Senior Recital for Computer Science Majors?
Last weekend, I attended a senior clarinet recital given by a student at the Department of Music. As a former professional clarinetist, I continue to have a deep and unabated interest in this instrument and in classical music in general, even though I switched careers into computing more than 20 years ago. Having spent my youth practicing clarinet obsessively, I am always intrigued to see how young clarinetists today fare against what I and my colleagues used to be at the same age. I won’t disclose my opinion on this topic, as this is not the point of this blog post at all.
Listening to this recital as a CS professor, I was struck by how authentic this academic exercise was. The recital was not just realistic but real with all the required attributes: a concert hall, an accompanist, a diverse audience, a concert dress, program notes, etc. This recital did not differ in any noticeable way from the recitals of famed instrumentalists I’ve attended in places such as the Weill Recital Hall in NYC.
The student giving the recital had to deal with all the stress and unpredictability of playing a solo recital in front of a live audience. Some of this required dealing with purely technical issues, such as not forgetting to tune the instrument after a couple of pieces. (Wind instruments tend to get sharp after they are played for a while, so on a clarinet a barrel has to be pulled out to stay in tune with the piano.) Other factors were less predictable. For example, some members of the audience suddenly started clapping after each part of a three part concerto rather than waiting until the piece’s end, even though this goes against the concert etiquette. These kinds of unexpected interruptions cannot derail the performance. The recitalist had to handle all these issues completely independently without any help from anyone. The student’s clarinet instructor was in the audience, but only as a passive listener. Overall, I find senior recitals an excellent avenue for music students to demonstrate their proficiency in their chosen field of study.
This experience got me thinking that in the CS curriculum we never quite expose our students to a situation when they have to perform independently to show the level of mastery of their discipline they have achieved in their studies. This is true that our students get summer internships when they apply their CS knowledge and skills in real world environments, but for that they have to leave campus. Besides, internships are not required to get a degree in CS. Even in our capstone classes, in which it is recommended that students accomplish a project for an external client, professors are always present ready to step in to help students deal with any issues that may arise.
I am curious how we can create an experience for CS majors similar to the senior recital. For example, this would require a capstone project in which faculty take a seriously hands off approach, so that student teams take full responsibility for the project, and an external client’s level of satisfaction serves as the only criteria for success. The most ironic part is that nowadays the probability of a music major becoming a solo concert musician (musicians who give solo recitals as their primary occupation) is minuscule. There is probably only half a dozen of solo clarinetists in the world. While the majority of CS majors go into productive careers in IT. Perhaps we do just fine without any senior recitals.