“Should cover” vs. “have to cover”: making the tough decisions

It’s Week 9 here at Carleton, which means the term is winding down. Students are frantic and frazzled. Faculty are just as, if not more, frantic and frazzled, because we’re at that point in the term where we realize that the ambitious syllabi we laid out so carefully in September is, in fact, too ambitious.

Actually this time around I find myself in the interesting position that I am right on schedule. I’ve covered almost everything I intended on covering, to a comfortable level of depth. I have 2 classes left in each of my courses. (I’m heading to Grace Hopper tomorrow, so I will miss 2 teaching days. I just canceled class outright for my upper-level elective to give them time to work on their projects, which are due the last day of class. My Intro class will be capably handled by my dyad partner and my prefect.) Intro’s all set: presentations next Monday and exam/wrap up next Wednesday. But in my upper-level class, I find myself with some room to maneuver.

There is one technical topic that I could conceivably cover: an additional day on wireless networks and mobility. You could argue that this is information that my students need to see, since so much networking is mobile these days. In my younger professorial days, I would have wholeheartedly agreed with you, spent a class cramming as much technical info in as possible….and exhausting myself and my students in the process.

But. In the course of the term, through the readings and discussions and tangents we’ve taken in class, I’ve realized that my class as a whole is really, really interested in network policy. Nothing seems to interest my students more than a good story about how a particular technology evolved (or didn’t). Mention “net neutrality” or “peering agreements” and everyone’s ears perk up. This pleases me, because it means they’re making connections beyond the technical to the practical, and really grasping that technology doesn’t happen in a bubble. And in fact, when we talk about the Internet, we’re talking about a technology that has fundamentally changed the way we do, well, almost everything (and changed this on a miniscule timescale, relatively). And I’d be a fool if I didn’t capitalize on this opportunity and give my students additional space to explore the intersection between technology and policy and how the two affect each other.

So I’m cutting out technical content and dedicating the last 2 class meetings solely to policy issues as they relate to computer networking. We’ll debate net neutrality. We’ll use the opportunity to revisit the end-to-end argument and the layered model and other long-held tenets of networking, and argue over whether they still (should) hold. We’ll agonize over whether we should trash the whole Internet and start over from scratch. Hopefully we’ll strongly disagree with each other.

In the end, I have no doubt that my students will come away with a much richer understanding of all of the technical stuff we’ve covered all term. And hey, if they do need to know more about wireless networks and mobility….well, I’ll just have to trust that I’ve taught them how to learn about networks, and let them figure that stuff out on their own.