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The state of 15-112, a campus cultural touchstone

Every year, more than a tenth of Carnegie Mellon’s undergraduate population takes the computer science course 15-112. The only class with more coverage of the undergraduate population is Interpretation and Argument, but that class is structured so that each section is taught different material. No one class at Carnegie Mellon is quite the same as 15-112.

Professor David Kosbie, associate professor in the School of Computer Science, has taught 15-112 for almost every semester since the class’s inception 13 years ago. “There are a lot of freshmen in the course, and we have to help these students learn to manage CMU,” said Kosbie.

According to Kosbie, managing Carnegie Mellon means developing positive working habits and healthy relationships toward stress, but it also means pushing young students to work hard and challenge themselves in a new, collegiate environment.

And with students working harder, more educational support follows. Kosbie said, “More learning support then pushes students to work even harder. I don’t know which is the cause or the effect.” Right now, according to Kosbie, the goal is to provide roughly one hour of individual instruction for every student in the class. Obviously, two professors can’t provide individual instruction to over 500 students a semester, so the department hires 50 undergraduate teaching assistants (TAs) to fill the gaps. Each TA should average about 10 students in their recitations. That means TAs should spend an average of 12 hours per week on their responsibilities to students: grading quizzes and homework, and providing educational support across a variety of study sessions and recitations.

For some TAs, however, responsibilities don’t end there. Head TA Austin Schick is responsible for helping decide and implement certain changes for the class, and as Schick and Kosbie said, the course changes every semester. Schick, a senior in Computer Science, says that in order to handle all of the duties of 112 TAs, “we’re taking a new structure: one head TA, two associate head TAs, and seven division leads.” The division leads are responsible for a set of managerial duties related to the class, such as dealing with extensions for deadlines, running self-care events, and requesting room assignments.

Two division leads, Lisanne de Groot and Asad Sheikh, a senior in chemistry and a sophomore in statistics and machine learning and human-computer interaction respectively, have somewhat overlapping responsibilities dealing with the mental health of students. De Groot manages student extensions, which forces her to be plugged into her phone almost all day. “Every few hours, I receive a new request,” said de Groot. Sheikh is responsible for running events that push students to take care of themselves. “Being a TA is really fun because we know what it’s like to be a student, so we can shape the class using things we liked about it,” said Sheikh.

With all of these additional responsibilities, TAs sometimes spend more than 20 hours a week on their responsibilities. De Groot and Sheikh mentioned working more than 20 hours in a week sometimes, especially during grading weeks. Schick said, “On light weeks, I work 20 hours a week. On heavier weeks, I work 20 hours a week.” The most a TA will be allowed to work in a week is 20 hours, but Kosbie makes a point to tell the TAs to stop working so hard. “These TAs bleed 112 blue. They grow up through the course, and because of that, they put in more than 20 hours a week no matter what we say.”

All of the TAs are deeply passionate people. One of the things mentioned by everyone is how much the TAs care about 15-112, and everyone said something about how deeply each TA has to care about education. TAs push students hard, and the students work to match it.

In the past, the culture around 15-112 has turned Carnegie Mellon into a more inclusive space. Once upon a time, 15-112 TAs and the students taking the course were predominantly men. Now, much like Carnegie Mellon’s gender ratio has moved toward a more equal one, 15-112 sees many more women students and TAs. Kosbie recognized this early in the development of 15-112, saying that one of their first social goals with the class was to develop a more inclusive environment for everyone.

Now, the class has changed again. Mental health initiatives, such as the ones led by Sheikh, are an integral part of the 15-112 experience this semester. Just last week, the first event was held. A group of students colored together, taking a break from the stress of Carnegie Mellon. The effectiveness of these new initiatives to decrease student stress and refocus certain priorities will be seen in the coming semesters.