Well, I tried

This is an attempt to record my view of the beginnings of computing as a subject of study at the University of Auckland. It is as reliable as my memory, which is not a strong recommendation, but I have preserved a few documents which might protect me from too many wild flights of fancy. I have concentrated on developments in the Science Faculty, and have not tried to cover computing courses in other ( notably engineering ) faculties.

I emphasise that it's my view. It was a fairly limited view; I was not privy to the doings of the Board of Computer Studies, nor to the councils of the Mathematics Department. I was just the lowly gent. who'd been appointed to do the job, which kept me busy enough. At least some of this material comes from my occasional attempts to be heard.

I arrived at Auckland University's Computer Centre in May 1973, before there was any significant coordinated lecturing in computing. Indeed, that was at least a part of the reason for my appointment : "Duties will include - the teaching of elementary and advanced programming courses ...". I suspect that I was the first academic to be appointed by the university explicitly to teach computing.

A few departments offered introductory programming instruction, and the Computer Centre put on regular introductory courses open to anyone, but these were generally isolated events, either standing alone as short lecture series which carried no academic credit towards a degree, or as parts of courses on other topics in which computing might be useful.

It took me a while to work out that this was the case. I had previously been employed at Derby and District College of Technology, where my main preoccupation had been presenting computing courses for the Higher National Diploma in computing; I had expected that something at least as ambitious would be happening at the well regarded University of Auckland, and it took me some time to work out that this was not so.

I got there eventually - I rather think with the help of fairly explicit suggestions from John White, the Director of the Computer Centre - and in May 1974 produced a "Proposal for a course in elementary computing". It was more or less based on my experience at Derby, and it seemed to me to be reasonably persuasive; I gave it to John White, and understood that he would present it to the Computer Committee. I've no reason to doubt that he did so, but from my point of view the document vanished without trace.

From that time on, I sought opportunities to push the cause of providing a respectable academic treatment of computing somewhere in the university. I claim no success in the endeavour, perhaps because I am not much given to activism, particularly when I have no idea where, when, and how to be active, but ( as always ) I meant well.

Not much happened for some time. It became clear that what initiative there was was moving to the Mathematics Department. I was not alone in regarding this development as ( let us say ) suboptimal, but the Department of Mathematics was ( very properly ) much higher in the academic pecking order than the Computer Centre, and no one else appeared to be interested. I was rather surprised that the Faculty of Engineering didn't appear to be interested; I still think that it's a much more appropriate home for computing than the Science Faculty.

Time passed. I was kept busy with occasional courses - Fortran, Workflow language ( the admirable Burroughs answer to the regrettable JCL ), COBOL for the accountancy students - and software development, such as STUBOL ( a COBOL processor designed for students ), and ( with other Computer Centrizens ) a BASIC interpreter which ran from mark-sense cards. ( There was also CROAK, which stands for Collected References Organised for Access by Keyword. That was a sort of tree-structured database, and has the distinction of being rejected by a future New Zealand Prime Minister ( Helen Clark ) as the software behind a new legal database. ) ( It was originally CREAK - Collected References Enabling Access by Keyword - but I have my moments of modesty. )

At some time, introductory courses in computing were started in the Mathematics Department : Mathematics 190, concentrating on numerical mathematics, and Mathematics 191, which was about computing. I was thoroughly involved in the 191 course, both in lecturing and in software development, particularly in the parser and interpreter of our LSI/BASIC software. ( Peter Fenwick wrote the operating system and floating-point arithmetic routines. ) While this provided some introductory instruction in computing, though, it was clear that it didn't go far enough.

My 1978 letter to John Butcher was not entirely spontaneous - either John Butcher or John White ( perhaps both ? ) urged me to express my thoughts on the topic as evidence of wider interest in the development of computing courses - but was genuine enough.

Not necessarily as a direct consequence of my letter, the trend continued. As the years passed, the Computer Studies non-department inevitably expanded, under the auspices of the Board of Computer Studies. ( I don't remember much about the Board, but it was active for quite some time before the department came along. ) Students completed the stage 1 courses, then not unnaturally wanted to go on to stage 2 and stage 3. The academics involved were not obviously very reluctant to go on to more advanced ( and interesting and challenging ... ) topics. It was nevertheless still regarded as a peripheral topic, with no proper arrangement for staffing, and several people in effect presenting lecture courses without any formal provision for pay. As the mathematicians and a few from other departments were already fully committed to their own departments' lecturing, a lot of the work fell onto the Computer Centre academics. This suited me very nicely, because it was what I'd wanted to do from the start, and indeed exactly "the teaching of elementary and advanced programming courses" mentioned in my job description. It was particularly good to take part of the stage 3 course in Programming Languages, which was what I'd always wanted to do.

