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Is This CS50?

Harvard’s largest class poses larger questions

By Aaron J. Miller

“It’s time to take back one of Harvard’s few large quiet spaces from our CS50 overlords.”

That was the rallying cry of the student plan to disrupt the office hours of Harvard’s most popular course this past Monday. Students prepared to pack Widener Library’s Loker Reading Room at night and prevent CS50’s office hours from happening as retribution for the course’s growth into the space.

But after hundreds of RSVPs over Facebook, the organizers said it had been a joke, calling off the event and taking down the Facebook page before anything could materialize. Yet in the process, the fake protest reflected something real: the ongoing complaints from students that CS50 is playing by its own set of rules.

CS50 is the only class with unique branding—printed on t-shirts, stress balls, and much more all for purchase at its online shop. CS50 is also the only class with corporate sponsorships. Facebook, Amazon, Canon, and Microsoft have all sponsored course events in the past.

It goes even further. CS50 is the only course in which a student can enroll despite having another class at the same time. CS50 is also the only course to have its own integrity policy, which allows students who have cheated to face only “local sanctions” imposed within the course, while bypassing the College’s centralized disciplinary Ad Board. All this is not even to mention CS50’s expansion to Yale.

Yes, computer science is an important skill for today’s college students to learn. And yes, CS50 is a good if not great class. As a recent Crimson op-ed described, CS50 is “both a gateway into the discipline of Computer Science, and the baseline for a skill set that is becoming ever more valuable.”

But it’s easy to understand students’ frustrations.

With an unrivaled budget and unmatched visibility on campus, CS50 promotes itself to an extent that other introductory courses simply cannot. Granted, a computer science course will naturally have a higher appeal than the introductory humanities course. But if Harvard were to give Humanities 10A its own branding and corporate sponsorships, it too would boost its enrollment numbers.

This runs contrary to Harvard’s touted liberal arts model, which preaches that students should have a wide and unrestricted range of academic options. CS50’s unparalleled resources are streamlining more and more students towards a specific field of study. The Crimson op-ed echoed, “The apparatus of CS50… poses a real threat to fundamental principles of freedom of choice and access to a liberal arts education.”

To understand the argument, slightly adjust the situation. What if Ec10, Harvard’s introductory economics course, gained corporate sponsorships from the biggest investment banks and held an annual “bankathon” for financial modeling? My bet is the Harvard community would go berserk. The same stigmas surrounding students being cornered into economics and finance just haven’t developed yet for computer science and the tech industry.

It is undeniable that CS50 should be given room to grow. On the course’s YouTube page, there is a recording of a young Mark Zuckerberg giving a guest lecture in 2005. There are about a dozen students visible in the near-empty Science Center auditorium.

Fast forward ten years later. Many see computer science as necessary to being 21st Century-literate, and CS50 is the largest class at Harvard with over seven hundred students and over one hundred staff members, which—for reasons that have yet to be explained to me—includes a DJ. Last fall, 12 percent of the College was enrolled in CS50, and that didn’t count all the students who had previously taken the class.

The University should be supporting its biggest and best classes. But Harvard must make clear to what extent the value of the unique perks backing CS50’s growth outweigh the University’s commitment to its liberal arts model. If Harvard doesn’t answer this question, the frustration of some students will only continue to grow with the size of the course, and the next time students plan to occupy CS50’s office hours, they might actually be serious.

Aaron J. Miller ’18, a Crimson editorial writer, lives in Currier House.

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