinent? Because, what I have seen is this: people who have spent more time with research, generally tend to know things that you can only know by that deep study. So, among the good teachers, those who have a PhD would tend to be the more knowledgable ones and thus prepare better students.

Eklavya Sai wrote: They tend to know things in their research area well. And I have acknowledged that in the post. "Note that for the course he teaches where he has done research he will be very knowledgeable typically - I am talking about other courses here."

But for other courses? If a guy is a PhD in algorithms, will he automatically be knowledgeable enough to teach OOAD? IMHO, he won't. So he will read from a book, understand it well (as he has certain amount of intellectual capability - he did a PhD after all) and then teach. But that will be only book knowledge. How can it compete with a professional with years of OOAD expertise under his belt? Neither will it be able to compete with a PhD in OOAD.

And, as I wrote in the post, the teacher cannot do another PhD in OOAD just because he has to teach OOAD.

Now elite colleges & elite PhDs are perhaps special cases. In an IIT a teacher may offer only a couple of courses - one may be his research area and he can spend enough time on the other to know it reasonably well, even if it is book knowledge. And, anyway the teacher is a real smart guy.

But in commoner techie colleges in India for CS/IT I think the picture is very different. Bookish knowledge teachers are the norm rather than the exception. They may be teaching 4 to 8 courses in an academic year and only one CS/IT course may be corresponding to their research area.

I think you do not have exposure to the commoner techie college issues and commoner CS/IT teacher issues so much. I get the impression that your views are more appropriate for elite colleges and elite teachers, at least in the Indian CS/IT academia perspective. But, I could be wrong. After all, my exposure to Indian CS/IT academia is quite limited.

Eklavya Sai had written in the post: But most students and parents are not interested in research!

Friend wrote: Not sure about students, but afaik, many parents these days actively encourage their ward to go into Research/Teaching. Their reasons could be less stress, more respectable job (even if not pay ;) ) and quality family time.

Eklavya Sai wrote: Well, let's look at the numbers. I play it somewhat safe and say it is 80% industry job and 20 % research (what students do after passing out of grad/post-grad CS & IT degree programs). Stroustrup wrote (in a mail exchange I had with him in early 2010) that he feels it is more 95 % industry  job and 5 % research.

Eklavya Sai had written in the post: ...curricula not left to PhD alone... 

Friend wrote: I can think of atleast one reason why this tends to be the case (I am by no means endorsing or opposing the statement). Education is as much about preparing people for the future as it is for the present. Not everyone is capable of picking-up skills; and so the system must consider the majority of the populace that cannot stand on its own. And, people can in a position to have some inkling about the future of science, technology, humanities, arts are those engrossed in R in those areas. Difficult choice - for both the people on curricula committees and for those deciding who gets to be on the committees as well.

Eklavya Sai wrote: Well, I think there should be transparency in the system. And the student should be able to choose what he wants to do. As far as I am concerned the Indian CS/IT academic system is heavily biased towards the elite. And that is why you have this new, "IT Finishing School" concept, which even IT graduates go to!!! Unbelievable. And, IMHO, a terrible proof of CS/IT academic system failure for the commoner students. For more please see this post: IT Finishing Schools

But this is my view and I guess I get a little emotional about it. During my industry days, I have conducted countless tech. interviews and wondered what the he** the teachers were teaching students doing programming courses in colleges. After spending some time in CS academia, I think now I know what the problems are when it comes to teaching programming in Indian CS & IT academia. Maybe that is clouding my vision about the bigger CS/IT academic picture.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

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