On the other hand, I was extremely busy. I wrote in a letter at the time '... the Computer Centre job is slowly changing from an "ordinary" lectureship ( if such an animal exists ) into a technical and administrative job ... At the moment, all of us in the Computer Centre are doing 2 jobs, and don't have time to do either very well'. Because of that, I applied for lectureship in the Mathematics department in 1978, and didn't get it.

Discussion continued, not always in directions which I thought useful. It was perhaps around this time that it became fashionable to discuss computing as a sort of abstract activity, disregarding the nasty practical details of having to use a computer, or even of having to know something about how it worked. There was also ( I thought ) a tendency to define the subject in terms of what we were already doing, without asking whether what we were doing was the best path to follow. I was moved to offer an opinion on these topics to the Board. Someone read it - I remember one or two comments about it - but nothing visible happened.

On the administrative front, there were murmuring from somewhere ( perhaps the AUT ? ) about using technical staff to perform academic jobs - perhaps not everyone believed in the "lecturer" status of the Computer Centrizens.

Eventually ( 1980 ? ) the Computer Science department was established. Immediately things changed. In effect, my job disappeared. My official responsibility was teaching, interpreted more or less vaguely, but by this time most people who needed computing were getting it in one way or another from their own resources ( many more of which were available than had been the case in 1973 ); the various courses we had given in the Computer Centre were no longer in demand. Essentially all my efforts over the past few years had gone into developing and presenting the Computer Studies courses. I had been particularly involved in the Mathematics 191 ( introductory ) and Computer Studies 230 ( programming languages ) courses, both of which were now taken over by members of the new department.

I have no very clear memory of what I did for the next year or two. There were a few short courses in the Computer Centre, and there was documentation for people using the machinery, but not much more. There was enough to keep me occupied, but not enough to justify my salary level. I became fairly despondent; I was aware that I was slipping behind in my technical expertise, but had no special topic on which to focus, and couldn't keep up with everything. I began to think of applying for jobs elsewhere.

Then, in 1984, the good fairy turned up, in the very effective disguise of a resurgence of the academics-doing-technical-jobs question. I cannot ( and don't specially want to ) remember the details, but I wrote this at the end of 1984 :

Our transmogrification came about as a side effect of an example
of bureaucratic bungling in which the previous New Zealand government
outdid itself in sheer incompetence - and it had set a pretty high
standard over the years. It began with a declaration from on high ( from
the Governor-General, no less ) that henceforth university non-academic
staff were special, and would be considered to be state servants. This
meant that someone had to decide who were non-academic staff, and -
because the decision was made by counting the lectures given and not by
looking at the work done - the Computer Centre academic staff were
declared non-academic. That didn't matter greatly - but it also appeared
that we could no longer be represented by the Association of University
Teachers, which had represented our interests perfectly well for many years,
but would have to throw in our lot with a new union whose members
had in common only that they had been caught in this stupid mess. As the
majority of the others were more or less clerical staff, it was far from
clear that the new organisation would be very effective in dealing with
our interests; after much negotiation, it also became clear that we were
to have no choice in the matter. At the same time, the same government
( I suppose it was the same government ? ) was making great play of its
new voluntary unionism legislation, which would give everyone the right
to join any union of his choice, or none at all. At this point, I more or
less lost interest; the AUT is hardly a union in the ordinary sense of
the word, and I had no interest in anything else. But the general ferment
made people think for once ( well, this IS a university ), and in exploring
ways and means someone at last noticed that the jobs we were supposed to
be doing in the Computer Centre had long since evaporated, and here were
these highly intelligent ( simper ) people being paid enormous sums of
money to waste their time on rubbish. So here we are.

Indeed. But one of the results was that I, a nasty academic in a technical part of the university, was translated into a respectable lecturer in the Computer Science department.


AUT That's the academic union, the Association of University Teachers. It is not the entity now known as AUT, which was then ATI ( the Auckland Technical Institute ), doing a first-class job in a quiet unassuming way. The old AUT was overcome by political correctness and forced to combine with the non-academic union to form what is now AUS.

Alan Creak, 2007 December