Boston University — CS 115 — Academic Writing in Computer Science (Fall 2023)

Instructor Alley Stoughton
Personal Website
Course Website
Class Sessions A1: Friday 10:10am-11:55am SAR 104
B1: Friday 12:20pm-2:05pm SAR 104
Office Hours Friday 3-5pm CDS 1013 and by appointment
Course Piazza


The official description for this course is:

Pre-req: WR 120 or equivalent, CS 111. This 2-credit course offers a Writing Intensive unit through the topic of computer science. Students engage with readings and discussions in current computer science issues. The course focuses on teaching critical reading, creating a strong argument, and engaging with a variety of sources. Effective Spring 2023, this course fulfills a single unit in the following BU Hub area: Writing-Intensive Course.

Effective communication is an essential skill for computer scientists. Whether we design user interfaces, write code, train machine learning algorithms, or carry out basic or applied research, we will be less successful if we are unable to effectively communicate with others in writing and orally. Good use of grammar and logical structure in written and oral communication — and spelling and punctuation in written communication — help us communicate more effectively.

There are number of kinds or genres of writing in computer science, including technical writing (e.g., about software or hardware), writing mathematical proofs, and writing research articles for publication in journals or conference proceedings. Some of these genres would be poor vehicles for this course, because the students in any particular course section are unlikely to have uniform backgrounds. Our solution to this dilemma is to focus on articles about computing that are intended for a general audience — of computer scientists, or including the public at large.

Furthermore, we will restrict our attention to topics in computing with relevance to society. This choice will not only encourage engaging writing, but it will also position students, in their future careers, to be able to effectively communicate with colleagues and the general public about the impact of computing on society. Because the general public is often poorly informed about such topics, we computer scientists have a crucial professional role to play in shaping the public discourse on computing and society.

During the semester, students in this course will perform three kinds of writing:

Summary and Analysis Essays

At the beginning of the semester, students will read two short, technically informed, but not technically deep articles from the computer science journal Communications of the ACM, and write short essays about them. These essays will begin with a succinct summary of the article, and will then transition to an analysis of that article. In these analyses, the focus will be on content as opposed to style: what did the article get right?, and what could it have gotten better?

Major Paper

In the middle and majority of the semester, students will be preparing for writing and writing their major paper, which will state a "contestable thesis" regarding a topic of computer science with relevance to society, and will then attempt to persuade the reader that the thesis is valid. In other words, the paper will take a clear position on an issue, rather than just surveying all sides of the issue.

Three "scaffolding exercises" will prepare students for writing their papers:

Next, the student will write a draft of their paper, and receive feedback on it (including peer feedback). And finally, the student will take this feedback into account while producing the final version of their paper.


In the final weeks of the semester, students will read several newspaper "op-eds" or opinion pieces on topics of computing with relevance to society. They will then write an op-ed of their own.

Seminar Format and Class Participation

The course will operate as a seminar, in which the majority of most class sessions will consist of a combination of class discussions and group exercises.

You must bring your laptop to every class, as some group and individual exercises will require having it.

As described above, each student will be giving a short presentation to the class.

Part of your course grade will be an assessment of the quality of your class participation. Under "General Resources" on Piazza, there is a link to a form for summarizing your recent class participation. You should fill out this form each week, e.g., after every class session. I will take account of these reports when assigning your class participation grade.

You will also be assessed on the quality of your peer feedback on 2-3 major paper drafts.

Office Hours, Piazza, BU Library, Educational Resource Center and Gradescope

My office hours will be on Fridays from 3-5pm in CDS 1013. You can also make an appointment with me at an alternative time, either in person or via Zoom.

We'll be using Piazza for announcements, online discussion and the posting of material that is not publicly released. Visit to join in. Both sections of the course will share this single Piazza course.

You can access many publications online via the BU Library.

For additional help with your writing, you can make an appointment with a writing fellow at BU's Educational Resource Center.

You will be submitting solutions to assignments via Gradescope. I will post the entry code on Piazza.

Assignments and Assessment

Each assessment unit in this course will be graded as one of:

Late submissions will be penalized by one point, during the first twenty four hours. After that, submissions will not be accepted. If you have extenuating circumstances that will prevent you from submitting your work on time, you should let me know in advance.

Some assessment units will be scaled by a factor of 2, so that a check-minus, check and check-plus will correspond to 2, 4 and 6 points, respectively, or by a factor of 3, so that a a check-minus, check and check-plus will correspond to 3, 6 and 9 points, respectively. When the scale is 2 or 3, intermediate points can be assigned. E.g., with a scale of 3, a grade of 7 or 8 points could be assigned.

We will have the following assessment units, scaled as indicated:

Assessment Unit Scale
Summary and Analysis Essay 1 1
Summary and Analysis Essay 2 1
Class Presentation for Major Paper 1
Annotated Bibliography for Major Paper 1
Storyboard for Major Paper 1
Draft of Major Paper 1
Peer Feedback on Major Paper Drafts 1
Final Version of Major Paper 3
Op-Ed 1
Class Participation 2

From this table, we can see that a total of 39 (13 times 3) points can be earned, with 26 points being in the middle of the B+ range. Point ranges will be mapped into letter grades as follows:

Point Range Letter Grade
0-9 F
10 D
11-12 C
13-15 C+
16-18 B-
19-23 B
24-28 B+
29-33 A-
34-39 A

When assigning final grades, I reserve the right to push students who are near grade boundaries up (but never down) by a point or two based on class participation.

LaTeX Document Preparation System

When working on your major paper, including the annotated bibliography and the draft paper, you will be using the LaTeX document preparation system. Most academic writing in computer science is produced using LaTeX (pronounced lay-tech). Unlike word processors, such as Microsoft Word, LaTeX is a "markup language", in which the writer uses special syntax to describe the structure of their document, rather than its formatting. Such a description is created using a text editor, in a .tex file like article.tex. The LaTeX software is then run to turn the .tex file into PDF (e.g., article.pdf), interpreting the document's structure according to the specified document style, which determines the fonts, page layout, numbering scheme for sections, etc.

Furthermore, LaTeX provides a program called BibTeX for handling bibliographic citations. When using BibTeX, one puts all of one's references in a .bib file, expressed in a formal syntax. Each such reference has a special tag associated with it. And this tag can be used in a .tex file to create a bibliographic citation. Both the citations and the bibliography itself are formatted according to the selected citation style.

It is possible to download the LaTeX software to your personal computer and you may do this. But it is also possible to write documents in LaTeX using the Overleaf website. Information about using LaTeX and Overleaf can be found here. Although there are paid plans on Overleaf, it can be used for free, subject to some limitations.

I will show you how to use LaTeX early in the semester, but you can begin learning about it and using it on your own. If you are comfortable installing software on your laptop, I recommend that you install and use LaTeX there. It's a much more pleasurable experience than using Overleaf.

To see an example of LaTeX and BibTeX source files and formatting results, look at the files: latex-in-CS115.tex, references.bib and latex-in-CS115.pdf. Another example, showing more varied BibTeX entries, is bibtex-examp.tex, bibtex-examp.bib and bibtex-examp.pdf.

Citing Sources, ChatGPT and Academic Integrity

In your writing for this course, when you are relying on a source (published article or book, website, blog post, etc.) for information, ideas or authority, you must explicitly cite it. In your summary and analysis essays, you may use whatever citation style you like; but in your major paper written in LaTeX, you'll be using a set citation style.

When you use sentences or memorable phrases from a source verbatim (word for word), you must acknowledge this by explicitly enclosing the sentence or phrase in quotation marks (or using a block quotation). Otherwise, you must express the material from the source in your own words; this is called "paraphrasing". It is not acceptable to paraphrase sentence by sentence though part of a source, and it is also not acceptable to extensively quote from a source. Instead, you must take careful notes (which should include any verbatim quotations), put the source aside, and then express the necessary ideas in your own words. You should then go back to the source and check that you are being faithful to it.

When you are citing a source, it is rarely sufficient to simply introduce the citation. Instead, you should normally tell the reader who the authors are, what kind of source it is (book, journal article, magazine or newspaper article, etc.), and what the authors' authority is (are they experts in the subject, or journalists, etc.). You should then summarize the argument they make that relates to your argument. This is important even when you are explicitly quoting from the source, as otherwise the quotation will lack context. In fact, when you are introducing a quotation, you should normally summarize that context explicitly. In the subsequent text, you must then use words to make it clear when you are transitioning to your analysis or commentary, and when you are continuing to paraphrase material from the source. (E.g., "X's conclusion is similar to our own, except that...")

There are, however, cases when simply citing a source is enough. E.g., when you introduce a technical term or concept like generative AI, you could follow this introduction with the citation of a book or article on the subject. In this case you simply pointing the reader to a source where they could learn about the technical term or concept. You are not expecting the reader to consult this source in order to follow the argument you are making.

When a paragraph contains material from multiple sources as well as your own ideas and arguments, you must use words (e.g., "According to X, ..." or "Our position is closer to X's than Y's...") and citations to make it clear to the reader what is derived from which sources and what is your own.

I understand that you may want to use ChatGPT or similar generative AI tools to help you with your writing. Doing this as a way of coming up with ideas is fine, although you should keep in mind that the information generated by ChatGPT is often incorrect. But please don't use such tools to generate text that you include in your essays. Among other drawbacks, doing so will impede the development of your writing skills, including the development of your personal voice. I'm not going to attempt to police use of ChatGPT, but you should be aware that it essentially plagiarizes the articles it is trained on, and so by using its text you are essentially plagiarizing these original sources, while having little idea what sources those are.

You are responsible for reading and understanding BU's Academic Conduct Code:

Incidents of academic misconduct will be reported to the Academic Conduct Committee (ACC). If the ACC finds a student guilty, punishment could range from a minimum of a grading sanction (e.g., dropping your final grade by one letter grade) all the way up to suspension or expulsion from the University.

Class Sessions


See the late submission policy above.

Alley Stoughton (